Originally published on GameInformer.com July 24, 2012, at 7:00 AM.
Selected for Blog Herding -- The Best Blogs of the Community, 8/2/12.
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Update 6/4/18: Select screenshots from this pictorial appear at bottom.
Let's talk about the Mass Effect ending. (Dramatic pause for collective groan.) No, no, not that one. I finished Mass Effect 2 not that long ago and it surprised me. Why? Because unlike the vast majority of fans, I thought the sequel was far inferior to the original; however, the Suicide Mission made me reconsider everything that came before. (Spoiler alert.)
What came before, for me, was for all intents and purposes a series of fetch quests aimed at building a team and securing their loyalty. The epic story I loved so much in the first game seemed to me to take a back seat in the sequel. I know that most gamers appreciated the significant character development, which admittedly was admirable, however I felt it detracted from the story and pacing.
Indeed, combined with the misguided planet scanning feature that likewise broke the game's pacing, the mission structure provided poor motivation for me to finish the game more quickly than the more than two years it ended up taking! I cared less for the characters' backstories or respective missions than I did for the story so was left uninspired. Or so I thought.
The Lovelorn Commander, A Side Story (Part 1): (I didn't pause for screenshots during the Suicide Mission, so focus instead on the doomed romances of my Shepard.) Miranda beat out Jack for the final rose, but spurned bachelor Shepard's repeated advances thereafter. Shattered, but mostly bitter, our hero seeks companionship elsewhere.
As it turns out, I didn't appreciate the generous time spent in character development until I played the Suicide Mission. In many ways, that mission was a literal game changer. It made me reconsider what video games are capable of in terms of entertainment and overal cultural significance. Don't get me wrong, Mass Effect 2 still can't hold a candle to the first game IMO, but its significance can't be underestimated.
Why? Many games before have involved a measure of squad leadership where the gamer directs the actions of his teammates in combat. Even the original Mass Effect had players elect where their comrades went, which weapons or biotics to use, and what foes to target. BioWare, too, has implemented squad control in its Dragon Age series.
In both franchises, well developed characters join you on your main quest to combat evil forces. Wheel menus enable varying degrees of role playing selections as well as combat commands. It's deep and ultimately satisfying and, in the case of Mass Effect, your choices can influence who lives or dies.
The Lovelorn Commander, Part 2: Our hero has won the girl, but is taken aback by her seeming cavalier attitude following their passionate embrace. The equivalent of a galactic high-five, Tali compliments her lover then goes back to work.
Variations on this theme were present in at least a couple last gen titles as well. Whereas loyalty is important in Mass Effect 2, trust was the central element in The Thing. Issue unreasonable demands and risk squandering your squad's trust and their ability to assist in a pinch, but take their mindsets into account and all involved might make it out alive.
Similarly, the action in Close Combat: First to Fight was governed by your squad's reaction to stress. To the extent you contribute to it or assuage it, your Marines will react accordingly. This forced the player to carefully consider what orders are given to ensure the Marines are combat effective.
Other franchises besides BioWare's also have relied on effective squad control. Tom Clancy series such as Rainbow Six or Ghost Recon feature such control as a central gameplay element, as have other combat institutions like SOCOM and Brothers in Arms. Related titles like SWAT: Global Strike Team and Freedom Fighters feature streamlined squad commands.
The Lovelorn Commander, Part 3: Increasingly desperate for a cuddle, our hero turns to the resident Asari, Samara. She's no Liara.
One shooter in particular focused solely on squad control. Full Spectrum Warrior had gamers accompany their squad into combat situations and issue orders depending on each scenario the squad faced. However, in every case there is a measure of detachment that allows for virtually any command seemingly regardless of consequence.
This state of affairs is likely most pronounced in real time strategy titles such as those in Sid Meier's Civilization franchise. Granted, players control entire armies but oftentimes they are as faceless as the interchangeable characters one finds too often in shooters.
This is where character development such as exists in BioWare's titles can influence command issuance. Your teammates are less canon fodder and more individuals with their own well conceived personalities and identities. Combine such a focus with the impact of persistent choices in the Mass Effect series and your decisions have lasting impact.
The Lovelorn Commander, Part 4: The Asari Justicar is bound by an honor code that makes a union impossible, unlike our hero who never met a loophole he didn't like. Alas, he is left hoping the Shadow Broker runs a pet adoption agency.
And this brings the discussion full circle to Mass Effect 2. I played the game for over 57 hours and rarely felt invested in any of the characters beyond their significance to Commander Shepard whether as a romantic interest or a loyal crew member. To that end, I pursued the character missions as a matter of course though not out of any commitment to themselves or their stories.
Once I finished all the character and side missions I was ready for the Suicide Mission. I felt I'd properly prepared given what I knew could happen during this fateful trial, so I was confident I'd done all I could to ensure a good outcome. I still was concerned about the potential for losing teammates or Shepard and even failing the mission but, frankly, I was more excited to finally finish the game.
Then, a funny thing happened on the way to the end credits. I was presented with one decision after another that involved my choosing which crew members would perform certain tasks. Some were more dangerous than others but all held the specter of doom and, ultimately, death. I was stopped cold in my tracks several times by the gravity of these weighty decisions.
One fateful choice involved a crew member rescued along the way. Cmdr. Shepard had vowed to leave no one behind and finding this comrade seemed to help fulfill that promise. However, players then have to choose whether to send the character back to the ship with or without an armed escort.
The latter option was tantamount to a death sentence. Unfortunately, the fate of the known universe hung in the balance. I had gone to hell and back to assemble this group and was damned if I was going to spare anyone for such duty. They were on their own. When they graciously accepted their fate, I had pangs of guilt for having made such a choice.
Moving on, I had to select someone for a role that was highly technical but also held little opportunity for survival. There were two obvious choices, however, I had begun a romantic relationship with one. I'm supposed to be objective, but was hesitant to send my love interest to their possible death. But that doesn't mean it was an easy decision and, in fact, still took awhile to deliberate the best option.
Finally, the remaining crew members had to be split into two squads. Trying to ensure both squads were equally staffed and would succeed in their separate objectives was a challenge in and of itself. Then I had to choose a squad leader, knowing that that role might also place them in harms way more than otherwise.
If I'm not mistaken, there was one more decision (unless it was related to the previous one), where I had to elect a few to stay behind and hold off pursuers while the rest ventured forth to the final objective(s). That, too, would be a thankless job that held little opportunity for survival.
In the end, I lost three personnel, including two squadmates: The one I sent back without escort, one who perished defending our rear and another who died trying to reach our biotic shield in time. The second one was not loyal despite my best efforts and the third was from a race whose brethren I killed in the first game. The point being, their demise was not entirely unexpected.
Nevertheless, I did mourn their passing. Sure, I was relieved to have not lost any more, however, I did regret their loss and was left wondering what I could have done differently to have secured their survival. For me, such personal turmoil, whether in the heat of the moment or upon reflection thereafter, represents a high water mark for gaming.
In other titles featuring squad control your followers are typically nameless automatons programmed to do your bidding. Their passing is hardly noted and their absence barely felt as replacements will assume their roles. Only rarely are they ever developed and still more rare is their permanent exit from your game or series.
But the somber choices and resulting persistent deaths in the Mass Effect franchise have helped raise the bar. More significantly, Mass Effect 2's considerable investment in character development and consequently fateful choices at its conclusion have made the burdens of leadership more real than possible in any other medium. Even if it provides only a passing glimpse of the weight of command, that accomplishment alone is worth celebrating.
Rarely has entertainment required such commitment to the material and such perplexing choices of its audience than in Mass Effect 2. And the fact that those choices will persist into the final act of this trilogy gives them even more significance. The overall game might not be among my favorites, but there's no denying that the Suicide Mission will rank among the most powerful gaming experiences I've ever had.
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