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Full Steam Ahead – Mass Effect 2

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 32 Hours

Every now and then, this list of randomly generated games throws me a bone. A few weeks ago, I got to play one of my absolute favourite games (and listening to the response, a favourite of some of our readers as well).

It may interest you to know that the original Mass Effect was not appealing to me the first time I played it. The first time I played Mass Effect was on a friend’s Xbox 360, and I found the controls to be unintuitive and imprecise, making even the game’s initial sections a bit of a slog for me. It wasn’t until I played the sequel years later (also on my friend’s Xbox 360) that I really got interested in the series. It’s a little backwards, but Mass Effect 2 is that game that got me interested in Mass Effect.

Years of study have shown me that two comes after one… and that I’m an idiot.

However, possibly due to the fact that I was playing them on a friend’s console, I never actually got around to finishing either of the above games. Eventually, I picked up Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 on steam, allowing me to finally play and complete the story of the first game. Since I completed Mass Effect, I had the option to continue playing with the character I had built in that game. It’s a neat feature, and one that I wish more games with sequential stories would allow for. In the case of my most recent playthrough, this meant continuing the story of Patricia Shepard. For those who care about spoilers, be forewarned, I’ll be talking about some.

The majority of Mass Effect 2’s story takes place more than 2 years after the end of the first game. Why the time skip? Not long after the events of the first game, Shepard and the crew of the Normandy are attacked by an reclusive alien species known as the Collectors. Most of the crew makes it out alive, but Shepard does not. Cast into the vacuum of space, with a leaky spacesuit and the Normandy destroyed, this is not terribly surprising.

Two years after the destruction of the Normandy, an experimental project by by Cerberus (humanity-first ultra-nationalists from Mass Effect) brings a cybernetic Shepard back to life. In the interim, the galaxy’s governments have turned a blind eye to the increasing threat of the Collectors, and the team Shepard carefully built in the first game has been disbanded. Even though Shepard fought against Cerberus in the first game, it’s made abundantly clear that Cerberus is the only group with the resources and desire to fight against the collectors.

From that point, Shepard is given control of the Normandy SR2, an upgraded model of the original, and told to build a team for, what will very likely be, a one-way-trip into collector space.

Recruiting these teammates, and earning their loyalty, makes up the bulk of this game. Compared with the original Mass Effect, this game is less about exploration of the universe, and more about the people who inhabit it. Shepard gains far more teammates to choose from, including a fast-talking Salarian scientist, a contemplative Drell assassin, a single-minded Asari Justicar, and many more. If you haven’t played Mass Effect, I’ll grant that the names of these aliens probably don’t mean much to you, but suffice to say there are almost no dull characters. The series also sees the return of some of Shepard’s teammates from the original game, (namely Garrus, the vigilante Turian, and Tali, the Quarian technician.)

The team is not a singular entity, blindly following Shepard’s every command without question. Some are Cerberus operatives, with a do whatever is necessary attitude. Others are aliens, hurt by Cerberus’ humanity-first bias. Some are humans, misused by Cerberus in the past. Some have no connection with the organization, but are drawn to Shepard ‘s mission by curiosity, friendship, or other factors. It doesn’t come as a surprise when some of the crew members’ competing ideologies lead to tension.

For all this intricacy and depth of character, Mass Effect 2, doesn’t always have perfect writing. Sometimes, characters react in ways that don’t feel consistent. At other times, elements of a character’s history or character will be forgotten as needed by convenience. Furthermore, while a grand majority of the characters are among my favorite in gaming, some come off as being one-note.

What’s more, from a more technical standpoint, a lot of mechanical decisions that made the first game feel unique have been replaced with more mainstream options. Despite these changes, the game still feels like a Mass Effect game, and the less-than-perfect writing is still quite good for the most part.

What’s more, nitpicking the various qualities of a game is not really what I want to do with Full Steam Ahead. What I want to do is talk about how the game makes me feel, and some of the themes discussed in the game. Some games have more to say than others, and some weeks, I really struggle to find anything to say. Mass Effect 2, however, has a lot to say. In fact, perhaps more than any other game I’ve ever played, Mass Effect 2 is a game about a specific concept. Specifically, Mass Effect 2 is a game about death.

The game opens with the physical, and in turn, social death of Shepard, and the destruction of the Normandy. The game follows the slow death of Shepard’s original team, and the cause they fought so hard for in the first game. One of the teammates has to deal with the death of her father, another with the betrayal and death of his friends. One team member, Thane, has a terminal illness, and sees Shepard’s mission as a way to make peace and atone for his violent past. Another, Samara has to cope with the fact that her strict martial code forces her to hunt, and eventually kill her daughter. Throughout the game, the game’s final mission, the job Shepard was brought back for, is referred to by characters, in character, as a suicide mission.

The mission in question is hard. Chances are that teammates and crewmembers will die along the way. These won’t be deaths Shepard can fix with medigel (the series’ sci-fi-make-everything-better-fluid). They will happen in cutscenes, they will be permanent, and if, if, Shepard survives the mission, they have to see the coffins of the teammates, and in some cases, friends, they lost along the way.

For all of this, I wish the game designers had thought more about making the deaths in gameplay mean something a little more. When Shepard dies, I get the standard “Mission failed – Retry” screen as always. When my teammates fall, in most missions I can just bring them back with medigel (and without repercussions.) In an action game, I’ll grant that it’s hard to make death lasting or meaningful, and while missing the mark in some cases, Mass Effect 2 tries really hard, and that effort is, in and of itself, pretty impressive.

After all, we live in a society that denies the reality of death. Generally speaking, I find people aren’t comfortable with the subject, event discussing the theory behind it. One of the most interesting courses I took in university was on comparative religious views on death and the afterlife. In the course, it became clear to me that my generation, my fellow students, the same generation which has helped turned video games into a thriving industry, sucks at talking about death in a mature, contemplative way. I find it especially interesting, because in some of the writers and essayists I follow, there seems to be a growing movement asking whether or not we can use science to cure death. I don’t know whether we can or not, or even should, but it’s a serious question to be answered by serious people. Mass Effect 2 doesn’t go so far as offering an answer to that specific question, but it’s thematic focus on death means it comes a lot closer than any other game I’ve ever played.

Although I’ve played Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 several times, I’ve never played past this point. Mass Effect 3, the next game in the series, was never released on Steam, due to a falling out between Steam and EA, the publishers of the Mass Effect series. Mass Effect 3 is available on EA’s game distribution service, but I haven’t bought. Maybe it’s because I was stubborn, maybe it’s because EA was using (and continues to use) manipulative business practices. Maybe the critical fan backlash against the third game left me wary of it.

I don’t have a good answer for why I never completed the story. For the purposes of this blog, however, the game is not in my Steam library, so it won’t be showing up here. For what it’s worth, I absolutely love the two games I have played. I’d be hard-pressed to pick which one I like more, but I do like that Mass Effect 2 spends so much time thinking about death. In turn, that makes me think about death. That sometimes makes me uncomfortable, but I’m glad for it all the same.

Next Episode: Divekick

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