Re-playing Mass Effect 2: Life and Solus

The revisit to the remasters continued this month; after finishing the first of the trilogy, I swiftly moved on to Mass Effect 2 – the middle one in the Mass Effect Legendary Edition. It’s my favourite of the series, the point where that mix between old-school computer RPG sensibilities melded perfectly with more modern mechanical conveniences – like being able to shoot where you pointed your gun; wild, I know. And it was before EA got too much into things, as it did with the third game, slotting in loot boxes a long time before the public (and media) realised these were tools to get us all addicted to gambling. Mass Effect 2 was the finest balance, and a superb game.

Weirdly, it’s been dragging this month. I’ve played it through four or five times since its 2010 launch and never felt quite like this before. Maybe we can blame the pandemic, as we do with everything, but it’s not feeling quite as magical as it always has previously. The obvious culprit, being less facetious, is that I just got off playing the original (remastered) game and it had a fair chunk of work done to it – it actually felt like something vaguely new, rather than an old game with a new coat of paint. Combat was playable and not, y’know, rubbish. The Mako handled slightly better. It was the same thing, but different enough. Mass Effect 2 in the Legendary Edition feels like Mass Effect 2 in a new coat.

That feeling of it being something new-ish – something special, sort-of – has been lost for the second game and so, as a result, there’s an inevitable feeling of being let down about it all. It’s daft, I know, and it’s already passing, but from the experience I think it’s fair to warn you, dear reader, against the tyranny of jumping straight from Mass Effect to its sequel when you’re playing the 2021 re-releases. It’ll mess with your mind.

Anyway, there’s a game beyond my clouded feelings, and that’s what I’ve actually been playing. Fortunately, in a world where emotions don’t matter, Mass Effect 2 is still as superb, still as special as it ever was. The story it tells feels like it has little to do with the overarching narrative of the trilogy, but that works to its benefit as it’s able to tell an A-to-B tale without leaving much of anything as a loose thread – from that core narrative, at least. The game features one of life’s best intro sequences, with our hero of the first game Commander Shepard being killed by unknown aliens, having heroically sacrificed herself to make sure the crew survives. She gets better, though. And from there, a new tale begins.

It’s that snappy pacing: there’s a threat, you need to deal with it, assemble your team, and go. That’s your mission. There’s plenty – dozens of hours of stuff – to do in-between, of course, and while the Mako has gone the way of the dodo in ME2, there is a scanning minigame that I’m not ashamed to say I actually really enjoy. It’s as prosaic as they come: you’re just swooping a scanning reticule over a planet to find things to mine and distress beacons to ping. It is in no way actually good and positive an addition to the formula, and is rightly mocked by plenty of folks out there. I love it, and will happily sit there scanning dozens of planets for a handful of hours at a time, because I need things like that in my games about action and shooting and drama and stakes. See also: the Pipe Mania puzzles in BioShock.

Away from the scanning (when I can pull myself away from it, at least), I’m finding it slow going compared to my manic dash through the first game. But progress is being made. The upgrade from the original version might not feel as impactful as it did for Mass Effect (and honestly, even there it wasn’t a very big upgrade outside of textures and loading times), so there’s not that feeling of new newness to the old game. But Mass Effect 2 is a bona fide classic of the western RPG genre, and strong writing, great characters, and genuine risks still come together to make for one of the most compelling games of the modern era. Or any era, really.

Whereas last month I had all but finished Mass Effect by the time that column was written, this month, I’m barely a quarter of the way into things. Perhaps the odds of hitting the entire trilogy through three issues of this fine publication, in a row, is an unknowable dream. Fatigue is real. Shiny 4K textures only go so far. But we’ll always have Mordin Solus.

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