When all is said and done, I'd say that Mass Effect 2 wound up being my favorite of the three Mass Effect games. It wasn't so much the story, the characters, or the gameplay that put it over the top—it was the TV show-like structure.
More than the games that preceded and followed it, Mass Effect 2 felt like playing a season of a really good Sci-Fi TV show. And that, as it turned out, was just fine by me.
Now, don't get me wrong: I liked all three Mass Effect games. I loved the first game's austere vibe and its fantastic soundtrack, as well as that exciting feeling of discovery. I thought Mass Effect 3 was a damned impressive finale, a breathless, high-stakes rush that, some unevenness aside, made for a fine blowout for the trilogy.
The folks at BioWare should be proud of the amazing universe they've created. But it turns out that rather than constantly rushing to save that universe, what I really wanted was an opportunity to relax and explore it. And that's what the second game gave me.
It's a matter of pacing. Both the first and third games were framed as a race against the clock—Saren was planning a Reaper attack of the Citadel in Mass Effect and in Mass Effect 3, well… it takes about seven minutes for the Reapers start destroying all life in the galaxy.
Mass Effect 2 was positively laconic in comparison. "Gather a crew," The Illusive Man told me. "Here are some names. Build up a team, make your ship and weapons really powerful. Take your time. No big hurry."
The door to the endgame (The Omega-4 Relay) is sitting right there the whole time. But although the Reaper attack is still looming, it doesn't feel nearly as pressing as in the first and third games.
As a result, Mass Effect 2 felt more like a TV show than a movie. Most of the game felt like a series of discrete episodes broken up by the occasional "A-Plot" episode that deals with the season-long story, what Buffy The Vampire Slayer coined the "Big Bad." In Mass Effect 2, the Collectors were the Big Bad.
Shepard's death and rebirth were the season premiere. The initial crew recruitments and adventures made up episodes 2-10. The assault on the abandoned Collector ship was the type of mid-season episode that would've aired during sweeps. The back-half of the season contained the later recruitments, the crew's abduction being the penultimate episode, with the suicide mission as a two-part season finale. It's just about an exact structural match.
That structure was fairly rigid. Each crew member had two "episodes"—first, the sequence when Shepard would go and get them into his crew, and then their loyalty mission, in which he'd help them with a problem. And while in the end, Mass Effect 2 had easily the weakest A-plot of all three games, I liked the format so much that I didn't really mind.
The loyalty missions weren't directly connected to the Reaper threat, and as a result they felt like a part of the everyday flow of the Mass Effect universe. More than the other two games, I got a sense of what everyday life would be like for the leader of a crew of space-badasses. I liked talking down an assassin in the dark corridors of the Citadel, or engaging in corporate espionage, or figuring out the truth behind a spaceship crash gone horribly wrong. I liked teaming up with a ninja-like cat burglar and to pull off a heist, or helping one of my former crewmates track down the illusive Shadow Broker.
Mass Effect 2 had an opportunity to try out so many more flavors than simply "Action" and "Drama." It's easily the funniest game of the trilogy, and a part of that is that it's simply easier to be funny when a giant robotic Sword of Damocles isn't hanging over the head of every living being in the galaxy. The stories were refreshingly varied, from lonely salvage missions aboard teetering crashed space vessels to a game of seduction against a deadly adversary. Mass Effect 2 was a welcomely roomy game.
I initially found Mass Effect 2's post-mission results-screens to be jarring, but I grew used to them and eventually came to like them. The stat-covered screens broke things up in the same way as the credits at the end of a TV episode, which helped me structure my time playing the game. These days when I'm watching Misfits or Terriers, sometimes the credits roll and I think "No! I gotta watch one more episode!" But other times, I'm ready to take a break. Either way, it's nice to have the waypoint.
In between "episodes" of Mass Effect 2 I would do some planet scanning, or walk around the Normandy getting to know my crew. It was the kind of atmospheric filler that normally takes place at the margins of a good television show; before the opening credits, during an episode subplot, during a well-handled clip-show. The whole thing hit a rhythm that I found appealing for all the same reasons that I've come to prefer watching good serialized TV to watching a movie.
The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that an episodic BioWare (or BioWare-style) game could be terrific. A series of ten or twenty episodes spread out over six months, downloaded to your console or PC and broken up by smaller side missions… it could make for a highly enjoyable experience.
The mere idea of BioWare creating episodic games might make many a video game fan cringe—and with good reason. The approach could very easily devolve into the sort of nickel-and-diming for which BioWare's publisher EA has become known. But while EA hasn't earned the benefit of the doubt yet, if handled correctly, the approach could work very well. It could even allow players to give clearer, more regular feedback to the developers rather than lumping years' worth of effort into one gargantuan game with a correspondingly gargantuan amount of pent-up fan feedback.
I have a lot of affection for the Mass Effect games, and for the universe in which they take place. I've always wanted to learn more about that world, not from reading codex entries, but from living there, from having adventures and experiencing it for myself. Thanks to its episodic pacing and TV-like structure, Mass Effect 2 gave me the space to do just that. And that's why it's my favorite Mass Effect game.