I went into this analysis of Mass Effect 2 assuming it was a much looser game, plotwise, than Mass Effect 1. That it streamlined the gameplay is without question; the level upgrades have been lessened, there's no more items to equip, and so forth. And I also thought it was a little looser on the themes of the game. Mass Effect 1 was about forcing the player to take a position on the issue of intergalactic race relations, and its culminating choice was to either save the multiracial galactic Council, or create a new human-dominated one in the wake of their deaths.
Mass Effect 2 goes for something different. Plotwise, it's in a bit of a sticky place. It's the middle game in a trilogy, which means that it can't resolve the plot definitively. And if you can't have the protagonist defeat the major baddie, then what is your story about? The ME2 team at Bioware basically centered the game around not around spatial race relations, but around a more personal story of recruiting your team and gaining their trust.
That isn't to say the race stuff isn't there, which is something I'd forgotten in the course of my previous playthroughs. Pretty much each such thread is referenced at least slightly. The twinning of female sexuality and race as seen in the asari is pushed forward with the addition of the Ardat-Yakshi, barren asari that seduce people, and kill them during mating. (Yes, they're essentially adding a succubus to the all-female species of the game. I didn't say it was a good or original use of race.) The krogan genophage is furthered with Grunt, the manufactured krogan, and Mordin, the scientist who altered the disease to restore its effectiveness (and the resulting moral conundrums of that is one of the more interesting parts of the game). And the robotic geth's status as monsters is tested through both Tali's plotline and the addition of your final team member.
And the technology-organic reversal represented by the game's main villains, the Reapers, is furthered with the introduction of the Collectors, an organic race the Reapers have altered to use as weapons--in other words, the machines have turned people into tools. Granted, this is more a recycling of the same idea as ME1, but it's a nice thought, I guess. We even get a glimpse of a new thread, with the establishment of the drell, a frog-like race that operates almost as willing indentured slaves to the aquatic hanar. So the race stuff is still there.
But the brunt of the choices of the game are based around the brunt of your actions: the recruitment and loyalty of your team members. And in the game's final mission, known repeatedly as the suicide run, these ties are put to the test, as you're put in a situation where many of these characters may die, a death far more final than the usual *use phoenix down* such games present. If you failed to gain a character's loyalty, then he or she may fail under pressure--the same may happen if you assign them a task that they're not suited for. The game still fails to connect the action portions to the choice part in a totally meaningful way, and some of the deaths in the last bit can seem a little arbitrary, but to have the bulk of the choices you've made in the game connect so directly to its conclusion is very gratifying.
I'll conclude, then, with two complaints. The absolute final choice of the game is between destroying the enemy Collector base, or giving it to the Illusive Man (a shadowy pro-human figure who helped you put together your team). It's framed as a choice between "we can't take that risk" and "we must do what's necessary to succeed" but the results frame it as a choice between colluding with the IM or refusing and going your own path. It resolves another of the game's long-standing themes, which is fine, but it really should have been presented differently if that was the decision the player was supposed to be thinking about.
Second, what really irritated me this time round was the way the main character asked for information from his fellow crewmates. He sounds less like a captain trying to secure his people's loyalty and more like an unprepared ENow interviewer:
Miranda: My god. I think it’s a Collector.
Shepherd: Is that some kind of alien? he says, as we see an alien on the monitor.
Shepherd: Sounds like Cerberus wants to dominate all aliens and put humankind on top? Which, you may note, isn't actually a question at all.
Shepherd: You said you were in the Special Tasks Group. What kind of research were you doing?
Mordin: Not simply research. Several recon missions. Covert, high risk. Served under young captain named Kirrhe. Studied krogan genophage. Took water, tissue samples from krogan colonies.
S: Why would Special Tasks Group study the genophage?
Krogran rebellions bloody, dangerous. Nearly as bad as rachni attacks. All species adapt, evolve, mutate. If genophage weakens, need to be prepared.
S: What was the Special Tasks Group preparing to do?
Military schematics for likely krogran population growth. Political scenarios for attack points. Genophage reduced krogan numbers. Species aggression unchecked. Population explosion would be disastrous. Special Task Group helped check krogan rebellion. Needed to be ready to do the same. Simple recon. Nothing to worry about.
Shepherd's asking about a devastating, manufactured virus that keeps an entire species near extinction with all the emotional intensity of a reporter inquiring how the last box social went. It's not the frequency of the questions themselves that bother me--when it comes to videogames, I'm not really interested in immersion, and I'm fairly tolerant of violations to the "show, don't tell" maxim (more on that issue in some future post).
What bothers me is that the questions themselves are presented in such a dull, plodding manner, mere placeholders thrown together to get to the real part, the character's answer. What I'd rather like to see is these questions phrased so that we get some sense of Shepherd's feelings on the subject. But we don't. There are reasons for that. The guy doing the voice for Shepherd generally plays him as fairly dispassionate (unlike Jennifer Hale, who does the female Shepherd character, and if I had played through with a female, I doubt I'd be having this problem). And the writers deliberately make Shepherd as much of a blank slate as possible so that the players can take him in any way they want. But it still seems like a waste of time for people investing so much of it into this game.
People like me, for example. Although, given the length of my notes, I suspect there aren't very many players like me. That's probably a good thing.