Video Games

Mass Effect: Andromeda and the Risk with Taking Risks

Mass Effect: Andromeda is the newest installment in Bioware’s Mass Effect franchise, and has been met with much backlash over its unpolished animation and writing foibles. The game has been polarizing, both with hardcore fans of the series and with new players, which has left the future of the series unclear. The game was controversial for a variety of reasons, but most of the negative reactions seemed to center around the changes made to the narrative and gameplay–risks taken to provide a new experience that appeals to a wider variety of players.

Andromeda was consistently advertised as a step away from the trilogy, in both narrative and in gameplay. Set in the Andromeda Galaxy, 600+ years after the events of Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect: Andromeda picks up with a new cast, a new protagonist, and a whole new set of adventures. Even the gameplay is changed, moving away from a ‘run-and-gun’ style of combat and towards a more exploratory style of navigation. That being said, combat is still a key aspect of Andromeda, though it takes a back seat to traversing across planets in the Nomad, and the player has the option (at times) to talk their way around or out of it.

Where, in the trilogy, players entered the narrative as hero Commander Shepard,–seasoned Alliance marine with a history of being damn good at their job and well respected to boot–Andromeda turns the hero expectation on its head. I addressed this a bit more in depth in my initial reactions post, but the long and short of it is that Ryder is the child of N7, Alec Ryder. They’re a 22 year old, unknown Recon Specialist with a brief Alliance background in Security or Peacekeeping. They are questioned, second guessed, and they have to prove that they’re capable, while building relationships and trying to make friends with the people they meet. This takes perceived level of power away from the player: they’re no longer in charge without being questioned, no longer safe assuming that their help is wanted or needed. Compared to the trilogy, to other Bioware games like Dragon Age, or Knights of the Old Republic; Andromeda takes a step away from the idea that the player is the hero, with all the privileges and respect that entails. Ryder is the bottom rung, untested and an interloper, and the game plays as such. 

The shift away from a protagonist in power to one that is unproven shifts the pace of the narrative as well. Where the trilogy is rapid fire out the gate,–the Geth and Saren are introduced within the first few hours–Andromeda takes its time. The Kett are introduced, though little is known about them beyond that they’re hostile, regardless of potential attempts at diplomacy. The Archon, Andromeda’s main antagonist and leader of the Kett, isn’t formally introduced until much later, though he does make an appearance at the end of the prologue. Compared to the quick insertion of the trilogy, Andromeda drops the player in Ryder’s shoes with just as little information as Ryder has themselves: they’ve just woken up to a world that was supposed to be home but is instead devastated by some alien technology they can’t identify, and the first new species they meet would rather kill them than try to figure out how to communicate. The narrative is a slow exploration–there is no ‘powering through’ on combat skill and reputation. It matches our new protagonist as they stumble through and learn how to be who their people need them to be. 

Where the first Mass Effect games were rapid combat, targeting enemies to clear a path, Andromeda is searching, scanning, and occasionally gunning. It’s time consuming, especially if you want to explore every map available, and can take many hours to do everything. Fast travel is a nice option, but requires setting up ‘Forward Stations’ by exploring planets in the Nomad: Andromeda‘s equivalent of Mass Effect‘s Mako. This slows the gameplay down, as a lot of the game time is spent driving and navigating the terrain to reach mission points. The slowness irked a number of players, including many of whom didn’t progress beyond the four or five hour mark and cited the ‘tedious’ progression as part of their distaste. Andromeda sets up a more gradual progression, backed by the switch from linear, run-and-gun, to open world exploration. Exploration may not be every player’s preference, but neither is run-and-gun. The move away from a focus on combat makes the game more accessible to players who prefer learning more about the in-game world and who are there to get to know the cast more so than in an effort to save the day. It should be noted that this is, ultimately, what it was advertised to be. 

The other major shift occurred within the game’s overall goals. The Mass Effect trilogy was very focused in it’s goal: prevent the Reapers from destroying all life in the Milky Way as we know it. Andromeda’s goal is much broader: survive long enough to find a new home. The how of both is left up to the player, but there were only so many paths to take in the trilogy that lead to the Reaper’s defeat. Andromeda opens up a literal galaxy cluster of opportunities, and allows the player to build relationships and allies as they see fit (or not). There are a few hard and fast goals for achieving survival that are interlaced with the main narrative (ie. establishing an Outpost on Eos, meeting the Angara, fighting the Archon), but much beyond that is up to the player. Three out of the four possible Outpost locations are optional,–if heavily encouraged–as are the terraforming Vaults that are attached to them. Players could skip the tasks that would enable them to settle the conflict on Kadara, that would settle the dispute between the Nexus and the Krogan, or even those that would remove the threat of the Roekarr (a xenophobic Angaran group) from the Helius cluster. Even the Tempest crew loyalty missions are ultimately optional, though each unlocks their final power levels and earns you additional allies. Where the trilogy limited player choice to more major narrative beats, Andromeda fills the game with choice: the choice to build relationships, to settle, to earn the crew’s loyalty; or not. It encourages players to pursue these side quests and development beats beyond the main story missions, as they expand the wider narrative and provide a more holistic experience overall. Additionally, there are consequences if one chooses to bee-line the main narrative alone. Given that the game is about exploration and survival, it encourages the player to gather as many resources and allies as they can find. This comes to a head in the final battle, when allies made over the course of the game drop in to assist the Pathfinder and their team in fighting the Archon on Meridian. The more allies you have, the easier that initial drop becomes and the more likely it is that Captain Dunn survives on the Hyperion. The less allies collected, the harder it is for the player to make the final run on their own. 

These narrative and gameplay changes shape the overall experience of Mass Effect: Andromeda as they shift the lens from the hero-centric, run-and-gun, linear RPG to a more personal, open world, exploration experience. This certainly comes with its pros and cons. The pacing is slower, more at the whim of the player, but allows for a deeper dive into the game’s nuances. It means a lot more time spent on the ground, digging through outposts and scanning through gear, rather than fighting enemies and running through combat zones. It also means that more time is spent talking and building relationships than in any of the games before.

Bioware took a risk and developed an RPG that is more about emotional work than it is about fighting the bad guy. Sure, the bad guy needs defeating in the end, but the narrative centers around a young human coming into their own, figuring out what they want their future–and the future of the Milky Way species–to look like in the Andromeda galaxy. It’s a game about building relationships, practicing diplomacy, and earning and keeping trust, rather than constantly fighting in an effort to save the day. It’s a game about empathy and survival, amidst a myriad of games that focus more on combat and win conditions. This means more dialogue, the ability to sometimes avoid combat, and less time spent behind a weapon. It’s a different story with a different player experience, and it’s refreshing when many other RPGs follow a similar, combat-centric style.

I believe this is why many reviews disparaged the game–the shift from a player in a position of power, focused on combat and winning to a player earning respect, focused on building relationships and using diplomacy over gunfire. Other games have offered occasional glimpses of this, even within the trilogy, but Andromeda embraces the shift wholehearted in a way that disappointed those who expected it to be similar to the previous games. Where the trilogy played in what we’ve socially stereotyped as a ‘masculine’ play style (direct, often involves a degree of power fantasy, combat centric), Andromeda offers a play style that would be stereotyped as ‘feminine’ (emotion-centric, diplomatic, where emotional work has to be done to make it through). Given that much of the game industry still predominantly targets a cis-male audience, Andromeda is outside of the norm, offering an experience that doesn’t follow the usual trend. It was a risk, and it was nice as a non-male person to play a AAA game that felt like it was built for my interests.

As much as I applaud their risk taking, there are some aspects of Andromeda that continue to need work. The animation continues to be a complaint, though it is less abrasive than many reviews made it out to be. Given the scope and sheer volume of animated dialogue in-game, it’s not surprising that it doesn’t hold up compared to something like The Witcher III. However, unlike Witcher III, Andromeda had a smaller development team and fewer resources to prioritize animation over the other aspects of the game. As the first Mass Effect game on Frostbite, Andromeda moved the series from a linear world, to an open one, and the development focus became on world building and developing assets. Additionally, combat and multiplayer received heavy adjustments and were updated to be more streamlined and user friendly. With so many new, major changes to the franchise, it’s unsurprising that some things–like the animation–slipped through the cracks. Extra Frames breaks down some of the how and why of it in a video they did on Andromeda’s animation, but also highlights that, though obviously in need of improvement, it is still passable enough to enjoy the game.

The writing has also seen its fair share of complaints, from being called ‘asinine’ to flat. Many of the supporting characters feel two dimensional, the dialogue stilted and rarely progressing beyond standard small talk. Andromeda fell prey to the struggle many open world games face–the leaning towards breadth over depth. With so many new places and things to explore, it’s easy to get sidetracked, and the writing seems to get sidetracked with it. There were many great opportunities for the narrative to delve a little deeper. Some of these are things like what is it to question what law might look like in a new galaxy, or how we manage coexistence with another sentient species, but these moments fell flat, either quickly resolved or done with little emotion or fanfare. A narrower scope may have benefited the game, focusing more closely on the the Star Trek-esque themes around first contact and the philosophy of exploring unknown stretches of space. This, however, is somewhat balanced by the range and depth of characters that make up Ryder’s team. They are well developed, multi-faceted, and encourage empathy from the player with their unique perspectives. They feel true, especially when they don’t get along with each other, and it compels the player to discover how they grow as individuals across the course of the game. The breadth vs depth struggle is one that many games face as in-game worlds grow in size, and something has to give in the development cycle. Unfortunately, the breadth didn’t feel like it payed off in Andromeda, and left us craving more depth beyond the immediate confines of the Tempest crew and the main narrative.

Ultimately, Mass Effect: Andromeda is not without it’s flaws, but was criticized more than it was due. The animation and writing could use improvement, but they achieved their advertised goal of an exploratory experience, given the shift away from a linear, run-and-gun narrative. They took some risks, and, overall, they payed off. The game was enjoyable to play, had some poignant narrative beats, and the cast made the journey fun. Ryder’s growth is compelling as they navigate through the challenges Andromeda offers, and it’s worthwhile to see your work pay off in the final confrontation against the Archon. Risks and change aren’t inherently bad, and Bioware continues to learn and improve from Mass Effect: Andromeda. I, personally, would love to see more games like this, that suit the play style of those who aren’t always in it for the combat and hero fantasies, but play to get to know characters, develop relationships, make friends and to grow. Andromeda is the first step in broadening player experience, showing that AAA games can be about more than being the hero, and I think that’s something that should be celebrated. Instead of shunning and criticizing games that take risks, I believe we should celebrate and learn from their flaws to move forward, and make gaming more inclusive for a wider variety of players.

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