Mass Effect: Andromeda (2017)

“Mass Effect: Andromeda” comes five years after “Mass Effect 3”, what seemed a very definitive ending for the franchise. The developers behind the original Mass Effect trilogy, the Edmonton branch of Bioware, moved on to other things. “Mass Effect: Andromeda” was developed by the newer Bioware branch at Montreal. In many ways, “Mass Effect: Andromeda” feels reverse-engineered. The narrative justification for the game’s existence at all is done about as well as it could be – convoluted, but logical enough. The premise itself is strong – a collection of brave souls from many different races spend six centuries in cryogenic sleep as they cross an ocean of stars to a new galaxy to new colonise. But so much of the game feels “after-the-fact”, a “Mass Effect” game created to be a “Mass Effect” game, rather than something more standalone, which clashes with the sort of soft-reboot status the actual narrative of the game goes for. In the world of the game itself, the events and characters of the original three “Mass Effect” games are long gone and the game frequently repeats similar conflicts, character beats, and worldbuilding notes as the original games. But in the real world, where the game was developed, many playing the game are already familiar with those original three games.

[Note: This review doesn’t contain spoilers.]

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While the game definitely goes for a lighter, jokier tone than the other “Mass Effect” games, so much of the game feels mechanical, reverse-engineered, workmanlike, that it often falls flat. The protagonist, Ryder, being more inexperienced, jokey, and irreverent than Shepherd, the protagonist of the original games, works just fine, and works as a new direction to take. But there is barely any sense of dynamics to it. Most of the cast, the squadmates and crew, are comparatively chipper as well. The dialogue is operating on a jokey, genre-savvy level of reality, the cast is doing similarly, but the main plot occasionally abruptly slides into awkward self-seriousness and dull “up the stakes!” moments. For all the careful construction in the writing (considerable work was put into justifying a lot of RPG tropes that are normally just handwaved away, all the squadmate and crew characters have carefully constructed arcs, the premise is a finely-honed excuse to justify games disconnected to the original trilogy), the tone and pacing are woefully uneven.

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The most fundamental flaw of the game is its stubborn refusal to take any risks. So many elements of the worldbuilding, the plot, and the character arcs are pulled from the original trilogy. When I first encountered the Prothean expy (the beings extremely similar to the Protheans from the original games) I just assumed the game was going to do some kind of clever subversion on it. I had that feeling multiple times through the game, as I encountered more and more narrative similarities to the original games. Those subversions never came. They just remained parts of the original three games in a slightly different skin.

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That lack of originality would certainly normally  irritate me somewhat, but it massively disappointed me here because the entire hook of the game was exploration, discovery, colonisation of the UNKNOWN, the NEW, the DIFFERENT. In an entirely new galaxy we don’t encounter new, unfathomable alien races. We encounter two bipedal races with very human motivations. This is emblematic of the entire game. Where one might expect creativity, freshness, originality, risk-taking, novelty, they instead find popular aspects of the original three games repackaged, similar in so many aspects apart from being more poorly done. This game about new risks is full of none of them.

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The gameplay is a mixed bag. The combat is highly energetic, reactive, and engaging, but the enemies are extremely repetitive. The questing is often wearying (endless fetch quests – not just the “Task” quests, but the priority ones as well), the dialogue is the antithesis of RPG storytelling (four “options” all amount to affirmations in very slightly different tones), and the explorative aspects become tedious very quickly as long animations are endlessly repeated.

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The music of the “Mass Effect” series (the first three games, that is) is renowned, for good reason. It’s excellent, covers an interesting range of genres, and features many talented musicians. The music of “Mass Effect: Andromeda” isn’t bad. It simply isn’t there at all. Music is so infrequent in the game I would often, feeling paranoid, check my settings to check if it was turned on at all. It plays so, so rarely. At least the companion banter plays often, unlike Bioware’s last game, “Dragon Age: Inquisition”, where I was afflicted with a common bug rendering my companions mute for most of my playtime.

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The companions themselves are a mixed bag. They all have very crafted arcs, sure, but they feel so…workmanlike. The Krogan Drack worked well as a father figure, the Angara Jaal was fascinating in actually feeling different than any previous companion, my relationship with (and opinions on) Peebee and Gil morphed over the course of the game. The rest were fairly forgettable, beyond their clearest quirks (Cora’s obsession with Asari, Suvi’s accent, Vetra’s status as the token turian onboard).

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Jaal represents the best and worst of the game to me. He represents the new, the original, a new species, the promises of the game. And he represents the bungled first contact (not in-narrative, but out of it – the game rushes over meeting a new alien species for the first time and quickly skips over all the fascinating aspects of such early days), the stilted writing, and the reversion to familiar tropes in the face of a narrative explicitly justifying creativity and originality.

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I don’t think “Mass Effect: Andromeda” is a bad game. I enjoyed plenty of my time with it. I liked a lot of its characters. I enjoyed a lot of its gameplay. But it had the chance to be so, so much more. All the extensive set-up for a sequel doesn’t excuse how the developers bungled the chance to tell the creative, fresh, new story they’d set themselves up for here with this one. I give it three gravity wells, and a space hamster.

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