Warning: Contains Main Story Spoilers for Mass Effect 2
For the second venture out into the public, the Mass Effect franchise did some wonderful things, it presented the a new perspective on the setting and a group of and a ensemble cast that BioWare has yet to top. However, it also has a mess of a plot, wrapped in streamlined gameplay improvements that files unique shapes off the original game in a way that few people really noticed it. The game looks and feels so much better than the first time around. And with so much of the story content falling right into BioWare's wheelhouse it can be easy to overlook a few holes. It's not that game is bad per se; just that it's less than it ought to be.
Beginning with the changes to combat, Mass Effect 1 was an RPG first and a shooter second while ME2 is a cover-based shooter with lite RPG advancement mechanics. Both were far from perfect, but ME2's issues are more interesting to discuss. Levelling up doesn't feel like much of an advancement. Gaining five percent more damage or even ten does not change the feel of your powers. It's more efficient and over enough time it makes a difference, but it's nothing compared the feel of the ME1 endgame where players are sustaining full auto-fire with pinpoint accuracy and lifting tank-sized enemies ease (with mind bullets). The level design also shifted gears into third-person, cover-based shooter mode in unsatisfying ways as the line between combat zone and non-combat zone became very clearly divided. Combat zones are very clearly implemented as Gears of War-style kill rooms without much rhyme or reason to the space's "real world" function. Because kill rooms have to be static to plan encounters, which means the no more of ME1's physics objects as cover, the developers removed something I enjoyed. It was incredibly cool to blast through a giant box to reach a target or to biotic juggle a few boxes to knock over foes. There's more to it than just environment, it is also about approach. In the first game, Shepard was confronted with mind-controlled colonists and the player had to measure a limited supply of knock-out grenades against the value of innocent lives. In the second, Shepard treats a similarly insane band of shipwreck survivors as canon fodder without even blinking.
Another shift for the worse was the merger of conversation skills and the alignment system. In the original, the Commander could level up persuasion and intimidation as part of regular skill advancement. This means that the power to talk your way out of combat or into an advantage came at the expense of killing power. Now, that ability is keyed to Shepard's rank on the game's two alignment meters. Your response to the story is now part of character optimization, which is problematic. If you have a complete ME1 save file and look at the alignment meters, it will lean towards one side over the other. Both bars will show some activity compared to a complete ME2 file, and it's almost entirely slated to one bar. Once someone decides on the paragon option, there is no reason to not keep picking paragon until the credits role, otherwise the full range of story options aren't there. Shepard stopped being a character each gamer played differently and more of a point on the matrix of gender, alignment, and romantic partner. That's not cool.
Despite all that, the plot is what really breaks the game for me. The game opens with the Normandy destroyed and Commander Shepard dead in high orbit over a nameless planet. Cut ahead two years and Shep is waking up from a treatment center under the tender ministrations of Cerberus. As reminder, the first game had three villains: the Geth, Batarians, and Cerberus. And Cerberus wasn't even especially villainous during the original, as it was only on every fourth explorable planet that players would come across a distress signal from a Cerberus research facility. The group would be looking into something like testing the effects of mutagens on humans or the long term interactions between horrible space monsters and planetary colonists, but things had gone horribly wrong and from Shepard and crew would clean it up. Mass Effect 1 presented a pro-human terrorist organization that only succeeds at killing humans by accident. The Cerberus of ME2 is a sprawling, clandestine organization with access to technology far greater than that fielded by the Systems Alliance and the Citadel Council, but with little more than a handwave explanation for the discrepancy.
Cerberus and the Illusive Man didn't bring Shepard back from the dead for any reasons related to actual plot points of the first game. The ancient Prothean data construct inside her brain doesn't even get mentioned. There's some half-assed excuse about being a symbol for the potential of humanity and having you on the side of Cerberus is emblematic of something...except players then spend the rest of the game operating covertly (or at least it's supposed to be covert, everyone recognizes Shepard and her ship no matter where you go). It seems the actual reason the Illusive Man needs the Commander is to assemble a rag-tag bunch of misfits and then use the power of life-affirming field trips to turn them into a fighting force capable of anything. So, Shepard came back from the dead because she's a BioWare protagonist. The Illusive Man could have invested those same six million dollars into an metafictional warp-gate to grab Wu the Lotus Blossom out of Two Rivers and gotten the same results. Of course being the best hope for humanity doesn't mean that Shepard should be part of strategic decisions or be fully briefed on all of the errands she gets sent on by her new terrorist masters. No, she can be unknowingly be sent to spring traps for no other reason than "authentic reaction." That's a great use of resources there, Mr. Illusive. However, all is forgiven because putting together a team and performing psychotherapy by sidequest is what BioWare does best. A game where that is the whole point of the plot should be pretty spot on.
And then there's the ending. My issues with Mass Effect 2's ending actually start all the way back at the beginning. Shepard dies before the opening credits and after coming back, the game revels in death and afterlife imagery. It's clear that Hudson and company are leaning very hard on the "Apotheosis" section of their copies of Hero with a Thousand Faces, but without really turning the page to the "Ultimate Boon" section. When a writer kills their hero (literally or metaphorically), there's supposed to be something to show for it after all that trouble of coming back. Odysseus didn't walk through Hades for some cool stories and a pimped-out ride; he went there to learn how to appease the deities that had vexed him for a decade. The good Commander, however, only manages to stop the Collectors and kill a Reaper. But the Collectors were just a sideshow in the same way that the Geth were in the first game. Nothing about the threat was learned, and the concluding note is that are plenty more Reapers, which was the point the first game ended on. Commander Shepard walks right out of hell only to find herself in the exact same spot as she was at the start of the game. Players can't even say they've at least put together a team of unstoppable badasses to stop the Reapers, because since the fact that anyone can die during the ending section combined with the the ever-bloating budgets of EA titles means that most of those characters won't appear in a critical role in the next entry. Way to waste everyone's time, guys.
There are some great lyric moments during the second game, including some wonderful characterizations and a great visual design, but the overall epic of the plot doesn't hold up. I loved Mass Effect 1, warts and all, but Mass Effect 2 lost a lot with the move to EA and the loss of the Karpyshyn/Gaider writing team. There's not enough attention called to the issues of storytelling in ME2 in the wake of the ending of the trilogy, but these are still worth exploring and expanding upon. The game is not bad, but it fails to live up to the potential of the first, thus earning a spot on this list.