How do you continue a franchise that, in its previous entry, came to an emphatic end? What's more, how do you do it when it's one of the most beloved game series of the new millennium? Do you force a direct sequel, potentially invalidating millions of players’ choices from the previous games? Do you go the prequel route? Spin off a side character? Create a parallel universe? What the hell do you do?
That's the dilemma faced by BioWare in making Mass Effect: Andromeda, the fourth title in what is probably my favourite series of video games. Mass Effect built a rich, multicultural, non-human-centric universe, populated by compelling characters, and told a save-the-galaxy story whose stakes, for once, felt appropriately existential, and whose ending (and I only acknowledge the Synthesis ending as the correct and proper one) made a grand statement about themes it'd been developing for hundreds of hours.
Tough act to follow.
But the video game industry isn't in the business of not making sequels, so here we are, five years later, with Mass Effect: Andromeda. With this title, BioWare simultaneously takes risks and plays it safe: rather than navigating the spiderweb of player decisions from past games, Andromeda pulls a Gene Roddenberry and fucks off to our nearest neighbouring galaxy, with new characters and an entirely new story.
In a way, the slate has been wiped entirely too clean. The game follows several ships full of human and alien travellers - and their reluctant leader Ryder - as they emerge from a 600-year cryosleep journey to make a new home in the Andromeda galaxy. Questions immediately arise as to the motivations of the Andromeda Initiative. Are they explorers? Refugees? Colonists? They’re certainly aiming to colonise worlds, but the game takes great pains to paint the Initiative as a peaceful, benign colonial force. The importance of first contact is emphasised again and again to the mission’s new Pathfinder Ryder, and lip service is paid to humans’ status as aliens in this new galaxy. We even provide a “cultural centre” for new alien friends to learn more about us. How nice. But it doesn’t help that the first aliens we find in this new galaxy are ones we blow to pieces (even if they fire first), and that our first order of business is to terraform planets, presumably destroying whatever ecospheres already exist there.
The developers even missed a huge opportunity (perhaps intentionally, trying to sever ties with earlier games) in not presenting the Initiative as an asylum-seeking project. In the game’s fiction, these ships are launched just prior to the events of Mass Effect 3, so there’s certainly a galaxy-threatening danger to run from - but there’s nary a mention of the Reapers in Andromeda, and the overwhelming tone is one of expansion, not escape. Still, Andromeda’s principal story does provide for a markedly different tone to the earlier games. This is a game about being a pioneer, about finding your place in a strange land, even if it means building it yourself.
Upon arrival, the Andromeda Initiative promptly encounters a destructive space phenomenon, becoming marooned in a galaxy full of countless “golden worlds” that don’t live up to expectations. Just as these new worlds are a bust for the settlers, they’re a disappointment for Mass Effect fans seeking something truly alien. A new galaxy, two and a half million light-years away, and the most alien landscapes available are floating rocks, pink bushes, and curly trees? It’s all very beautiful, designed with an eye for scale and the beauty of space, but it can’t help coming across as overly familiar - particularly when placed next to the inventiveness of Mass Effects past. The ancient Remnant are too conceptually reminiscent of the Protheans; the endless succession of nightclubs, outposts, and single-theme worlds far too similar to those of previous games. I get that cyclic history was a core idea in the original trilogy, but if we're exploring a new galaxy, it'd be nice if the level of invention could even approach an average episode of Star Trek. Emblematic of it all are the kett, the game's chief villains, whose design is uninspired, leader uncharismatic, and whose M.O. even replicates some specific plot points of earlier enemy factions.
James Cameron was right all along.
It is into this galaxy that Ryder plunges, after a prologue and tutorial that feels like 600 years in cryosleep itself. Ryder will have to terraform planets (by activating ancient monoliths, exploring eerie vaults, and solving rudimentary Sudoku-like puzzles); find suitable spots for outposts; and defend the new colonies against the kett threat. In addition to the practicalities of settling new worlds, she has to deal with the politics of building a new civilisation, both internally and externally. Much of Andromeda's meat can be found here: dealing with unrest and uncertainty, making first contact with new species, and navigating a leadership structure fractured by death and power struggles. Though they aren’t exactly prime gaming material, Andromeda’s politics are actually pretty interesting: the pressures of building a multicultural society come up again and again, while different branches of government maintain a constant see-saw of power.
Continuing a central theme of past Mass Effect titles, there's also a significant focus on artificial intelligence and its implications for humanity. Ryder is accompanied into Andromeda by an AI that makes a permanent residence in her head. Her father Alec’s backstory regarding AI and his dying wife is presented as somewhat controversial, unfolding optionally over the course of the game; there’s also a side quest involving an anti-AI sect of hackers. These themes - artificial intelligence, the creation of consciousness, the line between biology and technology - were core to the original trilogy’s story of robotic Reapers and rampant Geth, and it’s good to see another angle being explored in Andromeda - even if it’s yet another do-over.
Andromeda takes after BioWare’s previous game, Dragon Age: Inquisition, in that its main story is bolstered by a deluge of activities to do in its multiple, vast open-world environments. So numerous are the sidequests and tasks that it can feel like a drag, with game maps blossoming into vast constellations of objective markers before Ryder even reaches the locations in question. The inhabitable worlds are exhaustingly huge: you’ll be asked to go mining, clearing creatures, collecting samples, delivering messages, and more, and it’s rarely clear which quests have substance and which are effectively orienteering exercises. There are even missions you can send other troops to do in the background, a la Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, some of which can optionally be played as multiplayer strikes online. Good thing Ryder’s ship, the Tempest, is smaller than Shepard’s Normandy, or the sheer legwork would be intolerable.
EA and BioWare made a big deal out of Andromeda’s combat, because apparently that’s the most important thing about video games. There are certainly a lot more options in combat now: abilities and powers can be swapped around much more freely, with “profiles” allowing additional passive buffs in combat, while weapon crafting can make for a much wider array of tactical options. I personally loved using the “blink” ability in the Explorer profile, which allows Ryder to teleport short distances, even through solid objects. But while combat’s more dynamic and more customisable, it’s still kind of clunky to engage with in real time.
But come on. I didn't come to Mass Effect for open world activities or sweaty-palmed combat. I came for characters and storytelling and epic space opera and yes, wooing aliens. Hell, I played the game on easy mode, simply because the combat makes so little difference to the game (in combat, you either win or you start again; dialogue decisions have significantly greater consequences). Luckily, most of the open-world shit is completely optional, and you can spend much of your time just talking to your crewmates. Only six main squaddies are available this time around, in addition to a number of peripheral shipmates, most of whom are available for romance to the male and/or female Ryder. Sadly, despite the occasional bit of inspired dialogue or unique backstory, the characters feel cut from a pretty standard RPG cloth. Peebee is the cute, excitable researcher; Drack is the grizzled veteran; Jaal’s the alien still learning about human interaction. Even the loyalty missions - highlights in prior titles - just aren’t that engaging this time around; all the clever level design in the galaxy doesn’t matter if I don’t care about the character whose loyalty I’m supposedly seeking.
Pictured: ergonomics of the future.
Andromeda's quirks have inspired a lot of online derision, and not without cause. The phoneme-based facial animation has famously been the subject of much ridicule - and it is definitely a little off, likely due to EA rushing the game to market. The voice acting suffers from the same problem, with many performances sounding like first takes, even exhibiting objectively incorrect line readings at times. I hate to criticise these aspects of the game, as the fault doesn't even really lie with the artists nominally responsible for them, but they're definitely roadblocks on the path to enjoyment. Outside of character performances, the game sports just a few too many AI and physics glitches to hand-wave away; nothing game-breaking, in my experience, but definitely immersion-breaking. And boy, just like in Dragon Age, I quickly gave up on researching and developing equipment, thanks to the seemingly inescapable, Byzantine menu navigation required.
I admit, it is unfair to compare Andromeda to a trilogy into which I invested hundreds of hours. This set of characters is just starting out; its story is a conscious new beginning. But Andromeda’s problems go deeper than just a lack of emotional engagement. By trying to be everything to everyone, it’s lost a little bit of the series’ character in the process, going wide when depth was always its strong suit. Andromeda’s dizzying array of interlocking systems and questlines are an irritating distraction, dragging attention away from a story that shows promise but never delivers. A game about exploration should make exploration feel like a rush, not a chore; a game about characters should make interactions meaningful, not a checklist. I'm not sure Mass Effect: Andromeda is a bad game, but it is a colossally average game, drowning in its own feature list and quest journal. Here’s hoping BioWare regains its focus with whatever comes next.
As a final note, because I would never write a BioWare review without mentioning it: I deliberately set the facial sliders of my Ryder and her brother to positions opposite each other, simply to see what the game engine would do with their father, whose face is generated from a composite of his kids. Well, readers: meet Glenda (L), Scott (R), and Alec Ryder (C), fine envoys for the Milky Way if ever I saw any.