Mass Effect Andromeda came out half a year ago and for a while it was a very popular subject. We all wanted to explain what happened to the beloved franchise of Mass Effect and what exactly led to the apparent disaster that was Andromeda. The game ruined the franchise forever, according to the internet. The Commander Shepard-led saga flirted with bad reviews before. Mass Effect 3 apparently destroyed the franchise at the time, since it ruined the franchise forever too. Andromeda at least got people to look back more fondly at its predecessor.
Of course, the violent criticism Mass Effect 3 was victim of was mostly focused on some parts of the game rather than the whole experience. *cough* … the ending… *cough* But even today, the third installment of the Mass Effect franchise will raise controversial opinions.
One game that really doesn’t however, is Mass Effect 2. Yet I contend that it’s the one that ruined the entire trilogy. This game is responsible for everything its follow up did wrong. And no, I’m not going for an “It was so good it made it impossible to follow” twist. I’m talking literally, Mass Effect 2 ruined the saga. Not Andromeda.
Where it all began
For those of you who still don’t know the Mass Effect Trilogy, it’s a series of games where you play as Commander Shepard. A (mostly) customizable character in a sci-fi story that commands their own ship and crew. This main character faces, from the first game onward, a race of cosmic being known as Reapers, who comes regularly to the Milky Way and destroy all trace of organic intelligent life. Just that.
Mass Effect, first of its name, took a great deal of time to reveal the actual villains of the series. For a while, you fought a guy named Saren, until intercepting a communication between him and his sentient ship. Said ship, actually a Reaper known as Sovereign, warns you of the unavoidable demise of the galaxy. From there, Shepard manages to destroy it and to delay the Reaper invasion.
Mass Effect 2 starts not long after this heroic deed. An unknown vessel attacks Shepard’s ship, destroys it and leave the commander almost dead. All of that before the title card.
The real culprits
The main character survives, of course, kind of, and goes on a mission to discover who attacked them like that and what was the motivation behind it all. Spoiler alert, it’s a species called the Collectors. They apparently attacked dozens of planets in the galaxy, kidnapping humans for a purpose you’ll discover at the end of the game.
And that’s the thing. Your enemies during the entirety of this game are the Collectors. They are slaves of the Reapers. They are collecting humans to create a Reaper, actually (Trust me, it makes perfect sense.)
But the Collectors don’t connect to the plot. At the end of Mass Effect 1, the Reaper were coming, and the galaxy had to prepare for them. At the end of Mass Effect 2, the Reapers are coming, and the galaxy have to prepare for them. None of the events in the game have any impact on that overall narrative. The threat of the Collectors never appeared during the events of the first game. In that regard, the plot of Mass Effect 2 is entirely self-contained: the Collectors are introduced at the start of the game, and dealt with by the end. Making the whole thing entirely filler.
Yes, I’m aware Mass Effect 2 has a DLC which finally brings back the Reapers at the front. Arrival was designed to prepare the events of Mass Effect 3. Even that shows just how much the events of Mass Effect 2 don’t matter. Bioware needed to add a DLC to their game just to make some progress with their saga.
For some, Mass Effect 2 isn’t a fan favorite thanks to its deep and powerful story. It made an impact because of its step up in gameplay. Or rather a clear choice towards actions, abandoning the weak RPG elements of the first game. While it chooses to be more linear, the game did it in an effective and, most importantly, enjoyable way. Mass Effect 2 also gave us arguably the best music in video game history.
Most importantly, Mass Effect 2 solidified the reputation of the saga today. A collection of characters, all weird and filled with quirks. All telling a different story about their world and their personality. Ultimately, that’s what you took from the game. Not the story about those Collectors and the efforts you had to make so that your ship was able to defeat them.
The game is a collection of short story, in which the Commander Shepard only has a vague personal interest. You assemble a team of diverse characters. Then, to make sure they’re at their best, you also need to make them loyal to you. That’s the bulk of the game, the missions you do for and with them. That’s also a great opportunity for the writer to expand their universe in a very organic fashion. Each character brings with them a certain theme that adds to our knowledge of the galaxy in Mass Effect.
During the first game, exposition about the rules and backstory of this universe had been much more simplistic. Mainly, it revolved around long stretches of dialogues with your crew, and explanation delivered by either an A.I. or even your menu. Not the best way to make every player engaged in the universe. The game delivered its story through interactions with your antagonists, in a more organic way. Mass Effect 2 stepped up in that regards, exposing its background as much as its story. It’s what made the franchise stick with people.
An even if the plot of the game had no impact on the overall plot of Mass Effect 3, every character introduced in the second instalment came back in the third. If you managed to make them survive, but let’s be honest, that was the point. Mass Effect 3 delivered most of its emotional punches thanks to character introduced in its predecessor.
However, this focus on the characters impacted the story. All of the individual stories were interesting to follow, at varying levels. The writing team could have introduced all of them in a plot where the Reapers also had a real place.
Mass Effect 2 gave its successor a good amount of character to play with. But it also forced Mass Effect 3 to effectively deal with the promises made by the first one. The Reapers had to finally attack the galaxy. And since it was also the conclusion of the saga, well… They also had to lose by the end. If we were to simplify, we could say that Mass Effect 3 had to be both The Empire Strike Back and The Return of the Jedi. An impossible task for one game, especially one rushed to come out only two years after its predecessor.
Now, I won’t go into details in what exactly Mass Effect 3 did wrong or not. Let’s just say that you can feel that the writers and game designers made drastic choices. In just one game, the writing team had to resolve all the conflict that had been brought up during the two first games. All the while dealing with an invasion of cosmic deities that should impact everything.
This is really a case where the narrative could have used one more game. Just to go from one dark ending, where hope is almost lost as the Reapers’ influence expand in the galaxy, to the real counter attack, where Commander Shepard needs an entire game to free the galaxy. Mass Effect 2 should have been this dark chapter. And you still could have picked your team along the way. From evacuation to evacuation, preparing for a suicide mission that would have finally slowed the advance of the sentient machines.
It’s not to say Mass Effect 3 didn’t have its own flaws, independent from its predecessors. There is of course the ending, so thoroughly criticized. Some of its choices in terms of narration. Like introducing Cerberus as a secondary antagonist, taking some focus away from, just a reminder, the literal cosmic entity trying to destroy all sentient life in the galaxy.
We can still wonder how different a third instalment could have been. If only the second had only done a proper job progressing the plot. In this state, Mass Effect 2 ruined the story that its successor could have told.
By introducing a dozen of character that could all survive to the game, Mass Effect 2 also created an expectation to see them all back in the next instalment. And while they did all came back, not all of them did so in a grand way. One or two appearances in a side mission and a conversation with the main character can be disappointing for fans of a specific character.
Not even talking about quality, the second game setup expectations that the third couldn’t fulfill without an effort. An important effort it couldn’t make all the while trying to resolve the plot of the series.
The choice of a trilogy
The writers chose to stick with a trilogy when making Mass Effect 3, whether planned ahead or not. If anything, it’s the decision that crippled the game. As for why a trilogy to begin with? It seems to be a tradition for games to come out in group of three. For a while, companies labelled any subsequent games not with a number but with a title. A way to say they are only annex to the main story.
Maybe that should have been the fate of Mass Effect 2. It could have been called Mass Effect: The Collecting. Mass Effect: Mutilation, or any other words in “ion”.
All of the Mass Effect games are deeply flawed, unfortunately. None of them are truly perfect, but it also creates a charm for each of these games. It makes them interesting to analyze. And seeing how many people decided to analyze Andromeda after its apparent failure, it was just too tempting to revisit the trilogy.
Maybe someday, in the far future, we will get a perfect Mass Effect game. Filled with rich characters, a deep story, and as many romance options as we would all like. In the meantime, let’s agree that all those games are bad. And that Mass Effect 2 is the worst, because it ruined all of them.
(Except Andromeda, that one is on its own.)