I feel like a little preface is needed here before I get into the juicy meat of what readers will know from the outset to be a very negative blog post. I want to say first and foremost that it saddens me that I have to write an article like this; the fanboy inside of me feels a touch of guilt at criticizing a game developer that has brought me such joy down the years. In fact, Bioware has been my go-to developer for games since I was about 12, and has served as a guarantee of excellent storytelling and engaging dialogue. Those nearest and dearest to me know that my favorite all time video game is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I have also enjoyed Jade Empire, SWTOR (even though I dislike MMO’s as a general rule) and of course, the Mass Effect trilogy. I got Mass Effect for Christmas 2007 after following its development online for about a year before it came out (so I guess I can claim to like it before it was cool?). I enjoyed all three games, and even though the ending of Mass Effect 3 was underwhelming, it didn’t ruin the experience for me. I’m also a Mako apologist. So I was shocked at how much I disliked the latest edition of the franchise. I figured it would at least be fun, if not transcendental. But the game was often painful for me to play, and I eventually found I could only tolerate the game in little increments, playing for about half an hour before retreating to my couch to read some Gabriel Garcia Marquez and remind myself what an engrossing narrative felt like. Which couldn’t be a starker contrast to my experience of the original trilogy. I remember when I got the Mass Effect 2 collector’s edition- it was a rainy day in 2010, and college was broken up for Easter break. I had overslept and missed the mailman, but once I saw his note to collect it before the post office shut at lunchtime, I grabbed this relic of the 1970s- a vintage raincoat I had bought on eBay- and ran outside without so much as a glass of water to wake myself up. I played that game all day without break. Anyway, the purpose of this far-too-long introduction is to convince you that I am not just some cynical hater. I also want to completely disassociate myself from those shit-lickers of the internet that blame the game’s failure on a feminist conspiracy to make the female characters ugly, and take it upon themselves to harass Bioware employees on Twitter with sexist abuse. Firstly- all the characters in this game are ugly, and none of them deliberately so- and secondly, as iconic as bending one’s crewmates over a Dejarik table and going at them with all the grace of a randy street dog in heat is to the series, it hardly constitutes the crux of the experience. This is really just the routine foaming-at-the-mouth of the kind of Alt-Right nerds that, if they ever left their sun-starved grottos and interacted with a real woman, would just as likely spontaneously combust as they would be able to formulate a coherent sentence. Right? Okay. Let’s get started.
#1 Bland Characters
I can’t remember being so disinterested in getting to know my NPC’s as in Mass Effect: Andromeda. In previous Bioware installments- be it Dragon Age Origins or SWTOR– I remember being excited at the prospect of chewing the fat with my party members at the end of each mission. Every squad member seemed original, unique and nuanced. In Mass Effect 2 and 3 I loved the loyalty missions for Miranda, who had this intriguing backstory with a well-crafted inner conflict (dealing with her nature as a person that was genetically designed to be perfect, and yet being as flawed, vulnerable and human as anyone else) and outer conflict (her crazy, megalomaniac father). And the ability to romance her was intertwined with this narrative in a very organic way, as opposed to the romancing of Cora in Andromeda, where the characters will say something sexually suggestive out of nowhere, in a sad and sinister reflection of how most RPG nerds assume courting works. The bad dialogue in this game is perhaps its own point, but is reflective of the bad characterization. Every time Drack or Peebee opened their mouths I groaned. Peebee in particular I found to be mind-numbingly irksome, and every time I passed by the escape pods and a voice would call out demanding that we talk, I kept right on walking. Maybe that invalidates my opinion on her character if I never pursued her loyalty mission, but I think it’s a point against the game if the motivation isn’t even there for me to get to know her. As for Drack, I found that everything he said just devolved to this generic grizzled old-timer cliché. He didn’t advance the Krogan species beyond the stereotype of being plainspoken and addicted to acts of unspeakable violence. The series’ inability to qualify this in any way is a waste of potential, and Drack by extension felt boring. He seems like a hollow shell compared to Grunt- the Krogan warrior from Mass Effect 2. Grunt had an interesting and poignant life story- grown in a test tube by a mad scientist, whom he feels a complex father-son relationship with, and subsequently shunned as an “abomination” by his people- and so it felt like his rage was all his own, it felt real, rather than just the typical Krogan “badass” whose rage comes included with his shotgun.
#2 Technical Issues
This game was glitchy as hell at launch. I know they have released a patch since then that has smoothed out some of these bugs, but it is still flummoxing how a game 5 years or so in the making can be cleared for release with so many problems. Mass Effect Andromeda is by no means unique in this regard, and it is representative of a wider problem in AAA gaming of big titles being released fraught with issues. But Andromeda really does test one’s patience for these hiccups. The bugs were far too regular throughout the game; it seemed like every firefight I was in something would happen. Most common to my experience was having enemies float fifty feet in the air and remain there whilst we gunned them down. I also saw enemies glitch into walls and solid objects, leading me to be curious as to why the combat music was still going on whilst there were no enemies in sight. They would remain there protected from our attacks and presumably suffocating. The most aggravating of these issues (and I am referring here only to ones that would regularly occur; these are by no means anomalies) was the tendency of button prompts to vanish into thin air. More than once I could see the game would be directing me toward a computer terminal or an elevator switch, but there would be no means of accessing it. In order to progress through the game I had to reload my save, do the necessary gunfights again, and sure enough the means to interact with these objects would appear as if they had been there all along. Not cool.
#3 The Fucking Scanning
Seriously, fuck this. I hated it in Mass Effect 2 and I hate it even more now. Not only have Bioware imported perhaps the worst aspect of the original trilogy, they have actually one-upped themselves by making it even more annoying with the addition of completely arbitrary space flight cinematics. This is the kind of nauseating vexation I expect from Hello Games, not the creator of role-playing nirvana (KOTOR). There is no sense of exploration and adventure to be had here, only an opportunity for players to put down their controllers during the loading screens and check up on their more worthwhile exploits, namely Tinder and Clash of Clans. That was my experience anyway- a total break in immersion. It was like the game was asking me to stop playing it.
#4 The One-Dimensional Enemies
Although I applaud Bioware’s attempts to change the combat from cover-based monotony to something more tactical- particularly with the addition of the vertically brought about by the jetpack- they have fallen short in providing any memorable encounters in a setup that could have offered a plethora of possibilities. I’m gonna have to refer to Horizon: Zero Dawn here for an example of how to do in-game enemy design right. Each encounter in that game gave a sense immersive, swashbuckling excitement to it. Each enemy had a different set of behavior and required a different set of tactics. The range of weapons on hand and techniques available to take down these enemies was excellent. The encounters themselves were varied- one could find herds of giant robots grazing on a dusty mesa and go about taking them down with the feeling of a trained huntress, one could infiltrate a compound of bandits and take them out with the stealth and skill of the assassins of games such as Dishonored and Assassin’s Creed, one could stalk a massive animatronic stegosaurus through a dense jungle and feel the satisfaction of taking it down, or one could ambush a convoy of armored bots passing through a narrow canyon in the night and steal their cargo. All of these were challenging and above all rewarding. I remember being excited in Mass Effect: Andromeda seeing an enormous sperm-shaped robot in the distance flying above a crystal lake, only to find that taking it down was less a test of our wits and more of our endurance. The Remnant Architects are nothing more than bullet-sponges that you have to wear down in tiny increments in between dashing behind futuristic grain elevators. The enemies felt dated and uninteresting. Encounters such as those Kett lieutenants with the circling orb things were annoying not because they were especially challenging and nuanced (See Bloodborne etc.), but because there was no sense of chandelier-swinging heroism in simply wearing down that stupid bot and hoping I had timed the reloading of my ammo so as to get enough shots in before the bastard raised his shields again. Like I said, the encounters felt dated and simplistic.
Something that I think is absolutely iconic to the identity of the Mass Effect franchise is decision making. It’s what made the original trilogy so immersive. You could really feel the weight of every decision on your conscience; I was an emotional wreck leaving Kaidan Alenko (voiced by the inimitable Raphael Sbarge aka Carth Onasi) behind to die on Virmire. It seemed like every mission- even side quests- would present us with a complex and interesting choice that would occupy our minds long after we finished playing. There are simply too many to list. However Andromeda offered none of this. The only decision I can even remember making was that bit on the Kett starship where you have to choose between saving the Krogan prisoners or the Salarian swat team. After realizing I didn’t honestly care, I chose to save the Salarians. And the payoff I got was a grateful pat on the bum from the Salarian Pathfinder and my Krogan teammate Drack getting passive aggressive and snarky with me for about 15 minutes. This obviously pales in comparison to the confrontation with Wrex in Mass Effect and the whole Genophage situation in Mass Effect 3. He just seemed mildly irritated with me, like I had gone and eaten the pasta salad he’d made for work the next day. There was no decision in this game even remotely heart-wrenching.
#6 Game Design
This is perhaps the most famous criticism of the game, that the facial animations are, shall we say, substandard. In an age where we are gifted works of art like The Witcher 3 and Horizon: Zero Dawn, interacting with the NPC’s of the Andromeda galaxy feels like we have gone back in time 10 years. A decade has passed since the original Mass Effect came out and I’m not sure the faces have gotten even a little bit better. But these criticisms have been so well documented by now that it feels like beating off a dead horse (or however that phrase goes). Anyway, there are other aspects of the game design, both technical and aesthetic, that I take issue with. Firstly, what the hell is up with those doors? The doors in this game take way too long to open. It’s laughable. The doors in Kadara Port and on the god-awful Tempest stand out the most to me, and I have observed other players complain about them as well. Overall, I just was not awed or enchanted by the level design or the character design. This was meant to be a new, exotic galaxy. One would hope to be sufficiently wowed by what they see. I remember watching Angry Joe’s review of the game, and something he said stuck out in particular to me. It was something along the lines of “why aren’t we fighting crystal-based lifeforms and cyborgs with the lower bodies of spiders?”. I realized then that other people were having the same reaction to the Andromeda galaxy as I was having. I couldn’t help but be bored with the alien species we met- of which there are only two I may add. The sense of wonder is completely broken by the Angara, who look like Twi-leks, walk like they have rickets, and talk with these ridiculous working-class British accents. Then there are the Kett, who I personally found to be both very dull and clichéd in both their appearance and their culture. The non-sentient beasts in this game are even worse, and look like they would be better suited to a light-hearted fantasy MMORPG. I don’t know if this bothered anyone else, but I got especially exasperated at seeing the same fauna on different planets with different ecosystems. The animals themselves didn’t seem to reflect their environment, or what may make their particular planet unique. For instance, on the ice planet, which your party members will remind you how cold it is every 10 seconds, there are these colorful lizards playing in the snow- something which to me seemed completely at odds with their habitat.
#7 Fetch Quests
This is an issue I have been wrestling with for a while now- and not just in relation to Mass Effect: Andromeda. I took issue with it in Fallout 4, when every adventure boiled down to bloody Preston Garvey telling me (the supposed General) to go to the next burnt-out burger joint and horrifically murder the poor bastards squatting there so we can survive the apocalypse there instead. Andromeda echoes this trend of open world games turning into single player MMO’s. Are developers running out of ideas? Or are they just lazy- producing what we might call “game filler” to insist there will be over 200 hours of adventure ahead, and therefore plenty of justification for the 60 dollar price tag? Well, for an example on how to do rewarding side quests that give players content with some actual emotional resonance and gameplay variety- see The Witcher 3. Once I realized I was getting a paltry return for my time invested in the game’s side quests, I stopped giving a damn and ploughed through the main story. The mission log in Andromeda felt like a to-do list of inane chores. The quest that sticks out to me as the best example of this is in fact one of the first the game gives you. When you are on the Nexus, you are tasked with solving the galaxy’s first murder. However all this boils down to is talking to some guy in a holding cell, going to the nearest desert planet and scanning some evidence on the ground. It was like the game was afraid of trying to produce something really creative. This is in stark contrast to the legendary side quests of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which had faith that gamers could be entertained without shooting waves of Furbies or looting chests full of ankle bracelets. For instance, in that game, on the planet Dantooine, one is treated to a mission to solve a complex murder by interrogating several suspects and cross-examining their stories. Later in the game, there is another awesome side quest where you have to solve a well-written murder involving political intrigue and a clandestine romance on the water world of Manaan. Seriously, walking around the crime scene, interrogating the employees at the futuristic motel, and getting genuinely creeped out that forces beyond my power to see were about to stove in my head with a two-by-four made me feel like Karl Malden circa The Streets of San Francisco.
This kind of relates to point #5 a little bit. At first I was optimistic about Bioware’s removal of the Paragon-Renegade system. I recognized that players of the previous games would decide beforehand that they would embark on a “Renegade playthrough”, and that in essence, all the choices would be made for them right then and there during character creation, as they would spend the rest of the game being as much of a bell-end as possible in order to get the best bonuses. I was ready to welcome in a dialogue system more akin to Tell-Tale’s The Walking Dead, which would place players in the heat of the moment and give them more morally-complex decisions to make. How naïve I was! As we have already covered, there are little to no meaningful choices in the game. The dialogue system as a whole feels messy and actually kind of unnecessary. There is little variation in response or consequence depending on what you say, and there is little if any variety in interesting conversational options to choose from. It reminded me of Fallout 4 insofar as the conversations felt bland, with our protagonist unable to say anything truly malevolent or shocking. The most we were offered with Ryder was to make some painful attempt at lightening the mood. I have observed other gamers quite rightly taking issue with the contrived humor of the protagonist and his mates, who waste no time in completely detracting from any sense of a tense and thrilling atmosphere by spouting off asinine, non sequitur remarks and quips. Nothing that anyone says in the game seems to reflect what might be called believable human behavior, not in the way they romance each other or criticize each other. Also SAM. SAM needs to shut the hell up. I almost felt like the developers were trolling me as Ryder’s AI companion would narrate the rise and fall in the environment’s temperature every ten yards (no exaggeration) on that blasted ice planet.
We’ve gone all the way to Andromeda…but it feels like we haven’t moved an inch. The game has the feel of being written by someone who has maybe played a Mass Effect game before and has subsequently found him or herself in the role of head writer, but would perhaps be better suited to something else, like sound editing…or possibly meatpacking. The possibilities for this game were endless. We could have been a space gangster, a scientist, a missionary for a bizarre futuristic religion, or perhaps a Drell assassin. Why can’t we be a Drell? Why are there no Drell in the game for that matter? We could have been a different species, following the suit of the character design of games like The Elder Scrolls or SWTOR. We could have been a part of a different strata of the galactic society, instead of a paramilitary super soldier again. It seems like the writers were given a template of how a Mass Effect game should be; the Asari biotic, the no-nonsense Krogan, the quirky pilot, the spunky female in her skin-tight jumpsuit. Then there’s the Ebon Hawk- I mean…Normandy- clone, the Tempest, which looks awful by the way. All this game did was remind me of what the previous games did better, the only saving grace of its utterly contrived, inorganic and poorly-edited scenes being that it prompted me to go on Youtube and revisit some of the classic moments of the original trilogy.
#10 The Sequel Tease
The original Mass Effect was a well-paced, expertly crafted story that was tight and self-contained. It left room for a sequel, but it also had its own beginning, middle and end. It worked because it pulled out all the stops and tried to tell the best story it could, without assuming it would be a hit and spawn more sequels, comics, novelizations etc. down the line. Whereas this game, based solely on its aesthetic continuity of the old series, assumes we will be invested in a sequel. The story feels incomplete, existing merely as just a sequence of events, none of them adding up to a greater arc. I won’t spoil too much, but anyone that has played the game can see that there is very clearly a sequel in mind, and that brings me to the whole point of this article- I’m not sure it deserves one. Right now, as I’m typing in the bar code of my copy of the game into MusicMagpie to try and get some cash back for it, I can’t help but think that Bioware should draw a line under it. It might be harsh to say, and those of you who bothered to read my little introductory paragraph will remember that I don’t say it lightly, but I think the game should exist as the equivalent of the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special– a failed experiment.