The Best of Mass Effect: #1
Where I rank my favorite Mass Effect missions. Spoilers abound.
#1. Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadow Broker
If we were to single out superlatives- “the Most ____ mission in Mass Effect” just about any single one would apply to one of the missions I’ve already listed. Best combat? The Suicide Mission. Most thrilling story moment? Rannoch. Most references to sushi? Citadel.
But what makes Mass Effect so special is how it sustains its space opera format for more than 90 hours, long past the point such a story should be exhausted. And it does this by spinning a world replete with possibility. Our interest in the plot often takes a backseat to our curiosity in what’s going on around the edges. It’s the same appeal that has kept Star Wars fresh for nearly 40 years. It’s why Harry Potter will remain beloved for generations. The world is not simply the plotline. It’s full and robust. We never want to stop learning more about it.
Filling your story with strong characters is the best way to take advantage of a world like this. Give us an interesting character who knows this world. Let them take us on an adventure.
“Lair of the Shadow Broker”, more than any other mission in the game, puts Shepard on the periphery. You are watching someone else’s story play out. That someone is Liara T’Soni, one of the core crew from Mass Effect 1. In that game, she was fairly two-dimensional, lacking the satisfying arcs of some of the other characters. But in “Lair of the Shadow Broker” Liara was written with purpose. She is now a powerful information broker. The two years since Shepard’s initial demise have changed her considerably. She is more pragmatic now, and more capable of violence.
There is perhaps just one person who wields more influence than she: the mysterious “Shadow Broker”, an unknown entity who has been holding a friend of hers- a Drell named Feron- hostage for two years. “Lair of the Shadow Broker” takes you on Liara’s mission to rescue him.
This is a compelling enough plot for a mission, but it’s the richness of this story that sets it atop every other mission in the franchise. Nary a moment goes by that doesn’t add to the game’s greater world.
Lair of the Shadow Broker opens with something of a whodunit. Liara has asked Shepard to visit her apartment to talk about tracking down the Shadow Broker. You arrive to find her apartment empty, riddled with bullet holes, and an asari Spectre named Tela Vasir leading the investigation into the attempted assassination.
That Tela Vasir was the assassin, and that you need to team up with Liara to take her down before moving on to the Shadow Broker is not a surprise. But as always, good execution trumps all. The opening half of “Lair of the Shadow Broker” features a terrific series of fights, first through a bombed out business building, then a flying-car chase (!), and finally a showdown outside a fancy hotel. Sometimes good combat simply comes down to good use of space, and “Lair of the Shadow Broker” excels throughout, providing locations that require more thought and strategizing than simply hopping behind a crate and shooting. The fight against Tela is particularly fun; she proves to be a worthy adversary, and the game does an excellent job of conveying her combat skills by more than simply giving her impenetrable shields.
The moments after the fight with Tela, where you get your first real chance to talk with Liara, begin to set “Lair of the Shadow Broker’s” storytelling apart. If “Mass Effect 2” falters at all, it’s that most of your conversations with your ME1 crew don’t thoroughly address the fact that Shepard has been gone and presumed dead for 2 years. There are perfunctory moments of shock, and some dismay about Shepard’s decision to work for Cerberus, but for the most part the game just continues down its road
“Lair of the Shadow Broker” gives Shepard and Liara the chance to actually catch up. Shepard gets the chance to pick her brain, to see how much she really has changed. And the dialogue isn’t always pleasant. It can be terse, even combative. We get to know Liara, and how she ticks, more in a few conversations in this game than we do in almost the entirety of ME1.
After a short bit of quiet, it’s time to go after the Shadow Broker on his turf. The Shadow Broker base is a masterpiece of art design. It’s a hulking behemoth encased within a thunderstorm. That’s a fairly accurate description of the Shadow Broker himself, who turns out to be a fearsome character, massive, toadlike except for a tricorn mouth overflowing with teeth. There is no cooler location in Mass Effect, and the final fight to take it is all the more exciting because of it.
Defeating the Shadow Broker is one of the most satisfying moments in Mass Effect. Liara is given a moment to revel in just how vast this accomplishment is, and what it means for the direction of the entire galaxy. It’s a moment both grand and intimate. Camaraderie is what Mass Effect does better than just about anything. Putting Shepard as the supporting player, helping Liara to her goal, was a terrific way to explore that side of the game.
“Lair of the Shadow Broker” is as ambitious as it is polished. It moves in grand gestures and quiet conversations. It is everything Mass Effect aspires to be. Games rarely aim this high. And those that do rarely succeed so spectacularly.