Kantemir Balagov has the confidence to tell his story chiefly through the faces of his characters as well as their placement in the frame, thereby…
Rarely has a game been more ambitious and frustrating as EA’s “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” the reboot of the landmark series that ended in 2012. It is a game of stunning, sprawling scope that challenges the very expectations one has when they have a controller in their hands. It is also a game with inferior graphics, thin dialogue, and clichéd storytelling. What was so remarkable about the "Mass Effect" trilogy was the way in which the developers blended authorship and narrative. You were both handed a brilliant, captivating narrative—one that spread over three games—and allowed to shape it with not just your gameplay decisions but dialogue choices that influenced character development. “Andromeda” seems to come from the same template—gamer choices that influence a rich narrative—but it’s a much more gigantic adventure, one that can be almost overwhelming. Still, it's difficult to stop playing once you commit to what this game has to offer and come to terms with what it doesn't.
First, a little history. “Mass Effect” was released by BioWare and Electronic Arts in 2007 for the Xbox 360, and its impact was immediate. In the late ‘00s, authorship in gaming was changing, allowing for more gamer control over the arc of a narrative than ever before, and “Mass Effect” felt like a massive breakthrough in that arena. Not only did you customize relatively standard things like weapon loadouts and skill upgrades, but you chose which squadmates to bring with you on missions, and developed relationships with each of them through dialogue. It was a series in which interpersonal relationships seemed more important than explosions. People would feel prouder about romantic developments—yes, you could sleep with most of your crew—than standard gaming accomplishments like killing bosses. And decisions made over the course of all three games impacted the final scenes (although not enough for hardcore fans still enraged over the disappointing closing scene, which arguably took away that oh-so-valuable "choice").
“Mass Effect 3” closed the trilogy five years ago, and BioWare took the time to figure out how to bring the series back in a way that doesn’t just echo the previous games. Five years is a lifetime in the world of gaming. And so we can’t just have a traditional “Mass Effect 4.” Knowing that, they tinkered with the gameplay, allowing for more freedom in combat and a very different hero. In an effort to give gamers even more control over their protagonist, the developers lost one of the things that made the original “Mass Effect” trilogy so effective—a hero’s journey. Sure, you play a heroic guy or gal in “Andromeda,” but it’s one you can constantly customize and adjust, turning him into more of a cipher than a leader. He has no personality. And that’s only the first problem here narratively.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. “Mass Effect: Andromeda” announces itself as a game about exploration from its opening scenes. It starts in 2185, between the actions of games two and three, when four races of beings send 20,000 citizens on a 600-year journey to Andromeda. When they get there, let’s just say things don’t go as planned. You play as Scott or Sara Ryder, child of a leader of the human race known as the Pathfinder (voiced by the great Clancy Brown), and heir to the throne more quickly than you may have expected. Before you know it, you’re leading your own ship, known as the Tempest, and building a squad of interstellar partners in crime to take on missions. The foundation of the “Mass Effect” games—in which you basically build your own Enterprise crew and foster relationships with them through conversation—remains intact.
The bulk of the narrative of “Mass Effect: Andromeda” consists of Ryder and his team trying to find places for humanity to settle. It involves a lot of landing on planets, killing evil things on those planets, and then creating outposts on those planets. It is a galaxy of places to explore. Now, most of the planets you can’t even land on, although you can mine some for materials from your ship. However, jumping through asteroid belts and across solar systems definitely conveys the ambitious size of this game. It reminds me of last year’s disappointing “No Man’s Sky” in the way that game encouraged exploration. One can follow the direct line of the game’s “Story Missions,” or really get entrenched on a planet and complete hours of side missions and just general exploration. I’ve been stuck on the snow-covered Voeld for days now, assuming it wouldn’t take long to complete one planet’s entire story and assuming very wrongly. That’s the one thing about “Mass Effect: Andromeda” that really works. It’s a game that conveys your relatively small size in that there’s always something over the horizon or down in a cave that you haven’t seen yet. It will drive completists insane.
The sad thing is how much of the same thing those completists will have to do over and over and over again. Sure, there’s variation in the ways you can approach combat like different loadouts and biotic skills but the richer storytelling of the previous three games made the repetition of its shooting sequences more forgivable. I have shot the same bad guys hundreds of times already and I’m nowhere near done. “Mass Effect: Andromeda” requires great patience when it comes to its basic third-person shooter construction.
More rewarding have been the times when the story has presented me with a crossroads. Save a group of prisoners or destroy the facility so that it can’t just be refilled when these ones are gone? Dialogue choices feel more diverse than in previous games, which often gave you a “good” and “evil” dynamic. And some of the narrative twists have been thematically rich, such as when a new friend realized that the enemies we were fighting were mutated forms of his own people, who he was trying to save. But I keep longing for more, wanting more storytelling and less combat; more character work and less driving around. I too often feel in “Andromeda” like I’m killing time, pushing to the next major event instead of progressing there.
Part of the problem is that “Andromeda” often looks flat-out horrible. Much has been made already of the bizarre facial models (look at that walking nightmare on the right), ones for which the weirdly-misshapen lips don’t match up with the audio of the voice work, and the dead eyes on every single character plunge them deep into the Uncanny Valley. It’s undeniable that 2012’s “Mass Effect 3” looked better than this game, and that was on a previous generation. The corners that were clearly cut visually—probably just to pack in as much game as possible and get it out by a certain date—were unforgivable. And the paper-thin dialogue doesn’t help either.
Bad graphics, hackneyed dialogue, repetitive combat—why do I keep playing “Mass Effect: Andromeda”? And yet I think I’ll keep returning to it, looking for new planets to explore and new friends to make. It could be because of trying to recreate that feeling that the first three games gave me, or it could be because this one still has the potential to surprise you from time to time and, who knows, maybe Hour 45 is the one where it really clicks. Probably not. What’s interesting is that “Andromeda” has taken the authorship of those early games to a new extreme, giving you a universe in which to play instead of just a spaceship or a planet. My only concern is that there’s nothing worth playing under all those suns.
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