The Calculus of Death in Mass Effect 2 «

“It’s a suicide mission — everyone can die. We tell you that from the beginning. You better make good decisions.” That was Mass Effect series executive producer Casey Hudson’s warning to me when I started playing Mass Effect 2. He elaborated that every one of my squad mates would live or die based on how I playd through the entire game. Such a statement inspired me to play something besides my usual “critical path only and just move on” approach and instead appealed to the min-max player hidden deep within me. If I’m assembling an intergalactic Dirty Dozen, then I want all of them to live, dammit.

As a refresher, the Omega 4 Relay serves as ME2’s Rubicon — once you fly through the Relay, a hidden formula begins tracking specific decisions you’ve made, derives some numbers, and then crunches said numbers to determine who lives, who dies, and when and how they go. After I finished the game and asked Hudson in a later interview about who on the development team can break down the formula and how it works, he told me that was impossible. “You can’t just talk to one guy about how the endgame works,” he said. “You’d have to sit down with the five or six people spread across different teams and disciplines to get the full picture of how it works.”

How does someone figure out the formula for who survives/dies when the creators themselves won’t tell you and there’s no explicit quantitative indicator for what affects said formula? Players, through the power of crowd-sourcing and wikis, have deciphered the base mechanics for death-and-survival in ME2’s endgame, but that requires a lot of people with a lot of time hammering on one topic. So how did I earn the Achievement for having everyone survive the suicide mission my first time through when there wasn’t yet any wiki, FAQ, or forum to guide me through? The answer: Be an over-thinking, role-playing dork, and a min-maxer to boot.

First off, I had already wanted to unlock each party member’s specific ability, which called for completing their loyalty mission. As ME2’s story progresses, you cycle between three basic mission types: Recruitment missions to bring aboard new party members for the suicide mission, story missions that progress the plot, and the aforementioned loyalty ones. By sheer luck, the pattern I settled on was to recruit people, complete that character’s loyalty mission, then complete the next plot-movement mission. The next wave of recruits would become available, and I would repeat the recruit-loyalty-plot cycle.

That helped secure part of my squad member’s fate purely by happenstance. At one point during the story, the crew of the Normandy is kidnapped and, depending on how long you take or how many missions you attempt between the kidnapping and your final plunge into the Omega Relay, the crew may or may not be executed. Again, I didn’t know this at the time, but my blind luck of playing the missions in the above pattern meant that by the time the crew was kidnapped, I had only one loyalty mission left to do before moving forward in the plot — and the player has a buffer of time that lets him complete one mission before hostages start getting killed. I didn’t even consciously think or try to game the system this way; I simply wanted to recruit people and buff them up before progressing onward, and that helped me fall into this pattern through sheer good luck.

No, the first time I suspected some sort of methodology at work came from how, after said loyalty missions, your squad mates can offer specific upgrades to the Normandy itself. The first time Garrus offered to install a cannon onto the Normandy, it made me think: Why can I add a cannon when there’s no space combat mini-game? While other upgrades ranged from utilitarian (extra fuel) to somewhat silly (master assassin Thane offers to install… additional probes), the specific additions of a new cannon, thicker armor, and an upgraded shielding system made me pause. Especially when the shield mentions how it can withstand “blasts like those that destroyed the first Normandy.”

At the time, I was exchanging messages with another reviewer who only completed a few loyalty missions, and when it came time to talk about the Normandy going through Relay and the resulting fight afterwards, I had mentioned how the game prominently showed cut-scenes that demonstrated why those upgrades were a good idea. It came short of saying, “Gee willikers, good thing we upgraded the shields or we would have never withstood that last salvo!” As I celebrated my upgrades, my colleague’s reply surprised me: “Wait, Jack just got killed because the Collectors punched a big hole in the ship.”

That was when I began worrying about decisions and their consequences in earnest. As mentioned earlier, the loyalty mission order and my by-the-hair avoidance of having my crew get liquefied was pure happenstance. I bought the ship upgrades out of minor paranoia, but not until my friend’s comment about losing Jack (followed Tali due to armor and shield mishaps) did I start over-thinking things.

Then I landed on the Collector Base, which is where I began sitting back, reflecting on my party, and overanalyzing my characters for an optimal result. The task: Who goes into a vent in order to open the central gate for the rest of my Suicide Squad to storm through? And subsequently: After getting the gate open, while Shepard leads one squad, who leads the second diversionary team?

 

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