Sometimes games can’t beat the pressure of their own ancestry. If any game series risks being downgraded due to its own success, it’s Mass Effect. Many of us found the ME trilogy to be one of the most powerful story experiences of the previous console generation. ME2 ranks as one of my favorite stories of all time, across all categories (book/game/film/TV). I wrote about power of the Mass Effect storyline here several years ago. Despite the controversy about the series’ ending, the writers showed us just how high excellent game storytelling could rise.
So it’s not an understatement to say I was bubbling with excitement this spring to get my hands on Mass Effect: Andromeda, the newest game from the BioWare team.
… and discovered that this newest installment has no soul.
I can’t escape the tinge of disappointment that I feel whenever I’m playing the game. The basic arc is all there, the loyalty missions, the questing structure, decent sci-fi shooter combat. The game’s shine is dulled a bit from the effect of Mass Effect hitting in 2007; games overall are so much better now and audience expectations march ever higher.
But what I genuinely miss is the story having a soul.
Briefly (only mild spoilers here), you play one of the two Ryder twins who are traveling with the Milky Way pilgrims to the Andromeda galaxy. An unknown large corporation (The Initiative) sponsored 100,000 colonists to move to the neighboring galaxy and set up shop. If you know the ME series, this game takes place around the same time as the start of ME2, so you know that all Milky Way life is being threatened by the reapers, though most folks there don’t realize that yet.
The themes in Andromeda are a lot of what you’d expect: meet new alien races, fight the ones who try to kill you, explore brave new worlds, do side quests that range from annoying to genuinely interesting, and try to get these new colonies off the ground before everyone dies in the cold darkness of space.
Honestly, if the only expectations Andromeda had to live up to were last year’s No Man’s Sky debacle, I’d say it was winning. This is what we all wanted No Man’s Sky to be, in many ways: fly around on a kick-ass ship to brightly colored planets with difficult environments and poke around till we find something cool. Build bases. Stare at a sky full of stars – because Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s star maps are breathtaking. It’s always been one of the best features of the ME games.
But therein lies the problem. As consumers, we demand that each new iteration be an improvement. Is it ok that Andromeda feels like the writers sketched out the bones of ME2 and swapped in new names and new inciting incidents?
Why does this game leave me feeling so cold inside? Why do I pick up my controller (driven by a “need” to finish, because it’s a BioWare game and I want to know what happens) yet feel bored by pretty much everything that’s happening here?
I’m still working through my first play through, so I can’t speak to the ending of the story. It’s possible ME:A will wow me by the end by offering up what I’ve come to expect from these guys: really interesting deep writing with thorny ethical dilemmas and characters I love like members of my own family.
But I’m 50+ hours in, and my love for the crew is tepid. I like Sara Ryder (I’m playing her rather than Scott, her brother), but she’s such a goody-two-shoes at times. Without the paragon structure in the dialogue choices, I often feel as if my only options are between “nice” self-righteousness and the asshole version. Ryder is quite young, so maybe that’s part of BioWare’s goal with this character – to evolve her own understanding of the difficulty of command as the game progresses. But I’m not seeing it really, and it all leaves me a bit cold inside.
AAA+ game titles are too big to fail, so they die from the inside out. If you’re too afraid to gamble your story by pushing it forward and challenging the player, you kill it by a thousand little cuts. It’s not that the ME:A writing is bad; it’s fine. Well, dialogue is laughably stiff much of the time, but that may have more to do with the game’s engine and pacing than the actual writing. Extra Credits did an excellent piece on why the animation has been so stiff in ME:A and the challenges that come with trying to create realistic game conversations:
But animation issues aren’t at the heart of what’s wrong with Mass Effect: Andromeda. It’s that the story seems to have little driving it forward emotionally, while the gameplay itself isn’t innovative enough to offset this weakness in the writing.
I’ve heard that BioWare is stepping away from the ME franchise after this – gutting the Montreal studio that made it and focusing on other IPs instead. I’m sorry to hear that; the ME universe is so rich and well-developed thanks to the trilogy. But they didn’t gamble big enough on story, while gambling too much on the switch to the Frostbite engine and all the animation issues that caused.
A good example of RPG game-writing with heart: The Witcher 3 blew my mind and set the bar pretty damn high for all future RPG writing. I’m thrilled to hear that Netflix is going to produce a Witcher TV Series. I’m so excited!
I wrote about my experience playing Witcher 3 a few months ago … it’s #1 in my list of “best games I’ve ever played,” barely edging out Journey and Mass Effect 2 for that title.
I played a parenting sim disguised as the best video game I’ve ever played