BioWare's interstellar epic burns up on re-entry
BioWare's interstellar epic burns up on re-entry
You're in high orbit over Habitat 7, a garden world in the Eriksson System that is to be humanity's new home, when you first realize that something has gone terribly wrong. You've travelled six hundred years to get to the Andromeda galaxy on little more than the hope that you'd find something new and better than what you had before, back in the Milky Way. Even from above, Habitat 7 is obviously incompatible with human life; electrical storms that span the sky and there are floating lodestones the size of mountains – hell, maybe they are mountains. All this time, all this space, only to realize that, well, Andromeda kind of sucks.
Like Habitat 7, I'm sure Mass Effect: Andromeda, BioWare's open world reboot of its most beloved franchise, out March 21 for PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4, looked great from a distance. Andromeda was meant to be a new beginning for the series, updating it from the aging Unreal engine to EA's cutting edge Frostbite 3. Like those slumbering colonists aboard Ark Hyperion, you signed up for Andromeda hoping that, someday, BioWare would lead you to a promised land. That Andromeda isn't what you expected makes it worse than a mediocre game. It feels like betrayal.
Andromeda loses its struggle with the legacy of the original trilogy. At first, everything in it feels like an inferior version of what you had back in the Milky Way. PeeBee (yes, that's her name), an Asari academic gone rogue, is a knockoff of Liara T'Soni, and the Nexus, an intergalactic hub where masses of colonists silently wait to be deployed, is merely Andromeda's cheap rendition of the Citadel.
All of this is made worse by the fact that Andromeda's writing is frequently abysmal. At one point, your pugnacious Krogan, Nakmor Drack, and a dour Salarian administrator rehash a familiar debate over the Genophage you cured (or not) in Mass Effect 3.
"You had no right to sterilize our species!" bellows Drack.
"Your people deserved it for using nuclear bombs on each other," the Salarian replies.
"I guess that is true," Drack chuckles, and the conversation abruptly ends.
For Sara Ryder, Andromeda's pitiably uncharismatic protagonist, much of the game's world-building is framed as "new" information, but for you, it comes off as a tiresome review of what you already learned about the Mass Effect universe from the previous games. Andromeda's opening hours are the game's worst, precisely because everything old feels tired, and everything new feels lesser.
Andromeda is constantly weighed down by its ham-handed attempts at character building. Barely 15 minutes into the game, your "beloved" twin brother, about whom you know exactly nothing and consequently give precisely zero shits about, goes into a coma. Ryder is inconsolable, while you, on the other hand, feel nothing, underscoring your own alienation from Andromeda. Too often, the game desperately wants you to feel a particular emotion, but does none of the work necessary to get you to feel it. As you cruise across the frozen tundra of Voeld, Andromeda's paradigmatic ice planet, one of your squadmates says, "Look outside. It's harsh, but beautiful. I like it," as if demanding that you feel the same.
Mass Effect has the misfortune of being released only a few weeks after Nintendo's magnificent Breath of the Wild. In many ways, the two games have much in common – both have been asked to bear a burden of unbearable expectation, and to reintroduce aging franchises to fans both new and old. Breath of the Wild does so beautifully, and all the things it gets right about its "open world" are what Andromeda gets wrong about its own.
Whereas Breath of the Wild shoves you into an unfamiliar, inhospitable world without so much as a "good luck," Andromeda tends to your needs at every turn. Within its first hour, Andromeda bestows upon you an honorific that you have not earned, fuses your brain with a superintelligent AI, and carries you, step by step, through terraforming a radioactive desert planet into a slightly less radioactive desert planet with clear skies. Afterwards, when you return to the Nexus, the mood has suddenly become hopeful. You, however, feel like you've polished off a checklist, because you have.
Breath of the Wild looked for inspiration in games you'd never expect to see in a Zelda game (Minecraft, Dark Souls, The Witcher 3) and brought into being a chimera that radiates mystery and magic. Andromeda, on the other hand, lazily splices in the genes of BioWare's other franchises. In the months leading up to its release, many worried that Andromeda would simply take Dragon Age: Inquisition into space. They were right to be worried. The two games share uncannily similar landscapes and clusters of foes spread evenly across the map that listlessly stand around, waiting to be shot. Even Mass Effect's pitch perfect, lo-fi electronic soundtrack has been partially supplanted by the same swells of Wagnerian horns that accompanied your journies through Thedas. Worse, BioWare has also recycled the real time, passive quests it debuted in Star Wars: The Old Republic, once again forcing you to think of fantasy in your own life's hours.
What's missing most of all from Andromeda, though, is any genuine sense of exploration. In Andromeda, there are no indifferent gods to be found over the next hill, only more waypoints. Consequently, there's no reason to set off into uncharted territory because you know that a mission will send you there anyway. Andromeda has so little faith that you'll explore on your own that anything worth seeing in its cosmic wilds is clearly marked and integrated into some kind of quest chain. Scan these rocks, gather these plants. Even if it were possible to get lost in Andromeda, I can't imagine wanting to; no matter how gorgeous the game's vistas may be, they exist largely to be exhausted and, as a result, give off a sense of emptiness, not possibility. This would be a disaster for any open world, but for a game in which you supposedly play a "Pathfinder," it's fatal. Andromeda is a game about exploration that gives you no space or reason to explore.
Sometime around the time you finish terraforming your first planet and you have a decent sense of what's to come, you're faced with a choice. Given Andromeda's obvious and accumulating failures, do you continue playing, or write the game off as a rare failure from BioWare? Given the mangled facial animations, terrible squad AI, paper-thin characters, and, above all, the absolute absence of any feeling of wonder, no one should be blamed for setting Andromeda aside. But if you, like the first wave of colonists to Andromeda, dig your heels in and resolve to make the best of it, Andromeda starts to improve quite a bit. As the game's emphasis starts to shift away from exploring new worlds to fortifying the outposts you've already settled, Andromeda begins to come into its own. This fits better with the endless litany of errands the game assigns, and captures the unglamorous work of building a home in a hostile place.
Eventually, you also start to forgive, or even reappraise, some of the game's most conspicuous faults. Maybe your first impressions of your companions weren't so fair after all. It's no fault of PeeBee that she's not Liara, and your opinion of her begins to improve at the moment you start to see her for her. As you hear more of your companion's backstories – Jaal's long lost love, Cora's sense of abandonment, etc. – and listen to their conversations during long drives across lonely planets, you start to suspect that they aren't as hollow inside as you once thought they were. You even start to look past some of the visual bugs. Maybe Ryder's uncomfortably wide smile is just another dimension of her awkwardness. Perhaps those slightly-too-large eyes are a sign of her childlike wonder, and not mere bungling from BioWare's animators.
To be sure, this is a form of bargaining, a desperate bid to see an imperfect game as better than it is. But, let's be frank – given its legacy, in what galaxy were you not going to be disappointed by Mass Effect: Andromeda?
Still, when nostalgia is cast aside, can you truthfully say that, back when you first met Commander Shepherd and the rest of them, they weren't all wracked by clichés that took two more games to overcome? Look back to the original Mass Effect, and you'll also see the genome of BioWare's early games – Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur's Gate, and even the sequel-less Jade Empire – as surely as you see the traces of The Old Republic and Dragon Age here. Maybe Andromeda isn't a betrayal of Mass Effect, but Mass Effect as it has always existed. Perhaps what you've been fighting after all is the need for Andromeda (and Andromeda) to conform to a dream that you had five (and six hundred years) ago.