Playing a Mass Effect game is a lot like starting a season of a really good TV show. I can put it off for a while, but once I get into it, it becomes very hard for me to do anything else. I badly want to know what happens next and keep pushing forward. In the case of TV, that means watching the future; in the case of ME, that means creating the future.
My last post talked about the technical aspects of ME2, so this is all about plot. Let's start off with the
I loved the way they handled your squad from ME1 in this game. They didn't bring everyone along automatically; and, they didn't wipe the slate clean to force you to start from scratch. You start off with a few new members of questionable loyalty, Miranda and Jacob, but over time you can recruit a few people from before: Tali and Garrus. You also see a lot of the people from the first game, who have filled new roles. The awesome Wrex has become the clan leader of the Urdnot, and is leading a hard-nosed-yet-progressive series of reforms. Ashley is serving Alliance intelligence by helping defend new human colonies in the Traverse. The former Captain Anderson is now Ambassador Anderson, helping to advance humanity's interest on the Council while dealing with the frustration of their obstinacy. (It's remarkable that they STILL don't believe that the Reaper threat is real, but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.)
In ME1, I had romanced Liara, and that ended up on a very bittersweet note in this game. When you first see her, you embrace tenderly, but it quickly becomes clear that she has moved on: she has thought for years that you were dead. More than my slight surprise at her emotional distance, though, I was even more surprised by the change in her character. In Mass Effect 1, Liara was an adorably awkward nerd, who had a lot of trouble understanding social cues and exhibited a strong sense of naive positivity. Now, she sits at the center of a powerful information network on Illium, and she seems... colder, harder. She's definitely not evil, but she is overly wrapped up by her desire for vengeance and dominance. I helped her out and we collectively struck a blow against the Shadow Broker, but it was still sad to see her like that.
Actually, let's go ahead and do a quick inventory of the characters:
I liked the Jacob character, but was always pretty cautious around him, since I suspected that the game was setting up a Shepherd/Jacob romance. I rarely brought him along on missions, either, once I got a more full squad developed; my philosophy is to bring a team of members who are very strong in one area, so I'd rather have a very strong biotic and a very strong soldier than two biotic/soldier hybrids like Jacob. His personal quest was interesting; while I usually despise stories that are built around daddy issues, I thought the way they handled it was quite compelling.
Miranda was pretty awesome. I'm a sucker for a British accent, and liked her confidence-bordering-on-arrogance. I loved her personal quest, too, and liked the way that her personality seems to have been affected by the experience. (As in the first game, I primarily followed the Paragon path, with a few crucial or especially entertaining diversions to the Renegade side.) Since I play as a full Engineer, her Overload skill tree wasn't especially useful to me, but I still took her along occasionally because I enjoyed her dialog. I was a bit bummed to see that Bioware doesn't allow females to romance her, but it does make sense, I guess; I can accept her being a little like Morrigan from Dragon Age: Origins.
Moridin was HILARIOUS. It's a toss-up for whether he or Joker were more amusing, but I think Moridin's best material (pre-emptively declaring his lack of interest in Shepherd and an astonishing Gilbert & Sullivan rendition of I Am the Very Model of a Scientist Salarian) might be the best in the game. Every single conversation I had with him cracked me up; I love the absent-minded way that he mutters about his research.
I think Zaeed may have been from one of the freebie DLC bits that I picked up with the game. He didn't seem quite as well fleshed-out as the others, especially when you're chatting with him in his quarters. He was quite useful early in the game, since he's the first pure soldier you get for a while. After I finished his loyalty mission, though, I left him off my squad.
My new favorite soldier: Grunt. I was skeptical at first: how could a vat-grown Krogan have any personality at all, especially in comparison to his phenomenal predecessor Wrex? He won me over, though. A lot of the credit has to go to the game's fantastic animators: Grunt's movements are wonderful, particularly the way he'll smash his hands together and bob up and down. He just seems so lively and enthusiastic about everything he does. I get a kick out of your conversations after he joins the Urdnot clan: "I had the most wonderful dream where I was murdering a Salarian!"
Jack, on the other hand, it pretty hard to like. Jack is ruthless and prickly. The bald head and the tattoos made me think of Kaliyo from SW:TOR, though, so I did appreciate that.
Tali was great. Since her skills almost totally overlap with my own, I almost never used her in either game, but she has a great personality (helpful without being at all obsequious) and a fascinating story; here, we finally get to see inside the Migrant Fleet, and learn a lot more about the Geth. (I was a little surprised that, even on board the Quarian ships, we still don't get to see what's under those helmets; they talk a LOT about how bad their immune systems are, so I guess I understand the reasoning, but I still felt a little cheated.)
The biggest surprise for me may have been Thane, the Drell assassin. I wasn't particularly predisposed to like him, but he won me over with his sadness, dignity, and honor. Not at all what I was expecting from an assassin.
The award for "most improved" belongs to Garrus. I'd never particularly liked him in ME1. I didn't dislike him, either, but he just seemed a bit too prickly and hot-headed for me. He's turned into a great person and a great leader, though. He and Miranda were often my team: like with Miranda, I really enjoyed his chatter while on a mission.
I really liked Samara. She emphasizes a lot of what's strange about the Asari: the fact that she's over one thousand years old, and part of a long tradition and set of beliefs that were ancient before human civilization even began. Her personal quest is really interesting, too, and also a lot of fun; I deeply appreciated that not everything in this game took the form of "Walk from point A to point B and kill everyone in your way," and this mission, which required some light detective work and careful social manipulation through dialog choices, was one of my favorites. The outcome was pretty amazing, too; I'm guessing that, if I had made another choice at the end of the quest, I would have lost Samara and gained another party member. Which is pretty awesome. (Again, there are shades of Dragon Age here, specifically with the question of how to handle Alistair.) I tried to romance Samara, but I think I messed it up; we had a conversation where it was clear that both of us were interested, but she wasn't willing to get involved on account of her Justicar oath. I tried to encourage her to go forward, and nothing came of it; maybe backing off would have worked? I dunno. I deliberately stayed away from any guides while playing because I wanted to be surprised, but now I wish that I had at least peeked to see how to make it work, since I doubt I'll re-play this before starting ME3. Bioware RPGs can feature notoriously difficult paramours; the un-patched version of Baldur's Gate 2 had Aerie's romance so convoluted that it was probably impossible to complete without cheating.
Now, to the plot proper....
It was interesting to have Cerberus be so central to the plot. They were always kind of in the shadows during ME1; I fought them a few times, but never got a clear understanding of what they were really after. The Illusive Man was an enigma: charismatic and generous, but I always wondered what he was hiding. (It probably doesn't help matters that I've played ME3 multiplayer, which includes some missions against Cerberus; that made me particularly skeptical that we would end ME2 as allies.)
The intro to the game did a great job of handling the shift in game systems. Like I mentioned in my previous post, they have drastically overhauled the skill system between the two games, so there's no straightforward way of importing your existing character's stats; at the same time, it would be annoying for the game to pretend that you hadn't done anything in the previous game. Having you go through a near-death experience and spend years in recuperation provides a great excuse for rebuilding a new skill tree from scratch - and, incidentally, making any changes you wanted to Shepherd's face. (I gave mine a nose job. Yeah, that probably makes me doubly shallow.)
I would ordinarily be a little annoyed at the "let's round up the gang!" structure of the first part of the game, since it's been so overdone in games and movies over the year: Seven Samurai, the Magnificent Seven, Blues Brothers, Ocean's 11 all do this. Still, there's a reason why everyone uses it: it's a very effective way to introduce a large cast while giving each individual a chance to express what makes them interesting and unique. It's also a case where a video game's structure helps a lot: you have a great deal of agency in deciding how you go about acquiring your crew, which makes it feel less like a chore than a reward.
The Collectors are a sufficiently menacing threat in this game, largely replacing the Geth (+Saren+Sovereign) from the first game. I kind of wish we had seen more of them; they're in many of the required plot points, but that still meant that I went for several weeks in real time without seeing any while I was doing side missions between Horizon and acquiring the Reaper IFF. The Harbinger is pretty scary and cool. Their whole MO is pretty darn scary: slavery and brainwashing are two things that seem worse than death, which elevates the entire Reaper threat and adds more urgency to Shepherd's mission.
I'm intrigued by the whole Legion business. The Geth are one of the great mysteries of the game: for years everyone has wondered, just what are they up to behind the Veil? It looked like they tipped their hand by allying with Saren, but now we learn that these are only a fraction of the Geth. It seems like the majority of them are primarily interested in self-preservation and self-evolution; they fight against "the creators" to ensure their survival, but do not intend to conquer the galaxy. They see "the old machines" as a threat, and would rather discover tech on their own than receive fully-formed gifts from the Reapers. I ultimately decided to use the virus that would convert the wayward Geth into the main body; it seems extraordinarily risky, and I'm waiting with bated breath to see what consequences that brings in ME3, but we'll need all the help we can get in fighting the Reapers, and I hope that a fully intact Migrant Fleet and a unified Geth will help in that war.
I still don't really get Legion, though. He never could provide a satisfying answer for why he was wearing a piece of my armor.
The attack on the Normandy was shocking and cool; not only are many people who you've grown attached to under enormous threat, but you are now in control of goofy sidekick Joker, bum legs and all. You can't save the game during this section, and I needed to restart from the beginning once since I ran (er, limped) too quickly and bumped into a Collector outside of Engineering.
Oh, yeah: the Joker/EDI stuff was wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed all their dialog throughout the game, and it paid huge dividends here. I love how Joker mutters and verbalizes my own fears: "This is how it all begins. People will be blaming me when they're plugged into a protein feeder since I turned on the Overlord." EDI also develops a sense of humor here: "I enjoy watching humans on their knees." It begins what I hope will be a long-lived and successful catch-phrase: "That was a joke."
The end-game is INTENSE. Like ME1, it seems like you have to make a choice between two people on your crew. After the Collectors harvested the Normandy crew, I went to the Geth station to upload Legion's virus. Apparently, this took so much time that my dear, dear Yeoman Chambers died. Sigh. That was pretty horrifying. If I'd raced their immediately, then maybe I could have saved her, but perhaps not Legion.
The cinematics for the last half-hour or so of the game are just incredible. Flying through fields of debris! Dodging Collector beam weapons! Discovering a hideous harvesting operation! Explosions after explosions after explosions!
There are also some cool strategic aspects to the final mission, instead of the purely tactical ones that most missions have. You need to make decisions about whether and how to divide your forces, who to appoint to command, who to accomplish specialized tasks, and so on. Mine seemed to work out all right: I got Tali to hack a system to open two doorways into the base; my right-hand-man Garrus led one team while I led Miranda and Grunt to the other. Later, I sent Moridin to lead the survivors back to the Normandy; the powerful biotic Jack led me, Garrus, and Samara through a vast chamber filled with Collector swarms, drawing their fire while Miranda led the others through a safer route. At the end, Garrus, Miranda and I fought an awesome, enormous Human-Reaper broodling while the rest safely guarded our rear. Then: kaboom! I thought a LONG time about the Illusive Man's suggestion/order to preserve the Collector's station for our own ends. It didn't feel like the "right" thing to do, but it did seem likely to be a huge help in the Reaper war, which ultimately is the most important thing. After deliberating for nearly ten minutes, I finally decided to blow it all up. Miranda was awesome: "Consider this my resignation." Eff yeah!
Even though I've beaten the game, I'm refraining from my usual process of reading FAQs and other resources to find what I may have missed; since the ME trilogy is so tightly woven, I'm a bit worried that some ME2 spoilers may spoil parts of ME3 as well, so I'll wait until everything is done before I allow myself to geek out on the series.
OH! With all the talk above about other characters, I haven't directly talked about Shepherd. I can't believe I haven't mentioned this before, but a bit part of the reason I finally started playing the ME series (in addition to Andrew's welcome nagging) was a New Yorker profile of Jennifer Hale that I read last year. Jennifer provides the voice to the female Shepherd character, and this article not only prompted me to start playing, but also to pick the female Shepherd ("FemShep", in fan parlance) for my run. I add my voice to the chorus praising Hale's voice work: it is full of integrity, deeply meaningful without ever seeming melodramatic. While I'm quick to praise the writing in this game, a lot of the credit belongs to Hale and the other actors who bring their lines to life.
I've since gone back and reviewed her curricula vitae, and am happy to see that she's also voiced some of my other favorite Bioware characters: Dynaheir from Baldur's Gate, Mazzy Fentan from Baldur's Gate 2, Falls-from-Grace from Planescape: Torment. She was also Katrina in Quest for Glory IV (!!! Probably one of the first voice-acted Sierra games, that's so cool!) and Dr. Naomi Hunter in the Metal Gear games. I almost never think of voice actors when playing games, and now I'm really curious if there are other amazing actors in the field. In a way, the mark of a highly successful voice actor/actress is probably that you don't think about them: their performance becomes part of the character, not something that distracts you from the story.
Also on the topic of voice acting: I can't believe I didn't find out until the end credits of ME2 that Seth Green does the voice of Joker! That's AWESOME! I can totally hear it now, but somehow never picked up on it during the game. So cool. I'm generally not a big fan of celebrity voices in video games - again, it can be distracting, feel gimicky, and either detract from the character or feel like a sloppy shorthand for trying and establishing a personality for the character - but some of them are sufficiently awesome for me to absolve, like Green here or Samuel L. Jackson's fun turn in San Andreas.
Conversely, if you would like to hear some hilariously awful video game voice acting, be sure to check out the Gameological Society's Great Performances series. The Oblivion video is particularly funny, and a compelling counterpoint to the high level of quality that Bioware puts in their RPGs.
While it's taken me longer than I'd thought to get caught up on Mass Effect, it seems to have worked out for the best, since Bioware just released the new "expanded ending" free DLC a few days ago, so I can hit the ground running with that. I'm looking forward to seeing how Shepherd's saga ends!