Mass Effect 2’s final mission wrote the series’ name in the stars, but it also poisoned the well of discourse surrounding it in the ten years since the game launched.
First things first, Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission is, to this day, a masterclass in player agency. As Commander Shepard, you lead a group of 10 (give or take depending on DLC or just refusal to recruit some of them) squadmates into what you anticipate to be a one-way trip. The journey through the Omega-4 Relay into the unknown of the Collector homeworld is what all of Mass Effect 2 has been building toward. You’ve recruited this team for the sole purpose of undergoing a battle that has the potential to wipe out every one of your crew mates.
Whether or not you and the rest of your merry band of misfits make it through the Collector Base relies on two things: did you upgrade your ship to survive the trip, and can you as the commanding officer make the best tactical decisions to get everyone safely past the finish line. This means you have to have more than just a passing knowledge of who your team is made up of and know how to give orders that best suit their strengths. It’s not a matter of picking a person for the job, it’s about picking the best person for the job.
Tali’Zorah vas Normandy, the Quarian hacking genius, or Legion, the avatar of millions of synthetic minds, are probably the best people to send through a ventilation shaft to hack through the Collectors’ systems. Samara, the thousand-year-old Justicar with centuries of biotic practice, or Jack, the biotic super soldier engineered to be the strongest of her kind, are capable of creating biotic fields that can defend entire squads from swarms of killer bugs. There’s no margin for error here, as picking anyone else will result in casualties.
And that’s assuming you’ve given them the closure they need to be able to adequately focus during a suicide mission. Is the assassin Thane going to be able to concentrate on getting headshots and covering your crew, or is he going to be thinking about the son he never got to reconcile with? Will Miranda, Shepard’s second in command, be a competent leader if she is distracted wondering if her sister is going to be okay without her protection?
Mass Effect 2 requires you to make an effort to know your crew, not only how they can help you on your mission, but what matters most to them, what they want to see through before they follow you into nearly certain death. Short of using a guide, knowing your squad and being a leader who can best utilize them is the key to success in Mass Effect 2. Your decisions are the difference between watching friends die and leaving no one behind. It’s the reason the game is sweeping several outlets’ Game of the Decade lists. It’s unlike anything else in the series, and really hasn’t been replicated in games to this day.
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But it’s also an outlier in a trilogy that establishes a philosophy early on: there are no perfect outcomes. There are no “best” endings. Mass Effect is a series about making a choice and living with the consequences, and that is very rarely quantified in a decision that can be characterized as objectively the best one. And it feels like, thanks to the Suicide Mission, people forgot that, and you can trace back complaints aimed toward the trilogy’s infamous conclusion to it to this day.
In the original Mass Effect, one of the defining moments was the decision on Virmire. A bomb has been placed on a facility that will create an army of Krogan, and two of your squadmates are stationed elsewhere in the base. You’re left with a choice: do you save Kaidan Alenko or Ashley Williams? There’s no catch-all to save them both. No matter how many sidequests you do before you get there, one of your party members will have to stay behind, and the ramifications of that ripple through the universe in the following games. Those themes are repeated in the conclusion, which requires you to decide between saving human lives or the lives of the alien council as enemy forces brutally shred through them. No matter what you do, you’re going to have to make a tough call and know that people will look at you and humanity differently once an order’s been given.
This idea of “no good endings” is most prevalent in Mass Effect 3, where Shepard fails to save a child from the incoming Reaper invasion in the first hour of the game. This is a game where the stakes have become so high that there is no way to avoid the death of series mainstays like Thane Krios or Legion, and flags from as early as the original Mass Effect could have sealed the fate of Mordin Solus or Urdnot Wrex before you even boot up the game.
Major pillar decisions like choosing whether or not to cure the Genophage – a plague engineered by the Salarians to sterilize the citizens of Tuchanka – for Krogan support in a war, or bringing the Quarians and Geth together (or not, depending on various circumstances) always inevitably take something from you. There’s no guide to help you save Mordin and also cure the Genophage. There’s no way to prevent Legion from sacrificing himself to help his people. There’s no perfect solution to save Thane from a lethal stabbing by a cyber ninja.
Mass Effect as a franchise drills into your head that sacrifice is inevitable. It’s not about finding a “true” ending. That all comes to a head in the trilogy’s finale, which requires you to lose something, whether it’s Shepard’s life or all the synthetic life in the known galaxy, to end the war.
Over the years, multiple criticisms have been directed at Mass Effect 3’s conclusion, but none have been more prevalent than people upset they couldn’t get a “perfect” ending. No amount of preparation or war assets will net you an ending without pain or where you can dialogue check through a tough decision. While people may lean toward one ending or another, there is no “true” ending for the Mass Effect trilogy, and that is in line with the philosophy of all three games.
But ultimately, that truth infuriates people. To this day, one of the most popular Mass Effect 3 mods is one that creates a “happy ending,” which cuts out all the hard decisions, the loss, and shows Shepard alive and well and reunited with their crew without having to suffer the consequences of any choice. There are dozens of videos on YouTube for walkthroughs of how to get the “perfect” ending, which usually means picking the Destroy ending, saving Shepard’s life, but committing genocide to do it, as if that is a universal perfect truth along the lines of saving everyone on the Suicide Mission.
After this (and other) criticism became so widespread in 2012, Bioware released its amended ending in the form of Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut, which added additional context, but also made it unequivocally clear that, despite all the destruction and pain each choice in the game required, everything was gonna be just fine. You may have committed genocide in the name of ending the war, but the galaxy would move on without even a passing mention of the Geth who you killed in the process. If you felt any lingering guilt for what you’d done, the game was sure to coddle that feeling by showing you the happiest version of the universe it could concoct.
Somewhere along the way, the discussion around Mass Effect shifted into something the series never delivered on, or truly attempted to. The idea that Mass Effect was ever a series about gaming the system to find the best ending with no sacrifices is a narrative that has one origin point, and it’s because it’s the only major moment in the entire trilogy that adheres to that philosophy.
Shepard’s trip through the Omega-4 Relay is still an unparalleled, iconic moment in choice-driven design. But it wasn’t in keeping with Mass Effect as it was and as it would go on to be, and the damage it did to the way we talk about the series can’t be undone.