I was surprised how large a role Shepard’s crew actually played in the original Mass Effect. One of the things I’ve always liked about Japanese RPGs versus western ones are the colorful casts… the sense of “these are the good guys — my good guys”. There’s a very strict, solid line drawn between a character who is On The Team and one who is not.
(Pop quiz: Emperor Gestahl has about twenty times as much dialogue and plot relevance as Gogo does in Final Fantasy VI. Who’s the more important character?)
Western RPGs focus much more on open-ended gameplay styles. They let you roll up your character and adventure in whatever direction you want, making whatever choices you desire. I prefer that to the linear style of Japanese games… but you do lose that sense of coherency. Because everything has to feel more important… nothing really does. Am I making sense here?
Let’s come at it from another angle. Mass Effect is a nonlinear game. You have fewer than ten missions you must complete to finish the game, out of maybe three or four times that. But it doesn’t have that same soulless feel as something like Oblivion or Fallout because the game defines a class of characters as “crew members” and we, as players, instinctively view those characters as more important. So when much of the setting and story of the game comes out through Shepard’s conversations with her crew the game as a whole feels more solid.
They didn’t get it exactly right. For one thing they didn’t give you enough crew members. Six was enough to cover all the career combinations in the game but not necessarily all the setting. There weren’t enough aliens and the aliens you did recruit were fairly typical for their species. A few characters had ties to the plot or interesting sidequests to resolve, but not all of them, so you got to the end of the game feeling like you hadn’t seen everyone’s stories.
Mass Effect 2 fixes all of this and then adds new layers on top of it. It gets it so right, so much more right, that we need a new word because “right” just doesn’t cut it. It gets all of this… super-right.
First: the crew size is almost doubled: eleven instead of six. From a gameplay perspective this causes some career redundancy, but this is a good thing. If you like a career but not a particular character, you can still get the benefits of that career’s powers by using the alternate. And if you really like a career or a particular power you can double up on it in your team. (Or triple-up, if your Shepard has the same power.)
From a plot perspective it works better as well. Like ME1, every character on your crew has interesting things to say. Very few of them are on the mission purely for the mission’s sake (which is a weakness in the casts of many JRPGs), and exploring their reasons for following Shepard offers some interesting insight into how the setting as a whole fits together. There are far more aliens on the crew, only now you’re starting to see the outliers more and more. The krogan from ME1 was pretty much just “standard krogan”; the krogan in ME2 has a more unique plot arc. The writers clearly looked at the previous game and said “Krogan, asari, turian. We covered what those are and why they’re distinct from humans. Now let’s cover what makes individuals from those species distinct from each other.”
Each crew member has two associated missions: recruitment and loyalty. The recruitment missions form the bulk of the game, and serve to introduce (or re-introduce) the characters and get them on your ship. The loyalty missions are the culmination of a character’s personality and backstory. They range in scope from helping one crewman complete an assassination contract, to helping another resolve some difficult family issues, to helping another find a place within his own culture. This is another trick JRPGs have used for a long time: give a character the spotlight once when you recruit them, then again later down the line when their side-story gets resolved. It makes each individual character seem more important than they actually are without needing to derail the entire plot to do it.
Plus most of the characters just look incredibly bad-ass. There is nothing wrong with that. A couple are a bit over-the-top, but hey, it’s a sci-fi story. That’s to be expected.
I think my original idea for this post was to break down each individual character… but looking back over what I’ve typed that’s probably not necessary. I got my point across: ME2‘s cast is wonderful. I’ve been waiting for years for someone to take this feature from JRPGs and replicate it… and now someone has, and has surpassed them. The bar has been raised.