Deconstructing the genius of BioWare’s best game ever.
BioWare might not be in the best place right now, but their legacy as a developer is something no one can ever take away from them. They’ve made numerous games over the years that can vie for the throne of the greatest game ever created, to the point where, at one point, they were the undisputed kings of the role playing genre. And of all the games they’ve ever made, Mass Effect 2 is arguably their best work ever.
That is not praise that’s easily given, especially for a developer whose back catalog includes the likes of Baldur’s Gate 2, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic among many others- but Mass Effect 2 is just that good. A distillation of everything that made BioWare the kings of narrative an choice-drive RPGs, Mass Effect 2 is a title that will always be remembered as one of the greatest games ever.
We’ve done a few of these retrospective features by now, so you probably know what this one if all about. In this feature, we’ll be identifying and examining what we feel are the three key elements that made Mass Effect 2 the game it was, its three greatest strengths that shone through in every aspect of the game and defined every moment of the experience. And if you’ve played Mass Effect 2, you can probably guess what the first, and the most obvious element is- the characters.
BioWare’s best works have always been known for featuring great characters, with excellent writing, believable motivations, expert development, and fleshed-out backstories. Mass Effect 2’s ensemble took everything that we loved to see in characters in BioWare games and dialled it up to eleven. One might argue that Jacob was a weak link in the cast of characters, and though I won’t necessarily disagree with that, it’s easily to overlook one relatively forgettable character when you look at all the others that people remember to this day.
Thane, the dying assassin who constantly wonders about his own morality even as he takes lives. Mordin, the brilliant scientist brimming with personality, who engineered the genophage and now struggles with immense guilt over his actions. Grunt, the bio-engineered perfect soldier, who finds it hard to find a place for himself with his people, and in life at large. Miranda, the gifted biotic with a tortured pass who distances herself from connections to keep her pain at bay. And Legion. And Jack. And Samara. And Joker. And the returning fan-favourites Garrus and Tali. And last but not least, the enigmatic and charming Illusive Man, one of the greatest antagonists you’ll ever see in a game. Not to mention Shepard himself (or herself), of course.
Each character was expertly written, and brought to life with standout performances from a star-studded cast. Each character had believable backstories and pasts, which contextualized their personalities and their motivations expertly. Each character had dedicated Loyalty Missions of their own, which were not only excellently designed side quests that could radically changed the course of the main narrative, but added immense depth to the characters they focused on as well.
It was exactly because of the deep bonds and connections we formed with each and every one of these characters that Mass Effect 2’s ending had the sort of impact it did. And it’s ending – the spectacular Suicide Mission – is the second element that we’re going to talk about. It deviates a bit from how we usually identify games’ best elements in these features, in terms of how it’s not something that permeates throughout the entire game, but is instead a particular section of the game. But the Suicide Mission is that good.
From the moment you’re handed your main mission by the Illusive Man, Mass Effect 2 makes it clear that the stakes are high. The mission you’re on is one that lives up to its name. It is, in all likeliness, a one-way ticket, and everyone, literally everyone, can die. Whether that’s the secondary characters in the Normandy’s crew, or the main characters you’ve developed your bonds with throughout the course of the game, or hell, even Commander Shepard.
Decisions made throughout the game – both big and small – come back to rear their heads during Mass Effect 2’s final act. From who you sided with when two of your teammates butted heads, to which characters’ Loyalty Missions you did, to how your relationships with each of them have developed, to which characters you assign to specific tasks during the mission, to even what parts of the Normandy you upgraded. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that literally every single one of these is a life and death decision. One wrong move means the death of someone you love from this incredibly strong cast of characters. Shepard’s speech to the Normandy crew as you prepare to venture deep into the Collector base – a speech that you craft yourself – is yet another moment that I will never forget.
The Suicide Mission has one notable issue – namely, the Huma Reaper fight at the end, which has proved divisive among fans over the years – but it is one blip in two hours of excellence. It is an excellent conclusion to an excellent game, one of the greatest closing acts to a memorable journey. It makes good on all the promises Mass Effect 2 makes in terms of its high stakes, in terms of its choice and consequence mechanics, and delivers a thrilling, unforgettable conclusion.
And now we come to Mass Effect 2’s third key ingredient, which, unlike the first two, is less about the story and storytelling and more about how it plays- the game’s laser sharp focus. When it launched, Mass Effect 2 received some criticism from a section of its playerbase over its streamlined nature. It pared back the RPG mechanics of the first game heavily, and delivered a more action-oriented cover-shooting experience. In retrospect though, that is exactly what made the game so good.
It relied on a few key mechanics for the entirety of its runtime, and left everything else by the wayside. There were no unnecessary Mako sections, the upgrade and progression mechanics were left lean and mean, and while the planet probing minigame was certainly not the best – to say the least – everything else in the game was exactly what was needed, nothing more. You picked your squad, you upgraded their powers, you picked your weapons, you headed into missions, and combined the tech and biotic abilities with the combat, all while engaging with its excellent dialogue and its compelling branching narrative. That was all the game needed to do, and it knew it.
It would be foolish to suggest that Mass Effect 2 was a masterpiece from a gameplay perspective. In isolation, its gameplay was solid and functional, but that was all it was. But in the context of the rest of the entire experience, it was exactly what was needed.
We don’t know when – or if – BioWare will go back to their best. In recent years, they’ve stumbled from one error to the next, and it feels like each error has been more grievous than the last. We’re all hoping that they’ll be back on form sooner rather than later – but regardless of what happens in the future, at least we will always be able to look back on the past to remind ourselves of just how good BioWare could be when they were on top of their game. And with Mass Effect 2, that is absolutely where they were- on top of their game. It’s a game that achieves everything it sets out to do, which is rare to see in any entertainment medium, and it’s the sort of achievement that probably won’t ever be replicated again.