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Opinion — Mass Effect 2 was a generation defining classic that came at the best possible time

One of the greatest of all time.
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Mass Effect 2 was not a perfect game, but it was a game that came at the best possible time. It didn’t win the Game Awards that year (still known as Spike Video Game Awards), as the honor went to Red Dead Redemption, which was an excellent game in its own right.

It was a time when the popularity of the console RPG was starting to transition into a more mainstream variety, pivoting away from the highly popular Japanese RPGs marked by the strange creative choices made by Final Fantasy XIII. Nier came out the same year, but its genius won’t reach cult status until NieR Automata seven years later.

Mass Effect 2 was in the right place at the right time. It presented itself friendly to the shooter crowd by adopting a more action-centric core, striking a perfect balance between the two. Personally, I felt the move was off-putting, being at the time an RPG player first and a shooter second. To me, Mass Effect 2 had a “jet lag” in presentation, and it deviated from Mass Effect so much that the RPG fan in me was put off. They even had Mission Cleared screen at the end of every level, breaking the fragile immersion an RPG fan as myself felt that made the genre special from the other genres.

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Yet, to the uninitiated, it was an accessible game that catered to a much wider audience. According to statistics, the Soldier class is the most popular. I can understand the appeal: you can use all the guns and allows you to use an ammo type that fits any situation. It doesn’t require a big learning curve, the closest thing to “magic” would be Adrenaline. You can customize your face, race, and personality, and you even get to play as a rogue champion abandoned by an ungrateful society. It was the perfect blend for a power fantasy, where you are a bad ass hero out to save a universe that denies you.

Sadly, I dropped the game about quarter of the way through on my first run. I was jaded with Final Fantasy XIII‘s departure from what I was used to, and the deviation from Mass Effect 2 to cater to the non-RPG player baffled me. I felt abandoned. I didn’t even play the game again until six months later, well into 2011 where I had a change of heart with BioWare games. It can’t be denied, BioWare was popular, and the only game that I liked was the first Mass Effect. I didn’t really take a huge liking to Dragon Age, but I gave Mass Effect 2 another shot.

That “BioWare Magic”

Just for fun, I repeated Mass Effect before continuing to Mass Effect 2 on the Xbox 360. I chose a Sentinel class, because I like a good combination of tech and biotics while still being able to stand my ground. The game still felt fresh, four years after its release, I scoured every last drop to choose the best paragon choices to carry over to Mass Effect 2.

I braced myself once again – I wasn’t an action player. I rarely played shooters, so I could not appreciate the smoother transition into the action. Another thing I didn’t like was every side mission counted as an actual mission that adds to the mission count before The Illusive Man forces you into an unskippable mission. I had a real problem with the game forcing me to follow a script.

Yet the magic really began with me learning about the characters. Sure, the same mechanic was present in the first Mass Effect, but somehow the chemistry and interactions between the gallery of rogues that Shepard assembled were actually interesting. They felt like real people with real issues and given a more peaceful circumstance, you can have a beer with these people and just shoot the shit.

For the most part, much of the RPG aspects have been kept intact in Mass Effect 2. While I didn’t mind the Mako, I actually enjoyed the planetary scanning mechanic. Then spending on Research Materials to improve your weapon loadout felt a more natural progression to collecting loot and managing them in the end. Plus, the skill tree was a lot more streamlined.

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All the social aspects of the game has been streamlined into the Paragon/Renegade meter allowing you to increase your charm that way. I naturally played Paragon because being good is actually rewarded better, though the Paragon/Renegade actions made my trigger finger twitch every time I felt like I wanted to just shoot through a hostage to get my way or punch a journalist for being annoying. Yet, I wanted to get my team loyal, so let’s play nice.

Before you know it, its greatness started creeping in, and the game I’ve been taking for granted is finally starting to grow on me. Would Mass Effect 2 be better than the original Mass Effect? I still denied this, because I’m still seeing the Mission Completed screen that is the testament of game’s deviation. However, when all the missions are completed, every planet has been mined, every science project researched, and every team member is loyal, it was actually time to do the promised Suicide Mission.

Naturally, as a full paragon who did every mission, who made sure the SR2 is ready and every team member is fortified, I’ve kept every person alive. Yet one thing I couldn’t forget was how tense and gripping the final mission was, where every character is vulnerable and could die at any second. When everybody came out unscathed, the amount of relief and satisfaction was some of the best of any game ever. Yet the biggest tease was the final shot of the Reapers heading towards Earth.

I know the term BioWare Magic has a negative connotation, but my old school self would want to remember BioWare (and their magic) as the devs that made someone like me eventually fall in love with the game. When Mass Effect 2 ended and the year-long anticipation to Mass Effect 3 began, I played every DLC including the excellent Lair of the Shadow Broker. I may or may not have played it again for multiple runs before the third game came along, riding out in the sunset towards its lukewarm conclusion.

Looking back at Mass Effect 3, I was looking for that special spark. What was missing was that same magical feeling that Mass Effect 2 gave, but now that I knew what will happen in the conclusion, I felt closed a book to an obsession that finally ended. Mass Effect 3 signaled an end to a generation, with the PS4 and Xbox One on the way in a year. Unlike the rest of the angry internet, my ending to my Mass Effect journey was a quiet one. Almost a forgotten song that just faded into memory.

A past revisited

Eight years later, my colleague gave me an assignment to review Mass Effect Legendary Edition. He was so stoked for it, but I wasn’t. I was not looking forward to going through the three games and spending god knows how many hours in the process for a series that has in a weird way, let me down. Eight years passed since my last foray into Mass Effect 3, and while I didn’t mind Mass Effect Andromeda, I actually remember my gear better than any of the characters.

A console generation and a half has passed and I’m still disappointed in the broken promise that was Cyberpunk 2077. While there have been amazing games set in fantastic worlds and post apocalyptic futures, Cyberpunk 2077 was a way for us to look into the future once again that was delivered by a forgotten franchise in the past. Well, we all knew how that turned out.

So I played Mass Effect Remastered, and holy hell has the game aged. It was an unpleasant experience. Plus part of me already knew so much of the lore, I skipped many dialogue options and played as Renegade to just show how much I didn’t care about the Citadel and its many stilted politics. I just powered through the story and pushed through so I can play Mass Effect 2 and confirm that we can’t see Miranda’s butt. Then it happened…

Eight years have passed since I played Mass Effect 3 and the irony is, many of my memories that I’ve attributed to Mass Effect 3 were actually from Mass Effect 2. The first thing I felt when I looked at the streamlined UI was relief. Gone were the cumbersome equipment screens and the repetitive planet surveys. The dialogue moved quickly and expository conversations were replaced with wit and banter. While I could not reclaim my actual feelings when I played the original Mass Effect 2, a new form of “BioWare magic” was happening – the mechanics I’ve taken for granted, I’m starting to appreciate.

It was like meeting an old friend and catching up with them over a beer. Intricate story details and locales came to life, and every single journey towards the end goal hit home. There was a part of me that wanted to switch back to Paragon about halfway in, but I’ve committed to a Renegade run. I watched squadmates die during the suicide mission that didn’t in my perfect paragon run. Some of them got me in the feels, some of them, ah well… they died.

Before I knew it, it was over… and I still have to play fucking Mass Effect 3.

The game Cyberpunk 2077 wanted to be

Mass Effect 2 worked because now as I’ve completed my run of all three games, Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 3 were basically the same game. It’s a story of a representative of humanity who desperately wants to shout their raison d’etre to the universe and making a mark. Mass Effect 2 is personal struggle by a group of doomed misfits that will be forgotten by the collective masses. It’s definitely comparable to Seven Samurai.

However, unlike the aforementioned film, you will spend at least 20 hours with these characters. You get to know them, you get to help them with their loose ends, some you even get intimate with. When you make a mistake of letting someone die, you’ll feel that loss. And when you lose a character that’s been with you since Mass Effect 1, holy hell, it bites. You kind of get that same feeling with Johnny Silverhand, Judy, and Panam in Cyberpunk 2077, but not as much as when you let your entire crew die because you committed to a Renegade run.

I felt Mass Effect 2 carried much of the emotional weight, philosophy, and panache Cyberpunk 2077 wanted to portray in Night City as shown in the dichotomy between Illium and Omega. The entire corporate espionage I wanted to embark on in Cyberpunk 2077, I got in The Lair of the Shadow Broker. The shady backdoor deals and merc double crosses were portrayed better throughout my adventures in Omega. They were condensed in three hours or less and they felt like more complete experiences than in my 100+ hours in Cyberpunk 2077.

There are many parallels between the two games, you couldn’t really tell who copied who. However, as a complete game, and value for my time and money, Mass Effect 2 was made better and has passed the test of time. I could not believe I’ve forgotten that much after shelving the game for so long. It’s ironic that the game that I wanted Cyberpunk 2077 to be, actually already existed in Mass Effect 2!

It’s been a pleasure to revisit this game and learn more things about it that I’ve forgotten. It’s a game that could be experienced a completely different way just by changing your alignment. I feel like before Mass Effect 4 drops, another trip to Mass Effect 2 is worth taking. It’s the odd game out, and we thank it for deviating.

Back in 2010, Mass Effect 2 launched at the right time and succeeded. Eleven years later, it has aged like fine wine and apart from the dash button mapping, there’s little I can complain about. I may get a little annoyed once in a while at the Mission Complete screen, but hey, I did say the game wasn’t perfect. If I can do anything different on a future run, I’ll probably heal those dying Salarian night workers at Illium, I think that was the one guilty feeling I have left after that crazy Renegade run.

My colleague, who loves this game to bits and holds it in his top games of all time list along with Final Fantasy VI, was probably on to something when he replayed this game years ago for more times than he can remember. It took me a while, but now I understand why.

Author

Vincent Ternida moved Vancouver, Canada in 2006 and called it home ever since. He spends the lockdown catching up with his Japanese RPGs, writing his new manuscripts, and figuring out why he suddenly became the main character of the latest Haruki Murakami novel.

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