Sunday, 23 February 2014

Well-Rendered's Games of the Generation #4: Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2, BioWare/Electronic Arts (2010)

I'll settle for "writer" now that I've reached the age where rock stars die, but my number one lifetime ambition has always been "starship captain" (number two being "rock star", obviously). The Mass Effect series has done a pretty comprehensive job of letting me live out that fantasy, but it's Mass Effect 2, which casts the player in the role of outlaw on a mission to recruit the galaxy's strongest, smartest, weirdest, and sexiest loners, that really stratched the itch.

The first and last games in the series may have been excellent science-fiction RPGs that gave the player a spaceship, a gang of intriguing companions and a vast galaxy to explore, but the Mass Effect formula is at its most potent when it puts them outside the establishment. This is because its greatest asset is its universe, the species within it, and the way they are all trying to assert themselves while keeping hold of their identity and history. As Commander Shepard of Earth's Systems Alliance, the player views the "aliens'" predicaments from an outsider's perspective as they nobly balance humanitys's concerns with the greater good of the galaxy, but in Mass Effect 2 they operate from within a dark underworld that subtly infiltrates every planet, culture and society they encounter.

Cerberus, the shadowy pro-human organisation who resurrects Shepard following an unfortunate accident at the beginning of the game, tasks him or her with tracking down a crew of hand-picked mercenaries and gaining their loyalty before launching an attack on the Collectors, a race of insect-like creatures who are abducting humans. Cerberus' leader, the Illusive Man, doesn't try too hard to win Shepard over to his way of thinking, he just wants the job done (for now), so it's up to the player to decide what to make of mission, Cerberus' motives and everything they see along the way.

Well that's one reason Mass Effect 2 is the best game in the series. The other is the focus on character and relationships. While I love science fiction, it's more for the situations it can create for characters than for the concepts themselves. The Mass Effect series tells its stories through characters, but while in the first game these characters were awfully well-behaved and ready to educate you about their race and its history through carefully-rehearsed monologues, Mass Effect 2 simply contains more interesting characters whose predicaments are so intriguing that you don't realise you're receiving exposition as you talk to them. (I go into this in more detail in this article on Salarian scientist Mordin Solus.)

Brilliantly, the entire structure of the game is built upon character: the success of the final mission depends on the strength of the relationships you have built with your crew. Each of the characters, from damaged test subject Jack to genetically-perfect Miranda to peerless assassin Thane, has a problem they need your help with, and while you don't have to do so in order to progress (though it greatly increases their chance of surviving the final mission), you end up caring about them an awful lot more if you do.

Almost half of the game takes place aboard the S.S. Normandy, an Alliance vessel re-built by Cerberus for Shepard. Each of the characters carves out their own niche on the ship - Miranda has a tidy office, tech genius Tali hangs out in the engine room and Mordin makes himself at home in the lab - while Shepard has a cosy cabin which the player can gradually fill with souvenirs from their travels (again, I go into this in more depth in the Escapist article on video game living spaces). In this way you get to know them in their own environment and thus get a better sense of them than you would if they all bunked down in identical berths.

Then there's the romance options, of course. Critics have, perhaps rightly, bemoaned the slight awkwardness of some of these, but given that the focus of the game is on character and relationships, I thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to take my relationship with one of the characters to the next level. Romance is also used in the game to illustrate the sometimes fraught relationships between the galaxy's races, and what is and isn't taboo. Though Mass Effect 2 came in for not entirely unfair criticism for its omission of a homosexual romance option (something that was rectified in the next game), it explores diversity in different ways, which I discuss in this article on interspecies romance in the game.

But though it is objectively brilliant, this is a list of favourites, and Mass Effect 2 scores so highly because it let me be a starship captain for a few weeks. Sometimes I play games for the challenge, other times for the story, and occasionally I play because I want to learn something. But every now and again I just want a little escapism and wish fulfillment, and no game has given me more of this than Mass Effect 2.

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