Mass Effect Andromeda
A little over a month ago Bioware released the fourth entry in their Mass Effect franchise subtitled Andromeda. The game was met with, shall we say, a mixed reception. In all honesty, this should probably have been expected, not a single entry in the series has failed to meet with at least some controversy. The original had a great concept but was poor mechanically, the second just threw out the problematic bits without even an attempt to fix them and the third failed to capitalise on the narrative set-up of the first two. What’s the flaw in Andromeda? Well, we’ll get to that.
First, let me settle down in the comfy chair by the fire, steeple my fingers and witter for a bit. Someone irritatingly more concise than I summed up much of the reaction to Andromeda by saying that it has been “An exercise in confirmation bias”, which is to say everyone already knew what they thought of it before they played it. As for me, I’ve played and enjoyed nearly every game Bioware has released since KotOR, even the more questionable entries on that list like The Old Republic and Dragon Age II. That’s why I’m writing this over a month since I began Andromeda and over a fortnight since I finished it (for the second time). I’ve been procrastinating, umming, ahhing and all that good stuff, hoping that time and endless introspection might wash the bias from my eyes. Of course, it didn’t and indeed couldn’t. Now, I detest the word ‘fan’ (or the even more pejorative ‘fanboy’), so instead I’ll describe myself as a mark for Bioware and their style, something about the way they blend a game together tickles my brain in just the right way so I, unsurprisingly, really like Andromeda.
That out the way let’s get to business. Right out of the box (which didn’t have a disc in it, only an Origin download code) it’s a departure from the original trilogy in a very literal way. The Milky Way is left far behind in favour of a colonisation effort in the eponymous Andromeda galaxy, of course, well-executed plans hardly make for interesting stories so the Andromeda Initiative runs spectacularly into a figurative cliff-face of cock-ups. From a total lack of colony viable planets to hostile aliens and a mysterious and deadly cloud of dark energy, the odds are set out as insurmountable. At the heart of the mess is our new protagonist, Ryder, who has thrust the unwelcome responsibility of fixing pretty much everything. Andromeda strikes a pleasant balance between the grandness of a typical ‘save the world’ storyline and something more personal, the Initiative’s quest for a new home.
In many ways, Andromeda seems to be trying to recapture a feeling that was lost after ME2 stripped Mass Effect back to just the shooting and talking. Andromeda is the first game since Mass Effect to feature a planetary rover, a tangible antagonist, a coherent self-contained narrative (2 was more about the character vignettes than the nominally main story and 3 is very much the conclusion to a trilogy rather than its own thing) and, most importantly, a sense of exploration and wonder, the feeling of being a very small part of a vast universe. Whilst I would decry the planetary exploration in Mass Effect as tedious padding I can’t argue that it gives the galaxy a scale that its sequels were lacking.
Andromeda approaches exploration a slightly different way. It has a limited set of crafted planets, each functioning as a little open world complete with mini-maps full of gubbins and a plethora of side-missions, similar in design to Dragon Age: Inquisition. Many of these side missions are little more than entertaining distractions but that’s more a problem with open-world game design in general than the game specifically if you ask me. Two ways in which Andromeda does improve on DA:I’s design, however, is the means of travel, Andromeda’s Nomad is a joy to drive with rocket boost, jump and six-wheel-climb-silly-steep-mountains-mode compared to a stodgy, lethargic horse and every mission you do contributes to a ‘Viability’ meter, which upon a new level allows Ryder to unlock a new perk. Much the same as DA:I, however, Andromeda is a trap for completionists, if you see the quests on your mini-map as a to-do list it’s going to be very easy for the game to wear thin and become exhausting more than fun (I would know, I’ve spent 130-odd hours with it). Take it from me, the game can stand up to a couple of playthroughs so it’s fine to leave some of the side stuff for the second time through.
The question then is whether or not the core mechanics of the game are enough to hold up its unfortunate case of open world. If this were any other Mass Effect game I’d say no, those shooting galleries are the padding between the conversations. But this isn’t any other Mass Effect game. This one has jetpacks and, as everyone knows, everything’s better with jetpacks. That’s not the only reason that Andromeda is not only the best Mass Effect game for shooting but one of the better ones I’ve played in a while (though I’ll admit that’s not all that many), a robust crafting system that provides a great variety of weapons with some pretty hefty customisation options, an opening of the class system to enable on-the-fly switching between up to four user-made classes and a switch away from ‘sticky’ cover to ‘smart’ cover. Combine all that with arenas designed for an open world and you have the most fluid and engaging combat of any Bioware game, at least any I’ve played. More than anything I’d say that Andromeda is, at a basic mechanical level, the most fun Mass Effect has ever been.
I did, however, say that every Mass Effect game has a gaping flaw and Andromeda is no exception. On release, the game was inexcusably buggy and something somewhere in their conversation system went horribly wrong resulting in some very, to be polite, odd facial animations. Combine this with occasionally questionable looking character models and you have the recipe for internet controversy. From there the issues come back more to that whole ‘confirmation-bias’ thing. Replacing Shepard as a protagonist was always going to upset some, Shepard was a Spec Ops veteran and professional badass, conversation choices with them came down more to how much of a dick you wanted to be. Ryder, on the other hand, is a kid, thrust into impossible responsibility and their dialogue choices reflect this, they are often awkward or ill thought out with Ryder normally choosing between professional/casual or emotional/logical and occasionally between all four. Both characters have distinct personalities and so switching from one to the other was always going to be jarring. I for one like Ryder, in fact, I really like the writing in general.
The writing is another big sticking point with some people, I’ve seen some very eloquent hatchet jobs tearing it down. I disagree. This issue is one of the main things that’s taken me so long to get straight in my head. I spent hours wondering why so many seemed to hate it, wondering what I’d missed and I think at last I’ve figured it out. A lot of the characters in Andromeda tend towards the melodramatic, some (notably Ryder’s companion Jaal and the Archon) are massive, massive hams. This delights me, it plays into everything I love about space opera, but I imagine frustrates no end people who wanted something more serious. I can’t really fathom why one would, even in the early days Mass Effect was often a bit silly. If you don’t believe me take a long, hard look at the Hanar. You know, the floating jellyfish that glow when they brain talk to you. With regards to the criticism that Andromeda squandered the potential to do something really alien and weird with its, well, aliens considering the brand new galaxy and all I feel compelled to ask: Why would a star in a different galaxy be any more alien than a star in ours? If the Milky Way consistently evolved humanoids why wouldn’t Andromeda?
There’s plenty more minutiae I could ramble on about but by now I think I’ve made it clear where my opinion lies. I really enjoyed this game, I love it unashamedly in spite of its gaping flaws. Can I recommend it? Well, that depends on your tolerance for bugs, wonky facial animations, and glorious ham, so, maybe? To me, Andromeda is a worthy entry in the Mass Effect series and I’m curious to see how well Bioware can iron it out as they continue to patch it, though I doubt they’ll ever truly ‘fix’ it. I like the new setting, the new characters and I adore the new combat. I think hindsight will look more kindly on Andromeda than its initial reception may suggest, but then again who am I to judge? I wanted to like Andromeda and thus I did. Confirmation-bias. Damn. I really wish I’d come up with that.