- As Shepard struggles to be heard about his/her discoveries concerning the looming Reaper threat, a shadowy individual (The Benefactor) secretly works towards a contingency plan involving sending ark ships to a new galaxy.
- Things don’t go according to plan. On arrival in the Andromeda galaxy, the ark ships impact with a mysterious energy structure permeating the Helius Cluster. Multiple fatalities occur and, Battlestar Galactica style, command falls to those further down the chain resulting in poor decision-making during this crisis and an escalation of tension. There appears to be more to these events than initially apparent, potential sabotage and murder.
- In the 650 years it took to travel to the Andromeda galaxy, the worlds ear-marked for colonisation have turned out to be inhospitable for reasons seemingly linked to this mysterious energy structure.
- The colonists are now caught in a struggle between finding a suitable planet to colonise, maintaining control over the tensions on the ark, locating the missing ark ships containing the Salarians, Turians, and Krogans.
At this point, in my opinion, what you’ve got is the premise for what could be an incredibly interesting Mass Effect game which treads a completely different path to the previous series. I’m not entirely convinced that a new alien threat is even necessary at this point – instead the game could have focussed on the divisions between the factions forming as the colonists divide over the best way forward. If a new threat is introduced, then it would make sense to me for this to happen mid way into the story – just at the moment it looks like control is getting established over the chaos the situation suddenly escalates. Instead, this threat is introduced in the opening mission. Does the presence of this alien threat unite the colonists in any way? Does it balls, but neither is it a source of great tension and division – it doesn’t appear to be relevant to most of them which utterly undermines the extremity of this threat.
In the first Mass Effect game, the council’s denial in recognising the danger the Reapers pose was a constant source of frustration and anger for Shepard. In Mass Effect Andromeda there’s no such emphasis and yet, in principle, the situation is much more dire. Unlike Mass Effect, the threat is clear and present and the colonists’ situation precarious and desperate. The gravity of the situation should be a source of terror, unity and action – instead you’d be forgiven for thinking the colonists are simply on a space station somewhere in the Milky Way suffering a few technical glitches and command incompetence. No biggie.
Over-reliance on series-wide stories
In the first Mass Effect game, made prior to the knowledge that the franchise would be incredibly successful, the writers wisely chose to make a self-contained story with one main element to transcend into a franchise-wide arc, should the game sell well. That single aspect was the discovery of the Reaper threat – a single threat to kickstart the story and motivate Shepard but the game was mainly about the juxtaposition of Shepard’s character versus that of the Turian Spectre who took a different path upon making this same discovery – that and the general voyage of discovery for the player in learning about the galaxy and the species which live in it. Had there only been one Mass Effect game, while I would have been disappointed not to see where the Reaper story led I would have felt that I had played a complete game. The Protheans, The Reapers, these would simply remain elements of that Universe to speculate about. In many ways I was a little disappointed by the sequels in having Shepard meet a Prothean. I preferred it when this race was left enigmatic and mysterious. All we really needed to know was that this once mighty empire fell to the Reapers but yet offer the hope of a countermeasure in their history.
Mass Effect Andromeda, in my opinion, over-confidently establishes far too many series-wide stories for a first-in-the-series game. It feels like they simply assumed that this game would lead to sequels, so wrote it as such. Who is The Benefactor and what is their agenda? We won’t know until later. Why was the original leader of The Initiative murdered? We won’t know until later. The healing of Ryder’s mother? Later. The discovery that there is a higher order of the Kett – the Emperor to the Archon’s Darth Vader? Later. What’s the implication in bringing a rather dangerous A.I to the Nexus? Nothing yet. And unless I missed something, how the Angara will react to discovering they were created by the Remnants was posed as a question but not explored in the game. I guess that was to be a plot point for a later game too. It was immensely unsatisfying to me that after unlocking all of Ryder’s father’s memories the ultimate reveals would consist simply of things I already knew about Mass Effect (OMG, the Reapers have destroyed everything! Who would have guessed THAT would be the real reason for the ark ships?) and some things which act purely as set-ups for later games. I was quite surprised that this game actually did take Ryder to Meridian – I was fully expecting that not to be resolved this game either.
This format would be all well and good for an episodic-style release format, but for a series traditionally released with potentially years to wait between games, this many dangling threads just feels incomplete – giving the player difficult decisions to make which don’t yield any consequences until potentially future games makes those decisions feel empty.
Skipping over the bits which would be interesting
When we first awaken from stasis, we discover that lots of things went wrong. A mutiny happened, people were exiled. Drama! Excitement! All simply told to us. Okay, fine – that does at least give me an interesting premise to be thrown into as much as that would have been compelling to witness. The crime, though, is how this ends up utterly undermining the general principle of the game – finding a viable planet and establishing a colony. Because when we do finally land on planets, what do we find? Colonies. The Krogans, the Exiles, they’ve all been doing a pretty good job doing precisely what the Pathfinder is there to do. Those colonies (which look like they’ve been around for decades) aren’t without their issues, of course, but their design is not entirely unlike the settlements you visit in the previous Mass Effect series. Should they not be ramshackle, deprived, impoverished, miserable? Nope, they’re simply par for the course for a Mass Effect game. The seedy underbellies you visit in previous Mass Effect games turn out to be far seedier than those established under circumstances far more dire.
This baffled me the most. Almost everything about the way the villains in Andromeda are handled is weird. The main villain constantly wears a sad expression and has the moist adorable eyes of a puppy. The voice actor does a pretty good job of giving the character some menace but that’s pretty much it. He wears a cloak because of course he does – he’s the main villain. In his introductory scene we see him adorably mirroring the actions of a hologramatic Pathfinder Ryder as he attempts to interact with technology clearly far in advance of his own intellect before marching away in the manner someone might parody evil-villain-walk rather than actually evil-villain-walk. So the things we learn about the main antagonist is that he’s not super-bright, is a little adorable, and has less mastery over technology than the protagonist. He’s not even responsible for the death of your father. I don’t know about you, but I’m scared. Later we discover that the villain isn’t entirely respected even within his own ranks and a number are conspiring against him and contact you about it – so now you can add “prepared to work with the humans towards a common goal” to the list of scary evil traits the Kett have. I’m trembling.
The general design of the Kett is also somewhat bland – your bog-standard space orcs, essentially – and we learn far too much about them far too quickly to regard them as a terrifying unknown threat. The Collectors remained almost entirely enigmatic and incomprehensible, and their design was a little more alien and bug-like which led to them being considerably more effective adversaries. Additionally, just with how the Collectors were somewhat reminiscent of the Protheans which led to speculation that these species may not be entirely unrelated, the Kett look a little like the Angara. As it turns out, the Kett’s process of ascension converts “them” into “us” which, in itself, is hardly an original concept but even within the Mass Effect universe essentially mirrors the Reapers’ indoctrination, and the Collectors’ harvesting of genetic material. It all adds to that vague feeling that Mass Effect Andromeda is ultimately the same, but different, and worse.
For reasons seemingly primarily about feeling the same as previous Mass Effect games, your squad consists of characters straight out of that rule-book, except less interesting. The Turian and Krogan are probably the strongest of these characters, in my opinion, but that’s probably because the Turian is basically a female Garrus and the Krogan basically Wrex. The human members, Cora and Liam, I would describe as “normal”. The whole point of this game is that the best and brightest have been popped on a colony ship to preserve the species in the face of destruction by the Reapers. They’ve all been screened and selected. Should not Cora be some sort of totally bad-ass Vasquez-from-Aliens type? After all, she was supposed to be the Pathfinder in the event something happened to Ryder’s dad. Nope, she’s just kind of normal. Rather than the cold chiseled features of a hardened marine type, she’s almost always vaguely smiling even when delivering lines which should be aggressive or dramatic, and has chipmunk cheeks you just want to give a friendly squeeze to. To further ram-home her military persona she’s extremely keen on gardening which would be fine were she to really exude toughness – cracking her tough outer shell and finally getting a glimpse at a side of her she guards – but pretty much the only soldier-y thing about her is her haircut.
Surely… surely… given that the premise of the game is that Ryder becomes pathfinder due to there being no other alternative in that moment and is therefore hugely out of his or her depth, what you want is the most adept, experienced, and professional support crew you can assemble? Is “liability” Liam and “normal” Cora the best they could get? Shepard was an N7 and as such should clearly be the most capable person on the Normandy, and was. Ryder was a scientist and should therefore be the least experienced person on his/her ship and grow into the role over the course of the series.
There’s a nod to this in that there’s some early minor references to some slight resentment from Cora. But it’s not explored in any depth and her character is not shown to be clearly more deserving of the role. Additionally there’s some minor references to your inexperience but this is never demonstrated in the field. No bad judgement calls, no mistakes and deaths to learn from. Ryder is simply the best pathfinder for the job from the get-go, it just takes a little while for everyone to realise that.
Peebee is fine as the, “I’m just doing this for shits and giggles” character, but it only really works juxtaposed with an otherwise professional crew. She doesn’t stand out as really differing in any great way and that ultimately harms her character despite me not really having anything against it.
For the non-squad members, Suvi’s character is, “the one who believes in God” and that’s literally all she talks about which makes her insufferable – especially as your only dialogue options are “be respectful” or “be more respectful” (calling these exchanges “debates” in the journal makes a mockery of the dialogue options). The Salarian is just a Salarian – they’re all basically interchangeable with the exception of Mordin from Mass Effect 2. Gil is another utterly normal human – his entire personality is that he’s friends with a woman named “Jill”. I would like to extend my sincerest apologies to Joker from Mass Effect 1 who, at the time, I found incredibly irritating but now deeply wish was piloting the Tempest. Despite having clocked in a considerable number of hours playing Andromeda, writing this I have to frequently consult the Wiki to look up the names of these people – something I would never have had to do with the first Mass Effect game. Vara? Vera? The Turian’s called something like that – hang on… it’s “Vetra”. I’ll have forgotten that in five minutes time and she’s my favourite were I to pick one.
SAM, I like – but is essentially a less explored equivalent to EDI with no reason to be concerned over possible malevolence. That’s not to say it’s not where the series would have taken the character, but it isn’t even hinted at in this game so there’s no reason to suppose it would. There’s a moment when SAM has direct control over your life, and this is a momentary concern for the ship’s doctor – the only character who really shows any skepticism concerning having an A.I. living inside your brain, but this is almost immediately dispensed with when she’s told that SAM will die if Ryder dies, despite SAM living inside the Tempest, The Nexus, and pretty much everywhere else too so I’m not entirely sure how the fate of one Pathfinder would impact his existence in the slightest. Not sure if plot-hole, deliberate, or my misunderstanding. If deliberate, it makes the doctor a bit of an idiot.
I should add that some of the ‘micro’ stories – specific quests here and there – notably some of the rescuing the other ark ships quests – are actually really good. And the finale, when you’re not chuckling at the hilarity of the animations, is borderline epic. And it’s this stuff, combined with the quality of the environmental art, the fact that combat is solid and fun (if a little on the easy side on ‘normal’ difficulty), and the general mechanic of establishing colonies which kept me playing in spite of my issues with the broader story stuff.
So yes, I know this is mostly all super-critical. And I know this is all pretty much kicking something when it’s down. And I’m sure there were all sorts of problems during development which led to this. But even so, it’s just all too baffling, too bizarre, not to chime in on. Bioware are normally so very, very, good at this sort of thing that even assuming disasters during development I would expect, at the very least, some really strong characters and a solidly told story, even if the cutscenes were a bit shit and the overall game a bit on the short-side. But the game isn’t short – there’s a lot of meat to it – and any cutscene which doesn’t involve characters (i.e ship battles, ship travel, all that jazz) is up to the same quality standard as the rest of the series. I would expect storytellers and character developers of the quality of Bioware to exceed “mediocre” even if they rushed it. They’re better – far better – than this, and there are fleeting glimpses present here and there, so I just can’t wrap my head around it.