This is a spoiler warning!!
About a year ago I took a look back at the Original Mass Effect. That playthrough confirmed to me that nostalgia goggles are in fact real, and the brains ability to mask negatives is truly astonishing. Now that I've lived through the horror known as Mass Effect: Andromeda, this seems as good a time as any to revisit Mass Effect 2 with a more critical eye, and see if it truly is the masterpiece I remember it being. I've got every single piece of DLC installed, including the overpriced costumes and weapons because I'm an idiot, and I like to be thorough.
First things first, and in my case that's playing through Mass Effect: Genesis, the interactive comic released late in Mass Effect 2's life. Genesis allows you to quickly recap the first game and make new choices without having to complete a separate playthrough. The comic art is nothing spectacular, but it does an admirable job at getting you up to speed with the happenings of the Mass Effect Universe. I doubt it will do much for someone who has no Mass Effect experience, but as a refresher it's perfect.
It's been seven years since release and the opening of Mass Effect 2 is still fresh in my mind. It's short, sweet, and absolutely brilliant. It lets you quickly reminisce with your old Commander Shepard before ripping everything you knew to literal shreds. Excellent use of sound, or should I say lack of sound, gives Shepard's death some weight, even though you know it's not going to stick. It serves as a great introduction to the darker tone the games going to take. This death transitions straight into an in universe character creator, letting you reconstruct Shepard with whatever changes you desire without having to break immersion.
Immediately upon waking up as the newly rebuilt Commander Shepard, you're forced to fight for your life against rampaging mechs. This sudden toss into combat was my first indication of the more action heavy focus Mass Effect 2 employs. My second indication came with the introduction of thermal clips. To this day I still resent the introduction of "ammo" into the Mass Effect universe. I absolutely loved the explanation of why guns had infinite ammo in the first game. It just screams "this is a shooter now so we needed ammo, sorry." The shooting itself is an obvious improvement over the first game. It feels snappy, and you no longer have to pump points into a gun stat to hit with precision. It kind of feels like a budget Gears of War with powers layered on top. There are a few things that bother me, like getting locked into long animations when you're hit with heavier weapons, or going into cover when you want to sprint, but for the most part it's a blast. My biggest annoyance is that the game feels tuned towards some classes over others. Playing as a vanguard, I often felt limited because Shepard can't take many hits and survive. Many situations call for just staying in cover and taking pop shots, leaving little room to play around with abilities like biotic charge.
Another big change to combat is the introduction of two new weapon types, sub-machine guns and heavy weapons. This time around, your class determines what categories of weapons you can use. Only soldiers can use assault rifles, so sub-machine guns serve a pivotal role for more biotic heavy classes. Heavy weapons come in a lot of forms, all extremely powerful. Some serve better as crowd control, others as quick killers of the more elite enemies. Eventually you unlock the final heavy weapon, a miniature nuke launcher that clears the screen of enemies with a giant explosion. Heavy weapon ammo is something of a rarity though, so you have to weigh each scenario carefully to avoid wasting it.
Once you make it out of the opening missions, you're given the keys to a new ship and a mostly new crew to staff it. The galaxy map is opened up, and you have the freedom to choose your next objective. The structure of Mass Effect 2 is similar to the structure of a heist movie. First you build your crew, then you have a couple primary story missions and smaller scenes to set up the finale, build the crews trust, then you execute on the final goal. You start with 4 dossiers of potential recruits to gather. Being the completionist I am, I immediately went about the business of exploring the galaxy instead. In lieu of dropping onto planets in the Mako and driving around, exploration is now about scanning planets for minerals and the occasional side quest. Mineral scanning absolutely blows. Even back in the day I hated this mechanic. It consists of a super slow reticule that you rake over planets surfaces. When your reticule shows a mineral deposit, you drop a probe to collect. This mechanic gets old before you finish scanning your first planet. Unfortunately you need the minerals you receive here to get a wide variety of crucial upgrades like higher shield strength and ammo capacity. Compounding this is the fact that you need to buy both fuel and probes constantly from fuel stations to keep mining, which means you have to backtrack a ton on the galaxy map. There is one silver lining to this tedium, and that's the planet descriptions. Every single planet has an oftentimes lengthy description associated with it, and they're great pieces of lore.
The side quests in Mass Effect 2 are known as N7 quests, and they're a big improvement over the first game. Mass Effect had a bunch of boring side missions sandwiched between boring dialogue scenes. Mass Effect 2 has a handful of bespoke side missions that are a joy to play through. These range from a solo mission to explore a star ship wreck teetering on the edge of a cliff, to full on combat scenarios with meaningful final decisions. One stand out involves a missile base being taken over by Batarian terrorists, and Shepard having to make the choice of whether to save the residents of the colony, or the colonies only spaceport and it's essential infrastructure. These missions serve as a reward for the players who want to explore and engage with the Mass Effect universe on a deeper level.
The first 4 recruitment missions are all solid examples of the pace and tone Bioware set out to hit. They're all fairly combat heavy, but also feature a good amount of banter and dialogue options to offset the action. The entire game is essentially a series of vignettes, each mission is a one off story that doesn't really tie into the overall narrative. As Shepard you're gathering this crew to help you fight the collectors, but most of the crew is there for their own reasons and to achieve their own goals. The missions are all heavily focused on keeping a fast and fun pace. Each and every mission in the game ends with a summary screen that presents the results from the view of the Illusive Man, who serves as a voice of guidance for the overall mission. The consistency of quality in Mass Effect 2 is a big part of what makes it so memorable. Not every mission is a home run, but I can't think of a single one that I would consider bad.
After the first batch of recruits is picked up, you go to the human colony of Horizon where you're finally introduced to the central enemy of the game, the Collectors. One thing to note about this mission, it's really damn difficult. I feel it belongs in the difficulty spike hall of fame. Up to this point I hadn't died once, here I died 5 times before managing to cheese my way to victory. This mission also reintroduces one of your old crew mates, either Ashley of Kaiden depending on your choices in the first game, but only gives them a few lines before conveniently setting them aside. It definitely feels like a missed opportunity to expand upon your choices in the first game in a meaningful way.
After Horizon, you're given another small handful of characters to recruit in another batch of excellent missions before you hit the second main story mission on the Collector's Ship. It's here that the game drops one of it's biggest revelations. The Collectors are actually Protheans, the mysterious precursor race thought to have built the galaxies infrastructure before being wiped out by the Reapers. It turns out they weren't wiped out in their entirety, and were instead re-purposed to serve the Reapers interests while they're on vacation. The funny thing about this revelation is that it feels kind of muted in the context of the game. Shepard has a couple of lines and then....that's it. It's never really brought up after that outside of a few throwaway lines by peripheral characters. It feels out of place in a game that relies heavily on stylized cinematography. Interestingly enough, you can actually find this plot twist early if you're doing all the N7 missions. It doesn't change Shepard's reaction, but it is a nice treat for dedicated players.
When you're finished with the Collector Ship you've essentially reached the endgame, but there are still the loyalty missions to complete. These missions are probably what Mass Effect 2 is most remembered for. Each one explores a singular member of your crew in depth, showcasing their unique personalities and pasts. In the context of the game you're trying to eliminate any final distractions before taking the fight to the Collectors. Like the recruitment missions, each is a unique scenario with it's own interwoven dialogue choices and set up. I could go in depth on all of them but I'd like to highlight my 3 favorites.
First up is Jacob, whose looking to bury his long missing father after receiving a distress signal from his crashed star ship. I love everything about this mission, from the location to the scenario. It's set on a beautiful garden planet, uninhabited by the galaxy at large. You go in assuming you'll find skeletons, instead you find Jacobs father has turned the female crew into his own personal harem. He's been slowly living off the rations from the crashed ship while letting the crew eat the indigenous plants, plants that slowly degrade their mental acuity. Jacob himself is not an interesting character, but him confronting his monster of a father is. You get a choice here to leave the man to die or bring him to justice, but that's not really the point. The point is to see Jacob confront unbridled evil on a personal level, and see how he rises above it.
Another favorite loyalty mission belongs to Garrus. It ties directly to his recruitment mission, essentially forming one long story arc across the entire game. Garrus is out for revenge, and you can see that these thoughts are changing him. His need for revenge is blinding, and it overshadows the need for justice he's known for. After fighting your way through a horde of mechs to find the man Garrus is looking for, it's up to you as Shepard to set this man up for assassination. Do you warn the man that he's in Garrus' scope, about to take a bullet to the head? Or do you instead play along, letting Garrus become a cold blooded murderer in the process?
Finally we have Mordin, whose loyalty mission is easily the best, and also one of the most important in regards to the trilogy as a whole. The reason I love this mission so much is that it focuses on the genophage, the disease introduced into the Krogan population to make them 99.9% sterile. Most decisions in Mass Effect I make fairly easily, but when it comes to the genophage I'm always conflicted. It's a conundrum that I still can't pick a side on. Is it right to limit the Krogan so that only one in a thousand children make it? If you don't, then the Krogan could quickly outnumber the other species in the galaxy. If that happens what's to stop the Krogan from reverting to their baser instincts of violence? Mordin tries to assure both Shepard and himself that the genophage is needed, otherwise the only other choice would be to exterminate the Krogan in their entirety. Mordin reflects the sort of internal conflict I think most players have with this issue. He starts out sure of himself, but when he see's his protege working to reverse the genophage he starts to crack. When he's able to see the cruelty of the genophage first hand, he starts to have doubts. Every companion character has an arc in this game that seals their character, sets them in stone so to speak. Their missions reinforce what we already know about them, or reveals a side we might not have seen before, but only Mordins ends on an ambivalent note. Mordin only becomes more conflicted then he was at the start.
Before I move on to the Suicide Mission, I'd like to touch on a few pieces of DLC best played before the end game. First we have Kasumi and Zaeed, 2 DLC characters that are somewhat interesting but due to their DLC status never really get explored. Zaeed's loyalty mission is on the weaker side, but Kasumi's is one of the best. It's set up like a James Bond movie, where you have to infiltrate a high society party to steal a priceless artifact.
Firewalker and Normandy Crash Site represent the two bigger pieces of free DLC on offer here, and both aren't exactly barn burners. Normandy Crash Site is surprisingly well done, but the dog tag collection aspect kind of sours the somber tone of the experience. Firewalker is just flat out bad. It's pure filler bullshit. In it you fly around in a new vehicle called the Hammerhead and do some boring platforming and combat. The plot of it consists of some dull paragraphs about nothing. It's kind of sad this DLC exists, because it's the only piece of Mass Effect 2 content I'd ever consider skipping.
Project Overlord was the first big piece of DLC released for Mass Effect 2, and it's a mixed bag. It's storyline spans multiple small missions that sort of feel like N7 missions from the main game. This isn't a bad thing, but it's a bit underwhelming for paid content. Luckily, the final mission of the DLC is fantastic, and it's reveal is horrifying. Throughout the smaller lead ups, you'll learn that the main researcher for the project is using his autistic brother for experiments. You get the basic gist of these experiments through logs and dialogue, but when you finally reach the man, you realize that the reality of the situation is so much worse than the clinical logs make it seem. The reveal of the extent of the cruelty of the experiment is well done, and puts this final level on the same plane as any of the best loyalty missions.
Before we can make our final assault on the Collectors, we have to get a Reaper IFF from a derelict reaper hanging out in open space. Of course, the group who was studying the reaper has gone dark, so it's up to you to investigate the obvious trap being set up here. At first it seems like your standard reaper indoctrination gone wrong type of thing until you find Legion, the final potential crew member Shepard can recruit. Legion serves to undermine everything the player has known of the Geth prior to this point. He represents a schism in Geth culture, showing that they're more than just galactic bogeymen. He's fascinating, and every single bit of dialogue you get with him reveals more and more about how the Geth have been misconstrued by the galaxy at large.
Finally, we're ready to tackle the Collectors at home, but not before they kidnap the entire crew of the Normandy, adding urgency to the task. In game they call this the suicide mission, because it's expected that some of your companions might not make it back alive. It makes you pick among your ragtag group people to do specific jobs, putting them in more danger than the rest. Every moment is tense, because a stray bullet of laser beam can mean the death of a character you spent forty hours getting to know. It's presented almost like a movie, the cinematography of the cutscenes here are on another level. Even though I knew I would be fine, because I bought every single upgrade and remembered who was best for what job from my first playthroughs years ago, I was on edge. It's one long firefight full of close calls, and culminates in a really stupid boss fight.
The Human Reaper is dumb, that's inarguable. At the time of release I didn't really think too much about it, but it just seems so out of place. Nothing about it makes sense. How does human goo power a machine? Why do they have exposed tubes that present themselves as obvious weak points? Why is this reaper shaped like a human and not the same shape as every other reaper? There are explanations you can find out in the wild, but it just seems like this Terminator-esque machine was put here solely for the purpose of a final boss fight. Like Bioshock and Fontaine, it's just not needed and only serves to undermine an otherwise great game and excellent finale.
After finishing the fight and telling the Illusive Man to shove off, you'd normally be done, but there are still two pieces of post game DLC to discuss, both of which have significant impact on the universe of Mass Effect and help to set up it's sequel.
Lair of the Shadow Broker is fantastic, it's better than it has any right to be. Not a moment is wasted as you start your mission to find the Shadow Broker with Liara narrowly avoiding an assassination attempt. Shepard teams up with an Asari Spectre at the crime scene in the hopes of finding Liara before she's killed. You eventually move on to the Shadow Broker's ship with Liara, which is easily the most stunning location in the entire game. The ship travels through a perpetual lighting storm, which allows for some great combat scenarios on the hull. Flinging the Shadow Brokers guards into the sky and watching them get struck by lighting never got old. The entire experience is punctuated by great banter between Shepard and Liara. My favorite thing about this DLC is the Shadow Broker himself. I assumed the Shadow Broker would be a non-combatant, someone who hides in the shadows and fights with information. I was expecting a conversation, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Shadow Broker was actually a giant monster. It subverted all my expectations, even if the fight itself wasn't spectacular. After finishing the DLC, you get a reward in the form of a handful of hilarious dossiers about your crew and some select individuals along with some other useful perks like investment opportunities and the ability to respect your companions.
The final piece of DLC for Mass Effect 2 is Arrival, and it showcases the arrival (get it?) of the Reapers to the Milky Way galaxy. While it's the obvious weak link of the major pieces of DLC for Mass Effect 2, it's also arguably the most important plot wise. I still don't understand why Bioware decided that this DLC should only feature Shepard with no squad mates, but it doesn't really affect my enjoyment too much. The real problem is that the "feel" of the DLC seems off. It just doesn't mesh well with the rest of the game. By the end you've killed 300,000 plus people and destroyed an entire system, but it doesn't feel like anything really happened. There's no gravitas, no pomp or circumstance. The whole thing feels muted and a bit stale. It's clear that the budget here didn't allow for the kind of cinematography the game is known for. It's also a bummer that you have no choice's whatsoever in this DLC. Shepard will always make the decision to kill everyone, regardless of whether you think it's right or wrong. I understand why it has to be this way to set up the third game, but I still resent not being given any input in such an important decision for Shepard's character.
Mass Effect 2 is widely considered to be not only the best game of the Mass Effect trilogy, but also one of the best games ever made. It appears Bioware took a lot of the criticism of the original Mass Effect to heart when designing Mass Effect 2, resulting in some sweeping changes along with the expected sequel polish. A lot was sacrificed to make this game a more cinematic and streamlined experience. Loot was dropped in favor of a handful of more well defined weapons and armor, the exploration of planets was nixed, and skill trees were greatly simplified. It's a game that, unlike it's predecessor, still holds up incredibly well. Mass Effect 2 marked the transition of the series into a more action heavy affair; it also cemented Mass Effect as one of the greatest series' in gaming.