A Requiem for MASS EFFECT: ANDROMEDA

The one year anniversary of Mass Effect: Andromeda passed without much fanfare. Unsurprising, given there’s very little to celebrate. Plans for DLC support were axed immediately (and announced to the fanbase a few months after the game’s release), leaving some of the lingering plot threads to be addressed in future novels. In the wake of a disastrous launch, it was announced that Mass Effect was going into indefinite limbo with future installments scrapping Ryder entirely.

Yikes. 

The question of what happened has been well-documented. I couldn’t have been more excited for new Mass Effect. I was ready to dive headlong into my favorite universe after an agonizing five year wait between games. While I was initially disappointed that we were leaving our old friends behind in the rubble of the Milky Way, I understand the direction BioWare wanted to take and couldn’t help but anticipate the mysteries in store.

But that’s part of the problem with Mass Effect: Andromeda. It feels like it’s about to get great any second, like we’re one mission away from a revelation that’s going to turn the franchise on its ear. The SAM artificial intelligence gradually uncovers memory fragments pertaining to the Milky Way, suggesting we’ll learn more about the aftermath of the Reaper War (the source of conflict that drove the original trilogy). Unfortunately that never materializes beyond a few pieces of fan service. It’s fine that the team behind MEA wanted to distance themselves from Commander Shepard. There was plenty of opportunity to blow the doors off the Andromeda Galaxy, but MEA winds up pushing those prospective story developments off on a sequel that’s never going to happen.

It means we’re left with half-baked bread. You can look at MEA and see what BioWare was trying to accomplish had the game only been allowed to finish baking. MEA is centered around exploration. but we see very little of the new galaxy, coming into contact with just two new alien species. This scope feels small for something poised to be so grand.

The story foists us into the middle of an old conflict between these aliens, the kett and the angara, but it never feels anything but superficial. MEA manages to flirt with an interesting villain in the Archon character. For a while it seems like he’s got a genuine axe to grind with the galaxy’s new arrivals, but he winds up being just another religious zealot in a genre that’s seen a hundred of them.

It’s easy to drone on about all the things MEA gets wrong, and I’ll be the first to admit that some of the criticism on that front is undeniably fair. Part of the tragedy is that MEA was absolutely riddled with game-breaking glitches upon launch. If you progressed through a planet in the wrong way (easy to do, given the game’s ‘open world’ design), you might be unable to complete a quest because it’s glitched. One bug was so nasty that it crashed the game each time you went to the Nexus following the completion of a certain main quest.

Thankfully, I over-saved my progress to the point where it wasn’t an issue to reload a previous slot, but many folks found themselves stuck 30-40 hours deep in a broken game and without a way back. In addition to that, EA Access users were treated to a ten hour preview of the game at its most broken and problematic. In an age where everyone is eager to disseminate hot takes on social media, MEA became the recipient of a dozen prevelant memes–my face is tired, anyone? In the blink of an eye, and before the game was actually available, MEA was successfully defined by its loopy facial animation and broken programming.

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Some of this stuff was rightly taken to task. And while BioWare did make good on patching the vast majority of unfortunate facial animations and game-breaking bugs, it seemed like it was too late to reverse the course of its reputation.

I’m not excusing these flaws. They brought plenty of frustration to my own playthrough. But here’s where I land on MEA: While it never comes close to the highs of the original trilogy, tighter pacing and the presence of more engaging subplots would’ve rendered this a wholly satisfying Mass Effect adventure in its own right. The biggest problem isn’t the glitches (most of them are ancient history) or the lack of a compelling story, but the game’s structure and pace. It’s a huge game with plenty of ground to cover. The issue is with most of that ground being redundant. When I wrote my thoughts on BioWare’s previous Dragon Age: Inquisition, I cited the open world as a detriment and worried what that could mean for MEA. Unfortunately, those fears were realized. While MEA benefits from smooth controls and combat that’s as satisfying as ever, there’s only so much empty planetary exploration I’m willing to contend with before chalking a game up to pointless bloat.

At first, the planets of MEA feel big and lonely and mysterious. The developers put tremendous effort into replicating the feel of the original Mass Effect. Stepping onto strange worlds is a great jumping off point, sure, but they took the wrong lessons away from the original. Those planets were barren save for a handful of hidden objectives, and you could zip across those surfaces in 10 minutes. It wasn’t a huge time sink. Exploration sits at the forefront of Andromeda, though, and it becomes immediately clear that BioWare’s open worlds are barren. It makes things feel like a grind (something that Mass Effect 2 and 3 avoided). Sometimes I didn’t mind. The graphics are gorgeous and I liked customizing my Ryder and trying out different weapons and tactics on the plethora of enemies she faced, but there were times when I simply wanted to get on with the story and often had to push through hours of sidequests in order to do that.

BioWare fans bristle at comparisons to CDProjektRed’s The Witcher 3, pointing out that game has its share of busy work, too (if I never loot another hidden cache in Skellege it’ll be too soon). But the difference is that The Witcher 3 offers plenty of sidequests of substantial story, depth, and involvement while MEA features a seemingly endless parade of planetary busy work. Because I wanted my characters to level up, I complied with the games wishes and torched 40 or more hours scanning minerals, searching for datapads, and destroying endless outposts. Sure, MEA‘s main story and loyalty missions are largely satisfying, but I’m begging BioWare to strike a better balance between pointless fetch nonsense and the inclusion of compelling sub-narratives. If you have to look to other games in order to do that, so be it.

The toughest hill that MEA had to climb was its companions. It’s another area where I’m torn. A single playthrough of MEA to 100% completion is about the combined length of the original trilogy (pre-DLC). That’s just massive. And somehow, at the end of MEA, I felt no closer to anyone on my crew. Part of that is thanks to the game’s absence of tough choices. There’s no “Virmire Survivor” situation, no “keep or kill Wrex.” How can you make a Mass Effect game that’s entirely devoid of agonizing decisions? It’s as if the developers were afraid to upset the proverbial applecart, sacrificing the game’s edge in order to produce the blandest crowdpleaser imaginable.

Part of the reason Mass Effect 3‘s ending disappointed so many people is because our attachment to the trilogy’s characters was substantial. The ending left their fates entirely up in the air and prevented any kind of catharsis. That connection never manifested itself at any point during MEA, but that doesn’t mean its characters are entirely without charms, either. There’s always a few companions who don’t resonate and that’s true here. I don’t care if I ever see Liam or Vetra again, for example, but for every forgettable squadmate, there’s a Drack, Peebee, Cora, or Jaal. You can argue that they’re basic approximations of original trilogy’s characters, but that’s carping. I liked hanging out with these folks and they brought some spark to my journey through the Andromeda Galaxy. In fact, I’m contemplating a future play through just to catch all the little nuances I might’ve missed the first time.

BioWare knows their bread and butter has always been their characters, and MEA gives us that in spades. There’s just tons of content on this end and it really does provide the game with its soul. The planetary chatter you hear while cruising around in the Nomad is substantial, really helping to flesh these characters out beyond the standard spaceship conversations. And on that end, it feels like there’s plenty more dialogue available in between missions. The characters move around the ship and interact with one another in a way that improves on Mass Effect 3. Even if I didn’t love every one of my crew, it’s safe to say that BioWare did their due diligence where expansive character work is concerned. The original trilogy is a near impossible act to follow here, but MEA rose to the challenge to try and offer a host of worthy companions. It mostly succeeds.

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And when you have a strong character foundation, it’s easy to forgive a lot. Even something as crucial as pacing. MEA took me about two-and-a-half weeks to complete and that was with a LOT of bingeing. Entire sessions would pass where I’d accomplish nothing more than a dozen dreaded fetch quests, and these massive gaps of dead air did frustrate. But even in the game’s most superfluous moments, the characters kept me coming back. The sense of adventure kept calling. And the game’s dedication to satisfying tactical combat kept me fighting.

And there’s more to enjoy. The weapon/power customizations are as fun as ever. I was amazed at how much time I willingly spent adjusting my weapons and armor, trying to balance the stats in order to make my Ryder as formidable as possible. And I did the same with my teammates, shaping FemRyder, Drack, and Cora into a nearly unstoppable trinity of killers.

Every RPG game needs a few good hub worlds on which to fully immerse yourself. MEA doesn’t offer any extracurricular activities to present a larger sense of the world we’re tasked with exploring (like Gwent, for example), but the developers do manage a surprising amount of hubs that offer additional dialogues, side quests, and general world building. MEA isn’t a game that’s really going to drop your jaw, but it manages to be a pleasantly passable offering all the same.

The term pleasantly passable is the very definition of faint praise, I realize. And I actually like MEA a lot more than that, even if its existence is antiquated. Five years between games and there’s just nothing different or innovative enough to warrant such a lengthy time gap. This is to the Mass Effect series what every Assassin’s Creed game is to each other, albeit with a half decade in between installments. It doesn’t move the series forward in terms of game play innovation or story revelation, and that’s perhaps the most disappointing part of the whole endeavor.

But there’s something to be said for comfort, right? In some ways MEA feels like a huge slice of comfort food. The lyrics have changed but the song remains the same. It’s not what I wanted from the next installment of my favorite game franchise, and I don’t think it will win the series a host of brand new fans. One year later the game is dirt cheap, and it’s a lot of hours for the cost. Most of the issues have since been patched, meaning it’s in much better shape than it was when many of us ventured through the first time. If you’ve ever been on the fence, and feel like you can contend with the mentioned structural caveats, now’s the time to give it a whirl.

I hope EA and BioWare can figure out how to get Mass Effect back on track without another five year wait. MEA can be a long, meandering experience, but even with those flaws there’s plenty to appreciate about BioWare’s most recent offering. It’s a genuine shame the studio wasn’t allowed to explore this world and story through the planned DLC, as I believe we’d be looking at a completely different experience after 2 or 3 slices of additional content.

Today the game stands as a strange curiosity piece. The mark of a franchise in flux. But there’s too much potential in this universe to close the door on Mass Effect. Look at it this way: BioWare took away nearly everything people associate with the series (its recurring characters, the mass relays, the reapers) and almost pulled it off. In my mind that’s a feat worthy of celebration, not castigation. It’s a franchise that deserves a shot at redemption. The only question is: how soon will that happen?

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