There seems to be this qualitative assertion that when it comes to narrative, more equates with better. This strange idea has become the primary dividing line in any debate between the first Mass Effect and the second.
Mass Effect 1 has an incredible burden on its shoulders. As the first chapter in what Bioware had early on promised to be a trilogy, the story needed to juggle introducing the fiction of the universe, the narrative for the events that would transpire in this game and justify the character that would be instrumental within it.
The immediate issue is that the inciting incident for the whole franchise- Shepard’s Normandy receiving an SOS from Eden Prime that leads to the hunt for Saren- happens almost by accident, robbing Shepard of essential characterization.
Once Shepard is on the The Citadel, the investigation into Saren’s activities amounts to a steady stream of introductions to characters that will populate your crew. While Wrex, Tali and Garrus all have their own motivations for joining, they end up being trite personally and trivial for the story proper.
Even the main story progression can be boiled down to a handfull of narrative beats, but each is more of a self-contained story that is attributed to the machinations of Saren’s evil plans than a progression of the main plot. Really, the sections leading up to the events that transpire on Ilos, equate to Saturday morning cartoon ‘stop the villains evil plans this week’. Each is that divorced from each other.
But its these moments that occur on Virmire, Noveria and Feros and the events that happen on them, that consist of the bulk of the argument as to why this games story is better, but it is their existence which is its greatest weakness.
In comparison, Mass Effect 2’s script and story design is tight and efficient. This is a game about Shepard assembling the team that will cross the Omega Relay and take the fight into the enemies own territory. To that end, the narrative must be about building that team- about each character’s justifications for joining the larger fight and building their personal reasons for staying with Shepard.
While it can be argued that there are just as few primary story beats as in the first Mass Effect, the personal journeys the characters go on are both well told, add a tremendous amount of backstory for all and help build out an implicit connection between them and Shepard and has gameplay benefits.Completing loyalty missions will unlock abilities and ultimately factor into the chances of the missions success.
The difference between the two narratives is how relevant the actions are to the immediate plot. Mass 1 might technically have more story, but its devoid of any actual purpose outside of showing how deep Saren has gone into his plans.In Mass 2, a large amount of the story goes to the characters, who do have a significant impact on the story as a whole.