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If you want to know the magic of Mass Effect, Andromeda is the wrong place to start

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Ironic for a game designed to welcome new players

Mass Effect: Andromeda
Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect is one of the most beloved video game franchises of the past decade, earning accolades, inspiring fan fiction, and sweeping players up into a grand sci-fi realm of universe-altering adventure. The first and second Mass Effect changed the genre by treating role-playing with maturity, depth, and an addictive sense of agency derived from making dramatic choices that reverberated with real consequences. In short, they were gaming masterpieces, and if you still haven’t dipped a toe into the Mass Effect universe, you’re missing out.

Conscious of the fact that most people haven’t yet experienced Mass Effect, game creator BioWare set out — a full five years ago — to reboot the whole thing with a fresh storyline, greater accessibility, and more of what made the originals great. But having played the newly released Mass Effect: Andromeda, I don’t think BioWare has succeeded. The new game has its good, even great, moments, but in shedding its old skin, it seems to have lost much of the series’ original charm.

Why I loved the original two games

BioWare’s branching conversation system was a total revelation when it was introduced in 2007’s Mass Effect, turning what’s usually a skippable part of games into a whole new dimension of play. Piss off an ally sufficiently and they might not stick around to the end of your overarching mission. 2010’s Mass Effect 2 perfected this relationship system with even more convincing characters, whose lives were brought directly into the game through missions that helped you earn their loyalty. Playing through it, I wanted to help Mordin, Jack, and Kasumi, and Thane’s personal storyline damn near broke my heart.

Thane Krios in Mass Effect 2
Thane Krios.

It was glorious, compelling writing that was skillfully interwoven into the acts of raiding pirate bases, looting science labs, and generally kicking some wrongdoer’s butt in a righteous fashion. The coupling of that great narrative with rock solid battle mechanics and a finely judged leveling and item system always kept me going for another hour or three.

I didn't love the concluding Mass Effect 3, which left the majority of players disheartened with a confusing and underwhelming ending, but it still had a number of highlights while resolving the smaller, character-driven storylines. Because it was so focused on tying off loose ends, ME3 is easily the worst entry point into Mass Effect, but Andromeda almost swings too far the other way by trying to exhaustively explain everything to new players.

What the new game gets right (particularly for newcomers)

The new Mass Effect: Andromeda sounds perfect on paper: take everything good about the originals, rejuvenate it with a clean slate start, and throw in a bunch of gameplay augmentations. It could have been an incredible experience if BioWare’s ambitions were met by its execution. Let’s first talk about what’s good.

Andromeda sticks close to the established recipe of mixing exploration, resource gathering, item crafting, habitual skirmishing, and errand running. You’ll be scaling the heights of a massive monolith one moment and stalking out a rodent around the decks of your ship the next. It’s cute, making the point that even the biggest heroes have mundane moments.

In battle, there’s a new ability to evade attackers with a quick dash in any direction, plus a jump-boosting jetpack that is just deeply satisfying to use. Both of these moves have the essential kinetic energy to be convincing and infinitely pleasing to execute. Jumping into a fight and slamming your fist on the ground to disorient all your foes feels as badass as it looks.

Another combat improvement is the streamlining of ability combos — my favorite is freezing foes and then shattering them with a concussive shot — into straightforward forms. Being able to summon turrets and attack drones is also fun and adds a layer of diversity to the usual point-and-shoot action.

And what it gets wrong (for old and new players alike)

My major issue with Andromeda is that it doesn’t gel all of its components together properly. Yes, I can jump and dash while fighting, but enemies move erratically and unrealistically, as if the physics they obey were not as much of a priority to model accurately as the protagonist’s (which is probably true).

Also failing the realism test are the facial animations in this game. Now, I know ME1 and 2 look dated today, but I don’t remember characters’ faces feeling as frozen as they do in Andromeda. Maybe what I’m feeling is a dip into the uncanny valley that threatens every game as it approaches photorealism. But I definitely find it jarring to hear the emotive voice actor’s words conveyed by an entirely unemotional face.

Dialogue in Mass Effect: Andromeda has regressed. A couple of choice lines that wouldn’t look out of place in a Dan Brown novel: "Does your brain ever take a breath?" and "A ray of hope for sleep-starved residents." The Mass Effect games always impressed me with their willingness for weirdness, but now the general theme seems to be "contrived badassery." Many of the new game’s set pieces echo moments in the original two, but they lack emotional punch because they don’t have the same elegance of expression.

Where Mass Effect 2 made me feel powerful and at the same time challenged by an even mightier force, Andromeda holds my hand to an extent I find patronizing. It seems like BioWare has fixated on how dauntingly inaccessible the original Mass Effect was, and not the fact that it still won masses of people over, even with its overwrought item inventory system and multilayered complexity.

The new game waters down the item upgrade paths to only a few linear — Rifle X tier I, Rifle X II, Rifle X III, etc., and each tier looks identical — categories. Sure, there’s a wealth of upgrades and tweaks you can make to each, but I don’t get the same sense of a universe of diversity that I got from the earlier games.

Play the originals before you try the new stuff

Ultimately, this whole thing of interweaving the story into the gameplay is what made Mass Effect and its sequel such epic successes. When it’s done just right, it feels so natural that you can’t even detect where the plot component ends and the button-mashing begins. And it’s the key thing missing from Andromeda.

More than anything else, Mass Effect 1 and 2 gave me a sense of purpose. I knew why I was piloting my way into danger, and it was only occasionally just for the money and the glory. Forty hours into Mass Effect: Andromeda, I’m losing the tenuous thread of why I’m landing on the H-047c debris cluster and shotgunning people in the face.

It’s not that I think Mass Effect: Andromeda is a bad game. I wouldn’t commit so much time to it if it were. But I’m coming to realize that, for me, this new game simply doesn’t have the magic of the old ones. The majestic emotional arcs are missing, the narrative elements feel stilted and predictable, and a few too many of the good things are just BioWare copying itself.

All I’m saying is, don’t spoil the wonder of Mass Effect by playing the inferior rebooted version. Invest a couple of weekends into going back to the source, savor the glories of BioWare's finest work, and then you can still come back to Andromeda and try the 2017 edition.