Thoughts, notes, etc.

View the Site on GitHub

View my GitHub Profile

View my LinkedIn


6 March 2022

Mass Effect 2 Review

by Florian

Mass Effect 2 is a phenomenal game.

I played it back in 2011 or so when it came out but I’d largely forgotten everything that happened in it, other than the broad strokes of the plot. It’s far, far better than I remember it being and is truly one of the greatest games I’ve played.

Comparison to ME1

I reviewed Mass Effect 1 and felt that the game was stretching it’s legs in a new universe. It was a vibrant and brilliantly built world wrapped in a conventional story with lackluster combat.

Mass Effect 2 ratchets all of the themes from Mass Effect 1 up, a lot. The world is (literally at times) darker, the ethical dilemmas are sharper and more poignant, and the character writing has been deeply fleshed out.

In fact, the starkest difference between the two games to me is that the characters are the game in Mass Effect 2. Mass Effect 1 has decent character writing, but it’s a sideshow to the “heroic human on a quest to save humanity.” It’s a very good sideshow, but it nevertheless takes the backstage to Shephard’s quest.

Mass Effect 2 inverts this and most of the other presuppositions from Mass Effect 1.

You’re no longer a Spectre, the paragon of humanity, but instead working for an ethically murky terrorist (?) organization? You’re no longer learning about the genophage, you’re deciding if you should cure it. You’re no longer reporting to, well, anyone but yourself and nobody really likes you.

It’s a really clever twist on all the plotlines of the first ME game, forcing you to actually tackle the abundant galactic grey areas that the original introduced.

Mass Effect 2 is a Heist Movie

Mass Effect 1 plays out a lot like a traditional action/adventure movie. The hero is called to action, he answers the call and, against all odds, prevails for good.

Mass Effect 2 plays like a heist movie where halfway through you realize the heist isn’t actually the point of the movie. The game’s central conceit is that you need to “build a team” to go on a mission into deep space - through the ominous Omega 4 relay. Only you can assemble a squad capable of performing such a feat! It’s really reminiscient of Ocean’s 11 at a meta level.

The thing is, the actual missions beyond the Omega 4 relay are… pretty trivial? They’re not all that much more difficult than any of the other missions and the final boss is laughably stupid. What’s more, those missions are relatively quick? I think I completed the final sections of the game in an hour or two compared to 12+ hours prepping for them.

Again, it’s an interesting subversion of player expectations. The end (your typical video game climax) is not the best part of the game. The best part is the journey to get there. Which is exactly the way a story based game should be!

It’s amazing that they not only picked up on this, but found a format (“the heist”) which lent itself to thorough personalization of side characters so naturally. It makes sense that we spend a lot of time getting to know Grunt (for example) in Mass Effect 2 since the game is based on the assumption that he’s going to play an enormous role in events beyond the Omega 4 relay. The same way it makes sense that heist movies spend a lot of time focusing on “the driver” or “the hustler” - you’ll know they’ll be important later, even if they’re a side character.

The Illusive Man and the Cast of Characters

Despite the praise I’ve heaped on it thus far, Mass Effect 2 has a few eye roll moments, and the Illusive Man is one of them. He is quintessential “bad” guy, Bond villian fare. He’s still a fine character by all means, he just felt so one dimensional and phoned in. Even down to the name - “The Illusive Man.”

He’s necessary to drive the plot forward, triggers a few interesting lines, but he’s mostly a ben(mal)evolant father figure who bankrolls your expedition. It’s dull, and he’s not the only one…

Katsumi & Zaeed

These are two DLC characters and they are… boring. Surprisingly so. You go to some random X coordinate, pick them up, do a 1 hour mission with them and then they pretty much just hangout on the Normandy the rest of the time. Their plotlines are fairly meh and their skillsets don’t add much to the squad.

It feels a bit like the devs were like “we’re good at writing characters, so let’s add characters as DLC!” This is a fine idea! The problem is, they weren’t good at writing these characters and since they’re “add-ons” they can’t be romanced or referenced later on in the game. All of their lines after you complete their loyalty missions are scripted and Shephard can’t initiate conversation with them.


Is Miranda an interesting character? It’s hard to say.

On the one hand, she feels like a ham-fisted attempt to add male-gaze eye candy into a game. Oh, but they explain it in the lore so it’s OK! Hardly. A lot of the game’s camera work is there to accentuate her body and it gets really old, really quickly.

On the other hand, she does have a fairly fleshed out backstory. It was a good twist that she stole her baby sister from her father and the betrayl of her oldest friend along with her guilt from her genetic alterations was a neat touch.

I do still wonder if her plotline (and romance) gets a bit too much credit amongst fans just because she’s attractive. Her subplot doesn’t really add any dimensions to the universe of Mass Effect, it’s pretty solely focused on just her. That said, my “character” of Shephard would have been much more interested in Miranda than Tali or any of the other women. He played mostly as a rogue with a few moments of deep love for humanity and Miranda matches that.


Jack is a bit of a quirk. She’s wildly oversexualized (like Miranda) and I expected her plotline to be more interesting than it was. In the end, she kinda just goes on the most generic revenge story possible: “I want to literally destroy my childhood!”

I talked to her a few more times onboard the Normandy and, while she does seem to heal, I didn’t get the sense she grew all that much and I was ultimately a little let down. Perhaps taking her on more missions or romancing her would have changed things? I’m not sure, but her introduction and loyalty arcs were too uninteresting for me to pursue much further.

A short note on Garrus & Jacob

They’re… fine? Garrus is good for getting the gang back together, but he’s just a solid friend and there’s not much new to say.

Jacob kind of fell into the same bucket, too, but I thought his loyalty subquest was a lot of fun. I’m a real sucker for literary references, though, and the Lord of the Flies in space got me.

The Rest of the Crew

Tali, Mordin, Grunt, Samara, Legion, and Thane are where the game hits its characterization stride.

Unlike Jack and the others, these squadmates’ loyalty missions perform the secondary function of exploring the universe of Mass Effect.

Ultimately, Grunt becoming a Krogan isn’t just about Grunt - it’s about revealing the Krogan way of life. For Thane, it’s about his son, but also introducing the Drell and adding depth to the Hanarr. With Tali we get to see the Migrant Fleet, with Legion the inner workings of the Geth, Samara the Asari.

Not only do these characters have intriguing backstories with ethical quandries therein, they also add a lot of depth to the lore. They’re not just great stories in their own rite, they tie into the larger worldbuilding.

I don’t want to rag on the rest of the crew, here, they are well written and have engaging loyalty quests with lots of personal growth. But, what elevates a good sub-plotline to great is when it ties into the greater narrative arc of Mass Effect 2.


Mordin is brilliant, and far deeper than I remember. He’s a utilitarian through and through, but he gets a lot of depth throughout and his reckoning over his role in the genophage felt genuine and well told.

I still can’t quite decide how to feel about Mordin. On the one hand, he participated in a genocidal act: full stop. However, he is a brilliantly written character to reflect on deep philosophical issues, most notably because he’s really funny so you don’t see always it coming.

Does a single Salarian bear responsibility for the decisions of a group? Was the genophage right? Was continuing it right? Is it murder/wrong if you simply prevent life from happening instead of killing it after it already exists?

This is fascinating stuff and Mordin is such a great character to deliver it. His rapid, scientific way of speech lulls you into thinking he’s thought about his actions more than he has. It’s obvious he hasn’t or else he wouldn’t have been conflicted over saving the genophage data in his loyalty mission.

He’s also genuinely funny, giving Shephard sex advice at one point, and being the most oddball of Shephard’s squad. I didn’t expect him to pose such deliberate questions, and that was clever writing by the developers.


Tali is the inverse of the Miranda, Jack, Jacob lot. Her personal story isn’t all that interesting, but the lore wrapped around it is great. I really wanted to know more about the Migrant Fleet in Mass Effect 1, and her little trial sequence did a beautiful job illustrating Quarian culture.

I still have some Quarian quibbles, though. First, why have they not settled on a new world? 300 years is a long time, and they’ve been wandering so long that they’ve literally lost their immune systems. You’d think they’d call it quits and give up on their homeworld or, at the very least, start setting up a variety of colonies on different worlds.

It just doesn’t seem plausible that there’s no middle ground between “all of us settling together on one new world” and “all out war with the Geth for our homeworld.”


Grunt falls into the same categoy - slightly uninteresting personal-plot, deep lore. I actually felt like I lost a lot of respect for the Krogan during Grunt’s plotline. This may be reductive, but they were just so dumb.

All of their rituals - the repeated decimation of their planet, the Thresher Maw coming-of-age duel, the constant aggressiveness: It all works against them. I find it baffling that a prosocial species does so many antisocial things, especially completely eradicating their planet every few years.

They still don’t deserve the genophage, but it does put it in some amount of context compared to ME1.


Didn’t find her character all that engaing, but the Asari lore was fairly interesting? Of the alien compatriots, she’s probably the least interesting and felt a bit like Zaeed and Katsumi - a bit tacked on.


Legion is a terrific addition to this game. One of my biggest laments from the first game was how poorly characterized the Geth are as a species. They have a religion! They have a distinct culture! And yet they’re treated like the Collectors or the Reapers. It seemed like a shame.

Mass Effect 2 actually deals with this, which I found pleasantly surprising. The Geth are actually a deeply divided “people,” some of which side with the Reapers. This is who attacks you in ME1. The dialogue and quandry of Legion was pretty standard sci-fi, AI stuff, but I like that Mass Effect actually treated the Geth as real people instead of just straight “bad guys.”


Thane tries to be a little more interesting than he actually is. His character is totally badass, but in the end he’s a fairly archetypal philosopher assasain.

The Drell as a new species are great, though. Not only do they have an odd symbiosis with the most jokey species from the first game, the Hanarr, they are oddly tragic. I saw them as a representation of humanity gone wrong - destroyed by their own success (overpopulation) and ultimately rescued through a deus ex machina beyond their control. They destroyed themselves but can’t find any solace in their continued survival since they played no part in it.

I also like their symbiotic relationship with the Hanarr. Too many of the alien species are humans in one form or another. The Drell are unique in being wedded to another species so tightly. It was a refreshing change of pace.

The Morality System

Mass Effect 2 does morality systems right. At any given time, you can be either Paragon or Renegade and you can gain points in one without losing them from another. It made my character a lot more fleshed out since he could actually behave differently in different situations instead of being slotted onto the “good” path and the “bad” path from the beginning.

You can actually, sort of, role play as Shephard instead of min/maxing your character all the time.


This game is held back by a few sci-fi kitschs that were a bit too much: Notably - the ending.

Fighting a giant cybernetic human head was really, really dumb. Like profoundly dumb. The Collectors were interesting, the fact that they were repurposed Protheans was great, and even the final mission was fairly fun. Up until you essentially fight a repurposed god warrior who’s purpose is to…?

What really kills me about this, is that there are no stakes to killing the thing since the Reapers show up literally moments later in the game’s finale. Why do the Reapers want a giant mechanical human? They already have giant mechanical things that are great at killing! Why did we bother stopping the Collectors if the Reapers just pop in anyway?

I’m hoping that ME3 (which I haven’t played) makes the ending a bit more sensical.

The second real con for me was one that’s been, admittedly, beaten to death a bit: The conversation wheel. It’s pretty frustrating to intend one thing, and then get something totally different or totally tonally different. That said, it’s not as bad as most people make it out to be.

Final Thoughts

In short, the analogy of this game to a heist movie is pretty apt. Don’t go into it expecting the heist itself to be all that interesting, though, instead dive deep into the side characters and the lore of the world.

tags: posts - video games