Mass Effect 2 is Everything I’ve Ever Wanted in a Sci-Fi Video Game

In the wee early hours of this past Sunday’s morning, I finished Mass Effect after eight years. When this first title in an eventual trilogy was released, I eagerly garnered a copy within a day or two of it’s availability… only to put it down after about three hours of nearly incessant swearing about that indelible go-cart with AIDs, the Mako.

This, right here, is why humanity has never been invited into the folds of the Citadel Council.

Yeah, I ragequit Mass Effect. Pretty much immediately, too. However, looking back, I’m thankful that I did. Because going back and finishing the title now after all this time simply led me to its absurdly marvelous sequel at exactly the right point in my life. Mass Effect 2 is a game I truly suspect to hold fondly in my heart forever, the manifestation of everything I’ve ever wanted in a sci-fi game.

First, a bit of context. I’m playing through the whole of the Mass Effect trilogy right now, full of purpose. About a month and a half ago, my (then-)fiance and I parted ways. It was as amicable as such a thing likely can be, but I still knew, as I unloaded the contents of my old life out my Volkswagen (also, holy shit, my entire life fits in a car now) into a small apartment with purple carpets, that I would very quickly need a distraction. There’s an addictive, self-destructive side to myself that I wanted to avoid and it was with that in mind that I asked my friends (whom I suddenly had a lot of time to see) for suggestions. I’d been out of synch with game releases for the past few years, what with my long-term relationship and all, so I had a lot of catching up to do.

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GTAV or Mass Effect,” one friend said. “GTA is much, much better for dicking around, but Mass Effect might change you.”

Mass Effect,” another said. “All of it. And don’t shave until you’re done.”

I was hesitant, but I dove into Mass Effect just the same. Over the past month, I burned through the first game in a really utilitarian way, mostly in two-hour-at-a-time doses, my issues with the Mako and the shotty combat mechanics not having waned in the years since my first try. I basically did just enough to progress the (incredible, engrossing) story, without doing hardly any side missions. I didn’t even get to any of the promised hot alien sex — though I did spend an inordinate amount of time in the Citadel talking to every alien I could, right up until I ran out of dialogue options. My Commander Shepard was like a bald guy with Asperger’s, sprinting through the galaxy, missing social cues from absolutely everyone, and just like full of trivia about the Elcor houses of government.

“Spiteful appraisal of the speaker’s bipartisan record.”

As the credits rolled, I eyed the clock — 2am. Well, I reasoned. I’ll just import my Shepard into the next game and call it a night. I didn’t make it to bed until well after the sun rose.

The first Mass Effect is essentially a really competent Star Trek sim. And like Star Trek, the ideas that propel the story are often undercut by the rocky ways in which they are explored. It must be said that both IPs average out to be amazing, despite the machinations of the Mako and of, say, Enterprise.

Mass Effect 2 suffers none of the restraints that had me speed-playing it’s predecessor. It is a tight fit the whole way through, the story and gameplay complimenting one another entirely. I feel that, in many ways, it’s the game the first title should have been, though I’ll resist the temptation to simply compare the two outright here.

Mass Effect 2 strikes a chord with me in a way few games have. I’d cite Bioshock, Half Life 2, Portal 2 and Skyrim as other recent examples here — titles which so completely capture my imagination in ways that are difficult to describe or to shake. These are games in which the world is vibrant and alive, where the gameplay is consistently pleasant, and where the story is rich enough that I think about it when I’m not playing.

Chiefly, however, I’d say the reason Mass Effect 2 works so dang well for me would just be how effectively the game handles exploration. Like the best bits of Metroid Prime, the most memorable aspects of ME2 are simply the first ten minutes after having landed on a new planet. I was grinning like a child as I ran through Omega the first time, as much as I was when the Normandy touched down in Illium a while later.

Then there’s the wealth of new characters to be praised. Martin Sheen’s Illusive Man is a menacing, legitimately scary string-puller, backlit through much of his screen time against a colossal, fiery star. His acting is simply superb here (no surprise), I just wish I could have been there when he was in the booth receiving direction from the Bioware guys. This is Martin effing Sheen, and at some point, someone definitely had to explain the plot of a sixty hour space opera to him and it must have been hilarious.

Then there’s Mordin, the morally complex Salarian doctor who <spoiler>. Jack, the glorious culmination of every cyberpunk archetype ever to whom my Shepard is hopelessly devoted, Sandy-from-Grease-style. Thane, the meditative drell assassin who looks like Abe Sapien fathered a child with an even more badass version of Abe Sapien. On and on, they’re all fantastic.

To be honest, I haven’t even finished the game yet. I’m twenty hours in and every NPC on board the Normandy is asking me if we’re ready to head for the Omega 4 Relay or if we’re going to screw around in space forever. And we’ll get there, guys, just as soon as I do every side/ character-specific mission I can possibly find. I know I have Mass Effect 3 ahead of me (and I know nothing of it’s controversial ending, save for the fact that it was controversial), but I don’t want this to end just yet. So I’m holding off from wrapping up the main story for the time being. I’ll get to it, probably this weekend.

In the daze of being in the thick of the game, I’m biased enough to call the game perfect. I suspect I’m wrong and that, with time, I might be able to articulate the things I’m possibly over-sweetening here, but that doesn’t change the fact that Mass Effect 2 has been a hell of a ride. And maybe it is perfect.

(Or at least, it would be, if only Commander Shepard could grow an actual fucking beard in his character creation.)

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