At the climax of Mass Effect 2, you lead your team in an attack on the Collectors’ base. This mission has been hyped up throughout the game as a crazy, dangerous, near impossible suicide mission. People can die, people will die, and it all depends on you.
My first time through this end game was a thrilling experience, knowing that my squad could die gave every fight a heightened tension. In that regard, Mass Effect 2 accomplished the very thing that most war games try and fail at, character development through conflict. I had bonded with these characters through firefights and missions, so I didn’t want anyone to die. I cared about all of them. However, none of that tension holds up a second time through the suicide mission because of how the mission is structured. If I have even a vague sense of what to do, it’s easy to keep everyone alive, and this supposedly dangerous mission ends up as the least suicidal suicide mission ever.
It begins with the loyalty missions. Every squad mate has a personal problem that must be dealt with before they’ll be ready to risk their lives for Commander Shepard. These are intimate missions that act as the central means of character development for the entire supporting cast, completing them successfully ensures that the squad mate is loyal to Shepard. Loyalty is important because whenever someone can die during the suicide mission it’s always the disloyal squad mate that dies first or that gets someone else killed. Completing everyone’s loyalty mission therefore gives you a major advantage because if everyone is loyal than everyone automatically survives as long as you make the correct decisions (more on that later).
Killing disloyal squad mates first, in any situation, is a bad idea from a narrative perspective because they’re precisely the people that I don’t care about. Since the loyalty missions are so important in developing characters, skipping one makes it hard for the player to get emotionally attached to that character. That death won’t have any serious impact because the player obviously wasn’t very close to the character. I care about saving the people I like, so if I don’t like someone and purposely skip their loyalty mission, when they die it won’t be depressing or dramatic, it’ll just be the death of a minor character that I was never very interested in to begin with. A death is only emotional if I care about who dies, so the loyal squad mates should always be the first to go in order to heighten dramatic tension.
Another major problem with the structure of the suicide missions is that the game uses specific decisions to decide who lives and dies, buying upgrades for the Normandy, choosing who will infiltrate through the vents, who will lead the fireteams, who will create a biotic shield, and who will hold the line in the end. There are right and wrong choices for each of these scenarios. Choose wrong and someone will die. The problem is that the answers never change, so once you know who’s best for the job that you assign to them, you can actually keep everyone alive even if half the team is disloyal. There’s no tension during a second playthrough.
Instead, these scenarios should be based on player skill. If we were timed, if we had to fight our way through the ship on a strict time limit similar to Dead Rising, or if we couldn’t revive any character that went down in battle, if who lived and died depended on what we did during combat itself, then it would have been far harder to keep everyone alive. This is supposed to be an epic suicide mission, so it should be hard no matter what playthrough I’m on. Basing survival on player skill would ensure that the difficulty remains consistent.
My favorite part of that final mission (and the most consistently intense part) is when Shepard has to hit switches to open a path for the vent specialist. If you take too long, the vents will overheat and the specialist will burn. Naturally the switches are surrounded by Collectors, so each firefight becomes a race against time. You’re given plenty of time on lower difficulty levels, but on “Insanity”, the enemies are harder to kill and the time limit therefore seems shorter. In this one instance, the challenge of keeping a character alive actually scales with the difficulty.
“No One Left Behind” should have been the hardest Achievement to unlock considering how much the final mission is hyped up, but once you know what you’re doing, it’s actually quite easy. No one in your crew is actually suicidal, just because some people accept that they might die on a mission doesn’t make it a suicide mission, and the results speak for themselves. Attacking the Collectors’ base is far from suicidal. At least with Commander Shepard in charge.