Mass Effect: Andromeda: More is Less in the Uncanny Valley

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a scattershot experience. By now, everyone and their weird uncle has watched the video complitations and GIFs showcasing the freak-show character animations present in Bioware’s latest effort. Those issues are simply a drop in the bucket when compared to ME:A’s more serious, underlying problems.

 

The premise of Mass Effect: Andromeda is rather straightforward. Sometime during the events of Mass Effect 2 an interspecies program dubbed “The Andromeda Initiative” loaded up a number of “arks” – specialized ships built for long-term space flight – with humans, turians, asari, salarians, and krogans and set forth on a mission of intergalactic colonization. The ex-military Alec Ryder was one of the brains behind the operation thanks to his immense knowledge of artificial intelligence (which is very much taboo in the Milky Way, or at least in Council Space). Not only did Alec help spearhead the Initiative, he also held the title of human Pathfinder, which loosely translates to “dude who gets shit done.” He’s a jack of all trades, and humanity’s best hope for colonizing a new planet.

 

As the player, you choose between playing as either Scott or Sarah Ryder; Alec’s son or daughter respectively. As the game begins, you awake from a 600-year cryogenic stasis to find the “golden worlds” the Andromeda Initiative promised to be less than ideal for long term colonization. There’s some very pretty – but very deadly – space magic weaponry called the “Scourge” floating around humanity’s speculative Eden, Habitat 7, and as the Pathfinder, it falls on Alec and his team to investigate the state of their new home.

 

Things go sideways before you even touch down on the surface. You are separated from your father, and almost immediately thrown into combat against a generic, antagonistic alien race called the Kett. At the conclusion of the tutorial mission your father sacrifices himself to save your life in what should be a powerful scene, but as with most story beats in ME:A, it comes across as telegraphed and lacking an emotional punch. Alec was only present for the first hour of the game, but I find myself thinking back to the introduction chapter in The Last of Us, Specifically on how Naughty Dog was able to craft a scenario in which I was immediately invested in Joel and his daughter’s story. It can be done. For all the talk of Bioware putting a focus on family in this game, they sure failed at making me give a goddamn about my polygonal father dying. Hell, even the player character reacts with little to no emotion whenever Alec’s passing is brought up. It’s jarring, and it is especially eerie when compounded with the dead-eyed stare both Ryder twins almost always sport.

 

But before he died Alec made you the new human Pathfinder. The game immediately points out that the title of Pathfinder should have fallen to one of your squadmates, Cora Harper, but Alec bucks chain of command and bestows the responsibility of Getting Shit Done on the player for Plot Reasons (something, something, AI compatibility) . Blatant nepotism aside, this chain of events could have created a truly interesting relationship dynamic between Cora and the player. Unfortunately the tension that the game initially sets up between the two characters dissolves into her simply accepting your role as Mr./Ms. Getting Shit Done without actually exploring legitimate human conflict. And that, I’m sad to write, is a running theme throughout ME:A. Instead of exploring interesting personal and interpersonal conflicts and ethical dilemmas like the original trilogy so often attempted, ME:A is usually content with placing the player in situations that generally require little philosophical thought.

 

The game has an interesting premise, but fails to use it. The idea of colonizing a new star cluster should present players with a multitude of enthralling conflicts to address that could touch on some pretty heavy topics such as globalization and colonialism, and the consequences – intended and unintended – from such practices. After all, the best sci-fi allows for the exploration of real-world issues in unique settings. The original Mass Effect had a fair amount of content devoted to showcasing the interplay between (Council) government and (space) corporations. Said focus provided a solid reference point that helped ground the universe in something familiar. It helped immerse me in the intricacies of Bioware’s world. Mass Effect: Andromeda is happy to repeatedly tell the player just how dire things are in this unfamiliar and hostile environment, but it infrequently shows exactly how these space pioneers are suffering. Everything related to building outposts, expanding territory, and simply surviving is handled via an abstract point system that serves to depersonalize the journey rather than engross the player in the colonial struggle.

 

Outside of some well written conversations regarding faith and religion’s place in a scientifically advanced society, you’ll be stuck listening to dialogue that ranges from stilted to flat-out uninspired. I found myself wanting to skip through conversations much too often for a narrative driven experience like Mass Effect. Although many of the characters you meet on your journey have interesting backstories, very rarely do they offer up anything that is legitimately interesting over the course of the game proper. Usually they ask you to meet them on a specific planet for a bit of bonding time. These instances are extremely reminiscent of the Citadel meet-ups in Mass Effect 3 which were widely praise – and rightly so. But the problems with these interactions in Andromeda are twofold. The first – and arguably the most apparent – problem is that these character moments aren’t earned like they were in Mass Effect 3. They don’t have two previous entries worth of characterization and growth to prop them up and make them feel “real” in the way shooting bottles with Garrus on the Citadel does. The second issue is that they are made tedious thanks to the unskippable animations that play whenever you are leaving a planet’s orbit or travelling from one star system to another. Sure, I’ll concede that the animations look real nice the first few times they play, but by the 45-hour mark I wanted to throw my controller through my TV every time I had to venture to a new system. That frustration stemming from the tedium of travel (which permeates throughout the game) grated on my patience. It made me less enthusiastic about budgeting time to meet with my crewmates. Drack, buddy, why can’t we just meet on the ship for drinks? Brew me up some of your krogan bathtub hooch, and we’ll make a cross-cultural study out of it.

 

The departure from the traditional “Paragon” and “Renegade” options in conversation should have been more liberating, but the low-caliber writing and sparse conversational interrupts failed to draw me into the Mass Effect universe in the way the original trilogy did. I believe this also led me to feeling that no matter how I responded, the outcome of most interactions would be the same. I never felt the weight of my responses. My Scott Ryder mostly came off as goofball who spouted lame one-liners simply because the alternative was a dry, by-the-books Scott Ryder. I was never given the option to play the hardass that I wanted to be. Sure, I could tell some big bads that I was going to “fuck their shit up,” but it came across as juvenile rather than commanding. The original trilogy was never the shining beacon for “videogame writing”  that some fans claim it to be, but at least with the Paragon/Renegade system the writing backing the choices was generally passable, if not downright good.

 

The shoddy writing in ME:A isn’t helped by the disjointed mixing present in the game either. Thanks to noticeable and unwelcome changes in inflection (oftentimes within the same conversation branch), it becomes obvious that the dialogue was re-edited. I completely understand how every game that has dialogue is edited and mixed in a similar fashion, but it falls on the developers to edit the vocal tracks in a way that helps create the illusion of a real conversation. Bioware did a poor job in this instance. That’s not to say the overall sound design is subpar, however. Quite the contrary. Guns generally sound meatier this time around, and the dash abilities and jump-jet effects all sound terrific. Biotics and tech powers are generally a treat to listen to; often delivering enjoyable crunches, whoomps, and bangs.

 

The musical score is a different story. I don’t dislike it, but it’s certainly the weakest soundtrack of the franchise. I’m already tired of continuing to compare ME:A to the original trilogy, but an iconic soundtrack has been something that previously helped elevate Mass Effect into the elite echelon of gaming. Vigil, Tali’s theme, the Illusive Man’s theme, the Suicide Mission track, Noveria’s theme: these songs are ingrained into every Mass Effect fan’s head. They are well-crafted, and suited for the locations and situations in which they are deployed. They work in conjunction with everything else happening to create memorable moments in time for the player. Jack Wall and Sam Hulick (the individuals responsible for the majority of the original trilogy’s soundtrack) were as responsible for the Mass Effect feel as the writers and animators. In Mass Effect: Andromeda, I mostly found myself listening to the sound of silence while driving across the different planets. A bland orchestral piece would kick in whenever I would engage in a skirmish with some of the Kett, but the soundtrack was underutilized. It never quite blended with what I was doing or where I was to create a holistic experience.  It pains me to say it, but there wasn’t a single stand-out piece from ME:A. That’s a shame considering the Mass Effect series has produced tracks that range from foreboding to epic to straight-up club bangers.

 

Outside of humanoid characters, the game actually looks very appealing. The turians, krogans, salarians, and angara are all fine. The fact those races look more “alien” help hide a lot of the spotty facial animations that run rampant across the humanoid characters. The particle effects are a joy to watch, and some of the vistas you’ll encounter are damn fine to look at, too. The Frostbite engine used by Bioware can make some truly beautiful landscapes, and that is certainly on display from the get-go. The exterior lighting – while not being as aesthetically pleasing as, say, the hyper-realism found in Horizon Zero Dawn – gets the job done. Outside of some glaring texture pop-in and the aforementioned humanoid character problems the game ran great for me at a consistent 60 FPS. . . with that being said I encountered a handful of bugs that were literal quest killers (sorry Jaal!). As of now they have yet to be fixed. That is a rather substantial issue that I have no doubt Bioware is trying to address as soon as possible, but bugs that prevent you from furthering questlines that are (I assume) fairly detrimental to the overall story are goddamn inexcusable. A random NPC popping into existence in a full-on Christ pose right in front of you? Yeah, sure, let’s mark it off as a known shippable. A bug that cuts out literally hours of content? No way. That’s a broken product.

 

I very well may have not missed out on much considering the quality of the side content runs the gambit from atrocious to subpar. Outside of most of the character specific quests, the side content acts as meaningless filler and nothing more. The development team reportedly took inspiration from the Witcher 3 in regards to how they were handling side quests, but I would have no way of knowing that if I hadn’t read it in a pre-release statement. It’s almost as if they did the exact opposite of what CD Projekt Red accomplished. Instead of providing interesting moral choices through engaging stories that feel completely natural to the game’s world, I found myself sitting through the previously mentioned unskippable travel animations in order to get to a new planet, hold Y to pick up an object (or sometimes scan an object by pressing A), and bring it back to the quest giver. I never felt like I was adequately compensated for my time. Games like the Witcher 3, and to a lesser extent, Horizon Zero Dawn provided me with sidequests that still stick with me today because of compelling characters introduced, interesting locations visited, and rare in-game gear acquired. Mass Effect: Andromeda’s sidequests are exactly what they are labeled as in the UI – Tasks. Even though you are inundated with “Tasks,” you should avoid them like an angry krogan if you want to have any semblance of fun.

 

However, combat is the best it’s ever been in the series. I’m hesitant to call it great, but it’s without a doubt fun. The new levelling system allows for a more robust experience thanks to the ability to essentially re-spec your character’s powers on the fly. It allows for some truly entertaining experiences and emergent gameplay while fighting through the beautiful locales. The “sticky” cover system could use some refinement, but I rarely had problems with it (although I probably mitigated that issue by frequently using the cloaking mechanic).

 

There is something to be said for the loss of squad power control. Stripping out the power wheel may have streamlined the game’s combat system, but I can’t help but feel something distinctly “Mass Effect” was lost in the process. ME:A still falls into the trap of telegraphing when combat is about to begin through the use of conveniently placed waist-high cover – an issue that has plagued the series since the ME2 days. Some guns still don’t feel as heavy as they probably should (I’m looking at you Sidewinder), but anyone who enjoys third-person shooters should feel right at home with ME:A’s tight combat system.

 

The crafting system is never adequately explained, but it’s straightforward enough that most people that are even passingly familiar with any of the crafting systems that have been popping up in AAA games over the last four years should have minimal problems getting acclimated to it. But the unintuitive UI makes everything more obtuse and complicated than it has any right to be, and the crafting system is no exception. Even organizing missions is a chore.

 

As easy it is to slam it for its funky animations, there are a host of deeper issues running throughout the game. As Mass Effect: Andromeda expanded in scope, it failed to fill its larger universe with intriguing characters and meaningful content. I could forgive the janky animations, and even the lack of a solid soundtrack if ME:A provided me with what I play a Mass Effect game for: compelling characters, a unique universe, and a passable main plot thread. Andromeda provided me with none of that. Instead I got a lackluster and rushed rehash of the original Mass Effect with pale stand-ins for iconic characters such as Liara T’Soni, Urdnot Wrex, Garrus Vakarian, Tali’Zorah Vas Normandy, and – fuck me, I’m actually going to include them – Ashley Williams and Kaidan Alenko. Flat characters, vapid dialogue, and filler content came together in a perfect storm to banish Mass Effect: Andromeda into the realm of eternal mediocrity.

 

See you, Space Cowboy

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