Wednesday, June 12, 2024

First Contact Project: Mass Effect Andromeda

The unfairly maligned fourth installation in a much beloved series.

My love of the Bioware game is... not a small one. We shall not dwell on the number of hours I have played in the Dragon Age franchise, mainly because it's threatening to include the word "thousand" and that would be... well it would be something. But that and Mass Effect are my comfort games. They got me through furlough and lockdown with a modicum of sanity retained, and they just hold a very deep, dear place in my heart.

But somehow, I have never played Mass Effect: Andromeda. Well, I say somehow. Until approximately mid-March, the reason for that was clear - I had never had a machine capable of running it. And so, naturally, the first thing I did once I acquired one was to download it with a swiftness hitherto unwitnessed in the realms of man. But I was cautious. You see, I've heard things about Andromeda (hereafter ME:A because typing is effort). Not... good things. It is the awkward ginger stepchild of the franchise, at the bottom of every ranking, beloved of none, though I had never seen a clear reason why. It was just not as beloved, and so I went in concerned that it simply could not live up to the legacy of the previous games.

In my opinion, not only did it do so, but it bested them. It is, without a doubt, for me, the best Mass Effect game in existence, and there exists clear water in between it and the rest.

But I'm going to come back to that. I want instead to examine first why I think it is not beloved, why I think it is unfairly maligned, and what that says about the franchise and the fandom more broadly, and perhaps why coming to it at a number of years removed might have helped my appreciation of it.

Simply put, I think the problem is that it's not a game about Commander Shepard. Maybe that's too simplistic, but it makes sense. For the whole of the original trilogy, you play as this legendary, badass hero, as she* becomes even more legendary and badass, you see her through a galaxy-wide crisis, through death and beyond, as she holds in the balance the future of every analogue and digital life form in the Milky Way. She is the soul and centre of the trilogy, no matter how compelling are her companions, and so the game is her. Can Mass Effect be Mass Effect without Shepard? Maybe for a lot of the fandom the answer to that was a resounding "no". It doesn't matter that the ending(s) of the original trilogy leave us in a place where creating a genuine sequel story would be nigh on impossible, with some incredibly complicated and wide-reaching world-state variations to try to account for. The heart wants what the heart wants, and if that was more Shepard badassing about the galaxy saving worlds and cutting through red tape, then anything else won't do, no matter what logic tells you.

And I think this is a deeply unfair expectation for ME:A to come in to. It can be understandable and unfair at the same time. It is what it is.

They went in knowing they couldn't fit something in to follow on from that trilogy, so they didn't try. They decided to wipe the slate entirely fresh - literally move to a new galaxy - and leave their connection point to the existing story where things still weren't resolved. We still have connections, snippets of links to known places, people and things, but those connections are trailing into the past, and we enter a fresh gamestate, in a fresh setting, unfettered by the player's previous decisions. It's the best they could have realistically done with the corner they had painted themselves into, and I think it's a shame that player reception didn't accept that.

But it didn't, so here we are. It meant I went in with extremely low expectations, which were met, exceeded and then fully blown out of the water. Why? Because this was a game that, for me, totally got what Mass Effect could be good at, and leaned into it, while making the best use of the updated game mechanics and system design that wasn't around when the first game came into being. It adapted the heart of the feeling of the first game - the exploration, the relationships, the badassery, the building up of a legend of a person, and made it fresh. How could I not love that?

 That being said, the game it most reminds me of is Dragon Age: Inquistion. And I mean, it's Bioware, right? They're all paddling in the same pool. But it's a Mass Effect story in a map/quest/structure environment that feels so similar to what Inquisition does with its multi-area stuff, its camp exploration, and its supplementary off-screen missions that get you tangible rewards. And I love that. I think it's a game shape that really works, so why wouldn't they do it? They both have the same problem - there's a point when you're about half way through the game where you have a lot of open quests and no real drive to pick any single one over another - but on the whole, they both work really well as a vehicle for telling good stories. Not just a single story, though of course there's one that takes priority, but a bunch of interlocking stories, about different people, different cultures and different places, and put you in a position to steer those stories in the direction you want, and to fit an overarching theme on top of it, as well as giving a lot of space for additional personal storytelling.

There's so much space in the Andromeda galaxy in the game to imagine stories. There's so much potential. That's what the world after Mass Effect 3 no longer had, and that's what it needed. All of this untapped narrative potentiality for players to map their thoughts onto, and characters to fill it with and move around. Characters that felt deep and real.

I personally did not like Mass Effect 2 (because I did not want to be on team Bad Guy), but it is an incredibly character-focussed game. Your companions have depth, and have their own stories that you are a part of, but not the whole of. You help them, you may steer their decisions, but you are not their world, mostly. It's the standout part of ME2, for me. And Andromeda gets this, and gives it in spades. They still have the loyalty mission mechanic (good, yes, correct), and if anything have expanded it, so each companion quest is a big, multi-step affair. You spend real time with these people, learning who they are and what they care about, and it is wonderful.

And, of course, you can romance some of them. Unlike the recently-released Baldur's Gate 3 (and previous Bioware release Dragon Age 2), Mass Effect: Andromeda does not let you romance indiscriminately - all of your romanceable companions have their own sexuality and preferences, and not all of them will line up with who you are. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I do think it makes characters more diverse and well-rounded if they represent a variety of different sexualities - it forms a part of who they are, and if it is integrated into their story, all the better. But on the other hand... there's always such a small cast. You functionally limit people quite severely by doing this. If someone is playing say... a gay man, and you have only two male characters who are receptive to male advances (in this case, one pan, one gay)... well, that player has to hope he likes one of them. I got some veeeryyyy awkward dialogue when my female protagonist hit on the male engineer, let me tell you. It's a tricky balance to find, and for me, I think the Andromeda cast is just that little bit too small to pull it off well. You want to give players options. Full pansexual chaos gives you those options. Luckily, at least for me, there were characters I liked well enough and who were willing to date a woman, so it worked out. But that won't be true for everyone. 

The romance is also... a little on the weak side. There's just not a huge amount of content to it, outside of romance specific missions and a few snippets of dialogue here and there, which feels like something of a shame, given how characterful the rest of the story and missions are.

But it's a small price to pay. The story, for the most part, really does work, and there are some genuinely dramatic and moving moments throughout. The key antagonists of the story are worked in pretty early and pretty well, and the way they fit into the wider story of the world makes really good sense. There's also a strong thread of alliance-building throughout, which I really appreciated - there's a lot of options to be respectful and collegiate with the existing inhabitants of Andromeda, and to defer to them on matters of leadership and who gets to go where. Does it entirely erase the colonial vibes of the premise? Well... no. But neither does it go full bore space empire, which I quite appreciate. Baby steps, I guess.

It is something of a shift away from the previous Mass Effect games that your character has a lot more options to start both as a rule follower and as being diplomatic in the face of conflict. Even the upper left bluest of Shepards is something of a maverick (derogatory) in that regard, and I appreciate being given the option to at least try solving problems without shooting someone in the face. It's a shooter game, so it's going to come to that eventually, but it's nice to be able to say you did your best first, y'know?

I don't want to bog this review down too much with nitty gritty, but I do also think that this is the mechanically smoothest of the Mass Effect games, which again, I appreciate. I felt much more at home in skill selection and utilisation than I have in any of the others, even if the tutorial stuff at the start didn't entirely bring me up to speed on everything. It's slightly annoying that you can only use three abilities in any given fight, rather than the slightly bigger number I'd have expected, but once you get used to it - and with how well some of them combo - it works really well, and they do their best to make it easy to switch out between the abilities between fights, and create specific builds for specific purposes that you can port in. Unlike previous games, you have complete free licence to select abilities from any of the different skill trees, though you do benefit from concentration in allowing you to get to higher level options sooner, and with levelling up of certain skillsets. They're managed a good balance between simplicity, functionality and badassery, and once you get going, it feels really good.

Also you have a jet pack. The jetpack is great.

Is it a perfect game? Of course not. I'd have liked more character dialogue between each other, I think the pacing could have been better (though some of that was down to my own playstyle), and I think the difficulty scaling towards the end of the game isn't... great. The last couple of fights were epic in story scale, but surprisingly easy for my very high level party, in a way that made them less satisfying than they could have been. I ideally want to just scrape through the final boss fight, or maybe die once and then triumph on the second go. If I'm breezing straight through it... well, it's not my superlative skill at videogaming, let me tell you.

But honestly? I don't care. I had an absolutely great time with it, packed in 83 hours of play time for a relatively completionist run, fell in love with several characters, hated at least one location with the burning fire of my heart, jetpacked and biotic-zoomed my way across the maps with gleeful abandon and fully just felt like I was playing a Mass Effect game again. Also Jaal is an absolute sweetheart and Indira Varma voices two - two! - characters. What more could I want?

So did coming in later to this game help in my enjoyment of it? I expect it did. Tempers had long since cooled, and the grumbling was sufficiently distant that I had forgotten the substance of most of it, only the vibe, which was much easier dispelled by a fun playing experience. But truly, I cannot imagine not loving this game, even had I played it the year it came out. It does too many things I love, has too many characters in it who work well together, has such a smoother set of mechanics... I simply cannot see that the lack of a Shepard, the lack of further closure on that story, would manage to hold me back from falling for it. It's a good game that deserved better. 

*I played as FemShep throughout, and assigning her any pronouns but these sounds weird to me.


The Math

Highlights: genuinely excellent characters with great interpersonal dynamics, 

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat.