by Kyt Dotson
Mass Effect 2 starts essentially where Mass Effect ends—the races of the galaxy are still reeling from, and mostly denying, the facts of the first Mass Effect and for the most part try to get along with their lives. The story begins with something rarely pulled off the narrative bookshelf: the death of the main character, Commander Shepherd. An unexpected foe catches up with the Normandy and annihilates Shepherd and most of her crew in one fell swoop, basically ending the galaxy’s ability to prepare for the inevitable Reaper threat.
Of course, the video game and the resulting story continue to follow Shepherd and her exploits, so the commander isn’t really dead—this is primarily an excuse to have the commander change political allegiance and allow the player to choose a new look for their character. One fatal flaw of the Mass Effect series game mechanics is that not only does it extend the interactive story as well. Ordinarily, this shouldn’t be a flaw; but a player who starts ME2 without a ME save file will be given the most boring possible play through of the ME narrative possible.
So far, every game of the Mass Effect series has plot points where player decision affects the outcome. Some of those decisions from ME directly change the story within ME2 and most likely this will true for the next game. As a result, if you’re playing ME2 then find a site with save file downloads and grab one where the player actually had some sort of adventure; otherwise you’re in for some really sad surprises.
Mass Effect 2 spends a lot more time in giving the player time to get accustomed to the story of individual characters. In fact, the plot of the game revolves initially around gathering members for Commander Shepherd’s team. This involves finding what they’re doing and convincing them to come along. For example, one of the first missions involves seeking out a salarian scientist named Mordin Solis. In order to bring him on board with saving the universe, the player first must save the population of a slum on an asteroid from a horrible plague. Doing so involves the player directly in Mordin’s life story and sets the groundwork for further character development later.
After each character is brought onto the ship, the player has a chance to find them and speak with them. Doing so introduces them to the inner life of the character and lets them open up more dialogue about them. One of the characters, Grunt, is a tank-born krogran who didn’t have a childhood; instead his personality and knowledge were all inborn in him as he was being vat-grown. As a result, talking to Grunt in his room on the ship makes Grunt more than just another computer-controlled companion who shouts and shoots at enemies in combat.
Each character also has what’s called a “loyalty mission.” Aside from getting to know each of them further, the loyalty missions directly effect the end game in making them tougher and more likely to survive. Loyalty missions function as a sort of second side-story for each of the team members that enriches the storyline by giving the player a chance to put give them specifically more screen time. During the game, Garrus (a friend from the first game) has a crisis of conscience as a mercenary when he decides whether or not he’s going to kill someone in cold blood. His action hinges entirely on the decision of the player whether to convince Garrus into sparing the man or allowing him to kill him.
With all of these side stories going on, you’d think that Mass Effect 2 wouldn’t have enough time for the main plot; but in spite of that, the story does drive inexorably towards the final showdown between good and evil and an exciting ending. Each of these recruitment and loyalty missions, the ability to talk to all the characters in the game, and the way that it lays out the foundation for the universe makes it feel like a deeper and more real place. It also means that people playing the game begin to empathize more with different characters than others.
Some end game missions mean choosing the right characters for the job—or having half of the crew die horribly—having spent time with the characters, getting to know them, and understanding their capabilities allows the player to choose properly. Some of these missions also put them into mortal danger and as a result, I found myself refusing to put people I actually liked into serious danger…or at least I felt serious trepidation that I’d just put the perfect person for the job into a lethal situation.
Much of Mass Effect 2 storytelling is world building but the real power of the narrative is where the characters are woven together into the fabric of the plot that allows the player to choose their own relationship to their teammates and how that directly effects how the plot eventually unravels itself.