As I’m writing about Mass Effect: Andromeda, I’m struck with a familiar feeling. It’s similar to how I felt when I talked about Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. See, these are both games that you’re not supposed to enjoy. The party line among self-identifying “gamers” at the moment is that Call of Duty is a garbage series for frat boys and that Andromeda is a disgrace to a legendary sci-fi franchise…I guess.
I can’t say with certainty because I’m not sure I’m on the same wavelength as “gamers” these days. It could be because I find the act of playing a game enjoyable in itself and thus tend to go pretty easy on things I review. I didn’t dislike Infinite Warfare at all, for instance; I thought it was a snappy shooter with interesting set pieces that benefited from its futuristic setting. Likewise, I know that the Correct Opinion on Mass Effect: Andromeda is that it’s a Bad Game with Bad Writing and Bad Animations, a game layered with infinitely recursive flaws like some sort of terrible Mandelbrot Set. I know this because there have been incessant opinion pieces nitpicking the game, going so far as offering suggestions for “how to enjoy Mass Effect: Andromeda.”, to say nothing of the comedy of Metacritic user scores and gaming community posts from users who appear to think that the game is a turd straight out of Satan’s hellish bunghole.
It might honestly be time to accept that I’m not a “gamer” anymore, because I like the Nintendo Switch, I like Call of Duty and, shamefully, I kind of love Mass Effect: Andromeda. Sorry, guys.
If you’re unfamiliar, Andromeda is a new direction for the Mass Effect series. Rather than another game about Commander Shepard, this entry follows the adventures of Scott/Sara/(Your Name Here) Ryder, a human member of the multi-species Andromeda Initiative colonization plan. After 600 years in cold sleep, the Initiative vessels arrive in the Andromeda galaxy ready to seek out and colonize new habitable worlds.
Suffice to say that the job proves to be a little more complex than waking up and finding somewhere to set up a log cabin. Ryder ends up serving as the human colonists’ Pathfinder, a sort of space ranger whose job is to explore new worlds, rendering them safe and viable for colonization through any means necessary. That entails no small amount of blasting hostile aliens, completing missions, platforming around with a jetpack and driving around in a rover. Ryder will also have to manage relationships with the people counting on them, including their own squadmates.
All of that sounds pretty cool, right? Well, if you’re the kind of person who Cares About Video Games enough to read gaming news related to this title, you’ll have already been informed in no uncertain terms that this is not the case. Andromeda’s list of supposed sins are many and varied. Let’s address a few relevant topics and talk about the game in the process:
First, this is an open world game. Like Japanese RPGs back around the turn of the decade, this subgenre is starting to fall out of favor with the gaming press (and thus with people who read the gaming press); I’m sure we’ll eventually start seeing a point or two docked off any given open world game’s review scores just because. Anyway, yeah, the world is open, you’re free to do what you please and you’re certainly not spoiled for choice. Your primary goal in this regard is enhancing the viability of a given planet by completing objectives such as fetching things, killing things or playing Sudoku. It’s pretty much on par with the kind of activities you engaged in during the original trilogy, only here it’s in an open-world setting so now fetching, killing and Sudoku are bad, I suppose. Personally I found driving around in the jumpy rover to be at least as fun as waiting in an elevator for hours per Mass Effect 1, if not more so, thus I found the new approach an improvement.
Second, the writing is allegedly terrible. I have to admit that I’m not really sure what the problem is here; perhaps I’ve been playing, reading and watching the wrong things, but I didn’t find the storytelling on offer here especially offensive. I suppose if you go into every video game expecting Shakespeare then you’re going to be disappointed on the regular, but I find that when I approach a game expecting, at most, Harry Potter or The Hunger Games then usually they’re able to deliver. Andromeda is largely capable of maintaining the same quality of narrative that we’d see in a bestselling young adult novel series, which in turn is about on par with the original trilogy.
There’s drama, intrigue, adventure, all of it generally works. It’s goofy sci-fi schlock, something like Star Trek meets Swiss Family Robinson, and problems are generally solved via gunplay, exploration or simple diplomacy, much as they were in the original games. There aren’t any groan-worthy squadmates either, which is actually an improvement; did anyone really like Kaiden, after all? Don’t answer that. The odd awkward moment here and there, particularly when the game is attempting to tackle trendy contemporary social issues in the safest possible way, can be forgiven. Given that a few years ago I’d happily tell anyone who asked that no video game had ever been made with storytelling more competent than your average Saturday morning cartoon (yes, that includes your favorite indie games and Western RPGs) while Andromeda can manage a high school reading level, this is generally an improvement.
Third, the controls and combat are dull. Can’t say I agree there, either, though the gameplay experience in Andromeda is certainly changed from the original trilogy. The Initiative employed explorers more so than soldiers and this is reflected in Ryder and pals’ approach to battle; they’re lightly armored and much more mobile, able to leap many into the air and rapidly dash between cover. It’s a sharp contrast from Mass Effect 3’s “Space Gears of War” vibe, particularly when you consider that firearms lack the same kind of kick that they had in that game, which is my one and only complaint about how this one plays. Instead, Andromeda’s all about positioning and constant movement to try and get a leg up on your enemies.
While more skills and abilities are available, your active loadout has been trimmed down to three skills at once, pushing you to create synergistic builds and work with allies to get things done. Likewise, special combo effects are available, allowing you to combine your powers with your pals’ to create giant, deadly explosions. Victory is about working as a team, especially when it comes to the game’s wave-based horde mode multiplayer. Said multiplayer is way more fun than it has any right to be, by the way, and practically justified the purchase of the game by itself, even if you consider its microtransaction-pushing nature.
Finally, the graphics and animation are iffy. I haven’t run into any of the more drastic bugs that have been retweeted so often lately, but generally speaking the game looks fine to me. Andromeda goes for what appears to be a more animation-inspired style, which may not be the whole world’s bag, but I’m not so sure the changes merit multiple thinkpieces and interviews about how this is the worst game ever created. At least I don’t think anyone’s complained about the voice acting or sound yet, which makes sense given that they’re both in the same vein as the original trilogy.
Stepping away from the framing device I’ve used here for a minute: Mass Effect: Andromeda is a solid space adventure that’s worthy of the Mass Effect name. It captures the spirit of exploration and adventure that typify the space opera genre. The multiplayer in particular is a fantastic time if you can get a few friends together and the well-made 50+-hour campaign is just kind of a bonus at that point. Roaming around exploring new worlds and finding a home for your people never ceased to be enjoyable as far as I’m concerned. The fact that nobody else seems to think so says a lot about both myself and gaming culture as a whole in 2017, I suppose.
When I’m done flying around and blasting villainous aliens with a sniper rifle that shoots plasma bolts or using telekinesis to fling them off cliffs, maybe I’ll put some thought into that.