20 terrible things from Mass Effect 2: the flawed writing
No matter how many 100s Mass Effect 2 received from the gaming press, it was a deeply flawed game. This post examines the abominable writing.
To prepare for the release of the demo for Mass Effect 3, I’m revisiting Mass Effect 2 in a four part series. The first post was about the awful characters. The second was a look at troubling choices in the game design.
Let’s examine 20 instances of the terrible writing in Mass Effect 2. The series will then conclude with the five worst elements of the game.
A quick note: the problems with Cerberus and the reapers are so numerous I broke them into separate points for your reading convenience.
20: Don’t invent a lame excuse to take away all my stuff.
I think the only reason they killed you in the beginning was so they’d have an excuse not to transfer over your items. Being killed off and coming back to life doesn’t seem to have had any real impact past the first 30 minutes of the story. You don’t struggle with the existential crisis that should come with having been dead for two years and come back. You don’t spend more than perhaps a line or two on thoughts about the afterlife.
You were dead, then you “got better.” This should be a major plot point, in Shepard’s character arc in ME2. At the very least, there should have been more questions about the process.
Instead Shepard walks through the game like an unthinking automaton, stumbling around the edge of this enormous plot hole. They missed an amazing storytelling opportunity.
Shepard’s death in ME2 also negates anything you might have accomplished with multiple play-throughs on the same character in the first game.
As a result, Shepard’s death and unexplained recovery seem only to be an excuse to take away your stuff.
I liked my stuff.
19: A galaxy full of aliens that look like spaceships.
The whole plot around the Reapers in ME2 is pretty ludicrous, but one of the most mind-numbing parts comes at the very end. We’re told (and shown) that Reapers apparently eat entire races and then create spaceships in the same shape as the race they just absorbed. What the hell sort of reproduction / survival strategy is that?
All the completed Reapers we see look like spaceships. So does that mean that the rest of the Mass Effect universe’s races look like spaceships? That’s pretty stupid.
18: My spacesuit is only good for planetary re-entry, not bullets.
At the very beginning of Mass Effect, when they blow up the ship for no reason, we’re treated to an advertising poster-worthy sequence in which Shepard is blown out of the dying ship and dropped into the atmosphere of a planet.
Despite the fact that his suit is leaking, Shepard’s body somehow survives being blown into space and apparently significant atmospheric friction. Indeed, if we look at the game’s DLC, Shepard’s helmet is found on the planet, indicating that his body somehow managed to survive the vacuum, the intense heat of re-entry, and the abrupt cessation of terminal velocity that accompanies hitting the ground.
If you have armor that can survive all that, why wouldn’t you wear it into battle and say… be immune to bullets?
PS: The ME extended universe doesn’t count. The story needs to be able to stand on its own.
17: Boring boring boring codex entries.
Dragon Age 1 and Mass Effect 1 were both significant in that I was actually quite interested in reading the enormous number of codex entries that I could discover throughout those games. Too bad Bioware hasn’t been able to pull that off since. I’m not entirely sure what happened to the codex entries after game generation 1, perhaps there was a different writer, or it was just that so much of the world had already been established. For whatever reason, the codex entries were neither as interesting nor as well written as they were in Mass Effect 1.
16: Various non-geth robot enemies in general.
Is this just lazy character design? One of the significant narrative threads running through the Mass Effect universe is the distrust of AI, due to the geth rebellion. In the first game there is more than one lecture on the danger of AI.
ME2 seems to just throw this out the window. Non-geth robots are all over the game, comprising one of the most common enemy types. From a narrative perspective, this just makes no sense.
I understand the whole VI argument, but in a universe where you’ve accidentally created the geth, why not just avoid the risk and pay some flesh-and-blood guards?
This is even more valid in light of the geth attacks of the first game. Knowing that the geth are still out there, why would you provide a defense they could easily suborn?
15: Magical Ship Resurrection
The Normandy gets destroyed for a reason absent from the in-game plot in the first minute or so of the game. You complete the narratively pointless initial training sequence and kill off someone for a reason that isn’t entirely clear. Then you are presented with an all new Normandy to explore the universe. We are told this one is exactly the same, only better.
Now it has been a while since my last play-through of Mass Effect 1, however, I seem to recall the Normandy was the top of the line in human engineering. According to the Mass Effect Wikia:
In fact the first game mentions that the Normandy is extraordinarily expensive and valuable with all sorts of technology not available on any other human Alliance ship.
So how is it that Cerberus is able to rebuild the ship, even bigger than before, in two years without anyone noticing? I don’t care how much money they have, there are all sorts of specialized technology and alien innovations in there, you just can’t build something like that in secret. It’s as if Bill Gates decided to build himself an aircraft carrier and expected to do it without anyone noticing. It just doesn’t make sense.
14: Not Enough Playing Politics.
I liked arguing with the Council in Mass Effect 1. It added depth to the universe that there was a higher power and they disapproved. The back and forth in the first game created a window into how the ME universe functioned and the motivations of the various races.
13: Mathematics expressions as philosophy.
So according to Legion:
Does this make any sense to anyone? How can you attach “kill all humans” and “don’t kill all humans” to mathematical equations and how could an interpretation of these two true statements equal two completely different ideas?
12: Utter Abandonment of the Spectres Story Arc.
I think ME2 would have gone very differently if Shepard hadn’t forgotten that he could pull out the Spectre badge. As far as I could tell he still was one and most of the galaxy seems to have failed to notice that he was dead for two years. Seems to me like pulling the galactic secret police card could have come in handy at some point.
At the least, it provides a legitimate alternative to Cerberus.
Besides, being a Spectre was fun. The whole operation was interesting and could have been explored in further depth. Instead the writers forgot about it.
Apparently the Council tries to discredit you post-ME1, but no one says they revoked your position. In fact, depending on your actions in ME1, you are sometimes able to get a formal reinstatement of your Spectres title. It doesn’t matter, Shepard doesn’t even try to use his status.
11: Human Slurry
Your evil plan was to put a couple world populations in a blender and feed it to a robot? That’s the best you could come up with? This is the entirety of The Reapers’ motivation? Are you sure Jaws from James Bond wasn’t on your team? He was in space you know.
No Mr. Shepard, I expect you to blend.
10: Reapers need to reproduce.
Take a moment and watch the EDI make a whole bunch of completely unfounded assumptions at the beginning of the final boss battle:
Why would Reapers need to reproduce? For what purpose? What could possibly be the reason for this? What is the “essence” of a species, and why would they need it to reproduce?
How can you just assume that they tried and failed to create a Prothean Reaper? How would you know?
Also, there are apparently plenty of neigh-invulnerable Reapers out there, why would they even need to create more?
9: Reapers need human slurry to reproduce.
This makes even less sense.
Beyond the utter stupidity of the human slurry plan why would they require it to reproduce? Why would they require human slurry at all? Why would, what appears to be, a giant cybernetic organism require the ‘raw genetic material‘ of millions of humans?
How could they have ever started being created if they needed a dozen planets worth of dead people to create a single Reaper?
No matter how different we all look, the differentiation between one human’s genetic material and another is minimal, hell the difference between the genomes of mice, monkeys, pigs and humans is pretty minimal. It can’t be for our diversity.
Why does it need to chug millions of blended people?
There is no reason given in the game, EDI just states this with her magical computer intuition and we’re supposed to reach Guinness Record levels of suspension of disbelief.
8: A bad case of Section 31-itis.
‘Man that Cerberus is so cool, a semi-secret organization with the power to go around doing whatever they want in order to protect the greater good, getting the ends done without needing to justify the means.’
Gee… this sounds awfully familiar.
Who else in the Mass Effect Universe was a secretive team empowered to make life and death decisions over whoever they wanted by whatever means necessarily in order to protect the greater good?
Oh right, that group you were already a part of, the Spectres.
This is a fairly significant lack of creativity: your role in Cerberus is pretty much the same as it was in the Specters from the first game.
Having your main character be an agent for an organization in which the ends always justify the means is really just an excuse for failing to flesh out the universe and its characters enough to understand what the ramifications of your protagonist’s actions are.
At least in Mass Effect 1 you had to report back to some folks and deal with them yelling at you, or your pissed off companions. In ME2 The Illusive Man responds to any actions you take with a wink and a smile.
If Mass Effect 3 involves you taking a new role in an even more secret organization in which you are empowered to act however the hell you feel like in order to achieve the nebulous ends of “the greater good” I will be forced to defenestrate someone.
7: A half-assed enemy that replace the geth by playing the same exact role and acting the same as the geth did.
So, your enemy is:
A group in which individuals are not really independent, with no distinctions. Each individual is actually a drone. Their pre-game background is a mysterious rarely-seen group. In their first real appearance in the galactic field they mysteriously attack a human colony and eliminate all the people in the colony. As the game progresses it becomes clear that they’ve been subjugated by the Reapers. They have a leader who acts mysteriously in cut-scenes. They tirelessly work for the Reapers with no thought for themselves. When you kill their leader it turns out that he has been under direct Reaper control all along.
Can you tell whether I’m describing the Collectors or the geth from the first game?
6: Ocean’s Eleven story arc that leads up to a suicide mission.
Apparent suicide missions are possible stories for a two hour movie or a short story but they don’t expand well over a 30 to 60 hour game. I started to suffer significant motivation failure early on.
Then there was the ‘meat’ of the story. I put that in quotes because it wasn’t very meaty, the majority of the narrative involves running around on disconnected missions.
Unlike the first game, none of the side missions seem to have any significant connection (either to the main mission, or each other), making the whole game seem even more discombobulated. Linked side missions were a good idea, but they seem to be gone.
This particular structure weakened the narrative significantly. Plus it was pretty odd to spend most of the game wandering around the universe hunting down crew members and then do five impossible things before breakfast in the final mission.
5: Making me leave my ship for no reason to fall for an obvious trap.
I’m just going to quote TV Tropes for this one:
The minute the game told me that my entire team (even though I can’t use them all at once) were going to pile into a shuttle and leave the ship by itself I knew what was going to happen.
What was coming was incredibly obvious and the loss of any sort of player agency at this point seems silly. Why couldn’t you have selected a squad member or two to stay behind and have them either die or make the final mission easier by saving some crew, as in the very final mission? It would have at least created some illusion of control over one’s destiny.
4: Working for the Space Nazis.
Talking about complete loss of player agency… Nothing discouraged me more then the fact that the game starts you working off for the Nazis of the Mass Effect universe. Let’s go down the list of what we learn about Cerberus in the first game.
Oh, and in the second game you discover that they operate in cells… like terrorists. Also that they did more terrible torture/testing on human children. They also want to emulate Saren’s control of the geth.
You work for them and you don’t get a choice about it.
I don’t know how you could justifiably consider any paragon decisions in the narrative of the game when you understand that you are working for an organization that considers the height of alien usefulness to be slavery or experimenting on them to death. Then there’s the fact that they probably killed more humans within the narrative of the first Mass Effect than the primary antagonist’s force.
Even their ‘good guy’ isn’t above a little racist slur now and then.
This is the shot to the foot of character development for Shepard. If you played anything other than a ‘kill all aliens’ Shepard in ME1, the entirety of ME2 makes no sense.
Building a character in a video game is a mediated process. ‘Your character’ is a creation that lies in your head and comes from the interaction between the game text and the player’s response to that text. Unless you thought of your Shepard as a complete psychopath, that balance is completely broken in the first 10 minutes of the game.
Using Cerberus as the primary frame for this game breaks the narrative arc of Shepard in the Mass Effect universe and that’s a big problem.
3: Space Nazis suddenly totally cool with working with aliens.
Disregarding story established in the previous game, Cerberus is apparently totally cool with you filling your ship up with a bunch of aliens. In fact, there was more resistance to the concept in the first game via Navigator Pressly then there is from Cerberus crew in the entire second game.
Yeoman Kelly Chambers, Cerberus member, appears to be in the game entirely to showcase that Cerberus ‘isn’t evil after all.’ This is clear narrative white-washing, an attempt to prevent you from noticing that you happen to be working for the Space Nazis.
2: A complete lack of consequence for working for the Space Nazis.
You’d think working for a rogue black-ops operation which has committed acts that, in the best light, could be considered crimes against humanity and certainly against sapience would be subject to some repercussions, as would their agents.
You’d think there would be a negative result beyond five seconds of an ex-teammate yelling at you? Well there is not. You walk around freely on human-owned and alien planets and ships and no one bats an eye or threatens you with arrest.
Shepard works for terrorist Nazis and there are absolutely no consequences.
1: Aliens that apparently don’t mind working for the Space Nazis.
Even worse than the white-washed humans is the fact that the aliens you recruit don’t seem to mind working for a group that is usually only interested in vivisecting them. This is another case in which Cerberus’s presence in the storyline breaks my suspension of disbelief. There’s perhaps a total of 10 lines by your alien friends noting that Cerberus might be a bad work environment for them before they move on.
This makes no sense. None. It amazes me that one could justify humans working for Cerberus, but I’m willing to put that into the ‘evil men do’ category. That the aliens you work with, who are mostly ‘good guys,’ would do the same stretches belief beyond the breaking point.
Join Aram on Monday, February 6 for part four: the five worst elements of Mass Effect 2.