Let’s talk about Mass Effect Andromeda’s story and tone

By Alex Donaldson, Friday, 24 March 2017 15:59 GMT

Mass Effect: Andromeda’s story is satisfying but tonally frustrating. Let’s talk about why.

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I was really glad when Brenna said she’d review Mass Effect: Andromeda. It was a bit of a weight off my mind – I was 50 hours into the game and still had no idea of what I wanted to say. A few days later and I feel obligated to write something – I’m a Mass Effect mega-fan, and back when Mass Effect 3 came out I wrote a gushing editorial about how the game really did feel like saying goodbye to old friends. With that fandom in mind, I’ll reveal that Andromeda was a bit of a rollercoaster for me.

I’m going to talk about story a lot, and while I’m not going to go into detail there will be minor spoilers.

I loved the first hour or so, then hit a bit of a brick wall immediately after the intro: something felt off. As the game progressed, things got better and better. The improvement was significant: characters who felt hollow before suddenly began to spring to life and feel incredibly likeable. The game’s energy in general seemed to shift: it felt like Mass Effect again.

“If you stick with it long enough it earns the Mass Effect name – though yes, there’s a dangerous feeling early on that you’re playing the straight-to-video sequel version of Mass Effect that gets made when none of the original cast want to come back.”

Say what you will about the bugs or structural problems since they’re there and undeniable. I don’t quite get the complaints about Andromeda’s writing, however. People have cherry-picked bad lines for snappy twitter clips, but I’m not going to pretend that the trilogy was any more free of the occasional clunker. Mass Effect has always been more like the pulpy nature of Star Wars than a science fiction masterpiece, though rose-tinted specs might cloud that.

If you stick with it long enough it earns the Mass Effect name – though yes, there’s a dangerous feeling early on that you’re playing the straight-to-video sequel version of Mass Effect that gets made when none of the original cast want to come back. The game eventually throws off that feeling, and thank god for that: nobody wants to be Kindergarten Cop 2 (yes, it exists) or that weird sequel to Donnie Darko. Eventually Andromeda steps into its own, though it arguably happens too late: I’ve seen a lot of media, youtubers and message board folk chatting about those early hours as if they represent the whole game: they don’t.

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“I loved returning to some of the overarching species-related plots that made the trilogy interesting, but in a sense it feels like a misfire: wasn’t the point of Andromeda to discover something new?”

With that said, there’s a generally troubling thread that runs right through Andromeda, and it’s all to do with that setting. Andromeda promised things that were wildly different and new, but the game seems mostly focused on trying to put the status quo of the original trilogy back in place: the same races, working in the same ways. The fact the game teases that the missing Milky Way races such as the Quarians, Hanar and Drell are also on the way is a mission statement of sorts, and it’s a theme that persists throughout the game.

The first encounter with the villainous Kett is masterfully handled, with the simple decision to let you manually control with regular combat controls if you approach with guns drawn – or with hands up – a great representation of how first contact could actually play out. It’s a different type of choice for Mass Effect: actively controlled rather than passively selected from a menu. It feels poignant. First contact with the new friendly Angara also starts out well, tension-filled and exciting, but the game is keen to move you on: there’s a native language but quickly your AI is translating everything and they’re all speaking English. The tension evaporates.

The new Remnant race don’t really offer much narratively – it’s another set of ancient aliens, but without a touch like the strange short story narratives that accompanied Prothean ruins in the original Mass Effect they’re fairly devoid of personality. The game rushes you along: hurry, hurry – and when it does stop for breath, it’s to underline the old conflict between the Salarians and the Krogan or to navigate other politics back with races we already know well.

In a sense it’s hard to complain about this: all the stuff that the game does drag to the forefront shines. The reason that Andromeda returns to those wells is because they were all fantastic. They still are here. Indeed, probably the reason we’re in Andromeda at all is even if you disregard Mass Effect 3’s divergent endings and select a canon one, many of the conflicts are resolved. If the genophage is fully cured, is Krogan aggression as interesting?

I loved returning to some of the overarching species-related plots that made the trilogy interesting, but in a sense it feels like a misfire: wasn’t the point of Andromeda to discover something new? The Angara are a start, but it doesn’t feel like there’s enough. It felt like a race to get to the most iconic images of the trilogy. I can hardly blame Bioware for that, but I also have to wonder.

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There’s a similar sort of tonal misfire around Scott or Sara, Pathfinder and protagonist. One thing I love about this duo is that they are definitely different from Shepard. While you shape the tone of Shepard or Ryder, they’re still characters in their own right. Shepard is a badass that doesn’t stop. Good or ill, they always have a sharp response ready. The Ryders are unsure, awkward. It’s personified best in a team meeting situation aboard the ship: where Shepard commanded absolute attention and respect, the team don’t wait for Ryder to dismiss them before walking off. Ryder is left incredulous. It’s a funny scene.

The problem comes with that title of Pathfinder. There was a lot of talk around ‘space Jesus’ in reference to Shepard, but I always felt like like they earned it: In the original Mass Effect they become Spectre by way of force and they’re consistently doubted, grounded and forced to act alone. In Mass Effect 2 the official powers continue to ignore you, but one man who might well be crazy believes and pumps money your way. It makes sense. By the third game, Shepard is validated and he is space Jesus. Everybody turning to him makes sense.

“How much new Andromeda offers is a disappointment, but here’s the flip-side: when it doesn’t halfway-house it and sips from the cup of fan service unrepentant it is at its best.”

Scott or Sara are nominated as Pathfinder by their father, and while there’s some early resistance around it being seen as nepotism that quickly drains away. Everybody is ecstatic to see you: you’re the pathfinder! This is the space Jesus thing turned up to eleven, except it doesn’t feel like you’ve actually earned it. All you did was have the right dad. Even the Angara quickly transition from ‘these aliens could be diseased’ to ‘this is the pathfinder, from the Milky Way!’ The whole thing rubs me the wrong way, especially when rapidly you’re not even the only pathfinder… except the others seem fairly useless, standard soldier types with access to their own AIs. I don’t feel sold on why the Ryders are special, even if I like them, and it feels like their status mostly exists as a rush to push back to Shepard-status so the player feels empowered – but I just end up questioning it.

The same is true for the tone – the Ryders are funny and quippy in a way Shepard wasn’t. This is likeable, but the way they and the rest of the crew are often feels at odds with the life-or-death predicament ongoing in Andromeda. The tone is weird.

How much new Andromeda offers is a disappointment, but here’s the flip-side: when it doesn’t halfway-house it and sips from the cup of fan service unrepentant it is at its best. I nearly fell out of my seat when in a video log a character related to a major trilogy player began to recount tales of certain trilogy events. When the game teased involvement of a shady third party that was “scared for the Milky Way” in funding the Andromeda project I got impossibly excited about who it probably was; these are the sorts of things that likewise made me excited in Mass Effect 2 and 3.

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Basically, the game is perhaps better off when it focuses on being a simple expansion of that universe rather than, as pitched, something of a reboot.

While Andromeda itself doesn’t feel new enough, the game succeeds in other areas: its cast, for instance, are charming and successful twists or inversions of ideas from the trilogy. Peebee shares the fascination and talent for science with Liara, but where Liara is at first a nervous, innocent and unsure student and later a bad-ass commando, Peebee is a punk. Drack is better compared to Grunt than Wrex: if Grunt is an expression of a Krogan as a teenager, Drack is a grandpa – and a brilliantly written one. Every one is taken in a new direction. Hell, I even like Liam, even if it’s got a big mouth and needs to close it more often.

Perhaps all this was necessary. Mass Effect 3 backed Bioware into a corner and Andromeda has provided a solid out. By the end of the game I was absorbed into this new galaxy and its characters, if a little perplexed it didn’t offer more new. I don’t really care about that now, though: what I now want are more stories.

The basic framework of Mass Effect was ripe to support more stories back in the Milky Way, and if Andromeda just gives us a place to explore these same themes and ideas divorced from the bluster of the trilogy I’m okay with that. I just wish it hadn’t taken ten hours of play-time to get there.

Anyway. In spite of these gripes, Mass Effect: Andromeda is pretty damn good. It’s better, I think, than a lot of the discourse online is giving it credit for – but it’ll take a bit of digging to really understand why. Be patient – it’s worth it.

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