Why 'Mass Effect: Andromeda' is the Most Important Game of The Year

Why 'Mass Effect: Andromeda' is the Most Important Game of The Year

The 'Mass Effect' series is unique amongst blockbuster video games for its emphasis on character Glixel / EA

With all due respect to Nintendo and Rockstar, Bioware's forthcoming sci-fi epic is likely to have the last word as it explores a distant galaxy

With all due respect to Nintendo and Rockstar, Bioware's forthcoming sci-fi epic is likely to have the last word as it explores a distant galaxy

It’s 600 years in the future and everyone we loved is gone. Commander Shepard, Garrus and Kaidan are gone; the starship Normandy is gone; the battles we fought, or fought to prevent, are ancient history. But even from the shreds of information developer Bioware has parceled out over the past few months, it’s clear Mass Effect: Andromeda, the fourth title in the famed science fiction RPG series, is being carefully constructed on the solid foundations of its predecessors. It’s a game that most publications have put on their most anticipated lists for 2017, often lurking just below the likes of Nintendo's console-launching Zelda, Sony's post-apocalyptic Horizon: Zero Dawn and Rockstar's latest Western, Red Dead Redemption 2. It could prove more vital than all of them.

First of all, epic, narrative-driven, single-player video games are on the decline. They’re not quite a dying artform, but they’re certainly endangered. Games like Mass Effect and Uncharted require vast development teams with enormous art and animation divisions to generate the detailed visual assets necessary in the 4K UHD era. They demand superlative voice acting and script writing (increasingly including pricey Hollywood talent), and they require intricate planning and construction over multiple years. When all of this is in service to a plot and a set of characters that no one can be sure players will engage with, it’s a tremendous gamble. The tortured development cycles of Final Fantasy XV and Last Guardian will surely send shivers down the spines of any industry execs looking to greenlight an epic narrative game – especially if these titles fail to recoup their bloated development budgets, which routinely run into the $100 million range (and sometimes much more).

Because while video games as a whole are making more and more money, much of that growth is coming from mobile games. For traditional PC and console titles, production and marketing costs are only getting bigger, but these games rarely sell more copies than they did five or even ten years ago. In this climate, something’s gotta give – and that something tends to be risk. This is part of the reason we’re seeing an exodus in the "triple A" blockbuster sector, away from scripted experiences toward sprawling open-world adventures, where the plot is secondary to world-exploration, sub-quests, item collection and player-generated narratives. If you look at Ubisoft’s latest titles – Watch Dogs 2 and the forthcoming Ghost Recon Wildlands – story is very much secondary to the environment; these maps are no longer even gated by an over-arching story structure: you can go anywhere right from the start. Similarly, last year’s episodic Hitman reboot relegated narrative to a vague background set-up and emphasized repeating set-piece kills over and over instead. In this way, the players and the systems become the storytellers; the game doesn’t commit to one superlative emotional throughline. Blockbuster games are transforming into playgrounds, where story is an optional extra.

But in Mass Effect there is both spatial freedom and player choice. There is a gigantic, fascinating tale being told – a tale filled with sub-plots, intrigue and generational consequence. Bioware’s writers are extremely skilled at using backstory and exposition, not just to provide context, but also emotional weight to key scenes. The moment in Mass Effect 3 where your ally Mordin Solus sacrifices himself while discovering a cure for the genophage biological weapon is given extra weight and wider significance by our knowledge of the Krogan and the Turians, and their historic conflict. It’s epic storytelling, painstakingly planted and perfectly paid off.

This kind of structural masterplay will become much more difficult in an era of freeform exploration, where players can go where they want, when they want. It’s a challenge Andromeda itself is set to point toward. Here, players will be able to explore the galaxy in the new Tempest spacecraft, landing on and exploring planets, where hostile races and giant boss battles will be waiting, alongside more familiar side missions and collection objectives. But the team is also bringing back the much more narrative-focused loyalty missions from Mass Effect 2, which will delve into the backstories of your allies, harking back to that sense of legacy and continuity that the original trilogy provided.

This is another reason why Mass Effect is going to be really important this year: it’s as much about diplomacy and relationship building as it is about action, and there are so few adventure games thinking in this way anymore. The prevailing trend in mass sci-fi entertainment is combat. Take the Marvel cycle, take the now-annual Star Wars films, take the latest Call of Duty and Titanfall games; they're focused entirely on very basic, clear-cut good-vs-evil confrontations; it’s fun but there’s very little true interpersonal drama. Mass Effect is a huge entertainment franchise where the player is required to understand other characters and their needs and ambitions. Like Star Trek: Next Generation or Deep Space Nine, it’s really about relationships, negotiation, empathy and emotional intelligence; it’s about finding a bunch of strange characters in a weird place and having them talk their way out. This actually became the MO for a lot of Mass Effect players: how much trouble can I get out of by just talking? Can I calm down that asari crime boss without reaching for an assault rifle?

Mass Effect also cleverly merges the personal with the political; you need to treat characters like Wrex, Liara and Tali'Zorah in a certain way in order to trigger much larger story strands – it’s the way traditional drama works; using personal, intimate stories to tell grander narratives. But in Mass Effect, it’s you forging the web of intrigue. Bioware’s use of conversation mechanics is clever too; the onscreen options only hint at what the character will say, rather providing a script – you’re directing the dialogue, not reading it. In this way, there’s a really interesting dynamic, an interplay of control and uncertainty, and it makes you want to experiment with the characters, and play around with who you decide to take on missions, just to see what sort of dynamics spring up.

Andromeda will likely stand alone this year as an exploration of characters as much as conflict

"I enjoy all the broader character traits and how they interact with each other," says game designer Chris Wilson, who worked on Forza and is a huge fan of Mass Effect. "It was always fun to bring along certain squad members you knew would react to events during a mission. You could really tailor your own experience here as well – did you want to do bad things and have everyone agree with you? There's a squad for that. Did you want things to a bit more morally grey and have people question your motives? Plenty of options. When choosing who to take a mission I found myself thinking 'How will Wrex react to this?' a lot more than I thought 'Does Rex do enough damage against the Geth?' To me the game was mostly about these moments. Constructing my my own sci-fi TV show with my chosen cast."

And honestly, there’s not much else like this anymore – where you read characters, learn about them, put them together in a dangerous situations just to see what happens. Where you fall in love with them. Of course, there’s Dragon Age – another Bioware game – and there are elements of these personal interactions in Witcher 3, Deus Ex, the Telltale games, but Andromeda will likely stand alone this year as an exploration of characters as much as conflict. It also seems like the whole romance element is going to be more complex, moving on from the highly systemised approach in the original trilogy, where players had to game the conversations to get to certain levels of intimacy by certain points, and toward more freeform relationships. Apparently, some characters are looking for one night stands, some for long term relationships, some want monogamy, some are polyamorous – it's an intriguing prospect, and – along with a reportedly more ambiguous moral system (no more renegade/paragon duality) – an important evolution for the series. Let’s face it, not many major titles will be thinking about ethical quandaries and complicated interspecies sex as major selling points in 2017.

But most of all, the reason Andromeda is an important game, is that it's hopeful. For the last few years, most big sci-fi titles have been about withdrawal and attrition: Gears of War, Halo, Killzone, Destiny, Titanfall – they depict humanity on the back foot, always struggling to survive in smaller and smaller spaces. Andromeda on the other hand is about exploration and expansion. In many ways it harks back to the great science fiction novels of the Fifties and Sixties from the likes of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke in which gigantic spacecraft vanish along glittering hyperspace lanes to distant galaxies; where alien worlds are discovered and colonized, against the odds. We’re no longer controlling Shepard the dedicated warrior but Sara or Scott Ryder, the pathfinders for a new civilization.

Games rarely have true vision, in the way that an epic novel or movie may have. Perhaps it is something to do with the collective design of these vast projects, perhaps it’s the fact that players exert control over the action. But it's rare a game creates a universe that looks like it means something, that has something to say. Mass Effect always did. Every character brought with them the tribulations and complexities of whole civilizations, yet they worked as characters not as ciphers – they weren’t just machines of exposition. Fans will tell stories of their relationships; the way they re-started games to recover old saves in order to re-direct romances, the way they shed tears when a key ally died – and all this drama, love and intrigue took place while battling an unfeeling, unknowable force know as The Reapers. In this way, in this final conflict between messy existence and endless metallic cold, the over-arching plot of Mass Effect was kind of a metaphor for life. At least that’s what it was shooting for. And very few other games even aim that high.