The spacefaring races of the Mass Effect games can travel at faster-than-light speeds, allowing them to get to distant planets in seconds, far-off stars in minutes, and even entirely new galaxies in years. But that's still not fast enough for some players of BioWare's latest space opera, who have complained that the animation that takes your ship between Andromeda's worlds is interminably slow.
They do have a point. The corner of Andromeda selected for initial colonization — the Heleus Cluster — is laid out on a galaxy map, allowing you to hop between solar systems at will. Choose one of these systems and your ship, the Tempest, will pause for a second, as if considering whether to follow orders, before executing a light-speed hop that takes about five real-world seconds.
That alone might be tolerable for impatient souls, but once you're deposited in the system, you'll need to select again which planet you want to explore, kickstarting another animation. This is a lazy sublight loop that takes you into orbit, allowing you to either scan the world, or in rare cases, make planetfall. If you spot a piece of wreckage or an interestingly shaped asteroid in the system, same deal: expect another animation as the Tempest chugs its way over to let you take a peek.
It makes exploring this new galaxy slow going. In previous Mass Effects, solar system-hopping was nearly instantaneous, planets spilling their secrets as soon as you clicked on them. The shift to delayed gratification has been seen as a step backward, with the scenes certainly serving no mechanical purpose in the game beyond potentially hiding awkward loading times.
But I've come to savor these moments of quiet travel between celestial bodies; I even to look forward to them. They're a layer of mechanical abstraction from the game that somehow pulls me further into the fiction: no longer am I an omnipresent sentient spaceship, I'm the captain aboard that spaceship, pointing my finger at a far-off world and saying "engage."
When I get to my destinations, I spin the planets around on the screen like I'm turning an artifact in my hand. Blurb text tells some of their secrets, but I fill in the gaps, looking at their poles and their equators, conjuring up mental images of their skies and their surfaces. Most of these worlds add nothing to the game. They’re not involved in Ryder's quest to find a home for humanity (and the Turians, Asaris, Salarians, and Krogan who also came over from the Milky Way). But giving them this ersatz physicality, and forcing me to think about the journey to visit them, they make Andromeda feel populated, coherent, and welcoming.
That's an important element in an open-world game that's missing in many of Andromeda's peers, and that lack of tangibility has turned me off other games before. I didn't want to spend days drinking in the nasty cynicism of GTA V's San Andreas, No Man's Sky's galaxy felt soulless, and The Division's New York is a broken authoritarian fantasy. But in Andromeda, I dawdle. I check my email, I pester my crewmates, I catch myself staring out of the window at new stars humans haven't seen before. I do that because I want to spend time in this universe.
Andromeda, like the Milky Way, has its own unknowable, genocidal threats lurking on the fringes of dark space. This time it's the cultish Kett, not the robotic reapers, that serve as the game's specters of death. The Kett are as cruel as the reapers — they seem even more so, perhaps, for being clearly organic creatures instead of rampaging robots.
But despite these constant threats, Mass Effect games are primarily stories of friendship, not antagonism. They're Star Trek-ish in their optimism, and not just because they imagine a future in which everyone wears super-snug space suits. In Mass Effect's universe, humans can not only get along with each other — finally — but also become friends with giant metal bird people or talking jellyfish. Like Star Trek, problems occur, but humans and aliens alike deal with them together, learning life lessons (and sneaking kisses) along the way.
Andromeda's writing has been dinged for swinging between colloquial and stilted, for being too on-the-nose with its characterizations, and for being over-earnest. There are certainly some clunky lines, but I'd argue that being over-earnest is the one character flaw our species’ representative in another galaxy should have. My Ryder is a wild optimist because how could he not be wildly optimistic? He's made it 600 years in cryosleep to a brand-new galaxy, navigated successful first contact with a friendly new race, and become the first human to ever set eyes on a bevy of new worlds.
Compare that to now: we've barely discovered a handful of planets outside our Solar System, and NASA has a freakout every time it spots one. Imagine if you could tick 20 undiscovered worlds off your list before space lunchtime. Would you be complaining that it took too long to travel between each one, or would you be too busy weeping at the silent, incomprehensible glory of the universe?