Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week we look at another epic saga from the once-great RPG developers at BioWare. Could it have another great single player game in its future following the online-multiplayer focused Anthem? We can but hope.
#9. MASS EFFECT 2, by Mitchell Akhurst
The early 2000s were an awkward time for traditional computer-RPGs, and PC-derived genres in general (a background that also informed Dragon Age: Origins, a game that is very much the sister project of this game’s series). BioWare was one of the few original PC developers which transitioned relatively smoothly, and following great success on all fronts with the warmly received Knights of the Old Republic, it could have just stuck with Star Wars RPGs and watched the dollars roll in.
Instead, BioWare chose to continue pushing forward with its own IP, and after a rocky start with Jade Empire, along came Mass Effect. The first game combined the epic scale of space opera fiction with next-gen cinematic presentation, as well as some questionable shooting mechanics that nevertheless resulted in a charismatic, memorable RPG experience. With the second game, BioWare kicked everything up a notch.
Gamers are likely tired of hearing “this game is just great,” or “this game game is a whole lot of fun.” The fact remains that a list of favourite games is naturally going to be about what makes people love games, and what people remember most about games they love are the fun times that were had. Mass Effect 2 is very fun.
In 2010, the BioWare formula was well established: after an introduction mission, players pick from about four mission locations in whichever order they choose, the game has a big twist halfway, and ends with a final gauntlet after the missions have been completed. Mass Effect fits this formula to a T.
With the sequel, however, the developer knew it could not just mimic the first game and so had to flip the script from the word go. Though the first game dealt primarily with the Geth threat and ended with Shepard triumphant, the second deals with a new type of baddies called the Collectors. These gooier, more mysterious foes have entered the galaxy to abduct and experiment on its sentient species to make way for the Reapers, the bigger threat that had been revealed during the events of Mass Effect.
As Mass Effect 2 opens, Commander Shepard and his/her ship get Metroided by the Collectors, with Shepard “dying” in the act of saving the crew of the Normandy as it is blown to bits. Extremist organisation Cerberus then begins a project of rebuilding Shepard (which also offers a convenient in-universe excuse to re-spec the player character), with his/her new objective is to gather as many allies and professionals as possible to combat the Collectors.
Such remarkable individuals serve as the basis of Mass Effect 2‘s exciting new structure: each character has a recruitment mission and a loyalty mission to prove they are capable of working together for the final “Suicide Mission” to the Collectors’ home base. These missions make for over a dozen episodic adventures, broken up with side quests, incidental events, and sometimes just scanning planets for important resources.
Bankrolled as they are by Cerberus instead of the Citadel Council, Shepard’s new crew must work in the shadows and on the fringes, muddying the cut-and-dry morality of the first game. Add the improved shooter controls, transforming Mass Effect 2 into a proper third-person shooter, and the whole experience feels like the best interactive season of a space-opera TV series that you ever played.
The first Mass Effect hewed closest to BioWare’s tabletop roots, and so retains a lot of nostalgia for its sprawling expository dialogue and lofty tone. The third game, controversial in-and-of itself, was primarily an action game with the RPG elements having been reduced for reasons we have not enough time to explain here—except to say of course that the publisher of these games was EA, whose intervention in Dead Space 3 resulted in the same downward trend, only magnified.
Balanced between these two extremes, Mass Effect 2 is a perfect 50/50 split between squad combat hallways and quality interactive sci-fi; that is, right up to the last hour or so. Because Mass Effect 2 is a fantastic experience—best had after struggling through the engaging yet flawed first game—but not a perfect game. Apart from the final boss, when Mass Effect 2 becomes a little too silly for its own good, the title suffers in the repetitiveness of its shooting galleries same as any other shooting game.
Older generation RPGs tended to focus on a variety of experiences, even if they were presented in a linear fashion such as the many minigames in Final Fantasy VII. Even the first Mass Effect made use of wide open environments with the otherwise maligned Mako (its controls were like a blancmange on wheels), but Mass Effect 2‘s encounters are much more limited.
Every section of the shooter part of the title is a hallway of some variety, peppered with different enemy encounters. The post-release DLC spiced things up with a Mako-like vehicle that controlled much better, but having to look outside the core game for mission variety is a poor excuse for a galaxy-spanning RPG.
This and other additions to the BioWare formula make Mass Effect 2 the harbinger of dark times for the studio, despite its indubitable level of polish. Scanning planets, already a nuisance in this game, presaged the grinding and fetch quests of Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect: Andromeda. The more TV-episode style quests and overall goal of preparing for the end-game Suicide Mission would both lead to BioWare’s later RPGs focusing on continental or galaxy-wide conflicts at the expense of minute-to-minute action/adventure drama.
Finally, the idea of an RPG with cinematic presentation, that began with KoTOR and the first Mass Effect, developed into its own kind of movie/action-game hybrid, beyond the tabletop and toward what might as well be an entirely different genre. Anthem represents a culmination of this kind of development: a BioWare RPG-without-the-RPG and with Destiny-like online multiplayer instead.
That these trends are visible in-embryo within Mass Effect 2 is not enough to condemn the title. The game is just too full of excellent visuals, compelling space opera and character drama, and fun sci-fi action to be criticised for what came after. Even the third game is unfairly put down thanks to its divisive ending, but that is another story.
Mass Effect 2 sees BioWare’s most successful original property living its best life, and the game’s high quality is more than enough reason to play through the whole Mass Effect trilogy (at least the first two). When critics tore into Mass Effect: Andromeda over the limp writing and uninteresting sci-fi, they were right to be disappointed. Not because Andromeda could not measure up to Mass Effect 2—they are two different games, after all—but because Andromeda already had an excellent blueprint and failed to follow it. In a world where games like Mass Effect 2 are still available on PC or through Xbox One backwards compatibility, accept no substitutes: this one did space opera better than ever before; as above, so now, we can only hope it is not the last time.
Thanks for joining us for a look at such an amazing middle chapter in a much-beloved series. Leave a comment with your own favourite space RPG, or your warm old BioWare memories, and follow OnlySP on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.