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Mass Effect Andromeda isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests

With the news that a new Mass Effect and a Trilogy remaster are on the way, BioWare’s science fiction RPG series has been on my mind a lot. So I did what anyone would do; I returned to what is generally regarded as ‘the worst one’. But you know what? Mass Effect Andromeda isn’t nearly as bad as its online reputation suggests.

When you think about the task that was laid out before Andromeda, one must feel sympathy for the development team behind it. This was after all a generally new team given a towering task: to follow up on a hit trilogy, while leaving behind one of the most beloved aspects of those prior three games: their charismatic cast of characters. That switch away from the known was practically required thanks to the ending of Mass Effect 3, a finale that any sequel would need to be distanced from for both narrative and real-world reasons.

Andromeda has also come to mind in the wake of that god-awful console version of Cyberpunk 2077. Like Cyberpunk, I think there’s a strong game buried in there, though it’s difficult to see that if it barely works. In Andromeda’s case, many mechanical bugs were also compounded by story-destroying uncanny facial expressions and characters that would break their own necks out of nowhere. This became what Andromeda was best-known for, regardless of the quality of the underlying game. The same is now threatening to happen to Cyberpunk. The cycle of a hubris-possessed publisher forcing a highly hyped release out in a broken state is seemingly as doomed to repeat as a Reaper fleet coming to harvest the galaxy.

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But I digress. This isn’t about then - it’s about now. Returning to Andromeda in 2021 is surprisingly fulfilling. It looks and runs great on the latest PC hardware thanks to the powerful Frostbite engine, and in the months after launch, when I first played it, BioWare clearly toiled on fixing many (but by no means all) bugs and laughable animation glitches. As a raw video game, it is more immediately functional.

That allows us to more easily focus on the game itself. It’s now well documented that at one point Andromeda had designs on procedurally generated planets of some sort, but the large, open-ended plants the game ended up with are nevertheless great. Zipping around them in a much more maneuverable vehicle and hopping in and out of more fluid, snappy combat feels great, a step up from the trilogy. There are shades of the also-good Dragon Age Inquisition here, with each zone feeling like unique, mid-sized open world environments with their own stories, side quests, and challenges.

Andromeda is also hands-down the best and most interesting combat in the series. Profiles are far more flexible than in the trilogy, described at the time as being akin to ‘fluid classes’. This fluidity combines with a greater degree of movement around the world to make Andromeda feel like a more active game than the cover-bound Shepard games.

Combat arenas and level design in general is larger, more open-ended, and with far more verticality - all of which makes this Andromeda feel less like Gears of War with some RPG stuff sprinkled on top and more of its own unique thing. Firefights excite, even against the less interesting enemy types. When it all comes together, the result is thrilling.  

Andromeda’s biggest let-down remains its narrative. I actually don’t have a problem with taking Mass Effect to another galaxy; it was a smart way to keep elements of the franchise that the new developers wanted but jettison the most troublesome and restrictive of the original trilogy’s lore, but there’s nevertheless a feeling of throwing the baby out with the bathwater about the whole game. The Andromeda setting and the basic story setup absolutely works - there's something powerful about being strangers in a strange land, away from the relative safety of a galactic community - but too often, the narrative doesn't quite live up to this setting, or its predecessors.

Few of Andromeda's cast are as charming as any of the characters from Shepard’s trilogy, even DLC bit players like Zaeed and Kasumi. The villainous Kett are threatening enough but feel to lack motivation and development. This isn't to say that the Reapers were well developed in the first Mass Effect, mind - but they at least had Saren as a strong cipher character. When one of the most exciting moments of the game is hearing a cameo voice-over appearance from one of the trilogy’s stars, you know something has gone wrong.

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This problem isn’t necessarily one of story. Like I said, the general tale of Andromeda - of spacebound refugees trying to find new homeworlds in an unknown region of space - works just fine. In places the game even has a small thing or two to say about colonialism, and some of the newly established alien worlds and races are excellent. In broad strokes, the drama of this story works well. But the necessary foundation of strong, likeable characters whose relationships can anchor you and draw you through this story isn’t quite there; and certainly, it fails to live up to its direct predecessors. 

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Too often the characters and relationships feel like a pale imitation of the trilogy - even in cases where Andromeda goes out of its way to be different, like by having an old grandpa Krogan and a free-spirited, fun-loving young Asari. These characters end up standing out more because of the deliberate, over-blown contrast with their Normandy crewmember counterparts, and less on their own merit. 

When I think of Andromeda, I still think of the mood set by the game's very first reveal trailer - a mysterious, unknown figure flicking through unknown planets, untouched by civilization. "Ghost Riders in the Sky" plays, an inspired musical choice that tells you all you need to know: compared to the trilogy, this is a Mass Effect set in the wild west. No council, no citadel, no Spectres. Except barely anything in the game truly lives up to that trailer - not the mysterious character (Ryder's father), not the exploration of uncharted worlds... though you could at least make an argument that the quick CG shots of an exciting, fast-moving ground vehicle and more dynamic combat are present in the main game. 

It's because of those elements - the movement, the combat, and the visuals - that Andromeda is still enticing. It's also arguably worth revisiting in 2021, especially when it’s readily available as part of subscriptions like EA Play and Xbox Game Pass. There’s something about the movement and feel of this game that really rings true as an elevated, improved, next-generation version of Mass Effect - even if in other areas it falls short. I dare say when I get around to replaying the Mass Effect Trilogy later this year, I will miss Andromeda's evolutions. The greatest shame is that the combination of terrible launch bugs and a weaker narrative stopped Andromeda from continuing with DLC or a true sequel - as it still feels like a curious and attractive new beginning for the series, a foundation that could’ve led somewhere great. 

I really hope that some of its ideas - and the Andromeda universe - aren’t completely abandoned in the next Mass Effect - which appears to be the case based on the dual-galaxies opening teaser of that game’s announcement trailer.

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