Why Mass Effect 2 Was My Favourite Mass Effect

When all is said and done, I'd say that Mass Effect 2 was my favourite of the three Mass Effect games. It wasn't so much the story, the characters, or the gameplay that put it over the top — it was the TV show-like structure.

More than the games that preceded and followed it, Mass Effect 2 felt like playing a season of a really good Sci-Fi TV show. And that, as it turned out, was just fine by me.

Now, don't get me wrong: I liked all three Mass Effect games. I loved the first game's austere vibe and its fantastic soundtrack, as well as that exciting feeling of discovery. I thought Mass Effect 3 was a damned impressive finale, a breathless, high-stakes finale that, some unevenness aside, made for a fine blowout for the trilogy.

It's a matter of pacing.

The folks at BioWare should be proud of this amazing universe they've created. But it turns out that rather than constantly rushing to save that universe, what I really wanted was an opportunity to relax and explore it. And that's what the second game gave me.

It's a matter of pacing. Both the first and third games were framed as a race against the clock — Saren was planning a Reaper attack of the Citadel in Mass Effect and in Mass Effect 3, well… it takes about seven minutes for the Reapers start destroying all life in the galaxy.

Mass Effect 2 was positively laconic in comparison. "Gather a crew," The Illusive Man told me. "Here are some names. Build up a team, make your ship and weapons really powerful. Take your time. No big hurry."

The door to the endgame (The Omega-4 Relay) is sitting right there the whole time. But although the Reaper attack is still looming, it doesn't feel nearly as pressing as in the first and third games.

As a result, Mass Effect 2 felt more like a TV show than a movie. Most of the game felt like a series of discrete episodes broken up by the occasional "A-Plot" episode that deals with the season-long story, what Buffy The Vampire Slayer coined as the "Big Bad". In Mass Effect 2, the Collectors were the Big Bad.

Shepard's death and rebirth were the season premiere. The initial crew recruitments and adventures made up episodes 2-10. The assault on the abandoned Collector ship was the type of mid-season episode that would've aired during sweeps. The back-half of the season contained the later recruitments, the crew's abduction being the penultimate episode, with the suicide mission as a two-part season finale. It's just about an exact structural match.

That structure was fairly rigid. Each crew member had two "episodes" — first, the sequence when Shepard would go and get them into his crew, and then their loyalty mission, in which he'd help them with a problem. And while in the end, Mass Effect 2 had easily the weakest A-plot of all three games, I liked the format so much that I didn't really mind.

The loyalty missions weren't directly connected to the Reaper threat, and as a result they felt like a part of the everyday flow of the Mass Effect universe. More than the other two games, I got a sense of what everyday life would be like for the leader of a crew of space-badasses. I liked talking down an assassin in the dark corridors of the Citidel, or engaging in corporate espionage, or figuring out the truth behind a spaceship crash gone horribly wrong. I liked teaming up with a ninja-like cat burglar and to pull off a heist, or helping one of my former crewmates track down the illusive Shadow Broker.

Mass Effect 2 had an opportunity to try out so many more flavours than simply "Action" and "Drama". It's easily the funniest game of the trilogy, and a part of that is that it's simply easier to be funny when a giant robotic Sword of Damocles isn't hanging over the head of every living being in the galaxy. The stories were refreshingly varied, from lonely salvage missions aboard teetering crashed space vessels to a game of seduction against a deadly adversary. Mass Effect 2 was a welcomely roomy game.

I initially found Mass Effect 2's post-mission results-screens to be jarring, but I grew used to them and eventually came to like them. The stat-covered screens broke things up in the same way as the credits at the end of a TV episode, which helped me structure my time playing the game. These days when I'm watching Misfits or Terriers, sometimes the credits roll and I think "No! I gotta watch one more episode!" But other times, I'm ready to take a break. Either way, it's nice to have the waypoint.

In between "episodes" of Mass Effect 2 I would do some planet scanning, or walk around the Normandy getting to know my crew. It was the kind of atmospheric filler that normally takes place at the margins of a good television show; before the opening credits, during an episode subplot, during a well-handled clip-show. The whole thing hit a rhythm that I found appealing for all the same reasons that I've come to prefer watching good serialized TV to watching a movie.

An episodic BioWare (or BioWare-style) game could be terrific.

The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that an episodic BioWare (or BioWare-style) game could be terrific. A series of 10 or 20 episodes spread out over six months, downloaded to your console and broken up by smaller side missions… it could make for a highly enjoyable experience.

The mere idea of BioWare creating episodic games might make many a video game fan cringe — and with good reason. The approach could very easily devolve into the sort of nickel-and-diming for which BioWare's publisher EA has become known. But while EA hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt yet, if handled correctly, the approach could work very well. It could even allow players to give clearer, more regular feedback to the developers rather than lumping years' worth of effort into one gargantuan game with a correspondingly gargantuan amount of pent-up fan feedback.

I have a lot of affection for the Mass Effect games, and for the universe in which they take place. I've always wanted to learn more about that world, not from reading codex entries, but from living there, from having adventures and experiencing it for myself. Thanks to its episodic pacing and TV-like structure, Mass Effect 2 gave me the space to do just that. And that's why it's my favourite Mass Effect game. ;

Top photo: Refat /Shutterstock

Comments

    That's EXACTLY why I liked Mass Effect 2 so much. I thought the A-plot in ME1,2 and 3 was kinda poor, but it was the loyalty missions that made me fall in love with the series. ME3 didn't have those, and I thought the game suffered hugely as a result. The gameplay was still good, but I wasn't as connected to my crew as I was in ME2, and also there was no cool loyalty based final assault, just a stock ending where the forces you recruit don't really change anything except what ending to pick...

    It's the Empire Strikes Back of Mass Effect

      Not surprising. Whether intentional or not, there are a lot of similarities between Mass Effect and Star Wars.
      Shepard fills the role of Luke, although Shepard isn't quite as "whiny" you still get the feeling that you've "taken your first step into a larger world" when you become a Spectre.
      Nihlus is Obi-Wan Kenobi, and it is his death that acts as the catalyst for Shepard to complete his/her training.
      Saren is Vader, Sovereign is the Emperor. Sovereign lures Saren to the "Dark Side" (eventually providing cyborg implants) through the promise of ultimate power. Really, Saren is a pawn the whole time, however at the climactic battle (played out as Sovereign watches intently) Shepard knows "there is good in him still" and can try to convince him to change ways.
      Garrus and Wrex are Han Solo and Chewbacca respectively. Garrus is a bit more straight edged in ME1, although he's not afraid to ignore the rules if it means catching his target. Wrex would rip your arms off if you beat him at Space Chess.
      Liara is Leia, the "princess" that you go to rescue in order to get the information you need to take on Saren + Sovereign.
      Kaiden and Ashley are, well, they're C-3PO and R2-D2 respectively. One's tall and thin, the other's short and *ahem* "rounded". They're also both present from the start, although they don't quite fulfil the "storyteller" role of the droids in Star Wars.

      Mass Effect 1 does indeed present a "new hope" for the galaxy, despite the impending Reaper threat.
      Mass Effect 2 may provide a darker "Empire Strike Back" style ending , but it really doesn't compare the same way ME1 does.
      Mass Effect 3 had an ending that annoyed a lot of people. Return of the Jedi had ewoks. At least Star Wars had fireworks... I haven't played ME3 so I don't know whether it does or not.
      Thank you for reading this Wall of Text.

        First time in a while there's something worthwhile reading in the comments.

        think you'll find that SW and ME have a lot of similiarities with older texts/genres, you know, from before gaming.

    I thought the first five/six hours of Mass Effect 2 were a real hard slog. So much so that my first playthough attempt ended just after acquiring Grunt.

    I'm glad I persisted past that point when I got the PS3 version, but for mine, Mass Effect 2 was the weakest instalment in the series.

      Yeah me too. ME1 was perfect - got you right into a warzone with the opening mission, then let you loose on the Citadel. Gave you a sense of awe.

    Actually an episodic Bioware title could really work, and I was toying around with the idea myself recently. The idea came to me when thinking about the implications of the soon-to-be-announced "ending" DLC. If they pull off a DLC epilogue then the idea could be extended to a full game.

    Taking ME3 as an example, an episodic format would also benefit the game's multiplayer. Let's say for example you could only progress through roughly 2-3 hours a week of the story including sidequests. If all the content was gated to weekly installments, there would be far greater impetus (and time) to dabble in the multiplayer. I don't know about anybody else, but even despite the big red "Galactic Readiness" markers, I didn't bother with the MP because there was more story there for me to work through.

    Progression of that kind is somewhat reminiscent of an MMO, and presents many challenges (what do you do with the people who buy the game three weeks later) but I think it would have been an amazing experience as the world prepared for the war over the course of 10-12 weeks.

    I agree with what you say... ME2 is a really well structured game. I liked it more than ME1 almost from day one, but then I played ME3. Now ME3 was, for me, by far the weakest in the series, and not because of the ending. Don't egt me wrong, I enjoyed it, but it's the weakest. And that's because of a few niggling things that rubbed me the wrong way: firstly, I played through ME3 as a paragon male. No problems there, the story links well with a paragon who told the Illusive Man to get lost at the end of ME2. But for my renegade FemShep, I was really hoping to get the opportunity in ME3 to side with cerberus and tell Anderson and Hacket to get lost. It made no sense for my Ren-Femshep to at the beginning of ME3, upon first encountering cerberus to immediately act as though they were the enemy, as in ME2, she did everything she could to side with the Illusive man. Little things like that bugged me...

    ...anyway, I'm rambling. When I played ME3, I found myself yearning to play ME1 again... I think it was probably the re-used music from the first game. But then it got me thinking how good of a game ME1 is: a great story, with a solid antagonist (Which is something that ME2 lacked). And I miss exploring planets in my Mako - yes I know this wasn't perfect, but I really wish BioWare had of worked to improve that aspect of ME1 rather than ditching it to a couple of DLC's with a completely different feel for ME2, and then ditching any vehicular activity at all for ME3.

    So in a very round-about way, here's my point: for some reason, ME3 has made me appreciate ME1 a whole lot more. I don't know why, but after having played ME3, I would have to say that my favorite in the series would have to be ME1 now.

      I kept waiting for the choice to actually support Cerberus' scientific experiments, rather than just right them off as "the cost was too great".

    You have no idea how much I was killing for ME3 to have ME2's setup. And... it sort of did, kinda.

    I kept holding on thinking "oh man, i'll reunite these two races, and then I'll run into Zaeed and it'll be great"

    and I did... and then he got stuffed into that War Assests thing and I never saw him again.

    In my mind, the biggest misstep of ME3 was the lack of a really strong and diverse crew to go on the final mission with, even if it simply killed them all just to drill in the stakes of the mission. Like the Collector base on european extreme mode. I questioned why I even bothered saving anyone in the collector assault when all they did was make a brief cameo and then go away.

    Am I the only one who liked the first ME the best?

      Nope. It's a very different game from the two sequels, and I enjoyed it much more; mostly because of the open-world illusions, and how it contained fewer, larger, more detailed missions for the main story.

      I didn't enjoy ME2's loyalty missions at all, the tv-show analogy is quite good; I just didn't like that style of segmented stories. The premise was so silly; I would have to help each crew member through their daddy issues to gain their 'loyalty'. It was so superficial.

      I'm about 20 hrs into ME3, and whilst it's still that very closed off, segmented feel; it still feels like a more concentrated effort where you are seeing the effects of a war all around the galaxy. The interactions with your comrades are much more enjoyable; rather than simply just going and shooting up some people for them, you are all focussed on your goal and helping each other get through it together; whether that means chilling out on the Citadel or simple chats on the ship. There's essentially new interactions to be had after every mission, it's great.

      Nope. It's my fav as well.

    I completely and utterly agree.

    I never grew tired of ME2 and I kind of wished it just went forever. Most of the DLC was pretty awesome and almost had that "episodic" feeling to it. ME1 had the task of creating and introducing a huge and complex universe, and ME3 had the task of bringing everything to a climax - ME2 was that sweet spot.

      I agree also. The shadow broke DLC was good although the thief felt a little tacked on. The way the chick only says a few lines of dialogue rather than you actually go into a conversation wheel with her and can do paragon or renegade options seemed lacking. Still it was short and sweet so that's something

    I thought ME3 was the best of the series, cunt-arsed ending aside.

    Shucks, they're all great, though.

    ME2 was pretty structurally similar to LA Noire in that way.

    Also been thinking the same thing. WHen they announced the ME movie I thought yeah it could work but doing Mass Effect 2 in a movie format would be impossible. The whole thing works as a bunch of TV series and TV specials I think.

    Something like:
    Mass Effect 1: 6 Episode Mini-series. Each episode being one of the major missions in the game. Maybe one episode for Bring Down the Sky which would introduce the Batarians properly. The final season ender would be Virmire -> Battle for the Citedal.

    Mass Effect 2: Longer series with recruitment and loyalty missions being the focus. Also fleshes out the universe really well.

    TV Specials: One off episodes for Shadow Broker and Arrival DLC. Arrival especially needs to be included but doesn't really fit into the ME2 series as it's a seperate story to the Collectors.

    Mass Effect 3: No idea yet, we'll wait for the 'new' ending. :P

    It could work really well, I don't think the movies will work that well, especially if they make a sequal. There's simply to much they have to cut.

    I cant believe you're criticizing Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect 2 is by far, and viewed by the vast majority of people, as the BEST ME game in the franchise. Mass Effect 1 was good but it was heavily flawed and bugged & even a bit cheesy at times. Mass Effect 2 IMPROVES on everything of ME1 and gives us more + proved to be a lot more srs. The simplification of the inventory/purchase system was my only quarrel but at the end of the day, you get used to it and it actually makes the game more accessible. And it had tat kickass soundtrack. Mass Effect 3 on the other hand, dumbs down so many things. The lack of squad members. A reduction of decision-making chances in dialogue. Crappy Journal/Quest Markers. Confusing Weapon Customization. Less areas to explore. Squad health is non-existence on UI. No hacking. Lack of Side Quests. And lets face it, the ending sucked and most of all, many of my fcking choices that I made in ME1 and 2 were overlooked in ME3. What's the point of investing over 70 hours in both ME1 and ME2 only to find that your decisions have next to no impact on the overall plot and ending of ME3. And please, someone patch the goddamn awful journal. Worst RPG journal EVER (never updates, no waypoints, very vague mission details). ME3 is a good RPG but its NOT worth all the praise and 10/10 bullshit from critics. I'd give it a 8.5/10 at most.

    I recently finished mass effect 2 again after losing my savefiles (in order to play mass efefct 3 again), and I have to agree with you. The speed of the plot is slower, less urgent, letting me mess around on Omega and Ilium without that sense of "the universe is about to end, why the hell am I dancing with an asari?" I think mass effect 3 improves only slightly on gameplay, and the plot kind of loses a bit with the false sense of urgency- for example, after you collect the reaper IFF in mass effect 2 and the crew gets taken away, the amount of missions you complete from then on in determine how many crew members die from the collector experiments.
    If I want to hop over and collect every single item from every world in Mass Effect 3, the resulting destruction is.... well, still the same.

    i agree, ME2 was by far the best of the series/ it felt well paced, no urgency and developed much loved characters and new additions well.
    ME3 felt jarring. having to return to the citadel felt unrealistic. as the supreme space invaders wouldn't you take that place first? it was supposed to be urgent but never fully developed that feeling in the plot and tone of the game
    ME1 was good, felt urgent but suffered from the same issues of ME3. the tone for the game didn't match the urgency it wanted to create. the character development was shallow compared to ME2 but better than ME3.
    still a fantastic series but the way in which it ends will always leave a bitter taste in my mouth.

    Very well put. ME2 was always my favourite (still is) and this article really puts voice to a good part of the reason why - atleast insofar as the play and pacing goes. I thought the characters were the best in that game too - Miranda, Thane, Legion, Garrus, etc.

    Great article!

    I loved how intense the end of ME2 was. It's amazing how bioware could get the finale so wrong for 3 and so right for 2. Any squad member could die. Every decision about who to do what felt vital. Every squad member played a role. Plus I got to perfectly end my relationship with TIM by interrupting his ranting about humanity's best interest by telling him "Sorry, I'm getting a lot of bulls*** on the line."

    The article makes a good point. In script writing this part is typically known as "fun and games" and typically occurs in Act 2, so very appropriate for the second part of a trilogy. It's where you expand on the day to day workings of the world and the heroes doing what they do best.
    It really was he most fun part of the game because you're fining out more and more about the world of ME and becoming more invested in it- which is the purpose of this part of scripts in movies and TV series, but TV series usually expand this part across multiple episodes and Sitcoms base everything on it.

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