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Mass Effect 2 is one of the best games I’ve ever played and made me truly a fan of the series more so than anything the original game had to offer. The scope, emotion and complexity of the crew you assemble to take the fight to a new enemy is what solidifies ME2 as the best entry in the series and save for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 1, the most significant game Bioware has yet and may ever release.
I think back very fondly to the first few months of 2010 as a highlight in my life for mixing up my time playing and replaying Mass Effect 2 and discovering all the smaller details that helps make no one run of the game truly feel entirely the same. Sure, the basic setup remains unchangeable of a resurrected Commander Shepard after being killed in action, being forced to work for a terrorist organization (Cerberus) with the resources to defeat the new enemies that slew him/her. No game is so customizable that it can truly be that open to deviation of plot thread, yet. Your goal is to recruit a team for the express purpose of ending an immovably malevolent alien race called the Collectors that have been abducting humans and only humans for some unknown purpose. What is more convincing for Shepard is their clear connection to the series overall antagonist, the Reapers.
Some may still criticize Mass Effect 2 for its somewhat loose connection with the underlying plot device that are the Reapers. It’s more about reevaluating if need be the direction you want to take Shepard and their story before the truly cataclysmic events of the trilogy capper. If you think they need a new face or hair color, then change it. Do they need another specialty in combat, then adjust for new tastes. Do you believe Shepard deserves a new love or none at all, that’s up to you. Despite the looser thread to the overarching story, ME2 is greater than its sum due to the connections it does have between the first and final chapter in the trilogy.
Perhaps one of the more unique joys that ME2 introduced to me was carrying the save data of a completed ME1 playthrough. Everything you did, from who died, who you romanced, and other key and even small choices would carry in some way going forward and they could further be altered based on what you do in ME2. It felt and remains really special that you aren’t just controlling a customized character of one game, you’re carrying a character through three. It wasn’t until the second game that people were starting to see the impressive, innovative vision Bioware had for the trilogy through that system.
The majority of what Shepard does during Mass Effect 2 outside of most of the excellent DLC content is to figure out a way to reach the Collector’s homeworld safely and defeat them however possible to end the abductions as well as destroy one more tool of the Reapers before their inevitable invasion. A considerable chunk of that time is spent recruiting your squad members and if you pool the time correctly, gaining their “Loyalty”. It’s the cycle of recruitment and loyalty that makes ME2 not just about the gloriously tense final act, the “Suicide Mission”, but about further building the Mass Effect universe before the Reapers start setting it on fire. The deep breath before the plunge.
Up to 12 team members can join your group. Two are there at the start, the Cerberus operatives Miranda and Jacob. Miranda is the unabashed “Ice Queen” second in command of Shepard’s group and Jacob is the more sympathetic agent of the shadowy group who remains wary of Cerberus’s questionable behavior. Another two are downloadable additions, Zaeed the jaded, aging human mercenary with the cockney accent and Kasumi the Japanese master thief with serious grief issues revolving her murdered boyfriend/ partner in crime.
Yet another two are returning fan favorites Garrus and Tali who were so popular with fans of the first they were made romance options, with the Turian Garrus going to a female Shepard and Quarian Tali going to a male. Those options also are quite popular as well, especially for myself. Garrus and Tali, more so than even returning wisecracking ship pilot Joker, create a sense of continuity that is especially potent should they survive to the third game. More on that later.
The other half of your team consist of Thane, a terminally ill alien assassin who is still more than fit enough for your mission complete with a deeply spiritual side, Jack, a female convict with incredibly powerful biotic abilities and a deeply traumatic and angry history with Cerberus. Samara, an Asari Justicar, essentially a mix of a Knight and detective who for a deeply held code of justice will root out evil-doers no matter what and Grunt, a tank bred alien Krogan who despite being grown up has the attitude of a violent child mixed humorously with a Football player.
The last two members of your team are both favorites of mine as well as being really critical to the plot of ME3. Mordin, a Salarian scientist/ professor with a love of Gilbert & Sullivan( no joke) and Legion, a Geth with a figurative heart of gold who is of the same robot species that were the primary enemies you faced in the first game. His surprise reveal as an new ally of Shepard is one of the true highlights that makes ME2 special.
How you utilize your team going forward, from the upgrades you can request of them either to improve themselves or your new better than ever space ship, the Normandy, is one thing. Gaining their loyalty through accomplishing their special missions can unlock new abilities for them in combat, abilities Shepard them-self can unlock to use. Romance is as far as I know only possible through loyalty as well. Together with all the locations you visit preparing your ship and crew for the climatic mission, it’s essentially one more tour of the Milky Way for new stories big and small, some even with parables to tell and character secrets to unravel. Learning more about the Galaxy that Shepard resides in is the special sauce that makes you care about its fate in Mass Effect 3. In some ways, Mass Effect 2 is only this amazing because of the ties that bind to the third game.
Even a favorite of mine is not perfect. I can’t and won’t speak for my recent playthrough on the PS3 port of the game as I think my console is simply not working well hence the surprisingly poor performance but two issues still stick out despite my love of the game. First is the infamous “probing” side activity which is essential if you want to research/upgrade your abilities, protection and weapons as well as the ship upgrades which could very well be key to surviving the climatic mission. Basically, you have to go around the galaxy to find solar systems and probe a planet to find minerals and materials that can be used for those upgrades. One benefit of mining that happens despite the tedium is that you could run into a fun and short side mission on the planet, some of which carry on narratively to other planets. It’s a way to help encourage you to explore the galaxy, but the repetition sets in regardless with a more fun alternative introduced in ME3 thankfully. There’s also the pace.
Out of all the games in the trilogy, Mass Effect 2, especially with its sizable chunk of DLC, is massive. The momentum towards the tense suicide mission can slacken when you have to account for all that Shepard must or can do. It definitely helps out that the majority of content ME2 does offer is very substantial and memorable and the rewards of the long haul approach are quite clear.
There is a moment late in the game where you are encouraged to pick up the pace and start the suicide mission finally, but its tempered by an earlier story mission which can be put off indefinitely to do all the busy work needed for as good an end run as needed. Then there is the Suicide Mission. It doesn’t hurt either that the music in this section is so. damn. epic. The build up and release of tension you and Shepard go through as you begin and carry out the trip through the mass effect relay to the Collector base remains quite palpable almost every time I’ve played. It’s especially more emotional if you have a lover to worry about during the proceedings.
It’s not just a matter of upgrading your ship and gaining and keeping the loyalty of your team. You also have to plan on the spot what the crew must do. Who will be the specialist for this specific task? Who will lead a second team while you’re protecting the specialist? Should you send someone back for safety? Over multiple runs, what you should or shouldn’t do becomes very clear and easy to replicate for the perfect run of the mission. It still remains epic and awesome but admittingly a bit of the stress of uncertainty that came prior has evaporated. Not much you can do about that but on the plus side at least you get to see your amazing team of heroes and anti-heroes survive to the next game. You’re going to need them. It’s an investment for more than one game and that is in a nutshell, what is so wonderful about Mass Effect. The short term is great and memorable. The long term is powerful and unforgettable. Mass Effect 2 nearly masters what it has to offer in the immediate but never lets you forget that the future is what matters.