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A Whole New World

‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ begins with a blank slate both in-game and behind the scenes, but that endless potential creates too many hurdles for this reboot to overcome

(EA)
(EA)

BioWare’s latest RPG opus, Mass Effect: Andromeda, arrived earlier this week on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, ending a five-year hiatus from Mass Effect titles. Below, Achievement Oriented hosts and Mass Effect veterans Ben Lindbergh and Jason Concepcion discuss their impressions of the fourth game in the series after spending a few days with Andromeda’s PS4 version.

Ben Lindbergh: Mass Effect: Andromeda is a new beginning for BioWare, a reboot of a beloved last-gen trilogy of sci-fi RPG shooters that came to a satisfying conclusion with 2012’s Mass Effect 3 (albeit only after the company declared a do-over on its much-maligned original ending). It’s also supposed to be about new beginnings: a new protagonist on a new mission in a new galaxy, with no importing from previous saves. But while BioWare has delivered a gigantic game, crammed with quests, planets, and potential sexual partners, not much here feels fresh so far. As fans of the franchise, we would have signed up for more of the same Mass Effect, if that’s all Andromeda were. Instead, it’s a stale step back, surprisingly unpolished for a product of its pedigree and dragged down by gameplay and graphics that in some ways seem regressive compared with more groundbreaking recent releases.

Andromeda does succeed in supplying a reason for the series to exist in 2017, apart from padding BioWare’s bottom line. With the old galaxy saved, an alliance of sentient species in search of adventure strikes out for Andromeda, cryo-napping in Arks that cross the stars. But during the transit, the plan falls apart: The "golden worlds" that the colonists thought would be waiting at the end of their 600-year sleep have been devastated by a mysterious, dark-energy "scourge." It falls to the player (as Ryder, the almost instantly anointed "Pathfinder") to solve the scourge, locate the lost colonists, and make a cluster of systems safe for human (and Turian, Krogan, Asari, and Salarian) settlers.

This is still a game about a civilization’s survival, but on a smaller scale, which often works well: As the plot progresses, the player’s impact is obvious, reflected in the atmosphere and architecture of Andromeda’s increasingly habitable worlds. But the conceptually promising prologue gives way to repetitive routine, in which every Mass Effect hallmark is mapped onto an Andromeda analogue: Ryder replaces Shepard; the Tempest replaces the Normandy; the Nexus replaces the Citadel. This wild, distant galaxy is populated largely by established species or similar ones with new skins, and the tasks are mostly the same as they were in the Milky Way: scanning systems; talking (and talking, and talking) to NPCs; killing aliens; completing fetch quests; and having awkwardly animated and ethically questionable sex with subordinates. Some of these mechanics just aren’t as exciting as they were the first, second, or third times, and others aren’t implemented as well.

All of which makes me wonder how much we should blame another new beginning that I skipped over earlier: This is the first installment in the series since the exodus of BioWare cofounders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk and Mass Effect creator and project director Casey Hudson. Maybe that’s why this feels like an inaugural effort in ways that weren’t intended.

Jason Concepcion: A harsh assessment, Ben. One I sadly agree with. I’ve found myself interrogating the entire experience — pacing, sound (when your NPC teammates land after jumps, it sounds like enemy gunfire and it is very distracting!), graphics, animations, dialogue, voice acting, the overreliance on a scanning mechanic, controls — and my own fond memories of the original trilogy to determine whether the game really is this middling or whether (could it be?) my expectations were just too high. In retrospect, I think this is an issue of too much churn, too much change. A change in personnel, philosophy, hardware, and software. You mentioned the loss of BioWare’s cofounders and Mass Effect’s creator. Andromeda is also the first game in the series developed, with full creative control, by BioWare’s Montreal division as opposed to BioWare Edmonton. It’s the first Mass Effect title designed for the current console generation. And it’s the first game developed using EA Dice’s Frostbite Engine instead of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. Which, listen, I don’t know what that means, but logic tells me that having to create everything — including the tools — from scratch with a new creative team might have been too big an ask.

The animations, in particular, are surprisingly slapdash. Characters move choppily, "moonwalking" short distances in cut scenes. The controls feel sluggish and imprecise; when I stop moving the left stick, Ryder’s momentum carries over in a way that feels bumbling. Faces emote as if treated with digital Botox. "We’re pushing the boundaries of what Frostbite can do and what Mass Effect can do," Mac Walters, BioWare’s creative director, said last summer. "The quality of the character animations is at an all-time high for us, and that’s great because it means expressiveness, emotion and a connection with the player." Frankly, that is not the case.

To be clear: Andromeda is not a bad game. The combat, in particular, is a strong point, dynamic and fun. I’m also quite early in the campaign. Andromeda’s story has been reported at anywhere from 25 to 50 hours, depending on the level of completion. (GAMES ARE TOO LONG, BEN!) I haven’t even gotten into a proper Outer Space Sex Captain groove yet. No verdict on Mass Effect can be final without at least one consummated relationship with an ostensible subordinate. The driving, a notable weakness of the original trilogy, is solid thanks to help from the developmental team behind Need for Speed. So far, though, Andromeda has been a disappointment. Do you think we expect too much from BioWare, Ben?

Lindbergh: In light of the brain drain, we probably do. We haven’t even mentioned that Andromeda lost a senior developer and a lead writer during production; the latter left to work on the Destiny series, where strained storytelling is standard. (Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 writer Drew Karpyshyn is back with BioWare after a few years away, but he didn’t work on Andromeda). But I wonder whether we just expect more of every developer than we did back when we were resisting the Reapers, because the bar has been raised.

Along those lines, I’m adding Andromeda to the roster of gaming’s All-Worst-Timing Team. Its release date will hang in the rafters right next to that of Titanfall 2, which came out one week after Battlefield 1 and one week before Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Titanfall’s failings were only financial — that crowded three-week window contributed to disappointing sales, but if anything, the juxtaposition with those legacy series made its innovations more obvious. Andromeda, meanwhile, seems more like a higher-res PS3 port because it’s coming on the heels of Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which do almost everything Andromeda does, but better.

Andromeda is supposed to tell a story about the thrill of the unknown, but in contrast to the creative physics and shadowy map that made Nintendo’s new Hyrule seem boundless, its constricting corridors, insuperable outdoor obstacles, and ever-present objective arrows remove much of the mystery. Next to Horizon’s smooth, mo-capped animations and streamlined menu system, Andromeda’s lurching movements; lack of lip-syncing; dead-eyed, algorithmic stares; and needlessly complex crafting, questing, and inventory systems look archaic and convoluted. (Good luck locating anything in your overstuffed quest log on the first few tries.) And both technically and artistically, its long-loading vistas pale in comparison with Horizon’s fallen future earth, not to mention the sprawling, lush Bolivia of Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Andromeda almost makes me miss No Man’s Sky.

You’re right, the combat is better — the new jetpack opens up the encounters, and it’s a relief to be able to allocate skill points across classes, which basically allows you to fight like a Jedi and keep a good blaster at your side. But the combat has to be better, because the writing is far weaker than BioWare’s previous work. Even on normal, Andromeda is difficult, but its most intimidating adversary isn’t an enemy alien or an environmental hazard — it’s the sight of a screen full of dialogue options, each one liable to lead to a corny one-liner or a character announcing his or her traits rather than revealing them subtly. (Some of the most natural writing is buried in text screens, so check your in-game emails, people.) I appreciate that the moral lines between the Paragon and Renegade paths are no longer quite as clear, but I’m having a tougher time caring about these characters than I did with Shepard’s crew. Earlier Mass Effect games have depended on action to varying degrees, but in Andromeda, it’s almost the only thing that makes me want to go on.

Maybe I’m suffering from big-game fatigue (GAMES ARE TOO LONG, JASON!), which would wear off in time, but I think it’s more than that. Mass Effect used to be a technical and narrative trailblazer. Andromeda isn’t unredeemable — there are moments when it channels the old Mass Effect magic, and even though those are infrequent, I’m having enough fun (and I’m enough of a fanboy) to finish. But the series isn’t the standard-bearer it was at one time.

Concepcion: Corny dialogue would be bad enough. But there are voice performance issues as well. There are many moments when Ryder’s response is tonally or emotionally out of sync with the prompt. For instance, while exploring the Ark Hyperion, my Ryder met a distraught Turian, and his responses sounded strangely casual. The Turian is weeping, begging for help for her husband, who’s been unjustly (I think) charged with murder. And Ryder says "Sure!" like he’s agreeing to drop by the corner store. This kind of thing happens quite a bit. There’s a noticeable repetition of certain lines. Whether this issue stems from the direction or not having enough performances to choose from, it’s hard to say. But it’s not great, especially considering Mass Effect’s character-driven lineage.

I could go on and on. The camera angles are too wide, making it hard to pick out detail. The logic undergirding many of the puzzles doesn’t track. (Why did the aliens who created the monoliths hide the glyphs that unlock them randomly across the monoliths’ surfaces?) Way, way, way too much depends on Ryder finding materials by scanning stuff, seemingly a callback to the planet-scanning mini-game of Mass Effect: 2. But the visual cues of what to scan aren’t clear, which means I end up scanning everything that looks like it might be anything. This kills fluidity and makes exploration, one of the core pillars of a Mass Effect experience, troublingly tedious. There’s no explanation about how the mining drone that launches from the Mako all-terrain vehicle works. You press triangle to get into the Mako but circle to get out of it. The overall result isn’t so much bad as unfinished. Mass Effect: Andromeda feels like a beta version of a AAA game.

I know this review makes it seem like I hate the game, Ben. I don’t. I will continue to play it. I am enjoying it, even in its unpolished state. It’s a perfectly OK video game experience. It’s just not up to the level of a Mass Effect game.

Lindbergh: We can always hold out hope for an Andromeda "Extended Cut." But maybe our formerly lofty expectations for Andromeda, and our disillusionment now, say something about how gaming has grown. If Mass Effect were a movie, we might have dreaded each addition, burned before by so many big-screen sequels that couldn’t recapture what worked in the past. But because it’s a game, the hype has only grown. Why is it that when a movie gets a sequel, we fear a repeat of The Matrix Reloaded, while when a game gets a sequel, we remember Mass Effect 2?

Although J.J. Abrams may have tried to turn a few cookie-cutter plots into perpetual movie machines, stories aren’t endlessly recyclable. Most movies need strong writing to stand out, while games historically haven’t, buoyed by their interactive elements. When game developers have found formulas that worked, they’ve proved almost endlessly repeatable. Many games that get sequels improve in their second iterations, refined by feedback from the community, hardware advancements, and additional development time. They give us more of what we liked, tweaked just a tad, and we line up on launch night, wallets outstretched.

That’s no longer enough, now that indie developers are deconstructing every trope and even traditional series like Zelda are getting major makeovers. Maybe our frustration with Andromeda’s warmed-over aspects are partly the Mass Effect franchise’s fault for demonstrating that big-budget shooters didn’t have to be dumb and, in the process, uplifting our sensibilities, Salarian-style. But if BioWare doesn’t want the saga to end on an uninspiring note, it will have to redefine what Mass Effect means, giving us a new game to go with the galaxy.