It's October 26th, so you know what that means: after years of waiting, I am finally playing Rrrrrreeeee- Mass Effect Andromeda. Yeah, Origin is currently giving away a free 7-day trial of Origin Access on PC, and Andromeda is in the Vault, so I'm giving it a go. And I don't like it.
I'm determined to give this game the benefit of the doubt and approach it like I live in another timeline where it wasn't a huge public disaster. A hundred years ago I used to be a die hard Mass Effect fan, and there's nothing in the world I'd love more than a good new entry in the series, so I'm trying here. The game I'm playing today has had all the patches and post-launch attention it's ever going to get, so character faces only look awful rather than hilarious, and the game's only hard-crashed on me three times in the first ten-ish hours; not exactly great, but nothing to bear a grudge over. But, uuuuugh, it's just so... bad. It's boring. I'm in a new galaxy in a cool spaceship full of gross aliens who want to bone me and I just don't feel any of the Mass Effect magic at all. I just see a Galaxy Map full of busywork tasks to tick off a giant checklist and percentage bars that need filling up.
Worse, I've just reached Havarl, which means I'm hot off the worst 'first contact' scene ever written in all science fiction. We arrive at the planet Aya after having just flown through a dumb cloud of evil space smoke, and are escorted to a settlement by some local ships like in Empire Strikes Back. We land, and I walk down the gangway to humanity's first meeting with an entirely new race of alien creatures... who immediately speak to me in perfect English. This is not acknowledged or explained in any way. With all the pomp and circumstance of a low-key job interview I'm escorted down a couple of corridors by some seemingly low-level authority figure, and then immediately palmed off onto a fellow whose obvious higher-fidelity character model betrays the fact that he will be my next squad mate, who then leads me to another guy who almost instantaneously launches into generic RPG quest-giver speech patterns. "Oh, we can help you accomplish your goal, but first you complete a series of tasks for us". Then, on the way back out, I talk to the first NPC in the area with a talk prompt and am greeted as 'Pathfinder' and spoken to like I'm any old schmuck on the street.
THIS IS HUMANITY'S FIRST MEETING WITH A NEW ALIEN RACE! Can you even imagine what that would look like if aliens came to Earth one day? The mind-boggling level of hand-wringing on a global scale as the entire might of our planet's media, scientific powers, military forces and internet meme creators laser-focus onto the most remarkable event in human history? How would we speak to them, how could we exist alongside them, how could we learn to know a fundamentally different form of life? Where would the representative of this new race be taken? What sights would they see? Where would the ship land? The very idea that beings from an entirely different galaxy could walk on a planet of our gravity level, and comfortably breath the mix of chemicals we call air is a cosmic coincidence that would incite generations worth of debate.
Mass Effect Andromeda doesn't concern itself with any of these questions. It doesn't do anything. You just land on a planet and an NPC leads you to a quest giver; another day in the life of Video Game Character on a quest to fill percentage bars. This game's only gameplay style is shooting, and you can't shoot your way through a language barrier, so oh well the aliens just speak English straight away and you'll get a throwaway line about 'translators' to half-heartedly explain it. Where are you going to land? In the docking bay, of course; as we all know, an entire alien planet only has one settlement with no houses where all four dozen inhabitants stand around all day and night saying single phrases. Shouldn't you be taken to meet the President in the planet's highest-security fortress or something? Eh, no, this random guy in this random room over here will be fine. Are you going to... I don't know, ask them about their culture? Their history? Leave some humans behind as ambassadors? Do literally anything? No, you're just going to leave immediately on the next step of your main quest, because there are guys out there to shoot and percentages to raise.
Just... what an absolute waste. What an absolute waste of the Mass Effect name, of Andromeda's premise and its promise of a fresh start. I was disappointed that my main job in the early hours of the game was not finding a new planet but simply fixing a settlement on a planet that had already been found and half-colonised, but this? I hate it. I'm going to keep playing for now, because I at least want to see some of the squad mates' Loyalty Missions, but I'm not happy with any of this.
Some more assorted thoughts:
- Tone-wise, the writing team seems to have aimed for 'the snarky character in the sitcom' at pretty much all times, for almost all characters. Eventually you start hearing their individual voices, but only underneath all the sarcasm and "Isn't this situation we're in right now so craaaazy?" self-referential stuff. Dialogue choices seem to be mainly "Yes" or "Yes, but obnoxiously", except for the obvious romance speech options that are now straight up marked as such with a giant heart symbol so you couldn't possibly miss them. Honestly there's about as much thrill to it as just picking your choice of alien sex cutscene from a menu.
- Every alien non-squad-mate character within a certain species has the same face. Every single one! Every male Turian in this game has the same face in different colours. Every Asari, every Salarian, same face. I recognised my ship's Asari doctor as having Natalie Dormer's voice, and I thought her face looked pretty good, but then I realised that every other Asari in the game looked identical. I was chasing up a Turian accused of murder on the Nexus, so I went to see the his jailer, who showed me to the guy's cell, and they were both the same person. There's this scene with the fellow I now know to be the Kett Archon, where he tries to open a Remnant door while his four bodyguard soldiers shuffle around in the background 100% IDENTICAL TO EACHOTHER. What are we even doing here? What is this? Isn't this Mass Effect?
- There's been no attempt to write natural-sounding conversations; everyone wants to spill their deepest, darkest secrets to you immediately because you're the player character. I spoke to my Scottish navigator Suvi, who immediately told me her life story and mentioned that she believed in a higher power. My two response options? "I do too" and "ACK-CHOO-ALLY, there's no proof of God". Terrible.
- The storytelling has just been shockingly poor so far. Your introduction to Andromeda, with this rubbish mission on some lame planet where Clancy Brown is briefly your father and then dies pointlessly before apparently declaring you the Pathfinder off-screen, is so truncated and... just bad, to be honest, that I don't feel like I have a good grasp of anything here. People just start talking about 'Remnant', like I'm supposed to know exactly what it is. Oh, sure. Remnant. You want to, maybe, introduce them? Set up some kind of story about them? No? I should just platform across their floating columns and shoot their robots for the rest of the game? Oh. Good. Just what I like.
- I like the zoom-y boom-y jumpjet stuff in combat, but I'm already getting a little sick of the same dance of putting crosshairs on faces and pulling the trigger until the health bar empties. These enemies are not very interesting to fight, and my character is fragile and my weapons weak enough that I can't really risk blasting around out of cover at the moment. Apparently you don't get to control your squad mates' powers any more, so that's another option off the table. Also I wish developers wouldn't do automatic cover systems. They're always this ineffective half-step between a full-on sticky cover system where you press a button to slam into a wall, and the traditional 'just stand behind things' tactic of older games.
- The Tempest is a beautiful spaceship, and the CG cutscenes you see every now and then are gorgeous. Those moments are the closest this game has come to igniting that Mass Effect flame inside me.
- I hate that the game doesn't let you manually save during a Priority Mission. Why? It's so weird, and because I'm playing this on PC rather than my beautiful console with my beautiful Suspend/Resume feature, every time I have to step away from the game I just have to hope I don't lose too much progress when I come back. Why would you do this Bioware?