Mass Effect Andromeda’s problem is not bugs or animation errors, it’s story

All seems rather exciting, doesn’t it? That’s the problem.

Even as someone not bothered by animation and graphical errors, there's a foundational problem with Mass Effect Andromeda's setup

Getting familiar vibes? Again, not a good thing.

While by no means a commercial failure, Mass Effect: Andromeda has mixed reviews at a 70 on Metacritic with a damning 4.7 userscore. That is a long way to fall for a new chapter in a franchise who’s first game was met with great praise for its writing and world building and who’s sequel ranks among many gamer’s favorite games of all time. (And comparatively, has a metascore of 94!) Even the often mocked third game’s critiques are mostly limited to the ending. Granted, in a narrative and character heavy space opera trilogy, having a bad ending could mean faceplanting at the finish line but you’ll find few who say that Mass Effect 3 and the trilogy on the whole was a bad race.

So, what exactly has left people feeling so cold or passionately frustrated at a game that should be a fresh start in so many ways? Well, I’m not going to act like bad presentation can’t kill immersion and/or irreparably damage a willing suspension of disbelief. After all, it is hard to put yourself in the mind space of accepting the characters as real living people when they behave like malfunctioning action figures and no one other than the player acknowledges it happening. But just as a story guy, I think the lack of investment goes even deeper than that.

Fighting for home versus fighting for the future

Andromeda is a new frontier.

Even if the ending of the third game was oft criticized, it at least was an ending. The story that began with the first game was finished, the galaxy had been saved. What started as an interplanetary manhunt ended with a climactic final battle ostensibly for Earth but really to liberate the entire galaxy of the Reapers. Which begs the question . . . where exactly do you go from there? I mean once you stop a threat to all sentient life in the galaxy anything after that is not going to seem as serious.

The idea of answering, “where to go” with, “to another galaxy” works in theory. Even if the characters don’t encounter another inexplicable, hostile race bent on the destruction of anything that isn’t them and can’t be negotiated with, it will still be bound for new adventures, right?

Stakes are important especially in this kind of setup. The Andromeda Initiative is off to a bad start. The Ark ships taking the Salarians, Asari, and Turians to Andromeda are unaccounted for, there’s infighting among the leadership, planetary colonization is not yielding results, and the equipment and life support they do have can only last so long. As callous as it sounds though, a question does arrive whenever the issue of survival comes up.

So, what? The entire Milky Way galaxy is still there and thriving. If the Andromeda Initiative fails and everyone aboard the Nexus and Arks die, humanity, turianity, salarianity, asarinity, even kroganity still lives back home. They could even try the Initiative again in a couple of centuries. The original trilogy, and especially the third game, forced us into the mindset of thinking of entire planets as “acceptable losses.” The entire, fully populated galaxy, was at stake. One really can’t just turn that off when they are put back into the same universe. In comparison, the entire population of the Andromeda Initiative wouldn’t be a blip on the radar.

Painful reminders

The Reaper invasion of Earth as Commander Shepard watches in horror at what could have been prevented. Or to summarize, an earned dramatic moment.

Now, leaving that aside, it is possible to get invested in a smaller scale and stake conflict. The simple issue of survival can be enough to warrant investment. The problem then is that previously mentioned hostile race that can’t be negotiated with that wasn’t likely to be encountered, was in fact, encountered. The Kett weaken the stakes rather than raise them. Yes, they are another factor that’s making settlement more difficult but they are coded as evil monsters that must be fought and defeated. The native Angara are wary but clearly willing to talk at least and eventually become allies.

The conflict of survival would have been stronger if it was the Angara that were making colonization difficult. Leaving it up to Ryder and the player whether it was more important to prioritize the Initiative over the lives of the Angaran or to risk precious time and resources building bridges and reaching agreements with them. Colonization is something people today have strong feelings about one way or another. There’s a point early in the game where you’re staking the first outpost and you have to choose whether to make it a military base or research hub. It’s touted as being a statement of the Initiative’s attitude. Now imagine if instead there was an Angaran town that needed the location for water or some other resource. There’s another place to settle but it’s surrounded by dangerous predators. Imagine how much harder that choice would be for players to make knowing that the more convenient settlement for them comes at the cost of an indigenous population.

Such a change could be enlightening. Putting us in charge of colonization. On the one hand, the suffering that could be caused suddenly aren’t just historical regrets, we gave the order and it now lies on our shoulders that those people are dead or displaced. On the other hand, the moral absolute of respecting a sovereign people’s land seems much less important when you have an entire population who are just as much people that you’re responsible for and who will starve to death if you can’t get them a place to grow new food.

As it stands though, Ryder has to bring disparate factions and races into cooperating with each other to face a common enemy rather than squabbling amongst themselves. Which is exactly what Shepard did! The bold step into the unknown and trying to lay down roots is talked up a lot and there’s enough in the game to reinforce that idea but it all comes crashing down when the Kett pop in to remind us they’re the bad guys. They’re the real problem that must be gotten rid of, then everything will be fine. All that stuff about taming a dangerous frontier with no way to return home? No, the real problem is yet another unwaveringly hostile threat to help smooth the process of cooperation and unification. Except the Kett aren’t machines like the Reapers so they have even less excuse for being universally malevolent apart from just being more of the same.

Fighting for home and future

In a theoretical version of the game. Ryder and company would find this recording.

Now, I’ve always said don’t complain about a problem unless you have a solution. Mass Effect: Andromeda, is a flawed story, but it’s by no means a bad one. The ingredients for small scale but high-stakes drama is all there. First off, get rid of the Kett, or at least minimize their presence. Again, make the Angara the native race that has to be worked around, compromised with, or fought against. Or any combination, the Angara are the only Andromeda native sentient race, the Kett being extra-galactic invaders, so who’s to say they wouldn’t have multiple factions or governments that might feel differently about you?

The most important change though would be this. Make the outcome of the Reaper war a mystery. We get occasional messages from the Milky Way that indicate things played out as we saw them in the original trilogy. Particularly the Initiative gets a gift from the Geth, indicating they are active and friendly with organics. What if instead though, we get hazy messages, last testimonials, then nothing but disturbing distortions through static? The player knows what went wrong but the characters don’t. Adding some dramatic irony to proceedings and a growing sense of dread as they begin to piece together what exactly happened after the Arks left the Milky Way. Suddenly, the Reapers are scary all over again and they don’t even appear in the game. Making up for that third game’s ending in some respects.

Then, possibly, what if we receive Liara’s recording from the DLC refusal ending? Indicating to both players and the characters that the Reapers won. The Andromeda Initiative isn’t just the trailblazers and explorers, they’re the last of their kind. Thessia, Sur’Kesh, Palaven, Tuchanka, Earth, all gone. Ryder is effectively fighting to ensure that humanity and company will endure beyond their extinction. Now there are stakes!

This might seem fruitless as the game is already written and sold but I do so to prove that it has its problems but it’s not entirely fair to lambast everything in it. Even a potentially good story that failed to live up to its potential is better than a story that never had potential. And even a bad one is better than a boring one. Mass Effect: Andromeda may be a lot of things, but it’s not boring. Just frustrating, and the reason is because it could have been so much more.

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Professional Paladin, Paragon till death, writer of tales where evil gets its teeth kicked in, I play games where there are wrongs to be righted and bad guys to be fought.
Gamer Since: 1998
Favorite Genre: RPG
Top 3 Favorite Games:Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance , Mass Effect 2, Alan Wake
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robertdmoores's picture

robertdmoores 7 months 4 weeks ago

I always thought Andromeda got a lot more criticism than it deserved, and after reading this I think I finally realize why I like it so much more than the general population. You hit the nail on the head when you speak of high stakes, and how (for most people) they're missing from this game. For me, though, one thing that probably helped me feel the pressure in Andromeda is the fact that after WEEKS of playing the original Mass Effect trilogy, I ended up with the DLC refusal ending. In my experience of the universe, Andromeda WAS the last of everything. I had essentially failed. I mean, I really liked the ending and it fit the narrative for my Shepard, but I had failed. Fast forward to Andromeda, and I hadn't forgotten that. I could still hear Liara explaining to the theoretical future of life in the Milky Way that we - like the Protheans - failed to defeat the Reapers. And while Ryder doesn't know that, and it WOULD be really cool if he got that recording, at least I knew that. Anyway, great article full of great points! You actually made me appreciate Andromeda even more!