The following will contain spoilers for Mass Effect 2. Reader discretion is advised.
They may be the star, but Mass Effect 2 isn’t really about protagonist Commander Shepard.
The second game in Bioware’s science fiction trilogy centers around a suicide mission, and you, as Shepard, spend most of the game recruiting crewmates to join the team. These include tech experts like the Quarian machinist Tali’Zorah vas Normandy and master thief Kasumi Goto, biotic powerhouses Jack and Samara, and skilled combatants Garrus Vakarian and Urdnot Grunt. But it’s more than just collecting these specialists; it’s also about making sure they’re in the right headspace for a mission that could very well be a one-way trip into enemy territory.
That’s where Loyalty Missions come in. Even now, 11 years later, as I play through the Legendary Edition remasters, I’m finding these quests to be some of the best character writing Mass Effect has ever put to page. These segments are all about letting these squadmates settle their affairs should they not make it back through the Omega-4 Relay alive, having defeated the Collectors that threaten all of humanity. Jacob Taylor comes to Shepard to investigate a distress signal from a ship his father supposedly died on years prior. Zaeed Massani wants revenge on the man who betrayed him and wiped him from the records of a gang he founded. Samara needs to hunt down her serial killer daughter.
But it’s not always about closure. Some characters leave their Loyalty Mission with something to come back to. Something worth fighting for. Miranda saved her younger sister from her abusive father. Thane reconnects with a son he abandoned in his time of need. These vignettes are chances for these soldiers to be at their most vulnerable before heading out into the unknown. They also double as great chances to see other parts of the Mass Effect universe that exist beyond the scope of Shepard’s mission. The original game had a lot of telling, but Mass Effect 2 is about showing.
However, while the squadmates each get their dedicated mission to shine, what about Shepard? Shouldn’t they also get a moment to settle their affairs?
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Shepard’s vulnerability is an afterthought in Mass Effect 2. This character died and was brought back to life by the human paramilitary group Cerberus for this mission. They’re spaced out of their ship and wake up two years later to find everything has changed. Everyone in this game is confronting the possibility of death with this mission, but Shepard doesn’t even get to reckon with the fact that they already died once and are being set up to possibly die again. To the series’ credit, Shepard gets some time to deal with the inevitability of death and loss in Mass Effect 3, but when you see everyone else on the Normandy SR-2 tying up their own loose ends, as a player, it’s hard not to ask “when’s my turn?”
But I think it actually speaks to the Mass Effect series’ strengths in allowing you to inhabit Commander Shepard by not giving you an explicit moment that will universally be a “Loyalty Mission,” so to speak. Because no one approaches these games the same way. I spend a lot of these games internalizing my character’s motivations and mindset. While it can require some vigilance, the trilogy gives you many opportunities to exist within the spaces of what the games don’t tell you. And that means everyone can carry with them their own motivations, goals, and values.
So that’s why, for me, Horizon was my Loyalty Mission.
Horizon occurs about a third of a way into Mass Effect 2, and, perhaps appropriately, it’s the last section before Loyalty Missions start unlocking for crewmates that weren’t DLC. The Collectors are attacking a human colony, a group of repurposed Protheans that do the bidding of series big bad, the Reapers. The colonists are being put into stasis, dragged onto the Collectors’ ship, and taken beyond the Omega-4 Relay for some unknown purpose. Stopping these guys is why Shepard was brought back to life, and this is the most warning we’ve had of an attack.
But it’s not just a bunch of nameless colonists I didn’t know. Kaidan Alenko, my former crewmate and current unrequited love, was also there. Immediately, there are personal stakes. Horizon isn’t just a rescue mission to save a colony; it’s about saving what means the most to me and my version of Shepard.
The mission opens with a scene of the Collectors’ first descent upon the colony on Horizon. The sun is shining, and it seems like a beautiful day until the light is blocked out by the aliens’ ship lowering onto the settlement. Seeker swarms descend upon the group; Kaidan attempts to fight them off, but each of them is caught in a stasis field, ready to be packed onto the ship. The urgency of what’s happening is prevalent throughout. And in the one instance I found a surviving colonist who hadn’t been put in stasis, my first question was about Kaidan’s whereabouts. I came in with a specific goal, a specific fear. Mass Effect wouldn’t let me and Kaidan be together as two men until Mass Effect 3, but in creating my vision of Commander Shepard, that mutual pining for each other was written in stone long before my squad and I landed on Horizon. So every chance I had to reflect that in the game, I took.
After we barraged the Collector ship with AA guns, they retreated, but with half the humans of Horizon’s colony aboard. We’d failed to save everyone, but the stasis began to wear off on those left.
Then, here comes Kaidan. He’s in disbelief that Shepard is alive after two years (valid) and then confirms Shepard is working with Cerberus, an organization he’s only ever known as a human-supremacist terrorist group. He called me a traitor (again, valid), and nothing I said was going to change his mind and convince him to join me on this suicide mission. Kaidan walks away but tells me to be careful before turning around and not looking back.
If you care about Kaidan (or Ashley Williams, who might be here instead), it’s one of the toughest pills to swallow in Mass Effect 2 regarding the first game’s cast. Personally, I don’t think the gravity of Shepard being alive after being presumed dead for two years is given its due most of the time. Not with Shepard themselves, and certainly not with most of the original crew. After moments of mild surprise, characters like Garrus and Tali kind of move on without skipping a beat. But Kaidan? He’s angry, he’s too emotional to hear me out, and he has every right to be. Someone disappears for two years and shows back up working with something he only knows as a terrorist group? Walking away seems like a justifiable reaction to me.
But it also feels like a solidifying moment for me and my Shepard. If I can’t get Kaidan to come with me, I can at least make the galaxy safer for him. And that became my headspace throughout Mass Effect 2. It may not be the closure the crew gets, but it’s a reason to keep fighting even if I won’t get to reap the benefits of it.
Now, because I’m an effective commander, I did get everyone out alive on the suicide mission. And even if it would take some time to mend our relationship and eventually make the transition into a romantic one, Kaidan’s safety served as the primary motivator for me to take down the Collectors. Yeah, humanity as a whole is motivation enough. The Collectors are committing atrocities in the name of the Reapers. Of course, I want to stop them. But sometimes, you need to put a face to the idea. And if Mass Effect 2 couldn’t give players a universal personal reason, it at least gave me one mission to frame it all around.