Review: Mass Effect Andromeda

AndromedaMass Effect Andromeda has been out for a few months, but I only recently finished it. I loved the original Mass Effect and after years in development, I had high hopes for Andromeda – emphasis on ‘had’.

The story

Under the threat of destruction by the Reapers (roughly during Mass Effect 2), a group of people called the Andromeda Initiative decided to flee the Milky Way and head to the next galaxy over: Andromeda. The Andromeda galaxy is roughly 2.5 million light years away from our Milky Way, which is a startling distance. I already covered how space is startlingly huge some time ago, so I won’t go into it here.

After 600 years of traveling in stasis (at apparently 4,000 times the speed of light), the group arrives, only to find that a strange space phenomenon called the scourge has made most of the planets uninhabitable in the part of the Andromeda galaxy they came to. Not only that, there are warmongering aliens there that want to enslave and/or kill everybody.

You play a human who is thrust into the role of Pathfinder when the original Pathfinder (your father) dies. Your mission: help the half million colonists survive, defeat the aliens, and figure out what the heck that space phenomenon is.

Manifest Destiny: the Game

In essence, Mass Effect tries to give the player a sense of being an intrepid explorer, who overcomes the many problems besetting them and the colonists. It’s a feel-good game about exploration and survival.

The Heleus cluster that the game takes place in, is a small cluster of stars with a sizable amount of habitable planets. Or so the Initiative thought. Most of the planets are no longer habitable and there is that weird phenomena running through space across the cluster. Now the colonists are stuck up a creek without a paddle.

None of the half million colonists seems to have even considered the fact that since the planets had been habitable, there might have been other races already living there. The colonists seem to believe it’s their right to settle there anyway. Although the game presents it as a challenge to the initiative, they were in fact very lucky that a natural phenomenon made the planets uninhabitable for the natives.

The smug arrogance of all the ‘good guys’ really bugged me. They are ‘helping’ the natives fight a war and surviving against an evil invader, but all the while they fully expect to take the natives’ planets for themselves. Much like the European colonists ‘discovering’ America, they are the ‘first’ people to set foot on this, and the ‘first’ to see that. It’s like the American delusion of Manifest Destiny that the alt-right likes to taut around, molded into a scifi game.

The characters

Much of the game hinges on the fact that the Initiative planned about as far ahead as a headless chicken. They saw a dozen habitable planets through a telescope and assumed they’d be unoccupied. They didn’t take hostile aliens into account, or even friendly ones. Terraforming equipment? Apparently they didn’t bring any. The colonists actually start to infight after the first few setbacks (pretty big ones, given their ill-preparedness) and a full-scale rebellion is the result. Within a year, a chunk of the colonists has gone half-feral and have turned into vicious raiders. Great screening. Oh wait, it turns out it’s some side-effect of stasis… that the physicians missed upon awakening the crews.

That brings me to the characters in the game. They fall into three categories: crew, assholes, and game mechanics. Confused? Let me explain.

The most fleshed-out characters are the characters of your pathfinder crew. They include some companion characters and crew members on the small ship you get a bit into the game.

The next category is everybody else. Most of these characters are very unfriendly. The colonist leaders start to bitch at you on sight, and insist on using you for personal gain (Tann) or just put you down constantly (Addison). The alien (Angaran) leaders are the same, with the military leader Evfra and the great Moshae both introducing themselves with insults. Of course, I can forgive the latter two, since the protagonist is out to take their worlds from them.

The final category are the game-mechanic characters. The game world is filled with these lifeless characters that are signposts for a gazillion side quests. Or they try to provide some flavor to the repetitive settlements.

An open world of glitches

I’ve already ranted about open-world games. Mass Effect is no different. The story itself is pretty bad, but the fact that it’s open-world completely ruins the pacing. One of the charms of the original Mass Effect is that it actually had a pretty rigid storyline, as did — for example — the Witcher 2. Both games were better than their huge open-world successors.

Not only the pacing is bad, but to fill the huge empty space, and be able to put a long playtime on the game box, there are heaps of fetch quests, run-around quests, and shoot-things quests. The first dozen of these quests are nice, but the three-thousand following that pretty much turn your game from fun to work. It’s not as bad as the newer Assassin Creeds, but Andromeda comes close.

Then there’s the bugs. Even with a slew of patches, the game can be buggy. Sometimes NPCs in a conversation will be standing a mile away, muting their dialog. Sometimes an interaction triggers when your character runs past an NPC, making it seem as if their muttering to themselves while running. On my PC, the game crashed three or four times per hour, so I had to play it on my Mac (first game ever to run better on a Mac). All in all, the game works, but barely. It’s the first game since DragonAge 2 that I’ve had so much problems with, and it kills some of my enjoyment right out of the gate.

So, having covered the basics, I’ll dig into the plot some more and why it’s pretty terrible. For that we travel to spoilerspace below the image.

Mass Effect Andromeda

Plot overdrive – With SPOILERS

Okay, so what is the story of Mass Effect Andromeda about? A group of colonists overcoming difficulties in their colonizing a foreign galaxy? A struggle against an alien race that steals genes? Maybe a story about the fallout of a galactic war between ancient powerful races? Oh wait, or maybe it’s a family tale about a sick mother and a father giving his life to save her? Or, or, it’s really Lord of the Flies in a scifi setting?

Well, Mass Effect Andromeda tries to be all of the above, and manages to fail at all of them. This is actually quite a feat. Before we take a look at each of these plotlines, let’s look at the basics.

A story should hinge on its climax, where — usually after completing their growth arc — the protagonist overcomes the antagonist. Given its climax, that means that Mass Effect Andromeda is about the struggle between the Pathfinder and the Archon (the evil alien leader). The rest is not the main plot, even though it pretends to be. it’s a distraction from the actual story, really.

A story can’t actually be two things at once, like I wrote about a while ago. Great writers can sort of pull it off (From Dusk till Dawn is a good example), but it’s rare. Putting as many plots in play as Mass Effect Andromeda did, is asking for failure. And fail they did.

Pathfinder versus Archon

First, the main plot. You know how Andromeda hooks you with a galactic war with the hostile Kett race right away? Oh wait, it doesn’t. The story only introduces the Kett after the colonization ship has encountered the Scourge. Whoops, they really set the wrong expectations there.

Well okay, so the game quickly establishes the Archon is the Pathfinder’s personal antagonist because he kills Pathfinder senior. Oh wait, another no. The Archon is really the antagonist for the native aliens, the Angara, not really for the Pathfinder. The Pathfinder is only pissed because the Kett conquer the planets that the initiative wanted to conquer.

Well, yeah, but the Archon is still a cool antagonist. Nope. Again. The game quickly turns into a race between you and the Archon to find the treasures of Remnant technology. The Archon risks rebellion with his own people to get it. So why does the Archon want this technology? Well, as it turns out, he wants to blackmail the entire cluster into accepting exaltation (a.k.a. transforming them into a Kett).
Yep, the Archon wants this powerful technology to threaten everybody with a quick death so they will accept a slow death – after which their bodies are used as Kett hosts. Uh-huh, that’s really gonna fly. Antagonist fail.

Colonization: the hard way

Colonizing another galaxy is a difficult process. There are a lot of difficulties to overcome. Especially if you go at it in the most incompetent way possible.

Apparently, the Initiative decided there was no need for the four Arks they sent and their Nexus space station to meet up when arriving in Andromeda. They all go to their separate golden worlds right away. Oops. Encountering the scourge and the Kett results in three of the Arks getting lost.

Remember how in Mass Effect 1 everybody was pretty clear that it’s dangerous to travel to uncharted places because of hostile aliens? They kind of forgot that in the Initiative, given that they send absolutely no weaponry with the colonists. No gunships, no weapons platforms, no fighters. Zip. Just shuttles. So, yeah, they’re pretty screwed when they get pulled into an interstellar war.

What’s weirder is that the colonists persist in settling on multiple worlds. They end up with five colonies by the end of the game, plus a space station. Humanity today has seven billion people on a single planet. Couldn’t these half million colonists have settled for one or two? Why six?  And they have to defend those outposts against hostile aliens. Do they really think that that’s a good idea?

A tale of two ancient races

The game starts out hooking us with the mysterious scourge. It’s a startling revelation when the details of what the Scourge really is emerge and… oh wait, that doesn’t happen. You learn it’s some kind of weird weapon, from an unknown race, used in an unclear war. The scourge also has unclear properties… that suddenly help you beat the Kett at the climax. It’s basically stuff… in space… that’s in the way… spanning lightyears.

The other side of the coin are the mysterious Remnant. A race of mysterious… beings… actually called the Jardaan. They created the Angara because of… reasons. And then they got into a war because of… unknown. With an unknown race. And then they vanished.

Well, great. That was enlightening. A very fascinating plot that. By the end of the game you know next to nothing about what’s actually going on. Since the Scourge is part of the game hook, the writers might have put some effort into actually explaining it.

Sigh.

A family tragedy

Daddy Pathfinder started the whole shebang because his wife was sick. As the story progresses you learn that your mother died, but wait… she didn’t die. Your dad actually put her in stasis before it happened and she’s in Andromeda. Gasp.

Sorry, but I couldn’t give a crap. A story like this only works if you put effort in defining the family dynamic and fleshing out the family members. Since your dad dies at the start of the game, your sibling is in a coma for most of the game, and your mother is in stasis, there is no dynamic. Or fleshing out. Why should I care about any of this?

The game tried to force the background on to me through side quests, which dad supposedly set up. Why did he? Not a clue. Actually duct-taping this crap onto the climax was even worse, like somebody trying to give it some gravitas it doesn’t deserve.

Pulling punches and breaking promises

There are just too many things going on in this game. I’ve not covered half of the subplots yet. The exiles and their infighting, the Krogan exiles, the traitor in the initiative, Cora’s colonialist loyalty quest, Peebee’s psycho ex, and let’s not forget about the Angaran alien hate group, the Roekaar.

Most of the plots are not fleshed out, and worse, many of them pull their punches, break promises, or are full of holes. Almost none of them actually work. Some examples:

  • In Jaal’s loyalty quest, you can choose to have him shot at point blank range. If you do… he doesn’t die. Psych.
  • Drack gets really pissed when you let his Krogan buddies get exalted… And then he gets over it. Remember you could execute your Krogan sidekick Wrex in the first Mass Effect? Missed opportunity, I say.
  • So what is up with the Quarian Ark?
  • Who the heck is the mysterious benefactor that pops up but is never revealed?
  • So, about that Kett infighting… it’s in several quests, when was that going to pan out?
  • Where does Peebee’s loyalty mission tie into the main plot? Or Jaal’s, Liam’s, Drack’s, and Vetra’s? Actually, even Cora’s only ties in tangentially. Great way to not tie the main plot to your party of intrepid explorers.
  • So, both the Krogan and the exiles encounter the Angara. Even though they’re in contact with the Nexus, nobody apparently figures out the Angara exist until you – the Pathfinder – accidentally run into one of their planets. First contact my ass.
  • Near the climax, why doesn’t your sibling kill themselves when the Archon is about to capture them? It would have made a stronger story – plus, that whole part of the end fight with your sibling annoyed the crap out of me.
  • Why didn’t whoever unleashed the scourge finish the job? If their end goal was to thwart the Remnant/Jardaan, why did they leave all the vaults intact and the Angarans alive?

I could go on, but I’m done ranting for now.

  • Oh wait, why does the Archon go after your sibling. Why not capture you out in the field and use you to control the AI? Spite? Stupidity?

Okay, I’m done.

Conclusion

If this had been a separate game, I might have played it once then forgot about it. But I loved the actual first Mass Effect, so now I’m angry. This installment is mediocre at best. It rides the coattails of its predecessors but isn’t special in itself. It’s just another open-world game, with pretty graphics, set in a scifi world.

The game isn’t terrible, really, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the original. That and it’s plagued by bugs, unlikable characters, and a colonialist message. And the plot is mind-numbingly terrible.

 

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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