Mass Effect 2: You Had Me At Martin Sheen


We’re just passing the one-month anniversary of this whole “help me get back into video games after a decade away” thing.  For a moment, there, I thought that maybe the old spark had died, that I’d lost my zeal and zest for a really good game.

When I tentatively expressed my less-than-stellar assessment of Mass Efffect 1, citing such issues as “it’s pretty odd that every planet in the galaxy uses the same building contractor” and “did they prank the male Shepard voice actor and tell him that the big twist of the series is that Shepard is actually a robot, and that’s why he says his lines like that?” the Unreality faithful almost universally told me two things:

Stick it out to ME2, and play the female main character.  Well, strap in and prepare for 2,000 words of unadulterated joy, because you folks hit the nail squarely on the head.  Turns out I haven’t lost my love for video games after all; in fact I think I just played once of the best I’ve ever seen.

I was blown away.  As our fearless leader, Editor-In-Chief Paul Tassi, said when I pitched him this article, “OH MY GOD MASS EFFECT 2 IS SO GOOD.”  I totally get it: Mass Effect 1 is the opening band, not great by itself but a great table-setter, and Mass Effect 2 is the main attraction, so great it will rock your face off.

I’m on board, I’m converted, I’m there.  I’m kind of a contrarian; my natural inclination is to zig when I see others zag, so it’s a testament to this game that I have no reservations about joining the chorus of this game’s adoring fans.  And believe me, that zig inclination is a pretty strong one.






Zig… but it’s hard.

Anyway.  I know I’m not breaking any new ground here.  The game’s been out for a while, and from what I can tell it has near-universal acclaim.  But it’s all brand-new to me.  And like 30 Rock said, it’s never too late for now, right?

So.  How did I love this game… like all things, you have to start at the beginning.  The introduction sets the tone, and boy, did they just nail it.  You kind of knew something like this had to happen – in a sequel to a video game, you need a plausible excuse to bring the main character down to Level 1, and this whole “Season 2 of Alias” plot device was something I should have seen coming.  Nonetheless, perfectly executed.  When you’re running through the burning remains of a ship you spent hours and hours on in the first game, with the alarms blazing and the fire burning, the thing you need to do is take a breather, and damn…


The planet looming in your vision, the lack of sound except your labored breathing.  The stillness.  And then a final burst of adrenaline as the ship is blown up for good, and then you’re floating… and the theme kicks in.  God.  Loud, then quiet, then loud, then quiet.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the first 10 minutes of a game absolutely nail a tone and style like this one did.

And then of course, the introduction sets the stage for the premise of the main game, and I don’t think there’s a better backbone for a game than “reunite with old friends, build a strong team.”  I took about a week off between ME1 and ME2; I can only imagine the glee and nostalgia that would come from the various scenes where you reunite with old friends if I’d taken a year.

At this point, my thoughts go kind of scattered.  I literally beat the game last night; I’m still processing.  So here’s what we’re doing: 5 Things I Loved, 5 Things I Didn’t.

One thing to keep in mind.  When I play video games, I’m a zealot about spoilers.  Until I’ve beaten a game once, I stay away from anything about that game on the internet.  I’m treating Mass Effect as one game, so I’ve read almost nothing about it.  Once I beat ME3, I look forward to getting down and dirty and reading about things I missed or weapon strategies or if everyone else was as stupid about Biotic Charge as I was before getting the hang of it.  But until then, everything you’re reading is pure, unfiltered My Perspective with no outside help.  So if I’m wrong about something, or I say something obvious, well, it comes from good intentions.

Loved – The Voice Acting


I don’t know how they did it, but this series started off strong and then stepped up its game to incredible levels with the voice acting.  Nothing gets me more emotionally invested in a game than characters I care about, and nothing makes me care about them more than well-written, well-spoken dialogue.  I was blown away not just with the quality, but with the caliber of names they attracted.  I literally dropped my jaw at the beginning when I heard the Illusive Man speak. “That’s President Bartlet,” I said, to no one.  “I know I shouldn’t trust you, you heartless bastard,” I said five minutes after ‘meeting’ the Illusive Man.  “But how can I not trust President Bartlet?”

Seth Green’s Joker is dry and perfect and Buffy-esque, and some of his quips made me actually laugh, which is a pretty damn tough thing for a video game to do.  The female Shepard, whom I was stunned to find out is voiced by Jennifer Hale, whom I knew as the uptight, very much British-sounding Bastila Shan from KotOR, injects a lot of charisma into her lines without ever overdoing it.

I’m pretty sure I heard no less than 3 Star Trek actors (90% sure the Salarian Councilor was Quark from DS9), Jayne from Firefly, and Saul Tigh from BSG.  Between them, you’re representing some pretty heavy-hitting sci-fi franchises.  I was almost surprised that they didn’t get Mark Hamill to voice the male Shepard; god knows he’s a talented voice actor, as the audiobook of World War Z proved.  Which brings to something I didn’t love…

Didn’t Love – The Voice Acting (Of one character in particular)


I don’t get it.  Maybe it’s just that the rest of the cast so completely killed it that he stood out, but the guy who voices the male version of Shepard is just… not good.  He’s not bad, exactly, but he’s nowhere near the ceiling in this roster.  It’s kind of bizarre that for this, which seems like a pretty important one, they chose to go with someone who has the vocal charisma of my high school driving instructor.

He’s just… bland.  His lines always sound like lines.  I’ve done my fair share of stage acting, and I’ve seen a pretty wide range of talent.  You can teach people a lot, and I’ve seen people who stumbled through an audition go up on opening night and blow the doors down, but there’s a line in the sand, a sharp one: some people can deliver pre-written lines as if they’re not actually pre-written, and some people can’t.  90% of the actors they got for Mass Effect fall into the first camp, which is astounding.  It’s a shame one of the 10% that didn’t had such an important role.

Loved – The Streamlined Everything


Yes, the story and characters are what elevate this game into the stratosphere, but at some point, you’ve still got to have some RPG elements in there somewhere.  You’ve got items, XP, levels, and stats, and everything that was simply “okay” about the first game was smoothed over or fixed.  In the first game I felt like I spent half my time either selling useless equipment or turning it into omni-gel.  The whole interface, combat system, leveling dynamic and general process of maintaining and progressing your character was so much more natural and pleasing.

Didn’t Love – The Fridge Logic


Fridge logic, for those of you who aren’t aware, is when things seem fine at the time, but after the movie’s over and you’re doing something entirely different (like opening the fridge), you think, “wait, Sargent Hardslab had his cell phone the whole time, why didn’t he just call Commander Beefsteak and tell him that Ambassador Tentaclux was a spy?”

I was so immersed in the game that these issues didn’t bother me as I played, but only later.  The first is a bit hard to define.  Basically, the big reveal at the end – that the Reapers are all made from and in the image of a species they wiped out – was an interesting twist, but in practice, I thought, “so, they kind of…liquify millions of humans and mold them into a Terminator?  That’s kind of…stupid.”  It’s the sci-fi equivalent of Settlers of Catan where you can trade in four of any resource for one of anything else, leading to the inevitable joke where you describe exactly what’s happening when you turn in 4 Sheep for a Brick.  Lots of compressed sheep = brick.  Something about a serious story using kind of the same premise seems a bit… off.  It’s possible that I simply wasn’t fully grasping the plot point; I was a bit zonked out from staying up until 3 AM to beat it because oh my god this game is amazing.

Second, boss battles are tough on the willing suspension of disbelief.  Fighting a fellow organic lifeform that’s my size, even a badass commando or something, yeah, shooting it with a gun seems like it would work.  But a huge gunship?  A Tron-style artificial intelligence core? (oh yeah, I totally downloaded all the DLC.  ALL OF IT).  A 400-foot Terminator?  Aren’t the “real” Reapers like miles long?  At some point, “stand in one place, hide behind a table, pop up and shoot it for two minutes” just doesn’t seem believable as something that would really do anything.

I mean, I get it.  It’s a video game.  Boss battles.  You can’t expect every game to be like Shadows of the Colossus.  Unless… oh man, I just had a crazy thought that I really hope they incorporated into ME3…

Loved – The Attention To Detail

Any game that can include something like that, just… I don’t know.  It’s a level of commitment and attention to detail that’s pretty stunning.  There are so, so many little moments, some that the game doesn’t even go out of the way to point you towards, that are just so good.  Tongue-in-cheek isn’t even in it. 20% of Joker and Mordin’s dialogue.  The multispecies bachelor party on Illium.  What other game would take the time to insert a line that sounds like it’s straight out of a Joss Whedon show in the middle of a scene where your ship and crew are getting overrun by Collectors?

Joker, scrambling around the ship trying to hook up EDI: “This is all Joker’s fault! What a tool he was! I have to spend all day computing pi because he plugged in the Overlord!”

Loved – The Way It Calls Itself Out


Plot twist!  I was having to really strain to come up with things I didn’t like, so you know what?  Screw it.

After a while, I started to just automatically select the top conversation options by default, chasing those sweet, sweet Paragon points.  After breaking Jack out of prison, the top option basically leads you to say something about saving her, rescuing her, or helping her out, and Jack sighs, lowers her gun a little, and says, “Ah, shit, you sound like a pussy.”  My head snapped up and I started laughing in my chair.  Because oh my God, you’re right, Jack.  They did a good job of making Paragon choices not so “aw shucks, just doing my job, ma’am,” but sometimes that creeps in, and they know it.

Liara’s comment about omni-gel during Lair of the Shadow Broker (so yeah, that’s an entirely different post, since I had a hard cap of 2,000 words that’s rapidly approaching, but just for the record, everyone who told me to get it: worth it).  The endless cracks about Miranda’s catsuit.  The Shepard VI and what happens when it crashes.  This game is serious, but it doesn’t take itself seriously.

I could go on.  I could just keep listing stuff I liked about the game.  There was a lot of stuff.  I think in the end, it’s enough to just call it what it is: storytelling at its absolute best.

A hearty “thank you” to those of you who told me to stick with it and rec’ed this in the first place.  Job well done.

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  1. I’ve been playing video games for over 20 years, and even if I play games for another 20 I don’t think I’ll ever find a series that I enjoy as much as Mass Effect.

    The characters, writing (except for 3’s ending, of course), story, humor, atmosphere, and scale are just so amazing. I’m glad the strengths of 2 overrode your concerns with 1.

    1. As am I. I’m already deep into ME3, and god, I’m so invested in the characters that certain moments (played about half, I’m guessing) had me tearing up.

  2. Mordin’s song is probably the highlight of the series for me. The first time he burst into song I was laughing to much to hear the rest of the song. ME3 is more of the same, just less character introduction, more action save the world stuff.

    1. It’s even better if you let the natural silence at the end of the song go on for like 30 seconds, and have Shepard just stare at him. I was laughing so much I forgot to enter a conversation option, but it ended up being even more hilarious.

  3. This game is so awesome I could add like 5 more big things you left out. Most notably, was that not the greatest concept for a final level ever? I wasn’t imprssed with the boss battle either, but considering that almost every game has something like it, it tells you how much a cut above ME2 is that such a standard element comes off as so lame in comparison.

    Do yourself a favor and be sure to download the extended ending for ME3 before you get there. You don’t want the original one to be the impression left on you after such an epic journey. Trust me.

    1. Yeah, I was a huge fan of the way it made you use your team. Teamwork for the win! Most games where you have a party, it always feels like you pick up a few characters that just don’t do anything. ME2 made sure that it felt like a team effort. The action never let up for that last 45 minutes. I would have liked even more “pick this guy to do that” options, but hey, at this point I’m not complaining.

      I went ahead and downloaded anything DLC that looked interesting, and since that one was free it was a no-brainer. Since I do try hard to stay away from spoilers I obviously don’t know specifics, but since I was alive and on the internet when ME3 came out, I do know there was a general uproar about the unsatisfying nature of the ending. Is it comparable to KotOR 2 where it was pretty clear they just didn’t have time/money to finish it and it felt incomplete, or was it simply a choice BioWare made that a lot of people didn’t like?

      1. Hard to answer without spoilers but I’ll take a stab.

        (and my feeling was that everything that ME2 did well, ME3 did even better for 95% of the game).

        Some folks have dismissed the furor as a bunch of butthurt fanboys who wanted but didn’t get a shiny, happy ending. That wasn’t it (or at least not my problem).

        It wasn’t a KOTOR2 problem. I’ve read that the head writer and Casey Hudson essentially locked themselves in a room and brainstormed an ending without peer input. It lead to:

        – Massive plot holes…During the height of the dramatic finale, the drama was often undercut by a that didn’t make a lick of sense. Like, “How did so and so get on the Normandy from the ground mission? Last I saw he was in my party and the Normandy was in orbit?” These problems were largely fixed by the Extended Cut.

        – Lack of consequences…In ME2, if Jack doesn’t resolve her personal issues, she won’t have the will to maintain the biotic bubble and someone dies. If Grunt doesn’t complete the Urdnot ritual, he won’t have the discipline to maintain the defensive line and someone dies.

        The end of ME3 doesn’t have the same (some would say any) consequences based on your actions.

        – Contradictions…The logic of the ending contradicted the arcs of two major characters and one major faction. I yelled at my screen about the illogic.

        All that said, I still love the game unabashedly. Get choked up several times and have played through it 4 or 5 times.

      2. It was a lot of things. The biggest one was that no matter what you did throughout the entire series, it all came down to one choice at the end and no matter what you chose, you got pretty much the exact same cutscene. And it was not a very good cutscene either.

        The extended cut fixed some serious plotholes, changed some confusing dialogue, and added multiple epilogues regarding the state you left the universe in. It was much, much better, but after a couple months left stewing about the utter crappiness of the original, that one is what most people remember.

        I just downloaded the Citadel DLC a week or so ago when it was on sale. A lot of people have described it as the perfect send-off for the crew and the ending we wanted in the first place, but others hate it with a passion. I’ll be firing it up pretty soon to see for myself.

  4. Coincidentally, I am replaying the series also. ME2…I mean, Dirty Dozen as an epic sci-fi drama? Sign me up a thousand times.

    ME3 works all the better when you’ve lived with all the character for dozens of hours.

    I would throw out there that ME3: Citadel, while maybe not essential, may be the finest piece of fanservice in gaming history. It is just as fun and funny as content gets, a big sloppy kiss for the dedicate fans of the series.

    1. I liked all the DLC for all of the games, it is a shame that EA only puts them on sale every once in a blue moon.

      And Citadel is a must. It is without a doubt fan service, but it is fan service done right!

  5. “My name is Shepard and this is my favourite article on the Citadel!”

    Yeah, I don’t think I can get tired of reading about people enjoying Mass Effect; I’m glad you stuck with it. One thing you have to remember regarding the first one is how revolutionary it was when it first came out. There simply wasn’t much to compare it to at the time. If you only play the first one now, parts of it sadly haven’t aged well and it can be harder to grasp the appeal that it has for those of us that enjoyed it when it was something new.

    Since it seems like you are picking up the dlc I’d like to strongly suggest (without giving a spoiler) that if you pick up the “Citadel” dlc for Mass Effect 3 that you don’t play it until after you finish the game. Its tone fits a lot better if you save it till afterwards and use it as a last goodbye to the series rather than diverting to it partway through the main game.

    1. Interesting…

      Without spoiling it for me, is there something obvious you have to do to trigger it, someone I should avoid talking to or something? My experience with DLC so far is that it’s pretty obvious when you’re doing it… ME1 “Bring Down the Sky,” you have to go there. ME2, Shadow Broker / Kasumi you have to pick an obvious conversation option. Citidel, from the (by design) little I know about it seems like something open-ended that happens on the Citidel… easy to avoid?

      I’d be interested in others’ opinions on this. I take it ME3 is open-ended like ME2 where you complete the main storyline and then can continue with missions? I’ll have to fight my instinct to do every side quest before taking on main quests, but you haven’t steered me wrong yet, so…

      1. If I remember correctly it is an email from Anderson to meet on the Citadel that triggers the DLC. The voice actor for maleshep improved a lot for ME3 and in my opinion might actually be better than Jennifer Hale’s performance in ME3. Finally, I wonder if the reapers have any choice in the form a reaper takes when it is created. It may just take the form of its source material, and therefore a human reaper is not space worthy and is much smaller in size than the other reapers.

        1. Thanks for clearing that up. Just to be clear – and again without spoiling things too much – is there a “point of no return” similar to going through the relay in ME2 – like is there a point where you can’t start Citadel because you went too far, or can you complete the game and then do it?

          1. The point of no return is pretty obvious…Hackett tells you straight up, once you do X you’ll be committed.

            I’m 99% sure you can’t go back at that point and play the Citadel (or Leviathan or Omega) DLCs. I don’t think you can complete the game and go back…

            From the ME Wiki, “If you start the
            mission, you will not be able to complete side missions, DLC
            missions, or visit the Citadel.”

          2. Thanks for the clarification. I was just wondering if it was like ME2 where after you complete the Omega Relay mission, you come back and can still fly around and do stuff. For example, I was level 29 when I went through, so after I beat the game I did a few more sidequests to hit 30, just because, you know, completionest.

          3. No, in fact the DLC has multiple missions that can be done all at once or piece by piece throughout the main missions. It can be done after the you’ve completed everything else. ME3 creates a “save point”, so to speak, before the finale. You can go back to this point to do the Citadel DLC after the credits roll. There is some value to that, as that is how most of us experienced it. I’ll just say that the DLC has a unique feel to it that is most easily felt if played in this order.

      2. When you visit the Citadel there are different places you can choose to dock the Normandy, one of which will be “Visit Anderson’s Apartment”, which is reached via the personal apartment level. In short, however, it will be obvious you are starting the DLC.

        A neat thing about this DLC is that additional options and content are added as the game plot advances, so if you do start it earlier, you’ll need to return again and again. Going at the end means it will pretty much all be available.

        I’ll keep things vague to avoid spoilers, but one thing Mass Effect 3 does very well is create a sense of urgency, the feeling that everything is at stake and it’s time to go all in and that there is no time or resource to waste. Much of the Citadel dlc has a more…laid back atmosphere that I think would somewhat undercut the great pacing of the main game.

        Mostly, however, it’s simply such a satisfying DLC in terms of teammate interaction that it makes for a very satisfying final moments with your team. For myself, it allowed me to leave the series feeling satisfied and with the closure I wanted after years of hanging out in that universe. Enjoy!

  6. ME2 high point of the series. Played it to death. Each class at least twice. Favorite two being Vanguard and Sentinel. Personally hated the intro, was exciting but killing shepard was retarded. All the scientific impossibilities. They could have at least left him badly hurt, then nursed back to health which could have given him a more reasonable reason to trust cerberus enough to work with them. Plus it also cheapens his death. Sadly ME3 was only better in terms of graphics and combat.

    1. My first playthrough (ME1) was plain vanilla options – male Shepard, soldier. It was decent, fun, but not spectacular. On advice from Unreality readers I replayed ME1 as a female Vanguard, and then continued her into ME2, and oh my god. The voice acting is about 4 times as good, and biotic charge is the most fun you can legally have while still wearing clothes, at least once you learn to use it right. I’m about halfway into ME3 right now, and I don’t know that I can play another class that can’t zoom around the battlefield like a destructive superball.

    1. Yep. Because of my completionest nature, the first time the game let me choose to advance the main plot on my own (find Reaper IFF), I was like, “yeah I’ll go ahead and do that last.” So by the time I did that, the next thing I did was Legion’s loyalty mission and then the endgame happens. So I went into the last mission with every possible squadmate and loyalty mission. I didn’t even know someone NOT surviving was an option until I beat the game and then started reading about it on the internet. As you might have read above, I’m pretty fanatic about spoiling myself.

      Brings kind of an interesting question… would I want to play through again but intentionally get a “worse” ending for variety? Hmm…

      1. Thats what i did. My second run i tried to do most things different. I went renegade (totally worth it) and assigned people differently during the suicide mission. Even if they’re loyal, you can still lose them. Everyone was expendable…except Mordin…I’ll be damned if I let him die..

  7. God, this post reminds me of how this installment turned my passing interest in the series into a full-blown obsession that consumed the better half of my past year. One of the worst things ME3 ever did was to consign virtually all ME2-introduced squadmates to story extras. As important as it was to bring the ME1 band back together, so to speak, I bonded so much more with my ME2 squad. Not to mention Garrus and Tali finally available as love interests…

    As easy on the conscience as those “sweet Paragon points” can be, the Renegade lines are sometimes even more amusing. One of my favorite lines is when Shepard and co. are about to break Jack out of her prison ship; when Shepard asks her to come with him/her, and she snaps, “You think I’m stupid?” And the Renegade line goes, “This ship’s going down in flames. I’ve got the only way out. I’m offering to take you with me. And you’re arguing.”

    Another thing I loved immensely about this game was the soundtrack. “Suicide Mission” is probably the most unforgettable video game score I will ever hear in my life. I can never listen to it straight without getting goosebumps.

    A few things before you play the third installment: the lead writers changed between games, so aside from call-backs to previous games, there’s certainly a shift in the overall feel of ME3’s story. One notable change is that the plot involving Parasini and Tali’s interest in “dark energy” isn’t picked up again in ME3. And if you can find it, don’t play the Omega DLC until you’ve read the tie-in comic “Mass Effect: Invasion” first. Otherwise, that DLC will feel like a very unnecessarily long mission without any significant plot relevance. At least the comic gives you some context as to the characters’ motivations.

    1. Great call on the soundtrack. The sense of urgency and epic-ness it brought to the table cannot be overlooked.

      I’m already planning a complete playthrough going full renegade (maybe skipping some of the more distateful choices). I love sarcastic main characters, so that’ll be fun.

      So far, I haven’t been too bothered by the way your ME2 squad is integrated into ME3. I’m about halfway through, and some of those interactions have had me literally tearing up (Mordin, Thane), so it’s pretty hard to complain about that. While it would have been nice to have, say, Kasumi join your crew again, it might strain believability (and feel like it was copying itself) if a big chunk of ME3 was getting your crew back together.

      Thanks for the Omega tip, but sadly it’s too late. It did feel like it was a bit self-contained, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The length didn’t bother me; it was pretty expensive DLC, so I think I would have been bothered if it were shorter.

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