When Mass Effect: Andromeda dropped, back in March, I had seen all the criticism. As a defiant long-term, die-hard fan of the series up to that point, I had no doubt in my mind that, even if others didn’t, I would enjoy it. I would make it a game I enjoyed, come hell or high water.
I know for a fact I wasn’t alone.
For the first week, I played Andromeda every day. For the second week, every other day. By the third week, I was just playing the multiplayer. It took me a whole month to recognize that I had been playing an incomplete mess of a game. It’s the black mark on an otherwise spotless IP I had adored for ten years.
I’m one of a handful of people who names Mass Effect 3 as my favourite of the original trilogy, ahead of the second game. The ending was divisive, to say the least, but with the extended cut, or even disregarding the ending entirely and examining the other 99% of the game, it’s a space opera with a narrative quality that rivals any other release. Mass Effect 2 follows shortly afterwards.
BioWare is a studio that creates stories with an apt professionalism. Along with the Knights of the Old Republic games and Dragon Age: Origins, the original Mass Effect trilogy proves they are developers capable of making video games that aren’t jaunts of interactive story-telling. Certain BioWare games have been complete, nigh-on perfectly crafted forty to eighty hour packages of exhilaration, emotion, and unparalleled quality. Three of them rank in my top ten favourite games of all time.
When it was announced that certain individuals had been put to work on the game, the internet was taken by storm. The terms GamerGate and SJW were thrown around a considerable amount. Respectfully, I don’t think either of those things are truly relevant, and the distraction they caused only served to cover the real problems.
Sure the facial animations were terrible, and the game was loaded with bugs, but that doesn’t spell disaster for an open-world game. After all, millions of people still bought a Skyrim remaster just six months earlier, and we all know Bethesda’s well earned reputation. No, where Andromeda went wrong was the fact that it was an open-world game.
“Sorry, my face is tired.”Some of Mass Effect: Andromeda’s internet-breaking facial rendering in-game
By creating an open world to explore, the developmental workload increases at least tenfold. Developers have to create a world that encourages exploration. Andromeda‘s five main explorable worlds were beautiful, but they lacked enough content to make the exploration worthwhile and rewarding. That’s where Andromeda failed.
Open-world games aren’t worth exploring if they’re just filled with clutter and quest icons, with the only motivation to hunt them down being a sense of completion. They need to be interesting in their own right, and engaging to the player. Finding ten Remnant cores, ten salvage pods from the Turian ark, or ten memory fragments are neither of those things. It’s just an A to B connect-the-dots approach to content that’s simply there to pad out the play time. A completionist run of Mass Effect: Andromeda without all of the BS ‘additional tasks’ would likely take ten or twenty hours more than was necessary.
Nobody’s journal looked like this more than five hours in
By putting the focus on the open world, importance is deflected from the narrative. Which isn’t desirable in a game from a franchise that’s lauded for its narratives. Suddenly, it’s a smaller part of a larger game; you have the beautiful set design of five new planetary areas. but it can spread the development team too thin. This leads to them providing content that’s sufficient in terms of quantity, but insufficient in terms of quality. By no means should Mass Effect Andromeda be seen as an overall reflection of BioWare’s ability to construct a decent narrative. We’ve seen them do it before, and hopefully we will see them do it again.
Skyrim is, oddly enough, a point of comparison. Having decided that what people enjoyed most about the Elder Scrolls games was having far too much to choose from, the development team implemented the Radiant AI system, which generated miscellaneous objectives about as motivating as Andromeda‘s tasks. They’re even called tasks at their lowest rung. Not missions, or quests. Tasks. Chores. You are Pathfinder Ryder, intergalactic litter-picker.
Some might argue that the original Mass Effect trilogy was open world. The first game was. However, between the Mako handling like a paper plate loaded with jelly, and the fact that most planetary bodies were just flat, seemingly procedural-generated landscapes, Mass Effect clearly made exploration secondary to the swathe of things to do aboard the seven or eight locales it was obviously formed around. Players could complete Mass Effect to a satisfying degree without ever landing on an abandoned mining planet somewhere in the Attican Traverse.
The second and third games, however, are by no means open world. The galaxy map does not provide you with any kind of exploratory freedom. It’s a glorified mission select screen. I believe this is where Mass Effect 2 and 3 found some of their success in comparison to Andromeda. In providing missions with a touch of limited exploration available, and the inkling of a world behind it that could be explored, the idea of wanderlust kept us intrigued. We wanted to hoover up all the information we could, everything about Krogan cellular regeneration and Elcor productions of Shakespeare. Had Bioware ever given us a truly open world, beyond Omega, the Normandy, or the Citadel, we probably would have thrown it back at them. The two best games in the series are a sequence of linear corridors against a backdrop of planets we, deep down, never actually wanted to explore.
Speaking of linear corridors, those were the situations where Andromeda shined — having not picked the game up since the beginning of April, the set pieces that stick most fondly in my mind were the attacks on the Cardinal’s temple, the Archon’s ship, or plundering Remnant vaults. The novelty of being able to explore a new galaxy wore off after being shown around the uninhabitable Habitat 7 tutorial.
Exaltation was just a recycled process of the Reapers’ indoctrination
That was the other big criticism I had for Andromeda: The novelty of the new world. One of the best parts of Mass Effect‘s original trilogy was stumbling upon a pre-established galactic society. When you landed on Tuchanka, you knew it was a crumbling irradiated wasteland. It felt like the Krogan had been there for millennia, and bombed the ever-loving shit out of it. It seems BioWare set themselves upon the impossible task of creating that same intrigue. The feeling that something was already standing before you picked up a controller, and felt like it would continue to do so for years after you put it down, is something quite difficult to do in an almost-empty galaxy you’re told you have to colonize.
The Kett and the Angara were each glossed over in a matter of minutes. Their individual introductions didn’t feel nearly as gripping and detailed as the, say, Geth, or the Asari, when were unveiled or discussed in the original trilogy. In a franchise where the fans have learned to love BioWare’s usual attention to detail when creating new races and worlds, here they felt glossed over.
I understand that BioWare had a difficult time following up the Shepard trilogy. Andromeda was a venture into new territories that didn’t come off as planned. Holding it to the almost impossibly high standard of the games before was never going to allow a healthy reception, but the fault is still predominantly theirs.
BioWare needs to deal with the aftermath of Mass Effect 3’s ‘endings’. Credit to Paul Tassi of Forbes.
As a final plea, if anybody at BioWare ever reads this, I personally think the next game should go back to the series’ roots. Return to the Milky Way, and deal with the process of rebuilding the mass relays, or dealing with the chaos the Reapers left behind. The fan base might even feel as if the developers are finally doing something about Mass Effect 3‘s ending debacle. If the studio is dead set on keeping the series’ future in the Andromeda galaxy, they should at least make it far enough into the future that it doesn’t feel like traversing uninhabited, though admittedly pretty, alien wilderness.
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