You guys may know that Mass Effect is my favorite video game series ever. I’m replaying it right now and approaching the end of the first game. It feels like coming home.
When I talk to people who like the Mass Effect series, I always want to ask them which game of the trilogy is their favorite. A lot of people say the first game, because it has a very strong story and great RPG elements. Other people say the third game, which does a good job of fixing past problems and creating a cinematic experience (whether you like the ending or not).
I am one of the people who loves the second game. I’ve played that one more than any other (three times all the way through, and I’m on my way to a fourth time). Of the three games, it has the thinnest story. There are literally less than a handful of main story missions. In between those are dossier quests, which position Shepard to recruit a crew and then get to the know them. That’s exactly what I love about the game.
In Mass Effect 2, you get to know the crew of the Normandy better than ever. Each character you recruit has an initial mission to meet them and a second “loyalty” mission, which ensures that they’ll stick by your side and fight in the final battle. Your success in these quests does have an impact in the story, as the final mission forces Shepard to make critical decisions about who does what, and if a crew member isn’t loyal — well, bad things can happen. I won’t give away major spoilers about that.
Besides forming friendships, the fun side effect of all these character missions is that you get a sense of everyday life in the galaxy. There’s nothing like turning on Mass Effect 2 and just chilling on a side quest, exploring a new planet, shopping somewhere, zooming around in a flying car, or whatever fanfare the current mission holds. There are timed missions as well as combat ones. There’s hacking and then there’s catching up with old friends who aren’t part of the Normandy crew anymore. I get a peek at life as an assassin on Thane’s recruitment mission. I see the seedy side of Omega when I go looking for Archangel. I learn more about the asari when I recruit Samara.
The Mass Effect world is full of interesting people, cultures, and lore. More than any other game, Mass Effect 2 lets you see it for yourself. The crew of the Normandy is your guide, and they are so diverse that you get to experience a lot of variety throughout the game.
In between missions, Shepard hangs out on the Normandy, where she now has her own quarters. She can catch up with an old friend, learn more about a new one, or flirt with her newest crush. These conversations are never boring, and many of them aren’t just dialogue options like they are in the first game — they are full-fledged scenes where you can see the characters moving around, interacting. Shepard might lean on a railing while she flirts with Garrus. In another scene, Grunt nearly attacks her. You can tell that Mass Effect 2 is really trying to spice up this getting-to-know you stuff, and it works.
The other interesting facet of Mass Effect 2 is that in many missions, combat and story go hand-in-hand like never before. The best example is when you recruit Tali, who is conducting research on a planet called Haestrom. The planet is under searing solar radiation — that’s exactly what Tali is researching. The result for Shepard and her crew is that while fighting their way across the surface, they must stay in the shade so their shields aren’t overloaded and they don’t burn up. The combat is more interesting for it, and it makes perfect sense given who Tali is and what she’s doing on Haestrom.
That doesn’t mean Mass Effect 2 is without its flaws. The worst is planet scanning, which is a very slow, tedious mini-game that’s pretty much a necessity. You literally move the analog sticks of your controller up, down, and all around while the planet you are scanning slowly spins onscreen, until you have covered the whole planet and found your objective. Sometimes it’s finding resources. Other times it’s pinpointing an objective. It is painful to perform, because it takes so long and offers absolutely zero entertainment value in the process.
But hey, scars and all — and I mean literal glowing scars too, which Renegade Shepard will gain as the game progresses! — Mass Effect 2 is a blast to play. Despite the lack of main story, it acts as the perfect second act in a game series with tons of heart.