Analysis: Mass Effect 2

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.


The 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 variables

Your "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:

  • Two squadmates (Jacob, Miranda) don't have to be recruited, as you start the game with them.
  • Three more (Garrus, Jack, Mordin) are mandatory, since it is not possible to enter the Horizon Plot Tunnel without recruiting them first.
  • Two squadmates (Grunt, Legion) require manual activation after their respective recruitment mission before they can join as team members.
  • Two more (Zaeed, Kasumi) require purchasing DLC and join immediately after a brief dialogue instead of a full-length recruitment mission.
  • One squadmate (Morinth) can only be recruited by recruiting and then killing another during her loyalty mission (Samara).

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:

  • Four loyalties (Samara, Tali, Thane, Zaeed) can be forfeited by making certain decisions in the respective mission.
  • Two squadmates (Samara, Zaeed) can die during their respective loyalty missions, although in Zaeed's case, it is only possible after the Suicide Mission and is thus irrelevant to the endgame.
  • One squadmate (Morinth) is loyal immediately upon recruitment.

Additionally, two pairs of squadmates (Jack and Miranda, Tali and Legion) are scripted to get into a confrontation after the loyalty of both characters in a pair is earned. Unless you are able to persuade them to calm down, you are forced to support one side in the argument, losing the other's loyalty.

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 Mission

Before 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:

  1. CUTSCENE: Passing through the Omega 4 relay:
    1. Victim1 = "Jack"
    2. IF "Heavy Ship Armor" not in U* THEN remove Victim1 from S*
  2. PLAYER CHOICE #1: Two party members for the fight with Oculus:
    1. SELECT P1* from S*
  3. CUTSCENE: Eezo core overload:
    1. Victim2 = FIRST( ( { "Kasumi", "Legion", "Tali", "Thane", "Garrus", "Zaeed", "Grunt" } in S* ) not in P1* )
    2. IF "Multicore Shielding" not in U* THEN remove Victim2 from S*
  4. CUTSCENE: Taking on the Collector Cruiser:
    1. Victim3 = FIRST( { "Thane", "Garrus", "Zaeed", "Grunt", "Jack", "Samara", "Morinth" } in S* )
    2. IF "Thanix Cannon" not in U* THEN remove Victim3 from S*
  5. PLAYER CHOICE #2: Specialist Technician in the vents:
    1. SELECT ST from S*
    2. IdealST* = { "Tali", "Legion", "Kasumi" }
  6. PLAYER CHOICE #3: Fireteam Leader during Infiltration:
    1. SELECT FL1 from (S* minus ST)
    2. IdealFL* = { "Garrus", "Jacob", "Miranda" }
  7. PLAYER CHOICE #4: Two party members during Infiltration:
    1. SELECT P2* from (S* minus { ST, FL1 })
  8. CUTSCENE: Sealing the doors after Infiltration:
    1. IF (ST not in L*) or (ST not in IdealST*) or (FL1 not in L*) or (FL1 not in IdealFL*) THEN remove ST from S*
  9. PLAYER CHOICE #5: Biotic Specialist to hold the bubble:
    1. Biotics* = { "Jack", "Jacob", "Miranda", "Morinth", "Samara", "Thane" }
    2. SELECT BS from (S* in Biotics*)
    3. IdealBS* = { "Samara", "Morinth", "Jack" }
  10. PLAYER CHOICE #6: Fireteam Leader during the Long Walk:
    1. SELECT FL2 from (S* minus BS)
  11. PLAYER CHOICE #7: Escort for the Normandy crew:
    1. SELECT ESC from (S* minus { BS, FL2 }) OR none
  12. PLAYER CHOICE #8: Two party members for the Long Walk:
    1. SELECT P3* from (S* minus { BS, FL2, ESC })
  13. CUTSCENE: Showdown with the Collector Swarm:
    1. IF (BS not in L*) or (BS not in IdealBS*) THEN remove RANDOM(P3*) from S*
  14. CUTSCENE: Opening the doors for the fireteam:
    1. IF (FL2 <> "Miranda") and ( (FL2 not in L*) or (FL2 not in IdealFL*) ) THEN remove FL2 from S*
    2. IF (FL2 = F) and (F in { "Jack", "Thane" }) THEN use different last words
  15. CUTSCENE: Checking up on the Normandy crew:
    1. IF ESC = none THEN CS* = none
    2. IF ESC not in L* THEN remove ESC from S*
  16. PLAYER CHOICE #9: Two party members for the final battle:
    1. SELECT P4* from (S* minus ESC)
    2. Implicit choice (squadmates holding the line): HTL* = S* minus P4* minus ESC
  17. PLAYER CHOICE #10: Destroying or purging the Collector Base
  18. CUTSCENE: Escaping the Collector Base:
    1. Remove (P4* not in L*) from S*
    2. Remove MAGIC(S*, L*, P4*, ESC) from S*
    3. IF COUNT(S*) < 2 THEN Commander Shepard dies
  19. CUTSCENE: Dialogue with the Illusive Man (changes depending on whether Shepard survives and whether Collector Base was destroyed or purged)
  20. ENDING:
    1. IF S* = R* THEN "No One Left Behind"
    2. IF (S* <> R*) and (Shepard lives) THEN "Against All Odds"
    3. IF Shepard dead THEN "Mission Accomplished"

Analysis of the endgame puzzle

As 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:

  • Phase I (steps 1 through 4) consists mostly of cutscenes and evaluates the player's initiative and readiness to go beyond the explicit instruction in preparation for the Suicide Mission—namely, to discover and to acquire Secondary Resources without an obvious indication to their usefulness. It punishes the insufficiently prepared players by handicapping them in phase II via the loss of some Primary Resources, but, ingeniously, makes this seem like a Plotline Death by denying the player any immediate agency in it, as well as giving only vague hints at how it could have been prevented. To further throw the player off-balance, loyalty, while essential elsewhere, provides no protection to crucial Primary Resources in this phase.
  • Phase II (steps 5 through 16note ) is a Final Exam Finale that repeatedly tests the player's common sense, as well as their knowledge of the setting, of the squadmates' backgrounds and personalities, and of the basic game rules. Failure in these tests leads to further losses of the Primary Resource, negatively impacting the player's capacity to overcome later tests, and ultimately, to an inferior ending.
  • Phase III (steps 17 through 20) once again consists mostly of cutscenes that rate the player's performance—only this time, they evaluate both the pre-endgame progress and the phase II decisions. The game then awards the player with one of three possible endings.