on Feb 11, 2010
Before we continue with the plot analysis, a few notes on the New Shepard:
(Fair warning: Rampant spoilers ahead.)
Several people suggested that the reboot of Shepard was done in order to justify resetting his skills and class. I certainly hope this isn’t the case, because it means they’ll need to kill him again at the start of Mass Effect 3. (Or worse: Amnesia. Ugh.) This is in addition to the fact that the leveling is much simplified and a much smaller part of the game. I’m willing to bet you could beat the game without spending any skill points. It would be silly to reboot a character to accommodate a leveling system that barely matters. Maybe it’s a personal preference, but I think it would be wiser to just keep the leveling system and the story separate. I find it easier to suspend my disbelief over the idea that Shepard can level up some more compared to the idea that he was such a pushover in joining / working with Cerberus.
Note that after the reboot, Shepard is taking on superhero stature. Everyone in Mass Effect 2 talks about how powerful he is, and about how he’s the only one who can stop the reapers. He’s starting to get a little…
…like that. I don’t mind the notion of a Shepard who is the only one with the courage, knowledge, and leadership to face the challenge. But I’m not at all keen on the notion of a Shepard who is the only one who KICKS ENOUGH ASS to take on the Reapers. I’d like the game to maintain the pretense that they need him to do more than just hose the galaxy down with bullets until the problem goes away.
I’m not saying they’ve crossed that line, I’m just saying that I’ve noticed this shift in focus.
But this reveals the rift in the groups who came together in the first game. One is here for epic space opera, the other is here to play an ass-kicking hero. Like others, I would have preferred to play a new character and leave Shepard as an NPC. (With your save from the first game shaping his dialog tree and attitude. I think it would be great if playing as renegade Shepard meant you had to put up with a Jerk Shepard in the sequel.) Ideally, you’d be Shepard’s XO, and take over the ship at the end of the tutorial. For me, the game is about the setting. For others, the game is the story of Shepard.
See also: Trek fandom and Captain Kirk.
Now that the game has established that Shepard can be resurrected, and that he’s our only hope(!), I do wonder what the Game Over screen is for. What’s the problem Cerberus? Run out of money? Is feeding colonists to Threshers not turning into the cash cow you hoped?
Anyway, back to the analysis…
Like I said in part 1, the beginning and end of the game is where the real problems are. The mid-game wasn’t that bad, but I do want to go over a couple of minor points for the sake of completeness:
Refresher: In the last game, the Citadel and Alliance fleets joined together and just barely took down one lone Reaper. While that fight was going on, Shepard stopped the bad guy from opening a mass relay that would have let all of the Reapers – their entire race – jump directly to the Citadel. Two Reapers would have been too much for them to handle. But hundreds? Thousands? Perhaps millions? All arriving right at the seat of galactic power? The war would have been over in minutes.
The game hinted the Reapers were still out there, and they certainly weren’t going to just give up. But where were they? Did they leave themselves other routes into the galaxy from wherever they are? (If they didn’t, they’re idiots.) How long will it take them to get here and how many are there? What happened to their Geth slaves? What drives the cycle of destruction and how did it get started?
The first game left us with lots and lots of really interesting questions. But instead of using any of the stuff they set up before, BioWare gives us…
In game 1, they firmly established that the Reapers were machines. The Reapers had nothing but contempt and disdain for flesh. Then Mass Effect 2 comes along and suddenly the Reapers actually have this supply of organics. In fact, their entire plan seems to involve mostly organics. They maintain this army of organics that live on a barren asteroid base for millions of years (the collectors are actually what’s left of the last race the Reapers conquered) with nothing to do but stare at the walls as the eons tick by. (I guess they ordered pizza when they got hungry?)
The collectors weren’t mentioned in the last game, which is kind of odd since that means the Reapers left the Collectors and all their weaponry sitting around doing nothing while Sovereign attacked Citadel Station alone. And didn’t win. I’m not saying there can’t be a good answer for this stuff, but that they don’t even try to give one. They don’t even lampshade it by having one of the good guys speculate.
Anyway, the Reapers suddenly pull this army out of their robotic asses and have them harvest other organics (humans) in order to enact their master plan, which I’ll get to later. Instead of escalating the conflict with the Reapers and fleshing out (pardon the pun) the main villain, we end up in this stupid proxy war with bug guys.
We had a conversation with a Reaper in the first game. It was the big reveal of the enemy, and we were clearly given the impression that the enemy was cold, calculating, pragmatic, and believed itself above organic life. This new reveal messes up that conversation by making it look like the Reaper was… what? Lying? Ashamed? Out of the loop? This takes the Reapers down a peg, which isn’t something you usually do in the second act.
Again, this isn’t a cunning reveal of a mystery planted or telegraphed in the first game. This is just new weirdness grafted onto the original story. At the end of the original game, the Prothean AI clearly explained how the Reapers behave. And now they’re doing something completely different and a lot less effective.
But even if we accept the premise of the collectors along with all of the plot damage they do to the true villain of the series, their actions still don’t make a lot of sense. They’re trying to get enough humans together to build a new Reaper, but they need “millions more” to finish the job. They’ll never get that many humans without fighting a huge war. The Alliance may be the most apathetic bunch in the Galaxy, but sooner or later people would have fled the Terminus Systems and the Collectors would have needed to operate in Alliance-controlled space in order to meet their fleshbag quota. Despite their slight tech edge it’s clear they couldn’t possibly hope to prevail against the humans and their likely allies. Their plan is doomed long before Shepard shows up and starts shooting guys.
But even if their plan had worked, so what? One Reaper? Would they just fling it at Citadel and hope it fared better than Sovereign? Again, I don’t expect to learn all their plans. But I wouldn’t mind knowing they had one.
The other characters drive home the point again and again: Colonists are vanishing without a trace. First off, I think they’re taking this “Alliance never does anything” idea way too far. A hundred thousand people vanish in the space of two years? People would have been fleeing the terminus systems in droves. There would have been millions of friends and relatives of those people back home, demanding that something be done. The uselessness of the Alliance is a fig leaf excuse, and it does a poor job of covering a problem this big. I understand the need for a contrivance here, but they stretched this one pretty far already in Mass Effect 1.
Nobody knows what happened to the people in these colonies. No shots fired. No sign of struggle. But then when we arrive during an attack in progress we see the aliens land their massive ship next to the colony. It’s got a footprint like a sports stadium, it’s hundreds of meters tall, and it takes off using rocket boosters. How could you miss something like that at the other colonies?
“The colonists vanished without a trace! No sign of what happened or who took them!”
“No trace? What about the GIANT SMOKING CRATER by the rec center?”
“Bah. That was probably dug by gophers.”
We recruit Dr. Mordin (awesome character, but I’ll go over that later) so that he can counteract the bugs that paralyze people. When Shepard visits his lab, he’s got one of these bugs already in captivity. Your team has never encountered them before, and the aliens have a reputation for never leaving any evidence. Where the hell did he get that?
Eventually the game begins to suffer from cumulative plot hole damage: Once you notice a few holes in the story you start thinking about it more, which causes you to notice things that you might have otherwise overlooked. More leaks appear until eventually the bilge pumps of immersion can no longer keep up and the whole thing begins to sink. (And then the writers torpedo the thing in the last ten minutes anyway.)
And while I’ve been hard on the game, I hope you’ll reserve judgment until I complete this series. The central plot is pretty bad, but it’s not nearly as terrible as the metaphor in the previous paragraph. Overall, the structure of Mass Effect 2 is something like this:
Those green bits? I’ll talk about those later.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.