Conventional wisdom suggests that narrative franchises are safe, derivative, and present little in the way of artistic challenge. However, that’s neither true nor fair. In fact, a sequel to a beloved first installment is one of the toughest artistic challenges to face. You have to continue a story, add new elements, keep it familiar, and do it all with an audience now placing large expectations on what you come up with. So, it’s rare when one seemingly surpasses the original and hits all the right notes. With some exceptions, Mass Effect 2 is among the very best sequel games of all time. They did pretty much everything right to both deliver a quality product and expand the audience. Yet, there will always be fans who see any attempt to repeat or improve upon an initial offering’s success as lacking in some way.
The biggest changes in Mass Effect 2 from its predecessor are what you might call quality-of-life improvements. Things like managing a limited inventory, combat mechanics, and leveling-up characters all became streamlined. Gone were long walks back to a quest-giver in order to complete the mission. Instead of landing on and driving aimlessly about alien worlds, your ship scanned “anomalies” that indicated where missions were. As mentioned in our retro review of Mass Effect 1, some players enjoyed these things. It made the game feel larger than it was, full of things to discover. The RPG minutiae of doling out limited experience points and upgrading weapons and armor made the game feel personal.
Yet, what was sacrificed resulted in a game that is eminently more replayable. Starting a new adventure feels like less of a grind, and the game (and story) move along much more smoothly.
What Makes For the Best Sequel Games
Image via BioWare
With books or movies, sequels are simply other stories told using the same characters or settings as a previous story. When it comes to the best sequel games, the story is only part of what makes Mass Effect 2 work. Despite its aspirations to be more than a third-person-shooter game, that’s what this series is. So, the attention paid to upgrading combat mechanics was time well-spent. Still, it’s not without its challenges. Depending on your class, you could easily run out of ammo if your plan is to just run-and-gun. Players needed to depend more on their abilities to give them a needed edge, especially on higher difficulties. They also improved squad control, so that you could call on your companions’ assistance more.
Players still have a choice between selected armors (including unsightly helmets in cutscenes) and weapons. These still provide different modifiers to your stats. So, many of those RPG elements are still there, the choices are just more limited than they were in the first game. And for those of us who missed the unwieldy Mako driving missions, a DLC pack included an upgraded vehicle with a handful of fetch-and-fight missions. As well as a fully narrative series of missions about the insidious Project Overlord, which keeps coming up even in Mass Effect: Andromeda. Essentially, Mass Effect 2 improved on basically every gameplay aspect of its predecessor, but in some cases gave us “less” of it than before.
Of course, the beauty of this series is that those who found Mass Effect 2 lacking in some elements still had the first game. They could start a new character that they eventually bring over to Mass Effect 2, because every Shepard deserves to finish their story.
Mass Effect 2 Is an Example of How the Best Sequel Games Are All About Story
Image via BioWare
A common complaint about Mass Effect 2 is that outside of main story missions and companion loyalty missions, there isn’t much game left. This is a fair complaint, because unlike the first game, players could complete the story and keep playing, finishing off side-missions on other planets or the Citadel hub. Yet, with Mass Effect 2, the story is the game. It was a bold choice to force the character to work for an organization that they actively fought against in the first game. They are the only one taking the larger threat of a looming galactic war seriously. In order to fight that threat and save innocent lives, Commander Shepard has to make a deal with the devil (as played by Martin Sheen).
The Normandy SR2 fills up much more than the first one did. Assembling your team and earning their loyalty (optional, but only for sadists) takes up the bulk of gameplay. Whereas the first game gave you a choice of six companions, Mass Effect 2 doubles that number (plus one, but only for a DLC mission). Not only do these provide you with different options for gameplay, they are 12 self-contained stories about new characters in this universe. Some involve big galactic events, others reveal interesting things about alien cultures, and the rest are personal tales that give your character a chance to be a big stinking hero.
Depending on what you do during the run-up to the final mission and the choices you make in the game, every single character can die. (Including yours.)
What Makes Mass Effect 2 One of the Best Sequel Games Is the Sum of Its Parts
Image via screenshot
As mentioned above, some of the side-missions you can do aren’t very involved. One is, literally, a solo run where your character has to press three buttons and kill no enemies. It’s not the best shooter out there nor is it the most involved RPG. Yet, Mass Effect 2 is not just one of these things, its all of them. The blend of gaming and storytelling is what truly makes this feel like a movie you can play. There is one direction you and your crew are heading in. All you can do is your best to mitigate the damage. And have some over-the-clothes action with sexy aliens (or humans if you’re boring.)
When it comes to space operas, Mass Effect 2 is one of the rare cases where the second installments successfully build on the promise of the first. The villains are demystified a little. The heroes are dirtied up a little, too. The universe grows bigger, but you still run into the same characters in the most unlikely places. (Yes, I’m talking about Conrad Verner.)
Like real life, stories are always colored by their endings. Yet, before we knew what Mass Effect 3 held for us, this game was something truly special. It felt like a fully-realized world that we players could affect in big ways. After the first game, Mass Effect was all about potential and promise. No matter what you think about where they ended up, Mass Effect 2 delivered on both.
What do you think? Is Mass Effect 2 one of the best sequel games of all time or did it fail to meet your expectations. Leave us your own retro reviews in the comments below!
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.