French game designer David Cage pointed out in a 2009 interview that most story-driven video games were like pornographic films. “They give you a bit of story, then action, then a bit of story, then action again—the structures are just like a porno, when you think about it,” he said.
Space odyssey: Mass Effect 2 features a star voice cast, including Carrie-Anne Moss, Michael Hogan and Martin Sheen.
By that logic, Mass Effect 2 is probably the best pornographic film ever made. It’s intellectual pornography of the best kind—a dark, delicious, epic space opera that features some of the best writing to ever grace the medium. To choose a more serious metaphor, it’s The Empire Strikes Back of video games—a sequel that builds on a beloved, if flawed, first instalment and crafts a world and mythos so vivid and striking, you can’t wait to dive back into it.
A bit of background first. The Mass Effect games are a series of sci-fi action/role-playing titles set in a complex galaxy where humans coexist uneasily with a number of alien races. Players play the character of Commander Shepard (you can choose to be male or female), who has to navigate the complex realpolitik of the game’s setting, the threats and indifference of those in power, and the looming destruction of the entire galaxy. The first game centred around a race called the Reapers, who appear systematically every 30,000 years to wipe out all known organic life. The game features a lot of dialogue (around 30,000 lines of spoken text) mixed with less prominent action sections with guns and vehicles.
The original Mass Effect, released in 2007, was a critical success.
Its story was widely praised as compelling, but the action sections were derided for being clumsy and out-of-place. The game also drew mainstream media attention for its brief, optional sexual subplot (the game offers possibilities for romance between certain in-game characters, a part of the game one review described as “hours of accountant-worthy courtship”)—most memorably, with the US newscaster Fox News criticizing the game in a talk show section titled “SE’XBOX?”
If anything, the greys of the original are greyer the second time around. The galaxy is a darker place and the game features a number of unsettling moral scenarios that give it a murky, complicated edge. As a result, the core story is much more intriguing, featuring themes of loss, abuse of authority and showing how even the strongest-willed become victims of ideology.
The game gets off to an exhilarating, gut-wrenching start that ties together the loose ends of the previous title. It then dives into a plot featuring a xenophobic, human supremacist group called Cerberus and a shadowy figure called the Illusive Man. The bulk of the game centres around recruiting a cast of memorable characters to your cause, gaining their loyalty by slowly unravelling their fractured backstories and investigating the mysterious motives of the Illusive Man. The graphics and art design are top-notch, though characters seem to have eerily hyperactive eyes that keep shifting gaze.
Where Mass Effect 2 really excels is in its dialogue. The game features a dynamic conversation system that allows you to anticipate and deliver responses, even interrupt others while they’re talking. There’s a great sense of gravitas and emotional weight in the delivery that makes almost every other game look downright embarrassing. It handles emotion with intelligence and subtlety where other games beat the player over the head with blunt sentimentality. Midway through the game, talking to the mother of a colonist who’s been murdered, you can make Shepard comfort her in grief. “We’ve all suffered loss,” Shepard says slowly—a statement only too tragically true by that point in the narrative.
Part of what makes it work is the stellar voice cast, featuring the talents of Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix), Michael Hogan (Battlestar Galactica) and Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now). But Mass Effect 2 isn’t a smart sitcom masquerading as a video game. It really puts you, the player, at the centre of the story, and the many actions you choose in the game have consequences in how the plot unfolds.
Early in the game, for example, Shepard is called in to break up a disagreement between two crew members on her ship (I chose to play as a female character). In my playthrough, I took one person’s side instead of staying neutral, and came down too harsh on the other, an engineer called Miranda. “Are we good?” Shepard asks her after the situation is defused. “Not even remotely,” Miranda says coldly before slamming the door in my face. I lost her trust for the rest of the game.
Unfortunately, it’s the aforementioned action-story-action cycle that weakens the game slightly. Even though the shooting parts have been given a considerable rehaul, they still grate against the brilliance of the story sections. The game’s need to shift sequentially between the two also robs it of unpredictability. You always know there’s going to be some confrontation or breakdown around the corner.
The interface will also be slightly intimidating to newcomers and the lack of a comprehensive tutorial doesn’t help. But the game often makes tongue-in-cheek references to the prequel’s shortcomings. When you ask a soldier named Garrus why he appears so nervous about a coming mission, he says, “Last time, we just raced in, blew up a few things and saved the galaxy. This time, it’s a bit more complicated.”
Mass Effect 2 is available for the Xbox 360 and PC platforms. The version reviewed here is the PC variant, available for Rs999.