Looking back at Mass Effect 2, and how talking is the star of BioWare's sequel

Mass Effect 2 is real to me, dammit. I cannot accept a world in which the Citadel does not exist. In which mass relays do not allow instantaneous travel to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. In which there is no race of monotone, four-legged aliens that prefix each sentence with a clarifying statement due to their inability to emote. If you’ll allow for my best Elcor impression *clears throat*... Genuine enthusiasm: let me tell you why I love Mass Effect 2.

It’s the writing. Without it, BioWare’s 2010 sci-fi RPG is merely a good game. But layered characters, richly textured settings, and a perfectly-paced story elevate it to classic status. That’s the power of great writing in a video game, and that's why Mass Effect 2 is so high on our Top 100 games ever.

Writing is how you involve players in your game, rather than just putting them through the mechanical motions. Writing is how you emotionally invest them so they actually care what happens. I don’t reflect on many games after the credits roll - in truth most of the time I’m relieved that I can chalk them off an ever-expanding to-do list - yet I remember the minutiae of Mass Effect 2. The planets, the technologies, the history, the alien races, their customs. I must have spent the equivalent length of most games in ME2’s codex alone.

It’s the 22nd century and interstellar travel is possible through the use of mysterious transit devices called mass relays. Upon using them, mankind discovers they aren’t alone in the universe, and that an inter-species conglomerate known as the Citadel Council maintains order in the galactic community. Think of it like a party: the house is already built but the builder’s long gone, the current owner’s there to set the music and greet the guests, others trickle in when they hear the bass from the street, and there are a shady few glaring menacingly in the windows.

You play Commander Shepard. A Canadian-twinged human soldier initially assigned to the SSV Normandy as Executive Officer, Shepard later becomes the first human to join the elite special task force called the Spectres. While far from the archetypal dullard hero, Shepard’s own crew upstage him. From one perspective Mass Effect 2 is a heist movie. It’s about recruiting a misfit team to pull off the ultimate score - in this case vanquishing evil alien race the Collectors, rather than knocking off a casino. Recruitment gives the game its structure: first you find your crewmate, then you perform a loyalty mission to earn their trust.

Everyone on board the Normandy is a book waiting to be opened. Take Thane, part of a reptilian species known as the Drell, who are rescued from their dying planet by the benevolent Hanar (these ultra-religious purple jellyfish deserve a few pages themselves). Thane, like many rescued Drell, developed a fatal respiratory disease called Kepral's Syndrome due to sudden shift in environment, so he agrees to Shepard's suicide mission as his final act. He's an assassin, and thanks to a photographic memory that evolved to cope with a habitat in which Drell must remember the precise location of resources across vast distances, Thane frequently relives vivid kills in his mind’s eye. He’s feeling pretty guilty about all that murder, so this mission is his gesture of penance.

Mordin Solus is my personal favourite. A Salarian geneticist, Mordin’s consequentialist by nature, which means he believes the ends justify the means. This comes across brilliantly in the practical, impersonal way in which he speaks, selecting the basic components of a sentence without bothering to link them together. For instance, visit Mordin’s quarters for a chat and he he might respond with: “Perhaps later. Trying to determine how scale-itch got onto Normandy. Sexually-transmitted disease. Only carried by Varren. Implications unpleasant.” He’s sharp and to the point, refusing to let emotion cloud his judgement. In both Thane and Mordin’s case, great writing makes great characters.

The writing’s strong even during throwaway banter with randoms. If you’re in the mood for an off-world, off-colour drink, try the Citadel's Silver Coast Casino. Ask the bartender what’s popular and he might recommend the Volus concoction binar (“The alcohol puts you on the floor and the ammonia lets you clean up the mess you made. If you live), a weeping heart (“That’s a martini with Drell skin venom), or mindfish, a fish coated in hallucinogenic oil that the Hanar do instead of alcohol. “Way more potent, and it releases into our systems slowly. Best to clear your schedule for the entire weekend.”

But it’s the codex that goes where players can’t. Even the most inconsequential element has a backstory. The keepers, for instance, are a docile race of insectoids dedicated to maintaining the Citadel. The population on this colossal space station is 13.2 million, but that number doesn’t include these praying mantis men. Why? Because, despite their vital role as caretaker, nobody knows much about them - how many there are, where they come from, how they communicate. With attempts to capture a keeper for study causing it to melt into a puddle of proteins, the council soon made it illegal to interfere with them. They exist in the periphery, but have a fully formed history ripe to explore it.

Mass Effect 2 is my Star Wars, a game that captures the imagination and keeps it even when you’re not playing. It sets new standards in world-building, and that all starts with great writing. Passionate appreciation: thanks, BioWare.

Ben Griffin
In 2012 Ben began his perilous journey in the games industry as a mostly competent writer, later backflipping into the hallowed halls of GamesRadar+ where his purple prose and beige prose combine to form a new type of prose he likes to call ‘brown prose’.