Ever since its release, I’ve been slowly making my way through Mass Effect: Andromeda. It’s been a good time so far, despite some janky animations and other glitches. The game was developed by more or less the same team who also did Dragon Age: Inquisition, so the missions are spread out across a little more than a handful of very large, open maps.
At the same time, playing Andromeda also made me want to reply the original trilogy, or at least one of the previous games. I realized that I had never played Mass Effect 2 more than once. I remember not liking it very much. As such, I figured I should give it another shot. And my, what a difference a few years make. I absolutely love the second instalment in the Mass Effect trilogy. I honestly don’t know why I didn’t like it more than I did the first time round, but I’m happy that I’ve given it another shot.
Mass Effect 2’s gameplay is extremely tight – for the most part. The original game was fairly open – though definitely not as sprawling as Andromeda – with largish, mostly linear mission levels and very impressive hub areas, most notably the Citadel itself, the space station that forms the political centre of the Milky Way Galaxy. It had a lot of role-playing elements and a very messy inventory system that was much maligned, and a heavy focus on loot. You also had a vehicle at your disposal, the Mako, with which you could explore alien worlds to harvest resources and engage in random encounters.
With this second instalment of the original trilogy, BioWare removed a lot of the extraneous fluff from the original game. Similar to Dragon Age 2, the developers crafted a game that is very focused on what it wants to offer to players. Hub areas are fairly small, to ensure that the player gets where he or she needs to be quickly. The actual missions take place on strictly linear maps, usually with a cinematic opening sequence, a brief interlude, and a closing cinematic, with most of the time in between spent shooting enemies and collecting the odd audio log or upgrade in a room off to the side.
With the original Mass Effect, the main story was interesting and satisfying. We learnt about a Chthulhu-like race called the Reapers, chased a turian-turned-traitor, and tried to prove to the older species of the galaxy that humanity was more than just the new kid on the block. Mass Effect 2 distils the main story down to something very simple: there’s a new threat, the Collectors, and we have to stop them. Stopping them is essentially a suicide mission, so the player character – Commander Shepard – has to assemble a top-notch team to prepare for the final assault.
That’s the main plot of the game. It’s ridiculously simple. The meat of the game consists of going to different places to recruit new members for your team, sporadically fighting the Collectors along the way. Including the DLC, you’ll recruit a whopping twelve characters. Or not. You can easily skip quite a few of them and try to take on the suicide mission anyway. You can also recruit most of the characters in any order you wish, though the individual missions are still, of course, strictly linear affairs (and that’s not a bad thing, since most of these missions are quite memorable).
Once you’ve recruited a character, sooner or later a ‘loyalty mission’ will become available. Completing this mission will change the character’s status from ‘normal’ to ‘loyal’. You’ve proven to be there for this character when they need you to be, and this means that they’re essentially in your debt, and will go the extra mile for you when the time comes. Getting the best ending in the game – i.e. the one where all of your people survive – will require you to go through all of your team’s loyalty missions.
That’s not a punishment, by the way. Each of the twelve characters in Mass Effect 2 is interesting. They all have their own personality, likes and dislikes. Of course, the two DLC characters – grizzled mercenary Zaeed Messani and expert thief Kasumi Goto – are the least developed of the twelve, but they’re worthy additions to the cast, and their missions are pretty great, with some unique elements to each. I particularly liked the heist in Kasumi’s DLC mission, which saw Shepard run around to collect DNA, bypass security systems, break into a vault, and so on. All of these missions give Mass Effect 2 an almost episodic feel: it’s more a collection of interesting short stories than a hefty novel, and I think it’s all the better for it.
Mass Effect 2 also iterates on the dialogue systems of the original game, by offering the player the chance to interrupt a conversation at certain points to perform either a paragon (‘good’) or renegade (‘badass’) action. Performing these actions and selecting particular dialogue choices adds points to Shepard’s paragon and renegade ratings. Graphically, a Shepard that tends towards renegade will have more visible scars in his or her face. For my second playthrough, I wanted to veer more towards renegade, but I still couldn’t help myself sometimes and got quite a few paragon points, too.
As far as Mass Effect 2 is concerned, the characters are the games. In Andromeda, the characters are less important and, indeed, less interesting. For example, Mass Effect 2 has a psychotic former inmate in the form of disturbed young woman Jack, whose body is covered in tattoos. As you play through her loyalty mission, you get to know her better and appreciate her more, and she turns out to be a valuable member of the team. I even found the default companions – Miranda and Jacob – to actually be quite interesting; for example, I enjoyed finding out what happened to Jacob’s father. These are all, by and large, colourful and flawed characters, each possessed of a great deal of personality.
By contrast, Mass Effect: Andromeda’s main characters are far less engaging and a bit more drab. Jaal is an interesting alien, but doesn’t have much in the way of personality aside from being calm and understanding. Liam and Cora are utterly boring cardboard cut-outs. Vetra Nyx is essentially a low-key female version of Garrus, the turian sniper from the original Mass Effect trilogy. Nakmor Drack, a crusty Krogan warrior, and Peebee, a rebellious asari adventurer, are the most engaging characters in Andromeda, but even they pale in comparison to Mass Effect 2’s Grunt (a genetically engineered krogan), Legion (a friendly geth, i.e. a synthetic being), or Mordin Solus (a salarian scientist) – to name but a few.
Mass Effect 2 also made me realize how much stronger a game can be when it isn’t striving to be an open world, but a series of fairly linear missions instead (mostly playable in any order). Open world games have been all the rage for a while now, and BioWare sort of, kind of, jumped on the bandwagon with Dragon Age: Inquisition and Andromeda. I do like the openness of the worlds in Andromeda in particular (they’re absolutely beautiful). But on the whole, open worlds are generally rather barren, and developers often fall into trap of stuffing it with collectibles and other junk just to generate some busywork for the player. And there’s quite a bit of busywork in Inquisition and Andromeda.
Nearly everything about Mass Effect 2 is excellent. I’ve already touched on the characters and their stories. But the game also looks great. It was originally release in 2010, but it still looks perfectly decent today. The developers clearly devoted a lot of time to how the game looked: the designs are impeccable, the lighting is inspired (with deep blues and reds), and dialogues and cut scenes are decidedly cinematic in how characters are framed and shot. I would go so far as to say that no other BioWare has come close to looking as polished as Mass Effect 2 does; it’s a feast for the eyes. Likewise, the music and voice acting is second to none.
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Mass Effect 2 removed the bouncy Mako from the game and replaced it instead with a mini-game where you have to hold down a mouse button to scan a planet to search for minerals. It’s incredibly boring: it’s literally just watching numbers go up. Unfortunately, you need the minerals to upgrade your crew and, more importantly, your ship. You need the upgrades, because otherwise people might die during the suicide mission, which is something that game never really communicates to you.
The scanning mini-game is a major pain in the backside and anything else would have been an improvement. For example, why not simply make the upgrades – if they have to be in the game – another story element? Just do a handful of missions where Shepard has to find a particular engineer or scientist to get an upgrade, or convince someone to fix something on the ship, or indeed have it be part of the reward you get for completing a loyalty mission. The research system is in the game for no other reason than to give the player something to do that isn’t shooting or talking, and it detracts from the experience rather than adds anything of value.
Likewise, I don’t particularly care about the Illusive Man. He’s the head of the organization known as Cerberus, with which Shepard is allied in this game. Everything about the Illusive Man is ridiculous: he has an office (where he presumably also lives) in orbit around a black hole (!); he has cybernetic implants, and; he is the only character in this universe, set in the twenty-second century, that smokes. Everything about the Illusive Man is so faux-cool that it grates. Why did we need this character? There’s no reason why he couldn’t have just been some more interesting character in a regular office at Cerberus HQ. Or, indeed, have him be elusive – is there really an Illusive Man or is Miranda, his supposed mouthpiece, really in charge of it all?
Ultimately, though, those complaints are very minor and don’t detract from the game overall. Replaying it made me appreciate just how good a game can be when the creators focus on interesting characters first and foremost. The linear missions are quick, with a good variety of enemies and solid shooting mechanics, and the dialogue system offers lots of interesting choices, including a few agonizing ones that have important repercussions. All in all, it made me realize that Mass Effect 2 is probably the best Mass Effect game out of the four major releases so far, and to my mind certainly one of the greatest video games ever made.