When my son was born, I found myself up at odd hours of the night having to feed and rock a grumpy little baby. I thought if I was going to be up for a late shift in the middle of the night every night for a few months, I might as well do something fun while feeding, rocking, and watching a newborn sleep, so I decided to get into a new video game, and with the help of a friend, that game was “Mass Effect 2.”
Rightly thought of as one of the greatest games of the last console generation, “Mass Effect 2” was an instant classic. It grabbed me from the moment it started and never let go. The characters, the plot, the intrigue, the driving pace—I just kept playing. By the time my son started sleeping through the night I had finished “Mass Effect 2,” gone back and purchased the original “Mass Effect,” played through that and come back to the sequel with even more interest. By the time the final game in the trilogy came out in 2012, I had pre-ordered the collector’s edition with all the bells and whistles. I was hooked.
The Mass Effect trilogy told the story of Shepard, a hero who saves the galaxy from The Reapers, a race of machines hell-bent on ruling all organic and inorganic life in the Milky Way Galaxy. It had a finite ending, which meant a direct sequel to the storyline was out of the question, so when BioWare decided to return to the Mass Effect universe they were going to have to find a way to tell a new story that felt “Mass Effect” without being about the main characters we all fell in love with. That’s not an easy task. Just ask “Star Wars” fans.
Same World, New Story
In 2015, Lucasfilm and Disney decided to go back to the Star Wars universe and capture an entirely new generation of moviegoers in adventures in a galaxy far, far away. They had to do this without upsetting the millions of fans who had loved Star Wars since it first premiered in 1977.
They also had to do it without a repeat of the prequel disaster fans had to live through in the late 1990s and early 2000s as George Lucas tried to tell the stories before the stories you already knew. Disney had to reintroduce us to a universe we all loved, knowing that not all of our favorite characters were still around, and those that were looked a lot older. They had to get you excited about new Star Wars by reminding audiences of old Star Wars.
With J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” in 2015, they succeeded. Although not up to the standard of most of the original trilogy, the reborn Star Wars movie told you a new story with new characters in new places within the same universe, a few familiar faces, and some very familiar story elements.
“Mass Effect: Andromeda” is the “Force Awakens” of its franchise, or at least it tries to be. It has very similar story elements, lives within the same franchise with many of the races, tech, and lore that you’re familiar with, but in the end Andromeda just can’t live up to the tradition, excellence, and excitement of its predecessors.
The Setup of the New Mass Effect
In “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” you are either Scott or Sara Ryder, a “Pathfinder” for the human race in charge of finding our species a new home in the Andromeda Galaxy. Turians, Salarians, and Asari, all our Milky Way neighbors, have joined us in the 600-year mission to reach a galaxy far, far away. You as Ryder only get the job after your father, the chosen Pathfinder, dies and hands you the reigns.
It has a similar feel to the original trilogy. You’re a leader of the human race, out on a mission of grave importance, you’re kind of above or outside the law, and in the end the safety of the greater galactic community is at stake. There is one key difference: it’s not as exciting. It should be. This is a chance to weave in the taming of the Old West, the exploration of the New World, and the wonder of the unknown into a gaming universe we already know and love. Unfortunately, it never quite hooks you like it should.
There are some beautiful moments in this game. The scenery is amazing, with alien vistas that are truly mind-blowing. You know that thousands of hours of hard work were poured into making some of these other worlds seem incredibly life-like and rich with characters and content. The aliens you encounter, both new and old, are (for the most part) very well illustrated, planned, and animated. The ships, weapons, and tech are all familiar but improved from the previous Mass Effect games.
But two things really keep this game from being the rewarding experience it should be: its less than stellar writing, and less than acceptable character animations. Attention to detail is key to making a great movie, video game, or hit novel, and BioWare fell short in that arena with Andromeda.
The Biggest Weakness? The Writing
The biggest problem is the writing. Just like “The Force Awakens,” this game has a lot of reintroduction to a universe with very similar plot points. In the original Mass Effect trilogy, The Reapers were gathering other races to better their own. Here that role is played by the Kett. In the original Mass Effect, you explored the Milky Way looking for clues to help you track down the bad guys. The same is true here.
In the original trilogy, an ancient race, the Protheans, had technology that helped advance the civilizations of the modern era, and in this case that role is played by the Remnant. All of that and more is familiar, just as many elements of the old Star Wars movies were familiar in “The Force Awakens,” but for BioWare the writing just isn’t as engaging.
In this game you travel to the Andromeda galaxy with your father and sibling. You father dies, handing you the title and responsibility of Pathfinder. Your sibling is injured, and it’s your job to help save him or her. All of that sounds exciting and involving, but the game never sells you on the relationship with your father. In fact, some of the dialogue indicates he was a rather absent and uncaring dad, one you weren’t all that close to, so how can you be torn up when you lose him at the very beginning of the game?
In the first Mass Effect game, near the end you were put in the position of having to save one teammate and let another die. You had worked together with both of them for the entire game, developed a relationship, perhaps even a romantic one. When you were forced to choose which one lived and which one died, it hurt. I didn’t get that same feeling in this game. Your father dies, and you feel no real emotion for it. In the wake of a series where deaths of your friends made a huge impact, this loss was particularly hollow.
The writers also doesn’t do a great job of driving the story, or making you really hate your chief nemesis. He’s a bad guy, sure, but he doesn’t provoke fear or hatred when you face him down during the game. Some of his lesser soldiers are actually much more intimidating. In any good story you have to have a great bad guy, one you really hate and want to defeat. The Archon isn’t that kind of character.
Next Big Weakness: Poor Character Animation
The second biggest problem the game faces is the poor character animations. Lips don’t always sync with what the character may be saying, particularly with humans, which in this day and age is really inexcusable. That is particularly true for a game this big, at a publisher this well-known, with a budget as massive as a Mass Effect game has. Reports indicate BioWare relied heavily on a semi-automated technology called “CyberScan” to handle some of the facial animations for its characters and outsourced much of the work to other branches of their studio. You see that mistake writ large on your TV screen.
This is a game with a massive script, but that’s no excuse. We live in an era where gamers expect to see realistic speech, expressions, and animations on their characters. A game of this level should get the attention to detail that produces fluid, realistic animations. You want to be immersed in the game, but seeing lips that don’t sync, facial expressions that are clearly off, or clipping of faces and gear yanks you right out of that world. That’s just unacceptable. This game was five years in the making. They should have fixed this a long time ago.
“Andromeda” also suffers from over-RPGing—they put too much effort into layering quests, researching and developing gear and tech, and customizing this, that, and everything in between. This also led to a menu structure that makes it time-consuming to weave your way in and out to find what you’re looking for in a hurry.
‘Andromeda’ Still Gets a Lot Right
All that being said, this game gets some things right. First of all, it’s huge, and there’s a lot to do. Sometimes it’s a little difficult to keep track of all there is to do because of the menu structure, but this game is not light on adventures. Sometimes those many missions drag because of the repetitive nature of some of the little stories, but Bioware at least did a good job of providing a lot of threads to expose you to their new world.
The best writing in this game comes in the “loyalty” missions, which were what helped “Mass Effect 2” offer such a great experience. They have rich, well-developed stories, where your squadmate is emotionally invested and that becomes infectious. Each of those missions was great fun. Bioware clearly took time and effort to emphasize those adventures, and it makes a big difference. If only the rest of the game could have been that good.
Your crew is pretty good, too. I definitely miss some of the characters I fell in love with in the previous games, but there’s good chemistry in your new band of misfits. There’s an oddball, reject, overachiever, and even a mysterious squadmate among the many on your team. It’s a good bunch, and the voice actors portraying them are spot-on.
The action and fighting in this game is great. It’s mobile, engaging, and frenetic. Battles in the previous game were pretty linear. Run behind something, peek out, and shoot. You have a jet pack that allows you to jump, dodge, and fly at your opponents. It completely changed my fighting style from just about every other shooter or RPG I’ve played. I’ve become much more aggressive, and that makes for an exciting experience.
The dialogue in this game is also good. You have a lot more options than in previous Mass Effect games, and that makes for a more nuanced character. My Ryder was a little snarky, professional when he had to be, but ready to pull a joke or sly comment where appropriate. That isn’t something you could do with the mostly binary choices in the earlier games of the series. It’s nice to have more flexibility. In the end, though, the main character in this game isn’t as good as Commander Shepard in the original trilogy.
All in all, “Mass Effect: Andromeda” isn’t a bad game. In fact when I finished my first play-through I went back and started a second one, this time as the female character, to experience it through a slightly different lens. It’s a better game the second time you play it, but it still needs better details to really be the game Mass Effect fans have been hoping for since it was first teased years ago.
There is a lot of room for this new series to grow. You’re in a new galaxy with lots to explore. I hope in the sequel they learn from their mistakes, and make it a richer, more engaging, more refined experience. Mass Effect deserves better.