It is impossible for me to write about Andromeda without expanding on the Mass Effect trilogy. But since this is technically a review for Andromeda, that’s where all the screenshots come from.
Mass Effect Trilogy
2007 was a time I’ve been seriously feeling a drought of good RPGs. Diablo-likes and Bethesda-likes were not for me (and even if they were, Fallout 3 was not out for another year), neither were jRPGs.
It would be two more years before Dragon Age: Origins would come out and Kickstarter wasn’t even on anyone’s radar then — not for massive, ambitious projects like Wasteland 2.
I had just finished watching Firefly for the first time (and been absolutely floored).
Mass Effect was not something I was particularly excited about. A sci-fi RPG? Yes, absolutely. A shooter-based one? Um… no. But everyone was singing its praises and my goodness were they right.
Though the first mission (kill some robots on Mars) wasn’t exactly amazing, once you’ve reached the Citadel, things really picked up. The first Mass Effect felt like real genuine sci-fi world in ways that few other games did — and that includes the subsequent games in the series. Intriguing aliens, fascinating technology, mysteries I actually wanted to dive into. I’ve read the Codex entries religiously (which, again, is quite rare for yours truly and petered out in the subsequent games).
I knew even then that you can’t use quantum entanglement for FTL communication, and that all the races were weirdly humanoid and being up for some hot steamy fun with a bunch of hairless apes was a tad on the wishful thinking side. But it combined the best bits of Star Wars and Star Trek in a way that was familiar, coherent and fresh at the same time. You got a fantastic world to explore, rich fascinating history, mysteries to solve and awesome characters to spend time with.
Beyond the exploration, side quests, companion missions and everything else that you do in a great RPG, there was a strong coherent plot tying it all together. A plot with (and I keep harping on this because it’s so rare) an excellent ending. Amazing setting. Shit, they even have an explanation for the Fermi Paradox. I loved all the companions. They were all absolutely fascinating, always a delight to talk to. And Tali is of course <3<3<3. Mass Effect started strong and got excellent. The boss fight battle was crappy and frustrating, but everything else (the Protheans, the Keepers, the Citadel, the Reapers, the endgame fucking music).
Even besides the world, Mass Effect felt like real sci-fi. The main menu, the sounds, the whole UI all felt like it really came from the future rather than having been designed as an afterthought. I was amazed by how much the doors on the Citadel felt like being in the future. Unlike the automatic doors of our current time, you never had to change your speed (or worse: stop and wave at the sensor), never had to push a button and they only opened when you actually intended to walk through.
Your guns didn’t need ammo — this is the future, you see, and all the weapons are energy-based and so you’re never out of bullets. You can shoot infinity times, but the weapons heat up so if you fire too fast, it’ll overheat and need to cool for a bit. Which is annoying, but much less so than having to collect munition and risking running out in the middle of a battle. Future!
I do wonder how much are all these things a result of selective memory, but that’s the impression Mass Effect left me with. The other two games were a disappointment in all these regards.
Now, the first game did have its issues. All the planet bases looking the same. Door locks being protected by a circular frogger-like puzzle (thank goodness door lock minigames are mostly a thing of the past). Endless, incredibly fiddly driving around in the Mako. Don’t get me wrong, that had a lot of potential, but the planets were barren and you’ve spent a lot of the time trying to figure out whether this particular slope was too steep to drive on. And of course the combat was frustrating and boring, but that’s the case for most games.
But despite those, it left a really lasting (it’s 13 years later and I’m gushing over it still) impression.
Mass Effect 2 & 3? Not so much.
The UI reverted to being an afterthought. The combat? They brought back ammo! The one thing the combat had going for it. The one thing that elevated your typical assortment of handgun, shotgun, assault rifle and sniper rifle lack of imagination into the realm of the future was scrapped. Of course, this wasn’t the boring real-world ammo. This was the Future Ammo a.k.a. “the weapons kept overheating so we’ve introduced batteries that you can swap in and out and keep shooting so long as you’ve got 'em”.
The end result is the same — you’re back to having a limited amount of shots before you need to scamper off and pick some more up. I suspect this was because they tried to position the games for a competitive multiplayer play. In the end, it made the already boring and frustrating combat even worse. But it’s been lauded by the critics as way better than the first game so what do I know. The codex entries became much less interesting and I found myself leaving them for later and then never reading them at all.
Mass Effect 3’s biggest legacy is probably that of its controversial ending and the players' response to it. I mean a full-on fan outrage, demanding Bioware take it back, pretend it never happened and then release the actual good ending. Advertising and trade regulators had to look at the endings and rule whether the game’s ad copies were deceitful. Good fucking grief.
The whole thing was absolutely ridiculous and blown out of proportion by people who take games way too seriously. And I’m saying this as someone who (as evidenced on this blog) takes games, TV shows and books way too seriously. That said, the ending was absolutely not great. I’d say about as bad as Battlestar Galactica’s, except BSG has managed to thread one of the best songs ever made throughout half of the show, delivering an emotional payout that almost overshadowed the actual nonsense of a plot resolution. Thinking about the music there, I still get the shivers. Mass Effect had nothing like that.
But (and this does not get mentioned enough): most game endings are shit. Yes, this was a conclusion of an epic journey five years in the making and the players deserved better, but still.
And more importantly, it wasn’t just the ME 3 ending that was crap. The disgruntled people would have you believe that the entire trilogy was absolutely wonderful right until the final fifteen minutes where it all went down the toilet. That is absolutely not the case. Mass Effect 2’s plot had you working for a criminal fascist conspiracist because… reasons? With companions that either have no reason to work with you or for the boss. Facing antagonists that made no sense, with plot-induced breaks from the rules established by the game.
And let’s not forget: it ended with you fighting a giant human baby made of parts of kidnapped humans. Because I guess the antagonists were kinda dicks? Oh yeah also: your character was literally resurrected from the dead after which no one got resurrected from the dead ever again.
ME2’s main plot was dummmmmm.
But, the game itself was fun, it coasted on the excellence that the original set up and the things that you’ve spent most of your time doing — companion quests and exploration — were still awesome. Some of your decisions you made in the first game carried over got a wonderful payout here.
And Mass Effect 3 was pretty much the same deal. I’ve still really enjoyed both games and was left wanting for more. But they weren’t the pinnacles of story telling they were drummed up to be in the efforts to get the ending changed.
Which is why I’m really puzzled by the reception that Andromeda got.
Yes, it sets up a rule for fixing a broken helmet on a planet with an unbreathable atmosphere which it abandons two hours later because the plot demands it. Yes, the antagonists are initially set up as just plain old boring evils (and when you learn more much later on, they’re still not particularly interesting). And indeed the UI and the controls are a step down and very much feel like an afterthought. It looks like one of those poorly made "futuristic" Winamp skins. The game is glitchy, finicky, the initial writing is all over the place (but it does get better) and the sound direction is a bit of a mess.
So yes you can tell I’m actually setting up a huge "but it’s actually good" argument here.
But while we’re ragging on the game: a lot of the interaction with characters (someone gives you a quest, sends you some info, etc.) happens via email. Now, the year is 2021 and I can read email anywhere I am because I can access it via a small device I carry in my pocket. And I’ve got it on a good authority that there are billions of people who can do the same and, crucially, things were not that different in 2017 when the game came out. Which is why it’s puzzling that when you land on the central hub of all the new civilisation in Andromeda — a place that hosts the self-aware AI that you’ve got a constant techno-psychic link with — you cannot find an email terminal anywhere. Not in your pocket, not on the omnitool on your arm, not in the public places, not in your room, not in the server room hosting the aforementioned AI. You wanna read an email? You’ve got to go back to your ship. And every time you do that, the game plays an animation where you leave the space station and go into space so you can read the email and then play another (unskippable, of course) animation to land back on the hub. I guess people in the future took disconnecting super seriously, but also really inconsistently.
So yes, on reflection I understand why people bounced off it. But it was actually pretty good! Not 10 out of 10 (which if we’re being honest none of the Mass Effect games really deserved), but a really solid 7/10.
The companions are fantastic, the places you get to explore are wonderful, even the overarching plot is quite decent, actually. I’ve definitely enjoyed uncovering the mysteries, solving all the little quests, spending quality time with the crew, and every now and then, even the shooty bits. Just like its predecessors, the Andromeda is in this weird position of great character interaction and mostly uninteresting combat. The music (especially the main menu one) is fantastic. Pretty much all the character skills are combat related so the choice is not between different ways to solve a problem, but between different means of killing the enemies which is emphatically not my thing. But we got back the driving around the planet and this was much more interesting and much less frustrating than in the first Mass Effect. Although, it was still rather fiddly and could have used more polish.
The lack of polish is a strong theme throughout the game’s many systems. The writing could use a touch-up, the UI is in sore need of one and a lot of the other areas felt like they had the necessities in place but they weren’t quite where they should be. With maybe a year of focused attention, the game could easily have risen to the heights of the first one and achieve the critical and player acclaim it desired.
But honestly, it felt so great spending time with all the Mass Effect species again. This game coasts on the Mass Effect universe just like all the other ones do. But it’s still a really wonderful place they’ve managed to put together and cast it in a bit of a different light here. Fewer restrictions on AI research, more opportunities for the Krogan to grow, a new friendly but really wary race to get to know.
There’s a bunch of loose ends that were clearly meant to be explored more in the subsequent games. We won’t know who the Remnant builders are. We won’t learn what happened to that machine buried under Voeld. We won’t understand the Scourge, its causes and any connection to the Remnant or the changes on the golden worlds. Think of all the unresolved stuff that we’d be left with if Mass Effect 2 & 3 never happened. And I’m genuinely saddened by that.
But, the game had a really solid resolution, an ending that didn’t have a huge bang but also (crucially!) didn’t drag on for too long, didn’t have a bad boss fight at the end of it and wrapped the whole thing up quite nicely.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is definitely a mixed bag, but one that I’ve enjoyed throughout and look back on with fondness.