Mass Effect: Andromeda, and What’s in Bioware’s Basement

by Alva Chua

I’ve had a great time in the first twenty hours of Mass Effect Andromeda, and want to see it through to the end, but part of me was tired of it before I even began playing.

It wasn’t the return of painstaking mineral collection, or the haphazard driving on planetary surfaces. I happen to share the designers’ affection for those parts of Starflight and Star Control 2 that we really should be done with referencing by now. Sometimes I’m up for literally mining the content out of a game.

The game world was spread out larger than any previous game in the series but I still felt confined.

It wasn’t always this way.

Back in 2003 I played Knights of the Old Republic for the first time, and was impressed with how they managed to make the cinematic pulp story arc fit into a game with that amount of player freedom. I knew I had seen that structure somewhere before though, perhaps in a somewhat simpler form.  

My protagonist waking up into the game world, finding some companions before moving on to series of hub locations, each potentially featuring a new companion character and quest line, before getting in my ship to travel back and forth between these hub locations to complete the main story. A racing mini-game. Multiple endings.

Similarities between Chrono Trigger and a Star Wars game aren’t that surprising. Japanese RPGs have been cribbing from Western pulp since before Darth Vader was a scorpion, and Final Fantasy had been taking inspiration from George Lucas for years. But Knights of the Old Republic positioned its party members and locations in the same kind of connected progression that Chrono Trigger did. I don’t mean to trivialize their achievement in any way. Bioware expanded the formula into a more cinematic world with 3d models, added voice acting and branching conversation trees that changed plot outcomes. They achieved the mammoth task of taking aspects of their earlier Infinity Engine games and moulding them to the breezier, more flowing pace of console RPGs.

 

Fourteen years later, they’re taking that formula from 2003 and moulding it to the pace of MMOs and open world games. I’m not going to critique those gameplay elements; it’s the plot and characters that have a creaking familiarity to them. You don’t exactly wake up with amnesia, but you wake up, and the computer in your head has amnesia. You slowly learn to come to terms with your new powers. It turns out the authorities that you rely on may not be trustworthy. Tropes can work, and Mass Effect 2 was a high point because it made its characters huge walking tropes (like a literal femme fatale who could sex you to death. Ugh) and narrowed its stories down to walks through exploding corridors lined with interesting Codex entries.

Andromeda doles out similarly patterned characters in very similar intervals. Does the pilot have a very personal relationship with his spacecraft? Sure he has! It tries to give these characters more nuance and subtleties, but in the same old framework it just ends up seeming quieter than the previous trilogy, in a way that lets the tired bones show in an unflattering way. It feels like more work has been done, but to less effect.

There is great writing in Mass Effect Andromeda. Hidden jokes are woven into the backstories of the characters, and most of the contrived plot points often get called out and reasonably questioned. I love, for instance, that there is a sense that the Andromeda Initiative itself is a foolhardy endeavour, and everyone is putting on a brave face through an impossible task because they all have no choice.

I just would have found it easier to enjoy if this game about exploration had a real sense of discovery and something new.