Why I Stopped Playing Mass Effect: Andromeda
by Tauriq Moosa
*spoilers for original Mass Effect trilogy, not Andromeda*
Mass Effect is one of the most important fictional franchises for me. It originally tackled major themes of hopelessness against destructive forces infinitely powerful; it focused a great deal on the various meanings of love and friendship in a universe not made of hatred, but something far worse: indifference. It offered choices that became veins in the body of the story you chose to tell. This is a franchise that looked at the darkness above us and chose to look at the stars rather than the overwhelming, inevitable black that will claim us all. Instead of shackling us with hope, Mass Effect offered shades of horror that only sometimes we overcame. By the end of the third game, Shepard remained haunted by her choices, plagued by the realisation that even alternate considerations would’ve fared no better. This was the plague of being human in a universe of living, hateful gods. And when you’re an ordinary citizen whose told by their government they’re going to die because healthcare isn’t a right, that prison is the only option, that capital punishment is a moral choice, that racism is here to stay, that the rich deserve to be richer for being born rich, while the poor get nothing if not less, it’s no wonder so many of us strapped on Shepard’s boots, aimed our assault rifle at an incomprehensible god and said “Fuck you”.
Like many games, Mass Effect was a power fantasy because it pitted mortals against gods and said “You may not win, but you’ll die trying.”
Many of us are not born with the luck of the gods, let alone the ability to fight against them. We live in a world where most of us can do nothing but suffer the choices of those with seemingly unlimited power coming from distant, dark places to destroy us. If that’s not an exact description of the Reapers, I don’t know what is.
It’s with this as background that I went into Mass Effect: Andromeda. The change of tone is immediately noticeable. Gone is the sense of impending doom and instead we have a fairly consistent theme of optimism, permeating every achievement, goal and mission. “You can do it, you’ll make your father proud, you’ll help find safety for the survivors!” Hooray!
When I think back to the original trilogy, I see everything feeding into a war machine no one believed would work; here, your actions are portrayed as necessary for survival.
And this initial setup is intriguing, terrifying and creative. Precisely what I associate with Mass Effect. In the distant future, the Andromeda Initiative is a movement of some kind that gathered people – human and not – from various species in the Milky Way to travel to the Andromeda galaxy. People had their own reasons for joining: wanting a fresh start, to escape their past, to simply explore. As part of the Initiative, most species had their own individual giant spaceship – called Arks. The human Ark is the first to arrive only to find that the other Arks have all mysteriously vanished. Additionally, upon entering Andromeda, a strange, galaxy-spanning physical cloud that’s like a giant, dark frozen icicle, prevents ease-of-access, damaging everything. None of the planets the Initiative thought habitable can support life. And resources are low and there’s no way to return to the Milky Way. Now everything falls to you, as the so-called Pathfinder, to begin fixing these enormous problems or watch as everyone dies.
A fascinating setup, which is why I quite liked the initial moments. But that’s the ground work. When the game actually begins telling its story and revealing the paths you must take, I was less impressed. And, as I trudged along the path before me, which looked exactly the same as one I’d done not hours before, I went from unimpressed to bored. And finally repeating the same animation after the same button prompts in the same type of location, I went from bored to giving up.
This is a game that prioritised populating its boringly big maps with useless collectibles over smaller maps populated with fascinating stories. Ice desert, hot desert, moon desert – the themes are ones of being barren but big, which is emblematic of the game itself. While I was advised to skip the side quests (yes, definitely a good sign telling me to ignore a huge portion of a game’s content), there was no way to tell which side content would have meat. Some seemed intriguing, like why miners disappeared but then were solved with one button press through the same location you’ve been in before. Another seemed like nonsense that turned into a massive action set piece: hold down action at these locations on this boring map only to trigger a giant, metal sandworm fight.
The sense of connection I’d hoped to feel for the characters was somewhat there – but it was severely undermined by elongated stretches of the same mission design: go here, shoot, hold down action. Conversations were muted affairs, with my character either offering little in terms of personality to dialogue or me selecting one choice, only to have him utter something entirely different. This is frustrating, since it’s one of the key ways I felt connected to my Shepard: Yes, the options in terms of some moral choices were binary, but no one was asking for a Philosophy Dilemma 101 game. I’ve seen lots of people find fault with the original trilogy’s “Renegade” and “Paragon” approach – but having to actually come out the other side with fully realised consequences of such approaches cemented my impact as a player in this universe. In other words, I actually felt connected to my Shepard. For example, choosing to let the Council die or not might seem pretty “kill the puppies v save the orphans” approach, but at least there were far reaching consequences. I knew every time I was faced with such choices it meant something beyond just a cutscene.
Instead, such “impact” in Andromeda is driven by how many McGuffins you can find or activate. Even invading enemy bases becomes a tiresome affair: fight to get here, defeat boss, clear. It’s the Ubisoft approach to open worlds, not a meaningful space adventure I could get swept in. But Rowan Kaiser already wrote an entire piece on Bioware’s failure at creating open world games.
With Andromeda there was an opportunity to take the fantastically alien ideas we’d seen in the original and dial it up. With better graphics engines, more capable hardware, a proper budget, who knows what could happen!
Well, sorry – you only get two extremely ugly, humanoid lizard-like aliens who hold assault rifles. Neither group is interesting, with the horrifically hideous Angara fulfilling a vaguely offensive Noble Savage archetype. The Kett are just kinda… there, being eeeevil. The Angara are given two models: male and female – there was no way to tell any of them individually apart if they weren’t different sexes. Gone are the fascinating Hanar or Elcor or Quarians – instead we’ve got these Gears of War rejects who puff up their boring characters on generic history. There’s no wonder or awe, there’s offensively ugly character models, with terrible animation and no reason to go deeper.
The game deals with the Initiative’s failure because they went too far and tried to do too much. That is true for the game itself: by trying to do everything for everybody, it did nothing for everyone.
Crafting is a junky mess that is so laughably bad, you have to wonder who has figured it out: With not one, not two, not three but four currencies for different items, good luck figuring out how anything works. Your on-board AI manages the incredible task of telling you what to do even when you have 400 HUD prompts offering the same information. And no, there’s no way to turn your glorified Siri off.
This is a game I wanted to be good, but instead one that took many hours to reveal its shallowness and repetitiveness. Where I thought the activities of the first would blossom into more interesting narratives later, the game revealed it had nothing more. I had acquired all the characters quickly, loyalty missions are stretched out with unsatisfying endings and the story offered no reason to care about anyone. I didn’t feel like I was playing a Mass Effect game: I felt like I was repeating the worst parts of Assassin’s Creed games, without any of those game’s characters’ wit or interesting systems or fun locations.
I genuinely adored certain moment and characters – I think Drack is one of the greatest video game characters ever created who doesn’t deserve to be in this game. The banter between characters is beautifully written and genuinely wonderful: passing comments about love and relationships, the genuine concern for mental health, how no one blinks over queer relationships. I love that mixing up your squadmates results in different conversations and commentary. But that’s not enough and it’s the exception to the enormous galaxy of Video Game it sits in.
Let’s be clear: I loathe Andromeda because of how much the original trilogy means to me. This is a waste of time you will not benefit from. It’s dull, lifeless, big and empty. It drags and pulls you, elongating the experience – it’s a black hole of video games, sucking in your time and leaving you unfulfilled. None of the reasons I loved the original games are here, aside from the banter of the characters and Drack. It’s an exercise in bland, dressed in some gorgeous vistas that offer nothing beneath their surfaces. I won’t be returning. You’re better off staying in the Milky Way: Andromeda has nothing to offer you that a free mobile game won’t.
Tauriq is a law student, unprofessional critic, and has written for the Guardian, Polygon, The Daily Beast and elsewhere.