With the impending release of Mass Effect 3 next week, I’ve been doing what every logical, right-thinking gamer would do. I’ve been playing Mass Effect 2 again, and I’m about 15 minutes away from completing it entirely, for the third time. That’s probably not very uncommon for Mass Effect fans considering that about half of the people who fired the game up finished it and that at least a couple of people have played through the game 30 times or more; this according to statistics released more than a year and a half ago and at this point criminally out of date.
The thing is, I’d lost the save files for my last two Mass Effect 2 playthroughs, and the thought of playing 3 with some generic Shepard was anathema. Totally unacceptable. And so, I’ve invested another 30 or so hours into this latest playthrough, happily and without a second thought on the matter. Somehow, the game completely fails to become stale to me.
I realize that saying Mass Effect 2 is a pretty good game is hardly an edgy stance of a critical contemporary issue. So let me spice the deal up a bit. At this point, I feel like I can talk about Mass Effect 2 in the same breath as games like Ultima 7, Fallout and Baldur’s Gate. In fact, I’d dare say that from where I’m sitting, it’s the best game BioWare has made.
I’m actually pretty surprised how much I like Mass Effect 2, because I was, all things considered, fairly tepid on the first Mass Effect. It was a decent enough game, but the pacing for it never felt right to me. The combat mechanics always seemed like they were in conflict with the way the game seemed to want to be played. Like many of BioWare’s games, I was driven to completion more because of the story than actually enjoying the game itself.
Mass Effect 2 is something different entirely. The simplified and more dynamic action styling of the game was, to me, a night-and-day improvement. It was one of those games that just clicked on a fundamental level from the first day and never lost its shine.
I try not to be too quick in proclaiming something among the best ever, though. And I try to be practical about some of the flaws and hiccups that exist in Mass Effect 2 as well. Planet scanning is a bothersome and unavoidable chore. The game is missing a strong antagonist that centers the game the way Saren and Sovereign did in Mass Effect 1. Customization seems limited with the oversimplification of inventory management; there are very few interesting choices to be made beyond aesthetics about how you outfit yourself and your crew. And the final boss battle has always felt a little forced — if not openly silly — to me.
I don’t deny any of those points, or like a half dozen other criticisms that can be legitimately laid at the feet of the game. Doesn’t matter, though. I imagine all of you, like me, have had moments where you play a game and it just fits. To borrow from Queen, it’s a kind of magic. The game just seems to know how to keep you happy, how to turn your head from the flaws. It becomes more than a game to you; it becomes part of your gamer identity.
Of course, I realize this sets me up for absolute, crushing disappointment with the impending conclusion to come in Mass Effect 3, but at this point I'm all in for better or worse. I can't not experience how the over-arching story concludes, to say nothing of how the choices I’ve made — including some choices that I think now I would go back and choose differently — resolve in the final act. This Shepard goes into the final game with a stake in game and a complex past that hasn’t actually turned out exactly as I’d hoped. And that makes me like her (yes, her -- there is only FemShep) all the more. She is, in my head, a character that has defined herself as much as being defined by me, and that is a rare thing. An act of what feels almost like creation that exists the same way in no other media.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to convince you this is a great game, one of the best ever made. I’m not proselytizing here. I’m not even trying to tell you that the story, which could reasonably be described as decent but not particularly ground-breaking space-opera fluff, is something to put up on a pedestal as a triumph of the form. I realize there is usually a gulf between that for which an argument of historic significance can be formed and that which is my favorite.
I point all this out, because even as I storm into the final few minutes of this third playthough, I’m thinking in my head of the alternatives missed and wonder what it would have been like to play through with an Engineer instead of an Adept. What if she had made this decision on Tuchanka or Illium instead? What if my relationship with the Illusive Man had been different, what stage would that have set? What if I hadn't held onto that pointless torch for Liara? Then I wonder if maybe I could squeeze one more playthrough in before March 9th. And that, my friends, is the sort of thing I never think to myself.