Mass Effect 2 was BioWare Operating at the Peak of its Powers
BioWare’s last few difficult years is synonymous with one word: “Frostbite”. The game development engine, created by Battlefield series developer DICE, has been a thorn in the side of various development companies owned by mega-publisher EA. Specifically designed for the wide open map design of the first-person shooter series many EA properties from FIFA to BioWare’s popular Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect: Andromeda suffered under Frostbite’s constraints. Of course the problem with Andromeda wasn’t just the awkward nature of Frostbite but the fact that it paled in comparison to series highlight Mass Effect 2.
Mass Effect 2 opens with player character Commander Shepard being blown out into space, burning through a planet’s atmosphere and crash landing, dead. Found by human supremacist group Cerberus Shepard’s remains are rebuilt over two years and brought back to life. Once again alive and capable Shepard, funded by Cerberus’ mysterious benefactor the Illusive Man, must gather a rag-tag group of specialists, gain their loyalty and lead them through the Omega Relay station in order to stop the Collectors. The insect-like aliens have been raiding human colonies and turning the colonists into meat soup to power the advance assault of the Reapers on the Milky Way galaxy.
Mass Effect both on its release and still today was considered a flawed masterpiece. Design choices like the Mako transport vehicle, that weird grainy filter over everything and the fact that BioWare was still learning the ropes of real time combat all worked against it. But like most BioWare games those complaints faded easily into the background once its story got going and its cast of well-rounded, likable characters was firmly introduced. It never felt like a cheap imitation of Star Wars or Star Trek, though it owed heavy debts to both, but instead like a new space opera was unfolding and we were it’s iteration of Captain Kirk, boldly going where no human had gone before.
Mass Effect 2 doubled down on all of this while undoing the mistakes and improving the qualities of the original. Gone was the grainy filter, replacing it was a slick new sci-fi sheen. Gone was the Mako and in its place were levels that were less open and empty but more lively and full despite their reigned in horizons. Mass Effect 2 did exactly what a sequel should do by improving on the original in every way while keeping the core tenets of the series intact. Admittedly Mass Effect 3 and Andromeda did the same, Mass Effect 2 just did it with the most charisma and gung-ho gumption.
Combat was no longer a finicky, sticky fight like it was in the first game. Instead it felt both fluid and punchy the ultimate combination of BioWare’s old tactical mode involving powers, weapons and omnipotent overviews with a newer focus on a more mainstream, faster style of play. Tactics were just as important but they had to be employed quickly by Shepard and his team or else they’d be overrun by the grunts and specialists that populated every enemy groups’ ranks.
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Cover was more of a focus – a necessity for a third-person shooter – and Shepard’s teammates’ AI received a boost as did the enemies’ putting both groups on equal footing. It was and still is a sight to behold as the Krogan clone Grunt runs chaotic interference through the middle while the human biotics specialist Miranda levitates a Batarian mercenary for you to snipe from the air all while your turret provides covering fire. Even if you weren’t dishing out orders Mass Effect 2’s companion AI always made Shepard’s team feel like a real unit just as it made them feel like real people (and blue aliens) outside of combat.
One of the BioWare teams major takeaways from the fan response to Mass Effect was “Wow I can’t believe how many of them want to fuck the aliens”. That’s not verbatim but supply had to meet demand and so they added romance options for the avian alien Garrus, mask-wearing germaphobe Tali and telepathic, gender-fluid intergalactic police officer Samara alongside the more normal but still hot humans like Jacob, Miranda and Jack.
Although sex was often the endpoint of the Mass Effect series’ romance missions it was never the most satisfactory thing about the relationships you could craft. Rather Mass Effect 2’s best moments were often the more personal ones. They still involved climactic events like prison breaks, dead Reapers and giant worm-like Thresher Maws. Nothing says friendship like helping a pal rip apart the facility they were tortured and mutated in as a child. The down time between missions as well as the intense loyalty missions each squad mate had fostered the idea that these were real people even if the male or female Commander Shepard they orbited was a bit of a blank slate. No one has ever spilled their guts to a stone-faced stock character who asks: “So Jacob, tell me about yourself?”
Mass Effect 2 really shouldn’t have been the high point but then The Two Towers shouldn’t have been where The Lord of the Rings trilogy peaked either. Both benefited from a lack of a need to really set up anything. There was no real active, compelling villain – Harbinger? Come on. This left the focus on the good guys and expanding on their stories with enough time to introduce new characters like motormouth Salarian scientist Mordin Solus and mournful Drell assassin Thane Krios. Mass Effect 2 was the nadir of everything BioWare had built and for the last ten years they’ve been struggling to achieve that same success again.
Following on from Mass Effect 2’s improvements and high octane action and storytelling was always going to be tough but Mass Effect 3 did it reasonably well until a sub-par ending overshadowed all the good the series had done. Mass Effect: Andromeda’s easily memed animation was compounded by a story that felt much less consequential than the original trilogy’s apocalyptic scenarios. The series isn’t dead yet but much like Shepard’s chances both at the start and end of the game hope is slim. At this point a sequel to Mass Effect: Andromeda may seem like a suicide mission to a lot of people. But as a great blank slate of a man or woman once said: “They tell me it’s a suicide mission. I intend to prove them wrong”.