I don’t hate Mass Effect 2. It’s not a horrible game. I know people find this hard to believe, because I’ve spent so much time complaining about it. People look at the sheer volume of negative words I’ve put out and assume I’ve got this burning vendetta against the game, or that I think it’s the Worst Thing Ever.
Often when I do this sort of long-form analysis people will respond with “Why are you so angry?” and “Why did you write a book-length tirade about this?” I think this is a side-effect of the common “nerd rage” shtick that some critics do. People see something critical and they just assume it’s supposed to be performed in the voice of a spittle-spewing madman.
But if you look you’ll notice this series isn’t filled with outraged hyperbole, profanity, or personal attacks against the developer. I’m not making demands, claiming that I’ve been wronged, or accusing anyone of fraud. Yes, it’s negative, but it’s not outrage. If your mechanic tells you that your alternator is busted, he’s not saying you have THE WORST CAR EVER and that YOU ARE DUMB FOR OWNING IT. He’s just telling you why it doesn’t work.
That’s what this series is. We’re opening up the hood on Mass Effect 2 and finding things that don’t work.
I’m Not Even Angry
As I’ve said in the past few entries, even though Mass Effect 2 isn’t a horrible game, it’s also not the sequel suggested and prepared by Mass Effect 1. It’s tonally different. It’s thematically different. Important facts of the world and characters are changed, sometimes for poor reasons and sometimes for no discernible reason at all. This makes it incredibly frustrating for people who have spent a lot of time thinking about the first game. No matter how good Mass Effect 2 is, the fact that it tells this story means that we will never get the sequel we anticipated. The first game primed us and the main characters for a quest for knowledge and discovery that never took place.
This disconnect isn’t the result of a single flaw that we can point to and say, “This! This one thing shouldn’t have been changed!” Instead the old story died the death of a thousand paper cuts. Numerous things were altered, forgotten, shifted in importance, or abruptly added on. Just one of these changes would be a little annoying, but harmless over the long haul of the series. But when stacked together they create a rift that no retcon or hand-waving can overcome. This is not a continuation of the story I loved, and no amount of gameplay polish or Garrus fanservice can change that.
This is why these explanations are so damn long. People think I’m going through the story, searching for tiny, inconsequential things to gripe about because I enjoy nitpicking. And I do. But I’m going through this because all those “inconsequential things” compound until they kill my connection to the universe.
“[The Author] makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are out in the Primary World again, looking at the abortive little Secondary World from the outside.”
J. R. R. Tolkien
This is quite an achievement. I really loved the world of Mass Effect 1. The world of Mass Effect 2 looks and sounds a lot like it, and a lot of my favorite characters are here. I want to be in this world, having this adventure. But the unraveling of the story is so violent and the problems so far-reaching that all I can do is sit here in the Primary World and try to figure out where it all went wrong.
There’s a lot to unpack here. A bunch of established ideas change, the gameplay changes, and the tone changes, and so it’s difficult to know where to start. Since Mass Effect 2 puts the characters before the story, it makes sense to talk about the characters before we dissect the plot. On the other hand, it would feel strange to launch directly into talking about these recruitment missions without at least covering the setup that makes them necessary.
So let’s deal with the opening of the game and this new status quo, and then we can depart from the main story for a while and talk about all the other things. If nothing else, this will let us dilute the negativity a bit.
The opening of Mass Effect 2 is tough for me to get through. Every line and every action rings false, awkward, contradictory, or just sophomoric. Jumping directly from the end of Mass Effect 1 to the opening of Mass Effect 2 is like jumping from Classic Trek to Abrams Trek. Trying to fit the two together is a thankless and infuriating task, and the writer seems bent on undermining your efforts at every turn.
The opening crawl is thus:
Right in the opening line the game claims that “Humans seized political control of the galaxy. That sounds kind of unreasonably abrupt and extreme. At the end of Mass Effect 1, the other races were “scared” and wanted Humanity to “step forward”. Saying Humans have “more power” would be reasonable. Claiming they have “political control” strikes me as extremely implausible. On top of that, the rest of the game undercuts this notion. Humans don’t seem to have any power at all, and can’t even spare resources to defend their vanishing colonies.
Either way, if the Humans lead (or control) the council, then why would they attempt to quell rumors of the Reapers? That’s the source of their political power. You could argue they’re trying to keep the people calm and hunt the Reapers in secret, but the very next scene reveals that to not be the case. That’s like a politician sweeping into office on a platform of demagoguing and threatening Elbonia, and then once they’re elected claiming that Elbonia isn’t and has never been a threat. Yes, you can contrive where such an outcome is possible, but it’s not the most intuitive and logical outcome of the previous events.
Everything feels slightly off-kilter like this. Nothing seems to flow naturally from the events of the first game, or even from the events of the preceding paragraph.
We fade in on Miranda and TIM doing this idiotic circular discussion that boils down to: The council is making Shepard waste his time chasing Geth. The council won’t trust Cerberus, but they’ll follow Shepard. Because he’s “A hero, a bloody icon.”
So Cerberus wants to help Shepard, because humanity will follow Shepard. But they feel they need to help because… nobody is following Shepard? This becomes all the more nonsensical once you attempt to meet with the Council and they refuse to work with you (much less “follow” you) because you’re working for Cerberus.
These problems aren’t just “plot holes”. This is a premise that is inherently contradictory. This isn’t one part of a story disagreeing with another part of the story, this is each part of the story disagreeing with itself.
At the end of the conversation TIM says that Miranda needs to “Make sure [Shepard] doesn’t fail.” Okay. How were you going to accomplish that, exactly? What possible plan were you suggesting? Did you read ahead in the script and know that Shepard was going to die in the next scene and that you would need to resurrect him? If the Collectors hadn’t attacked and Shepard just kept flying around, what would Miranda have done? What help could she have offered? TIM eventually recruits Shepard to investigate the colony abductions, but at this point in time the abductions haven’t started yet. TIM is sending Miranda to help Shepard with a problem he doesn’t have yet so that TIM can recruit Shepard for a problem that doesn’t exist yet.
Basically, everything they say in this conversation is immediately invalidated by the next scene. Later they will follow through with the decisions made in this conversation, but for new reasons. That’s not really a plot hole, it’s just an incredibly muddled way to introduce the premise of the coming story.
And then we have the myriad of plot holes you get when you examine the scene retroactively, like why the supposedly clandestine collectors would brazenly attack the NormandyOr ANY ship, since their abduction tech seems to be pretty top-notch and based on secrecy., or why they wouldn’t scoop up (or destroy) the escape pods after they won the battle, or why nobody in the Alliance or the Council follows-up and sends a force out here to find out what happened to their trillion-credit super-ship and their “Hero and bloody icon”. The dissonance is fractal, and trying to create headcanon to explain some of it will just open up holes elsewhere. Trying to follow the actions and motivations of the various sides is a fool’s errand.
We’re only five minutes in, and it feels like the writers are trying to plug a USB device into a light socket. This does not fit with the events and claims of the last game, it doesn’t fit with what comes later, and it doesn’t make enough sense to stand on its own. When you open up a game with ten minutes of non-branching expositional cutscenes there’s no excuse for it not holding together.
The Writer Flips The Table
Mass Effect 2 is merciless in its efforts to break free of the ideas and direction set by the first game. It feels like a sequel made by someone who actively loathed the original. This wasn’t just a quick retcon to change a few elements. The writer blew up the Normandy and killed the main character, ejected all of the squad members from the story, and then brought Shepard back to life and poofed the Normandy 2 into existence under new management.
As a result, we are asked to accept too many implausible, contrived, or dissonant ideas all at once, while at the same time relevant and reasonable questions aren’t even acknowledged, much less answered.
- The council isn’t just influenced by Humans, it’s “controlled” by them.
- And yet, the council STILL doesn’t believe Shepard about the Reapers, thus robbing the player of a portion of their victory from the last game.
- It turns out Cerberus isn’t clown college for super-villains, it’s actually a competent pro-human organization with spectacular power, reach, resources, and knowledge, rivaling that of most governments.
- Cerberus is led by this crazy, distinctive, infamous leader, who everyone knows about but who was never mentioned or hinted at in the last game.
- Shepard isn’t off looking for answers or knowledge like he promised in the closing line of Mass Effect 1, but instead flying around doing what seems like a waste of time.
- Where are the squad mates? Where is Garrus? Wrex? Tali? Hang on, are they on the Normandy? Did they just die? Where did they go?
- Shepard is suddenly dead at the hands of a new foe with zero buildup or foreshadowing.
- This new foe is a species which has apparently always existed in this universe and yet has never been mentioned.
- Shepard has been miraculously cured of death. Not just “Shepard’s heart stopped” but “complete and total brain death for a prolonged period of time, possibly even experiencing the effects of re-entry. (We’ll talk more about “re-entry” later.)
- Not only was Shepard cured of death, but the cure came from Cerberus.
- Cerberus is the only force interested in dealing with either the Reaper threat OR the collector threatYes, they’re the same threat, but nobody outside of Cerberus knows that., making them the only proactive force in the galaxy, and making every other power seem dumb or apathetic in contrast.
That’s just too many immersion-breaking questions in the first minutes of screen time. The writer is changing too much, too fast, and without giving their radical new ideas the proper build-up and support.
On top of all this, it doesn’t seem that this sledgehammer reset was needed. The main plot of the game consists of: Investigate collectors » gather team » fight collectors » gather more team » go through Omega-4 relay and fight collectors » end. You could do all of this in the context of a story where Shepard was still more or less working for the Council / Alliance. There would be no need to kill and revive Shepard, blow up and rebuild the Normandy, simultaneously introduce and retcon Cerberus, and explain the various crew changes. Sure, it might need a little retcon here and there to make it fit, but it would have needed fewer, less disruptive changes than this Cerberus plot.
Changes Require Planning, Not Brute Force
The larger the change you want to make to a story, the more care is required.
You can say that Darth Vader is Luke’s father during a climactic and emotional battle, after an entire movie of build-up and mystery about what Vader was doing and what his interest was in Luke. That same idea would have fallen flat if it had been part of a scene at the start of Empire Strikes Back where it’s revealed that Vader was Luke’s father, the Death Star wasn’t totally destroyed, Han is actually strong in the force, and Uncle Owen is still alive and working as an Imperial Spy.
As an author, you can’t change very many established facts without the risk of ejecting people back into the Primary World. But if you do need to change a lot of things, then don’t change them all at the same time. If you do need to change a lot of things at the same time, then at least wait until the audience settles into the familiar story before you upend everything. If you can’t wait until the audience settles in, then at least have the characters spend a good deal of time reacting to and reflecting on these incredible revelations. And if you can’t do that, at least make sure the changes all serve a purpose in the coming narrative, and aren’t just there for “style”.
Even if a revelation is possible under the established rules, if it’s a big deal then it needs to be given its own space. The audience needs time to absorb the new idea and the characters need to react to it. Nothing in Star Wars: A New Hope explicitly precluded Han Solo from using the force, but it would still have been ridiculous to introduce the idea of him being force-sensitive in the same scene where he starts throwing stuff around with his mind. Big ideas need time to grow and big revelations have to be earned. Having some kind of proportional character reactions wouldn’t hurt, either. Shepard’s reaction to his own death and resurrection gets fewer lines of dialog than (say) the totally optional “flavor text” conversations with the Volus ambassador in Mass Effect 1.
The opening of Mass Effect 2 whiffs on all of these. It changes too much, too fast, with too little reason or build-up, and it doesn’t have the characters adequately react to them. It flings you out of the story, and the more attached you were to the premise of Mass Effect 1, the more likely you’re going to have a problem with this new scenario.
 Or ANY ship, since their abduction tech seems to be pretty top-notch and based on secrecy.
 Yes, they’re the same threat, but nobody outside of Cerberus knows that.
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