Despite being a big fan of the first Mass Effect, I really didn't like its sequel. I found ME2 incredibly disappointing in many ways, and I share many of the views put forward in this article. While the gameplay in itself was a big letdown, what made the game actively distasteful for me was the way it not only trampled all over continuity from ME, but it does this to make you participate in a white supremacist story.
In Mass Effect, the player encounters a rogue Alliance black project called Cerberus, which aims to create super-soldiers. During the course of the game, it becomes obvious that they've gone totally insane, fighting Alliance personnel, including the player character, and perpetrating all kinds of atrocities. They're basically Unit 731, only worse. In fact, if your character has the Sole Survivor background option, it turns out that the people responsible for the death of your former unit, who spent years torturing the only other survivor, are in fact Cerberus. Because the first game is quite immersive, I have to admit that by the end I figured my character had a fairly negative opinion of Cerberus, to say the least.
Having said that, it was a bit of a shock for me when the Cerberus we meet in Mass Effect 2 seems to have nothing to do with Cerberus from the previous game. In the second game, Shepard dies and is resurrected by Cerberus to work for them. The Cerberus operatives you meet enthusiastically explain to you that you've got it all wrong: Cerberus isn't a bad organization at all! They're an independent human supremacist group, bankrolled by a reclusive millionaire, and not some horrible terrorist organization that murdered your entire unit!
What makes the game truly shocking, and totally killed the series for me, was that your character is forced to go along with this. Yes, that's right: my character, who's an Alliance military officer and has seen first hand what Cerberus does, who indeed was mainly known before the events of the first game as the only survivor of a Cerberus atrocity, is now gladly putting on a Cerberus uniform.
It gets worse when you're introduced to your new ship, which is exactly like the old ship. There are even some of your old crew members on board, but they all seem to have entered some strange parallel universe, having renounced their former loyalties, if not even their personalities, and gladly joined a paramilitary human supremacist organization. If this smacks rather strongly of rewriting history in general and Holocaust denial in particular, that's because the game does. What's worse is that this isn't just a couple of characters talking. It's not like this is their version of what Cerberus is; instead, this seems to be the common view of everyone you encounter on Cerberus. Back in Mass Effect, Cerberus and its atrocities were headline news; now it seems collective amnesia has set in, to such an extent that the in-game documentation now gives a whole new view of Cerberus. You're also effectively prevented from seriously questioning it; such topics as the Sole Survivor background being pretty much taboo.
The absolute nadir of the game comes when you encounter a former squadmate from ME, who asks you how you can possibly be working with a disgusting terrorist organization like Cerberus. This isn't even lampshading, it's much worse: your character is being called out on the game's retconning. What are you supposed to say? My answer: because the game forced me to. I can't even begin to imagine what my character would say, because I'd pretty much lost all immersion in the world by then.
The jarring continuity problems are so bad that the most sensible explanation for ME2 would seem to be that your character wakes up in a parallel universe. I've been struggling to find a good analogy to how the rebranding and whitewash of Cerberus felt for me. It's rather like if one were to write a story about an Israeli commando who wakes up from a coma to find that his unit has defected en masse to Hamas, and explain to him that Hamas isn't a terrorist organization at all but a pacifist charity. Or a British left-wing pacifist deciding that maybe the SS isn't so bad after all and joining it when he's told that the Holocaust was really just a lie. And Josef Mengele, who would have fit right in at Cerberus, was a good Samaritan.
If it was just that Mass Effect 2 is really bad at continuity, I could just chalk it up to the generally juvenile and subpar quality of the writing, which produces memorable scenes like this one:
The "ass" in "Mass Effect" seen in the picture is one of the new characters, whose only real game functions are to explain away your previous notions of Cerberus and, well, that. Speaking of characters, most of the recurring characters are also more like parodies of themselves, from Tali and Garrus both actively ridiculing the previous game and delivering frankly embarrassing fan service, to the totally ludicrous transformation of Liara that reminds me very strongly of the Mad parody of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic. Liara's reinvention as a gangster and "information broker", and Garrus's new personality as a sort of lame Turian Punisher, are not only ridiculous but again, offensive to the previous game. Remember the whole side plot with Garrus, where you investigate an unsolved case from his C-Sec days? Where you can guide him in either the "paragon" or "renegade" direction? Turns out you needn't have bothered, because he's going to go and become the Turian Punisher either way.
One of the new NPCs you recruit is Jack, a powerful biotic who was the victim of cruel Cerberus experiments and, unsurprisingly, hates them. You get the same old propaganda line from Cerberus and their on-board cheerleader: the great leader didn't know about it and so on. That may be an attempt at narrative ambiguity; either you believe them or you don't. But the problem with that is that you're not allowed to act on it in any way.
By the way, biotics have been completely nerfed, so you don't actually need her for anything. She only has special cutscene powers.
More jarring universe-breaking follows when you meet the ship's AI. That's right; in the first installment of the series, everyone completely freaked out when AIs were even mentioned, and now here they are, happily living on a ship with a built-in AI. The only person who even notices is Tali, and even she can just be talked out of it. Then again, you can talk her into happily co-operating with a Geth, too.
But the problem isn't just poor continuity: what's being done with Cerberus is morally distasteful as well. In Mass Effect, Cerberus was an organization dedicated to human supremacy and the creation of a "super-man" in order to defeat the aliens and conquer the galaxy for man's living space. Sound familiar? It should, because Cerberus seems to be rather directly based on the SS.
So in Mass Effect 2, you're revived by the SS, and two cheerful SS officers explain to you that you've got it all wrong! They have nothing against the Jews or Slavs as such, it's just that they're concerned with maintaining Germany's racial purity and standing in the world community. Of course, some individual SS members or member organizations, even, may have undertaken some suspicious activities in the past, but those have probably been misrepresented and anyway, they can't keep track of everyone. (The really atrocious examples are simply ignored, and you're not allowed to ask.) What matters is that their leader is a great man with a great vision for the future of our race. Surely you'll put on this SS uniform and follow his orders!
So right at the start of the game, you're forced to go along with rewriting history in a manner that rather too strongly resembles Holocaust denial. It then starts getting worse. Soon enough, you're initiated into the main plot of the game. Evil aliens are abducting thousands of people, and the Alliance government doesn't care. Therefore, it's up to the heroic racist militia of Cerberus to stop the evil aliens and save humanity. You see? It turns out the racists were the good guys! The government is corrupt, and its entanglement in a sinister one-galaxy government means it doesn't care what happens to ordinary folks. Luckily, the racist militia does care, and by defying the government, they save lives from the alien threat.
This is a narrative that could have been cooked up for a video game by a Midwestern racist militia or a European neo-fascist group. The main character is a brave government agent fighting on the side of good. He's resurrected by a racist group he's previously fought against, but finds out that after his death, the government has stopped caring about the people. Some of his former colleagues are now members of the racist group, and talk about their alienation with the goverment and its cover-ups of their heroic deeds and the coming alien menace. Only the enlightened elite that make up this militia group understand that the government's destructive policies of multiculturalism are leading to the destruction of the human race, but for saying this they're branded as racists. So the main character realizes that the racists are, after all, really the good guys, and the corrupt government is evil. He gladly joins a racial supremacist organization and battles the evil aliens.
In sum, Mass Effect 2 is the most disgustingly racist game I've ever played in my life.
Oh, sure, there are aliens on your team. That's not historically inappropriate; there were all sorts of nationalities in the Waffen-SS, too. The plot of the game still is that the government doesn't care if thousands of people are dying, because it's more interested in covering up alien attacks for some senseless nefarious reason, and people need armed anti-government racists to protect them from foreigners. I'm surprised they don't make you plant a truck bomb at an Alliance office building.
From what I've heard, in ME3 Cerberus will once again be your enemy. I wonder how they're going to pull that off. Retcon the retcon? Unless ME2 is rewritten out of existence (it was all a dream!), the fact will still remain that while the Alliance (federal government) stood by and did nothing, Cerberus (white supremacist militia) saved thousands of people from the aliens. Never mind that this whole notion of the Alliance being so corrupt and evil that they don't care about people any more comes out of nowhere.
I'd like to take this opportunity to suggest some more plot points for Mass Effect 3, in line with the new creative direction taken by ME2:
- the Alliance bans firearms and sends squads of aliens to collect them from human patriots
- main character discovers the "Protocols of the Elders of the Volus", proving the Volus are secretly allies of the Reapers
- the Council races join forces to create a New Galactic Order, a socialist one-galaxy government
- the New Galactic Order brands all humans with a barcode and bans the non-coded from buying and selling
- main character finds out that an ultra-secret cult, the Space Masons, secretly controls the Alliance
There's a lot of mileage to be covered here. The game could be called Mass Effect 3: The Shepard Diaries.
Mass Effect 2 was an insultingly bad game. If you were a fan of the first Mass Effect, ME2 went out of its way to slap you in the face. Instead of a dynamic, ambitious CRPG, we get a second-rate Gears of War clone that occasionally masquerades as a racist adventure game. Oh, and don't forget the planet-scanning mini-game, which was almost as much fun as stabbing yourself with a rusty knife.
The game also manages to be disgustingly sexist. As part of your crew, you have a sort of SS yeoman, who, of course, is a cute girl. If you get talking with her, it's possible for your character to develop a kind of romantic sub-plot with her. The consummation? A kiss? A sex scene? No.
You get to use her as a cabin ornament.
It's literally sickening. And, of course, there are no more same-sex romance options, because in the Space SS, that's just wrong.
In this hyper-sexist environment, what was merely poorly executed in the first game becomes actively troubling: every alien race is made up of a single gender. The only exception is the quarians, who seem to come in male and female; in neither of the games do we encounter a single krogan, salarian or turian female. On the wiki, we can have some reasons: the salarian "females are cloistered on their worlds out of tradition and respect". The krogan: "Female krogan rarely leave their home worlds, focusing on breeding in an attempt to keep krogan numbers from declining too quickly. The few remaining fertile females who can carry young to term are treated as prizes of war, to be seized, bartered or fought over." And even though there's no "fluff" justification for never meeting a turian female, we just...don't.
In the first game, the stated reason for never seeing a turian female was, as per the wiki, insufficient time and resources. I can believe that, and I'm certainly not saying that every permutation of alien race and gender needs to be represented in every sci-fi game. Still, for every major alien species we meet, the females are cloistered on their homeworlds or kept as chattel, or are just inexplicably absent. The quarians are the only exception, and when it comes to the more exotic aliens, gender isn't even mentioned but the assumption seems to be that everyone is male. The more unusual alien species are confined to brief walk-on roles, so they're not very relevant. Notable among them are, of course, the volus, a mysterious race of merchant profiteers with prominent noses whose race is denied membership in the galactic council because it's inferior.
And then there are the asari. Even though the asari have only one gender, the in-game Codex describes them as an "all-female" race, surely a mindless statement. The Orion slave girls of Mass Effect, the asari look and act like blue-skinned human women. They're promiscuous bisexuals who, despite looking very human, are inexplicably sexually desired by all of the major races of the Mass Effect universe. The asari can be found throughout the galaxy as strippers and prostitutes, and the game makes sure to bring some loose blue women your way for flirtation and more regularly.
So each major race maps nicely onto a gender. The turians, krogans and salarians are all men, and the asari are all women. The former provide NPC soldiers and scientists, while the asari get by on their biotic powers. As a point of note, while ME1 included a female soldier, in Mass Effect 2 your squad members divide neatly along gender lines. The men are soldiers or scientists, or at best semi-biotics, while the women are biotics, plus a thief added in the downloadable content. In other words, in ME2 women need special powers to be useful team members, while men can just pack a gun and come along.
Yes, it's a man's life in the Mass Effect galaxy.
So, if you've always wanted to be a space nazi, heroically rescuing the overwhelmingly white and heterosexual human race from evil space foreigners, this is the game for you. It made me want to vomit.