Mass Effect 2 is a strange game. As the previous entries made clear, some of the writing is smart, witty, and interesting, and other parts of it are appallingly clumsy, idiotic, and tone-deaf. It’s not that the quality follows a broad gradient, it’s that the quality is incredibly modal. If you’re in a bad scene, then everything is generally bad: Characters can’t maintain a consistent personality or motivation, the player dialog becomes railroading and doesn’t line up with the prompts on the dialog wheel, established rules are discarded carelessly, and important details go unexplained. Then you get to the next scene and suddenly the characters behave sensibly, your dialog wheel is useful, the universe stops contradicting itself, and your actions are given proper context and justification.
We’re going to look over the main plot of Mass Effect 2, but instead of viewing facts in isolation as a first-time player would be forced to do, we’re going to examine them in light of things that are revealed later. We’re also going to examine the plot missions in order, instead of doing them with a half-dozen recruitment and loyalty missions between them.
Also, we’re probably going to re-tread a couple of things I said about the opening of Mass Effect 2 in previous entries, because I really want the through-line of the plot all in one place. Sorry about that. I’ve been editing this as I published it, but I can’t go back and re-arrange stuff that’s already published. (Well, I could, but it would be chaos.) Hopefully this isn’t too annoying or distracting.
Mass Effect 2 Mission Structure
I think this modal quality is a big reason for the constant controversy. If the game just sucked, that would be sad. But this game isn’t just a pile of dumb schlock. It’s a pile of dumb schlock mixed with a pile of awesome stuff. And if we’re simply measuring by time, then the good far outweighs the bad. The core of the Mass Effect 2 plot is only six-ish missions long:
- Escape project Lazarus.
- Investigate Freedom’s Progress.
- Stop the Collector attack on Horizon.
- Blunder into the Collector Trap like a dumbass and escape again.
- Visit the Dead Reaper.
- Fend off the Collector attack on the Normandy. (Okay, maybe this doesn’t count as a “mission” for Shepard, but it’s still an important part of the plot.)
- Assault the Collector base and stop their plans.
In contrast, you get 8 recruitment missionsYou don’t recruit Miranda and Jacob. and 10 loyalty missions. The recruitment missions alone outnumber the story missions, and that’s without including DLC characters. When you consider that story missions are really combat-heavy and recruitment and loyalty missions have comparatively more dialog, it becomes clear that the vast amount of storytelling in this game is completely divorced from the main plot.
So I can understand when some people become incredulous at my belabored criticisms. To them, the story was 80% awesome and 20% dumb.
The game sort of demands our suspension of disbelief, and it holds our in-game friends at ransom for it. “You like Garrus, don’t you? And Mordin? And Legion? If you stop believing in this story then you can’t be in this universe with your cool friends. You don’t want that, do you? Just go with it.”
At the end of Mass Effect 1, the Reapers were revealed to the galaxy in the form of a massive-scale attack, directly on the galactic seat of power. If anyone still had doubts, there was an ancient VI on Iilos that could tell you the whole story. Shepard didn’t just defeat Sovereign, he defeated the doubts that had been preventing the galaxy from taking action. It was part of the player’s victory.
But at the start of the game, the council no longer believes Shepard about the Reapers. Shepard stole the Normandy at the end of Mass Effect 1 to go face Saren, but now that he’s a Big Damn Hero who showed everyone how right he was, he’s lost his initiative and is just going to dutifully fly around hunting for Geth while the great big unknown Reaper clock ticks down the seconds to our collective doom. What was he going to do if the Collectors didn’t attack to kick-start this plot? Fly around out here doing nothing forever?
But the Collectors do show up, and they do kick-start the plot by attacking the Normandy, which is… strange, given what we learn about them later.
Their eventual plan is to sneak around swiping colonists. Here the intro shows them randomly ganking Alliance ships (it’s hinted that they’ve attacked at least three other ships) for no explained reason. Why pick a fight with ships that weren’t in their way and weren’t a threat to their plans?
What is the Collector’s main goal? To abduct humans. How do these attacks further that goal? We see that after the death of Shepard, humanity begins a big push to colonize new territory. We see that Alliance refuses to do anything about the Collectors when they start abducting those colonists. We see Shepard is the only one who will. For this attack to make sense to them, they would need to know all three of those things ahead of time.
From what we see in-game, we can’t even tell if this was a deliberate attempt to kill Shepard, or if the Collectors were just flying around blowing up ships for the lulz and Shepard got in their way.
In the short-term: Did the Collectors also somehow know that the Alliance wouldn’t send any ships to investigate the destruction of the Normandy? (During the intro, Shepard seemed to think the Alliance would show up in force any second.) What if attacking such a high-profile target had brought the fleets out to the Terminus systems? The Collectors would have needed to face those fleets or withdraw, and their kidnapping plans would have been jeopardized. What if the attack scared off potential colonists?
Obviously the writer wasn’t thinking about any of this from a character perspective. They just needed to shove the pieces around the game board and so they wrote this scene. The attack miraculously killed Shepard but spared all the other important characters, and then the Collectors flew away without mopping up and without gathering up all those escape pods filled with healthy human specimens with heads full of intelEven though the previous ships apparently had no survivors..
The Alliance didn’t respond. People colonized space anyway. These various sides are enslaved by the needs of the plot and none of them are acting like characters who have goals and agency. At least, nothing the writer cares to articulate to us.
Cerberus Employee Orientation
Shepard is back from the dead and it’s time for our combat tutorial. You can tell we’re in a Cerberus base because all the machines have gone crazy, everything is on fire, there are massive casualties, and they’re all human. The team was betrayed by one of their own. He blew up half the base and killed all the staff in an attempt to kill one guy in a coma, over whom he had total medical authority. His plan killed everyone except his intended target. And then Miranda murdered him without making any attempt to make sure he was guiltyShe smugly says she’s “never wrong”, but this is a main story mission and the dialog wheel is your enemy, so you can’t ask her for her proof or even to explain her reasoning., find out why he did it, or figure out who he was working forShe claimed he was “too dangerous” to be kept alive for questioning. Which kind of makes me wonder why she spent the rest of the game trying to pick a fight with JACK..
Welcome to Cerberus, where we can’t even betray ourselves properly!
Leaving behind the first of many Cerberus disasters, we fly to another base that is – by some miracle – not on fire. We have a meeting with The Illusive Man where the writers try to dazzle us with their Mary Sue by showing how cool and stylish he is and not by making him smart, interesting, or being connected to the world.
Imagine how much more punch this scene would have if we were meeting an established mysterious figure like the Shadow Broker, instead of one introduced literally in the last sixty seconds.
Think about what we know about the Shadow Broker based on the events of Mass Effect 1: He’s powerful, secretive, and knowledgeable. What did Mass Effect 1 tell us about Cerberus? Almost nothing. Most players probably won’t remember them because unlike Shadow Broker, Cerberus wasn’t part of the main plot of Mass Effect 1. But the little bit the game did show us revealed that they’re evil, stupid, and incompetent. So players will either be indifferent or hostile towards this new character, which is bad because the plot requires us to believe what he’s saying. The Shadow Broker is simply a much better fit for what the writer is trying to do.
I’m not saying that working for the Shadow Broker would have made for a great story. I think trying to put Shepard under new management was a mistake in any case. But if the writer is going to make this mistake then at least they should try to maximize player interest and minimize the damage.
Shepard was pretty autonomous (fake videogame autonomy, but you know what I mean) in the first game. Shepard could forbid the Alliance admiral to board the Normandy, and he could hang up on the council. This game would have been free to give the player even more autonomy and agency. Shepard already had a ship, a mandate, and a team. All he needed was for a character to point him at a mission that would advance his goal.
Instead the writer decided to put Shepard on a leash. And instead of handing the leash to a trusted character, they gave it to someone unknown. But not completely unknown. You must take orders from TIM, and you have to take TIM’s word for things. TIM is actually the character with the agency in this story. TIM picks the team, TIM holds all the intel, TIM chooses the missions, and TIM decides when you’ll carry them out. Not only has the writer upended the entire structure and obliged themselves to introduce lots of new characters and ideas in a short time, but they’ve done it in a way that will maximize player resistance. Note that this is player resistance. Not character resistance.
Sure, there’s character resistance, too, but instead of creating character drama it just widens the chasm between the player and Shepard. When TIM tries to be your friend, you can’t rebuff him by calling out Cerberus on their previous war crimes, or the debacle at Project Lazarus, or any of the other things that have given Cerberus such a horrendous reputation. You can’t argue for idealism to counter his appeals to pragmatism. Instead you can say, “You have to earn the right to talk to me like that.” Resisting Cerberus in dialog just makes Shepard pout like a sullen child. Instead of making TIM smart and forward-thinking, the writer has made Shepard petulant and narrow-minded. Shepard’s arguments are based on his ego, and not on his (our) goal to save the galaxy from the Reapers.
The player wants to fight with TIM, but when they try to do so they end up fighting with their own character. The writer is ignoring the fact that these conversations need to engage and persuade both Shepard and the player. TIM convinces Shepard due to writer fiat, but he never actually says much to persuade the player. If you think working for Cerberus is a bad idea when you meet TIM, then nothing he says is likely to change your perception of things, because the dialog wheel won’t allow you to voice your objections so they can be addressed.
 You don’t recruit Miranda and Jacob.
 Even though the previous ships apparently had no survivors.
 She smugly says she’s “never wrong”, but this is a main story mission and the dialog wheel is your enemy, so you can’t ask her for her proof or even to explain her reasoning.
 She claimed he was “too dangerous” to be kept alive for questioning. Which kind of makes me wonder why she spent the rest of the game trying to pick a fight with JACK.
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