NOTE: This contains spoilers regarding the plot and ending of Mass Effect: Andromeda.
I do not envy BioWare, the western RPG champion. From reviving the computer RPG with Baldur’s Gate, to making beloved Star Wars spinoff Knights of the Old Republic and fantasy epics Jade Empire and Dragon Age, the Canadian studio – which ballooned in size after its 2007 acquisition by publishing giant Electronic Arts (henceforth shortened to “EA”) – suffers extremes of expectations. Part of it is inevitable due to what they focus on: world building, beloved characters, and stories shaped by the player. These are hard to live up to, the latter especially, and even their best works can’t quite accomplish it. And perhaps the best example of this struggle comes from one of their grandest series, Mass Effect.
The first Mass Effect was a triumph: a 2007 hit that helped cement the Xbox 360 and western RPGs as commercial behemoths, and the most successful result of EA’s late 2000s reach for critical acclaim. It treated players to a galaxy as compelling as it was derivative, a space opera inspired by 1980s science fiction in which humanity has found itself a new, major political force in a community of alien species. It and its two sequels became one of the most important and iconic series of the past ten years. But circumstances changed. The ending to Mass Effect 3, though mitigated by downloadable content, was so controversial it threatened to subsume the entire franchise. In addition, BioWare simply moved on – many of its central creative figures left, and those who remained were less interested in exploring the same material. EA had BioWare’s Montreal studio take point on a sequel while BioWare Edmonton, the main team that helmed the trilogy, started work on the upcoming Anthem.
It’s hard to explain Mass Effect: Andromeda’s five year development with brevity. I’ll direct you to a Kotaku article about it as supplemental reading, but bluntly, the team endured a hellish cycle that forced them to give up most of their ideas. Plans for No Man’s Sky-esque procedural generation of entire planets went south three years into production, though I’m doubtful it would have gelled with BioWare’s writing. The Frostbite Engine, used at EA’s insistence, was onerous and unhelpful. They switched directors in 2014. With most of this incredibly ambitious project made in a brutal eighteen month crunch, during which various kinds of character animation had to be outsourced to third parties, it’s no wonder the most discussed feature upon release was an array of bugs and bizarre facial animations – the latter far worse than those of the decade-older first Mass Effect. Smiles became nightmarish rictus grins, limbs shook like gelatin, the hero could crab walk down stairs, and game breaking glitches were aplenty. It even lead to a grotesque, conspiratorial harassment campaign against BioWare’s female staffers, even those who hadn’t worked on the game at all.
And though I didn’t pay attention to the animations beyond their general (and comical) poor quality, I was not unaffected by technical problems. The camera would repeatedly turn away from my character and the NPC during conversations; in an instance where it didn’t, the NPC kept clipping in and out of existence. A party member walked through a wall in my spaceship, only to teleport back to where she started. Dialogue constantly forgot to load properly or even at all, leading to subtitles for lines that hadn’t been spoken. Some side quests failed to complete; one in which I had to defeat fifteen enemies forgot to load the last one. On one occasion I drove my space car between some debris, causing it to somehow become stuck in a nausea inducing first-person view when I drove it (thankfully, this reset after going to another planet). Sadly, these ended up more memorable than most of the game.
But I like Mass Effect a lot and am intrigued by notoriety, so I decided to dive into it in early October, finishing it Thanksgiving weekend. And so, off went the adventures of Rockabilly Ryder,* a Polynesian gay woman with Targaryen purple eyes, a massive scar and penchant for sniper rifles, and the slicked hair of a 1950s greaser. She’s a “Pathfinder,” the vanguard of an organization looking to colonize the Andromeda Galaxy. A hundred thousand of the series’ main species – humans, turians, asari, salarians, krogan, and the ones BioWare decided would sit this one out – have chucked themselves into cryo for a six hundred year trip from the Milky Way to Andromeda, all in the hope of finding new planets to call home.
* In my defense, I named my previous Mass Effect hero Ca$hMoney Shepard.
The premise gets bogged down by series staples: everyone chasing the remains of an ancient civilization that radiate incredible power (the Remnant), an evil species performing horrific “medical” experiments (the kett, who look like He-Man toys), a new rubbery alien (the Australian accented angara, who are vaguely emotional and fight the kett), and a cavalier attitude towards shootouts happy for Ryder to kill dozens of Milky Way exiles and reduce the Initiative’s gene pool. But for the most part, the game is about its cast of immigrants, pioneers, and explorers. Andromeda takes place 600 years in the future of a series 200 years in ours, in a galaxy so far, far away our colonists will never see their families or homes again – especially as, to their ignorance, they’ve hightailed it right before the apocalyptic Reaper invasion of Mass Effect 3.
It’s easy to see why BioWare went in this direction. The most obvious if cynical reason is that it provides a lovely sidestep to making a Mass Effect 4, and by extension invalidating two of Mass Effect 3’s incredibly controversial three main endings. But it also provides a fresh start, a recontextualizing of the series’ lore. Suddenly humanity is the invasive species, with the thrill of first contact you weren’t able to get from the early games (which take place thirty years after humanity discovered and joined the galactic Council) front and center.
It also acts as a sort of redemption of one of the series’ more hated mechanics: the free roaming sandbox traversal the first game attempted. As the goal is to make Andromeda’s Heleus Cluster habitable, it’s up to Ryder to settle these mostly uncharted worlds, turning on magic alien vaults to terraform them into a livable state. In Mass Effect you had a vehicle, the Mako, which was important for creating a sense of tangible size but incredibly unpleasant to drive; Andromeda doubles down with its moderately less unwieldy version, the Nomad. You drive it on four sandboxes of the seven main locations (and a couple small areas), hitting waypoint after waypoint to solve sidequests and raise the planet’s viability.
Andromeda promises massive worlds, and they lead to its biggest problems. The most immediate is that spreading itself so thin has the opposite effect of intended, making the cluster banal. Like the other Mass Effect games, it fails to imagine planets with diverse ecosystems; each one is so generic that there’s no practical difference between the “desert,” “ice,” “poison,” and “other desert” planets. You find the same prefab buildings wherever you go, which makes sense for the Initiative, except that the angara also use them despite having been a whole galaxy away. While sidequests (hilariously, appropriately called “tasks”) are based around the threatened populations’ anxieties, they’re never more than an abstraction with no real bearing on your colonies. Unlocking the vaults to make the planets less arid, cold, or irradiated is a chore: the same short trek and dashing escape, punctuated with a mini-game that is essentially “space sudoku.” Even the political depth it pours into each colony becomes suffocating, demanding you know seemingly dozens of factions, rivalries, and names. Everything done to widen the scope turns a frontier fantasy into a, well, task.
This game is bloated with filler. There’s a mechanic for scanning everything (sort of – it’s finicky about what actually counts), and your study of animals and wind turbines somehow turns into points spent to research guns. Those can be made via an unintuitive, ignorable crafting system that uses resources acquired via mining nodes you drop onto the maps while driving to fulfill the next asinine demand put upon you. It doesn’t matter if you’re solving a murder, stopping a colonist from accidentally starting a pandemic, helping a retired secret agent investigate a possible traitor, or capturing unique plants; all of them follow one of two speeds: walking and scanning, and running and shooting. It all comes together for an experience wallowing in the jumbled, incoherent design that plagues open world games like Assassin’s Creed and has spread through the industry like a cancer.
More disappointing, though, is how it works within its series. The game has to be both its own story and a successor to three beloved games, and it’s far more beholden to its predecessors than it should. Relatives of characters from the trilogy constantly appear, often with lines that serve as cheap meta gags (one of the worst: mad scientists from the terrorist group Cerberus mock the “ridiculous” experiments that served as plot drivers in 2 and 3). Recurring tropes get lampshaded, almost reflexively and defensively. For all that it wants to be drastically unique, emphasizing lines like “I’ve been all over the Milky Way, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” it can’t conceive of a world where every turian isn’t ready to talk about “calibrations,” where no one knows Liara T’Soni and clan Urdnot and even Conrad Verner, a character defined by being a hard to find easter egg. It’s always hedging its bets, backing off from its own ideas into adoration of games that I love, but which were deeply flawed and should not be treated as unassailable texts.
Like most BioWare works, Andromeda has a number of science fiction and fantasy actors. Clancy Brown, “that guy” legend of Carnivàle, The Shawshank Redemption, SpongeBob SquarePants, and the DC Animated Universe carries a plum role as Ryder’s father. Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer, Genthin Anthony, and Gemma Whalon play, respectively, the ship’s doctor and engineer, and a peppy salarian Pathfinder, while Indira Varma pulls double duty as both an angaran spiritual leader and a human gangster who’s taken one of the viable planets for herself. Podcasting giant Kumail Nanjiani becomes the latest of the series’ obstructive bureaucrats. EastEnders’ Robert Kazinsky portrays the main villain, while Jules de Jongh, who played Faith in Mirror’s Edge, is one of your squadmates. It’s a stacked cast, which makes it all the more disappointing that the acting is a bit stilted. The performances aren’t bad (outside of Brown’s, a personal favorite who gives depressingly disengaged line readings before his character’s absurd death), but in general they fail to inject desperately needed energy.
Side note on the acting: I found it distracting how so many of the non-North American voices were British. Coupled with the Australian accents for the angara, and the mostly Anglophone vocal range made the game feel small. The other games had this problem, too, but hearing a krogan with a quiet Irish accent just felt odd.
If Andromeda has one saving grace, it’s the main team. Things start out bad; an unfortunate BioWare staple of insipid starter sidekicks rears its head when one of the first two, Liam, spouts lines like “I think I really pissed that one off…maybe because I shot him in the face.” Fortunately, you get the full party quickly, and while the script needed another draft (especially for the humans and Peebee, an asari archaeologist rarely more than a basket of tropes), it does work to give each companion an inner life. Turian smuggler Vetra isn’t a distaff Garrus Vakarian, but a middle manager and cultural pariah raising her rambunctious sister. Salarian pilot Kallo tries and fails to balance technical wizardry with a deep affection for your ship, the Tempest. And its best character is Jaal, a thoughtful angaran sniper bearing twin burdens of being a representative of his species and an agent for a foreign government. There’s a bad tendency for them to devolve into Joss Whedon-style quipping, regardless of personality, but the best dialogue gives them varied, distinct writing. Camaraderie is central to the series, and scenes of partners interacting with each other, not just the player, vastly outnumber those of the trilogy (it doesn’t hurt that they treat Liam with the same disdain I felt). Looking back, it’s easy to see BioWare struggling to make the original team members have lives beyond Commander Shepard. Andromeda builds upon it significantly, with good results.
It also exploits one of the series’ best ideas with Loyalty Missions – quests to gain each party member’s trust, stronger skills, and in some cases the possibility of romance – which give the game it’s most compelling moments. Partially that’s for being fun set pieces; the standout there is, oddly, Liam’s, which involves fixing his colossal idiocy by fighting space pirates in a cargo hold whose malfunctioning gravity makes you fight on walls and ceilings. Most of them have that energy, from racing Peebee’s ex-girlfriend to a treasure on a volcanic moon, to helping Vetra and her sister rescue a group of kidnapped explorers. But they also usually have an emotional payoff that’s genuinely nice. The best one, visiting Jaal’s home and meeting his family after saving two of his siblings from falling into violent extremism, is a lovely, sweet denouement, the kind of which nothing in the main plot comes close to earning.
It all culminates in an optional, easily ignored sidequest in which you schlep across Heleus for popcorn and contraband space operas, all for the purpose of putting on a movie night for your crew. It’s an appreciated attempt to follow Citadel, the final DLC story for Mass Effect 3 that served as a hilarious, touching culmination for the entire trilogy. Although it can’t match it – aside from the fact that you haven’t spent years with these characters, the process of completing it is an irritating fetch quest – it’s a nice, sweet climax with a genuine interest in its characters, one that explores the series’ best ideas instead of merely aping them.
After a fun, bombastic climax that’s equal parts culmination of everything you’ve done and incomprehensible sci fi gibberish, you get the credits and a compelling final choice underlining the central question of immigration versus imperialism. But, ultimately, all you’re left with, aside from any unfinished Tasks, are questions about plot points and threads that just…stop instead of concluding. Who murdered the Initiative’s supposed founder, and who is its mysterious “Benefactor?” What happened to the quarian ark? What happens to Reyes if you don’t shoot him? What was the deal with the villain’s second in command, who offers Ryder a deal and winds up in charge of the bad guy army? What exactly are the Scourge and the Remnant (neither made any sense to me)? And why should we care that Ryder’s mother is alive in cryogenic status, the curing of her terminal illness blatant sequel bait? There is a line between deliberate anticlimax and hitting the brakes to justify DLC or a sequel, one Andromeda crosses again and again. It’s fine to leave story bits dangling, but it’s infuriating to see a compelling idea end because the game won’t play its hand. The first Mass Effect works as a standalone story, but this one is always eying how it will be part of a homeric epic.
Except it won’t. Strong early sales became more sluggish than expected as the game received mixed reception – in the bizarre landscape of the games industry, an aggregate critical score in the 70s is a kiss of death. Coming out the same month as Horizon Zero Dawn, NieR: Automata, and especially The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, whose refreshing interpretation of open worlds has made it a modern classic, did it no favors. Months later, EA confirmed they would not be making downloadable content – which greatly benefited the series with stories like Lair of the Shadow Broker and Omega, the latter made by BioWare Montreal – though they did make a patch adding a same sex relationship option for Jaal (greatly appreciated given the game’s other, comically poor M/M romances are with your boring engineer who only talks about poker and a ridiculous “fiery Latino” caricature). The Montreal studio is being scaled down, the “actual” BioWare is busy with their new game, and reports suggest Mass Effect is frozen for the time being. Andromeda’s only conclusion will be via a comic book explaining some plot threads.
As an unwritten rule, I try not to cover new games for this series; I’m vastly more interested in the context and environment surrounding them. But it was impossible to ignore the outcry in the wake of the game’s release. Plasticine animation, incoherent writing and plotting, and an incredible, unmet ambition are obvious marks of “The Forgotten, the Maligned,” especially since this game is part of a depressing trend.
In October, EA shut down Visceral Games. It was famous for Dead Space, a trilogy that slowly withered and died from both unsatisfactory sales and publisher insistence that it water down its identity to be more “accessible,” following trends instead of making works to stand the test of time. Visceral had brought on longtime Uncharted director Amy Hennig to direct a Star Wars game marked by its own setbacks that will supposedly undergo major changes. As for the Star Wars game EA did release, Battlefront II is one of 2017’s most controversial games for making heavy demands on players’ time to encourage spending real world money, a gross use of microtransactions that led a Hawaii State Representative to publicly declare an interest in stopping their widespread use.
In my sixty-four hours driving from one sidequest to the next, ignoring the multiplayer mode that seems to exist just for similar microtransactions, one thought kept up: Mass Effect: Andromeda has far too many ideas of what it thinks it “should” be, and no idea what it is. It’s a Mass Effect sequel and reboot. It’s a rival to Skyrim and Far Cry. And it’s setup. In the prologue, Nanjiani’s Director Tann explains how one transport ship – carrying the quarians and less humanoid (and less well treated by the series) species like the elcor and hanar – is planned to arrive later. It’s a naked attempt at hyping a sequel or DLC, and I’m not sure which is worse, that it’s such shameless self-promotion, or that it’s for a game that won’t exist – I doubt BioWare was planning to conclude their story through a comic. Comparing Andromeda to 2017 works like Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Wolfenstein II, NieR, and Golf Story show a scary dearth of confidence or clarity of vision on its part.
This has been pretty negative, and those hours were mostly unpleasant, a series of fetch quests that turned the Heleus Cluster into a worksheet. It wasn’t all bad; I liked the team and a few side characters (mainly the krogan bureaucrat Kesh, Varma’s Moshae, and Whalon’s Pathfinder Raeka). As much as Andromeda feels like a narrative dead-end, I’ll be sad to lose them when they presumably get jettisoned in the next Mass Effect – assuming one happens. Had BioWare cut the fat, tightened up the character work, not treated a sequel as guaranteed, and avoided their Quixotic quest for open world “freedom,” it’d be far better. And, sadly, it’d be one I doubt EA would publish. I hate trashing the work of hundreds of programmers who aren’t dolts or worthless by any means, but stuck in a retrospectively unwinnable situation. But that one of gaming’s jewels can end in this state says a lot about the state of game publishing.