Video games are typically released on a Tuesday. When Mass Effect: Andromeda, the long awaited fourth Mass Effect game got a release date, I immediately booked the rest of the release week on vacation so I could have five days to play the game.
After all, I…we…the fans had been waiting half a decade to jump back into a universe that has inspired an astoundingly deep fandom. That being said, it took me nearly a month to make my way through a 65 hour run of the game. And while I was playing, one question kept turning over and over again in my head – why am I not invested? I love Mass Effect, so why don’t I care?
It’s a terrible realization, that things can actually let you down. I, as you probably know, am a capitalized Pessimist. I assume everyone is broken, especially if they don’t show it. I assume things will go wrong, especially when they’re important. I set the bar low and have learned to deal with bumps and issues and fractures as they come. To put it another way, I’ve gotten very, very good at pivoting until things work out. Afterall, happiness is when outcomes exceed expectations, so setting low expectations tends to lead to more happiness. In the meantime, we carry on while broken.
“Carrying on while broken” is a thread that winds its way through the Mass Effect series. It’s actually the thing that hooked me in the first place.
That’s a name that Mass Effect fans will always remember. Playing as Commander Shepard, the hero that humanity is pushing onto a global stage, you’ve managed to assemble your entire diverse crew as you burn from one side of the Milky Way to the other unraveling the mystery of why a government agent has gone rogue.
As you fight your way through a tropical world, Virmire, the situation asks you to do what every tabletop gamer and horror fan knows is a bad idea – split your party. You have to choose one crew member to assist an ally force and the other to plant a bomb. One thing after another goes wrong and you find Commander Shepard literally standing at an intersection talking on the radio and trying to make a decision. Go left and you can save one person. Go right and you can save the other. You are told explicitly that you can’t save both. And since these are soldiers, people that you’ve already spent a dozen hours with, they each ask you to save the other. Each is selfless as they consign themselves to death.
But this is a videogame, and you’re a hero, so of course you save both. Right?
Well no. That’s kind of the whole point. One of your crewmembers dies. And they stay dead. Your other crewmembers react. This person is mentioned throughout the trilogy, that first big decision literally haunting you. A name, a person that you let die.
This is Mass Effect saying that heroes aren’t perfect. And this is going to be messy. Really, really messy.
Mass Effect is a series that’s usually described as having three central gameplay pillars.
In what could easily be a power fantasy, you jet about the Milky Way, meet people, building a team, commanding a starship and (yes) get it on with aliens. Mass Effect balances power with helplessness. And while other games have made use of conversation as a mechanic before, Mass Effect gave conversations weight. As Commander Shepard, you weren’t merely talking to people to discover the next way point or collect a mission or maybe uncover lore. What you said, and why you said it, mattered. Decisions built upon each other and by the end of the 120 hour video game trilogy, your playthrough was unique.
As the player, you decide Commander Shepard’s story.
That’s what was important to me. See, I don’t really fit into Bartle’s taxonomy of gamers. I play for the story. I view video games as a new way to craft narrative, one that is interactive, but also one that allows for unprecedented flexibility. That’s why heavy cinematic games – every Final Fantasy after 6, the Uncharteds, and the Call of Duties – have turned me off. They borrow too much from the language of cinema while neglecting the power of video games.
The aforementioned games don’t typically use mechanics in a way that benefits the story they’re telling. The game plays is merely a means to get the player from cutscene to cutscene.
Which is a shame, because you can tell an entire story using only mechanics and most basic story structure. Take Missile Command – an arcade shooter from 1980 where the player is operating a missile defense system and tasked with protecting a handful of cities from an unending barrage of nuclear death. As the player, you’ll be forced to choose between cities, splitting your attention as you try to save at least one city. The message, the narrative, becomes clear – nobody wins at nuclear war.
There is no “Hold X to Pay Respects”. Instead, the mechanic tells the story. A story which the player personalizes and is impacted by.
Mass Effect: Andromeda does, on the surface, stick to the three tenants of a Mass Effect game. As the Pathfinder, the Player engages in Conversation, Exploration, and Combat. However, much of the other mechanics seem to distract from the gameplay, and others seem to lack gravity. These leads to a game that (and I am borrowing this term from Polygon) feels “listless”.
The bulk of my 65 hour playthrough felt like I stuck between two games. There was the first where I was a replacement traveling around the Heleus cluster performing often menial tasks in an effort to appease everyone and accomplish enough little things to push planets into a habitable zone. And there was a second game where a race of Kett were menacing people for no seemingly apparent reason.
In fact, it wasn’t even until the final act of the game, where I even got to feel like I was engaged in a Mass Effect-style story. And that’s when the ultimate motives of both protagonist/player and the Archon were revealed to actually be in conflict, as both Pathfinder and Archon want the same thing albeit for opposite reasons.
That’s a storytelling fundamental right there. A structural imperative. And it is the ending – the resolution of this conflict – that makes the game actually worthwhile.
But unfortunately, the discovery of this conflict comes far too late in the plot. By then, all of the pieces are already in place and it’s all but confirmed that the Pathfinder will challenge Archon and that one of the other will be victorious.
To put it another way – in previous Mass Effect games, it was always clear from the beginning that Shepard and the Antagonist were in direct conflict – even if neither Shepard nor the player knew why they were opposed. The game then became an act of discovery, learning how Shepard would overcome that conflict and the sacrifices that the Player have Shepard make along the way.
Because, let’s be perfectly clear about this – while those are Shepard’s sacrifices and decisions, it is the Player that is dictating them. Some of them are agonizing. Do you sacrifice a friend to right a wrong you were never responsible for? Do you choose the difficult moral right over the choice that would lead to a distinct (albeit often slight) strategic advantage?
Shepard’s choices in Mass Effect are a reflection of who the Player is a person. And both the Player and Shepard have to deal with the consequences of those actions.
That’s the reason why, once a year, I play through the entire Shepard Trilogy. Not because I want to travel the universe in my own starship (though I really do) or because I want to romance Miranda (again, I really would) or because I consider Garrus a guy I’d really be friends with (this doesn’t even need explaining). But because I like the idea of making meaningful choices in a scenario where I get to see the results.
Which brings us, finally, to Andromeda.
My issue with Andromeda isn’t that it never asks the Player to make choices. Or even that it never asks the Player to make meaningful choices. It does both frequently. Instead, my issue with Andromeda is that it never asks the Player to live with the consequences of those choices.
Beware Andromeda spoilers from here down.
I’ve spent something like 500 hours playing Mass Effect games. I’m fairly well versed in the design logic – where they cheat, and when things matter. And like a junkie, I’m always looking to recreate that initial high – the Virmire choice.
So, I knew why I made each of those decisions.
I never trusted Reyes. He was always a conman. And Reyes had a sniper. This was no duel, it was an execution turned into a firefight and he was making an armed retreat. That shot was justified.
Freeing the AI? It was clearly sentient. Giving it to the Angarans might have been a nice move, but probably not a useful one.
And saving the scouts versus the Salarian Pathfinder? Well, all three other Pathfinders (including the protagonist’s father) had died and been replaced with relative ease. Meanwhile, after fighting their first attempt at Korgan Exaltation, allowing the Kett to figure out how to Exalt the Krogan seemed like something I wanted to delay as long as possible.
All of these actions were given the same general lipservice as helping a colonist scan five corpses or collect enough minerals or save a relative from a work camp.
That is to say, these decisions added to the experience in going from start to finish in the game, but on the whole, they didn’t seem to have a great impact on the game itself. I never had to live with them. At least not in this game – they might ripple.
Well, as I noted before, Mass Effect: Andromeda feels like two games crammed into one. Even without any expansions it still took me 65 hours to play through, which is considerably longer than the typical 40 hours it takes to make a completionist run on any one part of the Shepard Trilogy.
I honestly feel like this was an attempt to fit too much into one game. It’s an exploration game. And a save the galaxy game. And a hero’s journey. Mass Effect: Andromeda simply tries to be too many things to too many people. This ultimately distracts from the total experience because no single element really shines. There are so many mechanics and currencies and technologies and locations that the game is never able to grab me.
And because I don’t believe in criticizing something without at least offering an alternative solution, here’s how I would have handled Andromeda. Split the game.
Take the two masters that Andromeda is serving, and turn them into two forces covering not one, but three games. This allows those forces to play out over a three act structure and gives Andromeda a grand story with room to allow actions to have consequences while simultaneously fully developing the mechanics of each game.
This is the story of Man versus Nature. Nobody said settling another galaxy would be easy, but nobody knew it was going to be this hard.
Ideally I’d start this one before the Arks leave. This gives the chance for the young Ryder to see his father – the Pathfinder – in all his glory. He gets to see the charm. The manic drive. The raw determination that people say drew them to Andromeda. It also sets the stakes for everything to go horribly wrong. Because for stakes to matter, they have to rise before the crash.
And when the player makes the jump to Andromeda, everything does crash.
This sets the first game up not unlike the first section of Andromeda. The other Arks are missing (and we know what that means). Your father sacrifices himself (and we care) and suddenly you find yourself in the role wholly unprepared.
I would have the entire first game on tough decisions involved in setting up that first outpost and first world. Make the Player agonize about which pod to open up, about things like food and oxygen balanced against people missing their families. There is danger in the drama of fear and loss and regret. Use that.
And in the backdrop, not unlike the discovery of Prothean ruins on Mars, let the Pathfinder and the Player start to discover Remnant ruins. Not figure them out. Just discover them.
By the end, the Player and the Pathfinder have both sacrificed their way to a successful first outpost. The Initiative has a foothold in the Andromeda Galaxy and there’s hope, a message from what might be another Ark.
Here we can leap ahead a few years. The Pathfinder is more mature in his or her position. There are now several other Pathfinders each out there trying to scratch together other outposts on other worlds and the Pathfinder is stuck balancing the needs of each outpost while still looking for the missing Arks.
As the player progresses two things become clear. First the easiest (a relative term) planets to create outposts on are those that have a strong Remnant presence. And second, there is another species actively hunting these strong Remnant planets and they are not fans of the Initiative.
This creates a general race as the Pathfinder tries to uncover the meaning of the Remnant connection while outmaneuvering the numerically superior Kett. The mechanics here can put a strategy into play – which planets does the player choose to maintain outposts on? The easier to start, but likely to be attacked? The harder to start, but likely be ignored? What about supplies and movement between planets? Can the Pathfinder assemble a coalition to beat the Kett? Can they coexist?
The second act is always the dark one, so the answer to the final two questions have to be no. At best, the Pathfinder can unlock the secret of the Remnants – the location of a massive Remnant structure. But this comes at a cost – that first Initiative Settlement is destroyed at the end of the game.
The end of the second game starts the third with the Pathfinder at his or her lowest point, but also with a sense of purpose. The Kett are not playing around. Their leader – the Archon – is both a better strategist and more ruthless than the Pathfinder. And now we can learn that they are both seeking the same thing. Meridian – that floating Remnant city.
But getting there won’t’ be easy. The lose of the first outpost means that each Initiative outpost is basically stranded, forced into subsistence survivability. Again we have to deal with short term versus long term decision making. Success for a few versus minor improvements for the many.
Beyond that, the very resources that are needed to ensure outpost survivability are needed by the Pathfinder in the quest to reach Meridian. This causes conflict all over the place. The Pathfinder ardently believes that Meridian is the key to pushing back the Kett, but nobody else can interface with Remnant tech, so they don’t believe it.
In the end, the Pathfinder can either build a coalition and start the race to Meridian from behind, or damn the consequences, damn the outposts, and try and get a headstart on the Archon.
Either way, the mechanics of the game, of the trilogy, match the narrative and allow the Player to tell his or her story through the Pathfinder.
Ultimately I enjoyed Mass Effect: Andromeda. I actually grew to like several of the crew members. I think it’s a game worth playing. But under the shadow of the Shepard trilogy, I think the game tried to be too many things and because of that fell short of its full potential. Pair that with a year full of incredibly noteworthy games, not to mention a slew of embarrassing bugs, and Andromeda ultimately doesn’t look good compared to its peers. I will, however, likely keep it in my annual playthrough.
And finally here’s my record purchases for April:
“Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green
“King of Rock by Run” D.M.C.
“I Put a Spell on You” by Nina Simone