The Beauty of Mass Effect 2 Ending...or "How Come the Suicide Mission Is So Awesome?" Mass Effect 2 is the most universally adored part of the original Mass Effect trilogy, and despite its improved gameplay refinement and variety, Mass Effect 3 could never supplant its predecessor—because part two had something the sequel didn't: a mind-blowingly epic ending that left every player in awe. But what exactly made the ending of Mass Effect 2 so amazing? Although the magnificent cutscene direction and musical composition contribute a lot to the ending, the key to the awesomeness of Mass Effect 2 endgame segment lies in the gameplay design and the story scripting of the entire Suicide Mission. Spoilers ahead.
SummaryThe main appeal, driving force, and resource in Mass Effect 2 are the thirteen recruitable companions (squadmates) of Commander Shepardnote . The entire game revolves around them, and the Suicide Mission is quite consciously a Final Exam Finale level taking form of a weird Puzzle and Collectible Card Game hybrid. The collectible card aspect comes from the fact that the outcome of the endgame depends largely on what "deck" (i.e. which squadmates) you bring with you to the Omega 4 relay. The puzzle aspect is owed to the complex but static set of rules that determine your success or failure in the Suicide Mission—rules that are pretty obvious if you pay attention to your squadmates beforehand. A bulk of Mass Effect 2 concerns the composition and enhancement of your "deck". This largest part of the game is very options-driven, meaning that you can do any missions in any order, mostly without fear of immediate harsh consequences. This part ends with the first true major choice of the game that finalizes the state of the "deck", namely, the choice of when to enter the Omega 4 relay. The entire Suicide Mission boils down to (a mere) ten more choices that determine its outcome, as you are repeatedly forced to put your squadmates (including ones whom you might need later on) at risk of a Plotline Death in order to advance the mission. Your task is made easier by the fact that for every choice, there are at least three possible winning decisions—although, of course, you may not have all of them in your "deck" at that point. However, the game also refuses to hold your hand in solving this puzzle with obvious hints and instead makes you rely on common sense and prior knowledge of the individual squadmates' strengths and backgrounds to make ideal decisions. The interchangeability of squadmates in certain story-relevant roles and, conversely, the dependency of said roles' outcomes (success or tragedy) on the suitability of the actors is what gives the strictly linear Suicide Mission its amazing variability. Even though it doesn't matter much, for instance, which loyal squadmate escorts the Normandy crew back to the ship, the option to choose one and the palpable consequence of that teammate being absent for the rest of the mission give the players an illusion of controlling their own story. By extension, the multitude of winning scenarios guarantees that most players end up feeling like they have been told a personal and unique story, even though all players start the endgame with roughly the same "decks" and experience exactly the same story beats along the way.
Pre-endgame variablesYour "deck" at the beginning of the Suicide Mission is effectively represented by three mathematical sets and two variables.
Recruited squadmates (R*)This set is the base of all other pre-endgame options. There are 13 items available for this set (Garrus, Grunt, Jack, Jacob, Kasumi, Legion, Miranda, Mordin, Morinth, Samara, Tali, Thane, Zaeed) but it can only contain up to 12 at any time. Recruiting a squadmate generally takes place in the course of a single Dossier mission, but with several particularities:
Loyal squadmates (L*)The set of loyal squadmates is always a subset of R*, therefore it likewise has 13 potential items but can only hold 12 at any time. Its membership is determined mainly by completing the so-called Loyalty Missions of the respective squadmates, with following particularities:
Ship upgrades (U*)This set is a mix of story-relevant upgrades, gameplay-relevant upgrades, and even purely cosmetic upgrades (Med-Bay Upgrade). Only the three story-relevant upgrades (Heavy Ship Armor, Multicore Shielding, Thanix Cannon) have impact on the course of the Suicide Mission. The availability of all upgrades is directly derived from R*, since they can only be unlocked for purchase by talking with a specific squadmate.
Romanced squadmate (F)The romanced squadmate is a singular member of the conjunction of L* and the fixed set of romanceable squadmates determined by Shepard's gender (Garrus, Jacob, Thane for female; Jack, Miranda, Tali for male). Of these, only one romance for each gender (Thane, Jack) has any effect on the course of the endgame, and that effect is purely cosmetic.
Delay between the attack on the Normandy and the Suicide Mission (D)Since there is no In-Universe Game Clock in the game, the time is measured by the number of completed missions between two events, specifically, the kidnapping of the Normandy crew by the Collectors and the start of the Suicide Mission. In practical terms, this delay can have only three values: short (at most one story mission or assignment), middle (one to three assignments and no story missions), and long (anything above that).
Pseudocode of the Suicide MissionBefore passing through the Omega 4 relay, two variable sets are initialized: the squad survivors set (S*) is initialized with the current contents of R* and the crew survivors set (CS*) is preset according to D (if short, all kidnapped crew members; if middle, half of the crew; if long, only Dr. Chakwas). The following pseudocode is a more-or-less formal representation of the endgame puzzle:
Analysis of the endgame puzzleAs already mentioned, the endgame puzzle (the Suicide Mission) is all about intelligent application of the resources the player had a chance to collect throughout the game. These resources can be abstracted into two types: Primary (squadmates and their loyalties) and Secondary (Normandy upgrades). With that in mind, the puzzle itself can be then abstracted into three phases: