Mass Effect 2 Should Have Been A Horror Game

Mass Effect has always been a mesh of genres. The defining factor in whether you prefer the first or the second instalment is your preference between more traditional RPGs or more modern cover shooters, with both games including elements of either but leaning heavily in different directions. That’s before you even get to the narrative – that’s obviously sci-fi, with elements of space western and space opera, as well as action and romance. Through the side quests and loyalty missions, we get everything from space kitchen sink to detective fiction to courtroom drama. But it’s never really a horror, and after replaying it in the Legendary Edition, I’m not sure why.

Mass Effect 2 is one of my favourite games ever, and while there are definitely areas of its ideology and themes that are open to critique, suggesting the experience could have been built or designed differently seems less worthwhile. But here I am, I don’t know what to tell you. Mass Effect 2 should have been a horror game.

There is an innate horror to Mass Effect 2 on the surface, but the game never quite wants to make it the focus. The Collectors are body snatchers, and that makes them innately horrific, but the story never tries to make them horror characters. We see too much of them to be a Jaws-style lurking threat, and we spend too much time not really bothering with Collector stuff for them to be a constant, looming presence. They freeze people in stasis then stuff their stiff bodies into pods, ready to be stored away like an unholy Walt Disney. It’s chilling, but this is mainly used in the background – when you confront the Collectors, you just shoot them while they shoot you. It takes away the tension almost entirely. Their ship and base has this same design philosophy too – scary, but not like, too scary. It’s like the Xenomorph den from Alien, except somebody left the lights on and nothing looks like a penis.

While the Collectors are the most obvious source of fear, the game could still have explored its own horror in more depth, and while not doing so was clearly a deliberate choice to maintain the space opera tone, certain missions or narratives feel like a missed opportunity.

It’s in the side missions where this horror has the most room to breathe. In one mini quest, you’ll be sent to a deserted mine in the middle of nowhere, and quickly discover that Husks and Abominations are crawling out of the mineshaft. There are notes left behind by the dead telling you to flee. I’ve already written about how the Husks offer an existential chill, exploring what it means to be human in a galaxy where we are not the only race, and how despite not being zombies, they are one of the most effective uses of the zombie archetype, along with Night of the Living Dead and Us. Often though, the Husks are overshadowed – they’re fodder while you take down bigger enemies. Here, it’s all Husks all the time, with Abominations being red, fiery, explosive Husks. In this mission, you discover the mineshaft is the source of the Husks, with an abandoned geth contraption apparently producing them endlessly from an unknowably deep mass grave. It’s horrific, but the mission ends with you blowing the legs off the Husk machine and flying away – it’s a bit anticlimactic.

Elsewhere, you investigate a space station where the VI has gone all 2001 and decides it’s sorry Dave, but it’s afraid it can’t do that. The humans are dead, blood is smeared on the walls… but the mission itself revolves around turning on some batteries to open a door. There’s a weird maths puzzle and some steam shooting out of broken pipes, but there’s no dread involved. You’re just wandering while the VI chatters in the background, then you switch it off.

The more central narrative missions could bring the horror too, but the ones that have the opportunity never take it. Jacob’s loyalty mission is the most uncomfortable, and the reason it’s so memorable is because it confronts this discomfort. It’s not graphic, but we know precisely what has been going on with Ronald Taylor. Other missions though don’t quite commit. Morinth as an Ardat-Yakshi is compelling enough to support a full game on its own, but it’s over a little too quickly. This is the nature of Mass Effect 2 – it allows every character to be the star, but that just leaves us wanting more.

Take one look at a bulging Scion, or a Praetorian with Husks in its mouth, and tell me they aren’t destined for a horror game. Mass Effect does a great job of juggling genres, but when it comes to horror, it drops the ball.

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