Mass Effect Legendary Edition is all about choices, but the trilogy’s second serving contains the toughest choice out of the trilogy. I’m not talking about choosing who to send on the infamous Mass Effect 2 “suicide mission,” but whether you’re prepared to live with the consequences.
Because the genius of Mass Effect 2’s final mission is that those consequences are utterly concrete. Yes, you can choose to free the Rachni queen, potentially inflicting a new infestation on the galaxy, but you won’t reap what you sow until Mass Effect 3. Likewise, leaving the council to die just means you’re dealing with a different species of cynics in Mass Effect 2.
But when you get to Mass Effect 2’s final mission, you’re asked to choose which NPC companion performs one of several Dirty Dozen-style tasks. Sure, some crew members are more suited to specific roles, but there’s no obvious “right” answer. Chances are, the first time you choose, people are going to die.
That’s why, when I first played Mass Effect 2 back in 2010, I ended up just gawping at the screen, controller in my lap. I’d already seen Kelly Chambers turned into Marmite, but I felt sure my companions would make it through. Maybe Garrus would grumble about getting another scar, but, I reasoned, BioWare wouldn’t actually kill off characters based on a relatively arbitrary decision. I was still thinking along those lines when a stray bullet caught Tali in the stomach.
She wasn’t the only casualty, either. I should have been clued in by the way Mass Effect 2 kept driving home the stakes, from the pre-mission dialogue through to the ever swelling music. By the time the mission ended, I’d lost two other comrades in equally shocking circumstances.
I didn’t give a hoot whether the space racist or the sentient plank died on Virmire, but these were characters I cared about; I’d never seen Tali’s face, but I’d spent the better part of two games saving the universe alongside her. I’d not known Jack nearly as long, but her ass-kicking attitude, as well as her hatred of Cerberus’s cheerleader, had made her a character I didn’t want to lose.
So I did the only thing I could think of. I cheated. One web search later, I’d discovered which people I needed to assign to which roles if I wanted to keep them alive. One miraculous escape later, I was backing up my save in preparation for Mass Effect 3.
Except the more I think about it, the more I regret cheating. Remembering those you’ve lost carries more emotional weight than saving everyone, and it’s the former I want to experience going into Mass Effect 3. So the further I inch through Mass Effect Legendary Edition, the more resolute I am that I’ll live with whatever comes to pass when we raid the Collector Base.
Because that really is Mass Effect 2’s biggest challenge — not the suicide mission itself, but upturning the idea that anything less than “everyone lives” is an absolute, unacceptable loss. “How to save everyone” is the most searched-for Mass Effect 2 guide right now, followed by “How to keep everyone alive” in third place, so the drive to get the “perfect” ending or “best” ending is a common one.
When you compare it to other media and even other games, it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense; it’s common for characters to die, particularly if they’re atoning for past sins. The Matrix isn’t the deepest movie in the world, despite its general premise, but knowing half of the Nebuchadnezzar’s crew are dead gives the surviving characters a personal reason to rage against the machines. The Dirty Dozen, one of Mass Effect 2’s likely influences, ends with a lot of the “Dozen” dead. If everyone lived, it wouldn’t be half as dramatic as it is.
Survival horror games are more at home with denying you a “win,” some of the horror stemming from the realization that there is no happy ending, but action games and action RPGs have yet to follow suit. Mass Effect 2’s achievements don’t help; everything from the trailer to the final game ramps up the perceived risk factor, but then you’re given a special badge for keeping everyone safe.
But a more significant factor is that games are active compared to movies, which are typically passive. It’s not your call that gets half the cast of Inglourious Basterds killed, but in Mass Effect 2 you’re in the commander’s chair, so it’s easy to see failure as your fault, even when the odds are stacked against you.
I’d have liked to see Mass Effect Legendary Edition’s suicide mission tweaked so that, while planning counted, there was always a random chance your crewmates would die, but that’s not the case. I’ve long forgotten the “correct” combination to save everyone, so diving into Mass Effect 2 again, I’ll have the chance to stick to my guns and live with the fallout of that final mission.
So, if you’ve never experienced Mass Effect, or if it’s been a long time since you’ve tackled Mass Effect 2, don’t reach for Google. Fight the urge to cheat, to dig out a guide and replay and reload till you save everyone, and you’ll have a better galaxy-saving experience for it. It’s what Commander Shepard would do.