I don’t hate Mass Effect: Andromeda

Yes, I am very late to have a Hot Take on this game. I actually bought the Deluxe Edition for a meager $16 when I finally indulged in my long-awaited next-gen this spring, but was in no hurry to see why so many people had told me that ME:A would make me fall out of love with the Mass Effect series. But one blisteringly hot day this July, I rewatched The Last Jedi and got nostalgic for space drama. I started a new game and named my Ryder Rose.

This much I can agree with: ME:A suffers in comparison to the trilogy in almost every way. You have a brand new set of companions, and many of their interactions are opaque and forced. You’ve got a whole galaxy of loot but only your own gear to upgrade, by way of a needlessly detailed and customizable system. And of course it’s tough to top the big reveal of the true villain in the first Mass Effect, and the increasingly heightened stakes of the next two games.

But ME:A does one thing well that the original game didn’t really offer: discovery. Despite the number of planets and lifeforms in the ME universe, any given region was a small map at most, usually a defined path with a handful of dead ends for loot. Only in the original Mass Effect could you drive your clunker of a space car around a larger area, but the rewards were scant. Conversely, the entire premise of ME:A is exploration, opening up new or lost worlds, homesteading. The planets offer big, detailed maps that you can comb like the regions of Skyrim. You are rewarded for looking closely as you uncover resources to collect or study. You rewarded for looking into the distance by dramatic views and a glimpse of the little hamlets that could be a welcoming settlement or enemy camp. There are paths, but you don’t have to follow them. Like Skyrim, you can scout a location from a high point in the landscape and then go to that location and interact with it.

As it happens, Skyrim is another game I love deeply, and its physical beauty and sense of discovery are the main reasons why. I’ve been an Elder Scrolls fan since Morrowind, but I can’t say much complimentary about the series’ notoriously stilted dialogue, non-sequitur quests, or short-scripted courtships you can have with its unappealing denizens. In comparison with Skyrim, then, ME:A is an improvement. Characters seem a little hastily drawn? At least the members of a species don’t all use the same voice actor. Romance feels rushed? Well, at least it’s more complex than bringing a guy some smithing materials while wearing a blessed necklace. Antagonists uncompelling? I don’t care, I just spent twenty minutes trying to bring down a Remnant Architect and then I launched it into space, and it looked awesome.

So perhaps that’s the reason why I’ve spent so many hours in this galaxy already, coasting along the tops of snow-covered mountains and the banks of acidic pools on my way to solve crimes or mediate property disputes like a cheerful Space Bureaucrat. All I need to reach Peak Elder Scrolls is for all of my stabilized colonies to elect me mayor.

I came to this realization early in gameplay but thought I should keep it to myself until I finished the main quest. Goodness knows when that will happen–I plan to colonize a hostile planet and clear out a few dungeons first–so I post now in honor of the friend I lost last fall, whose birthday is today.

This friend is the only other person I know who did not hate Andromeda. Like me, he was a devotee of the original series to the point that he was considering a replay of the whole trilogy in order to make choices that would allow him to save one character’s life. He named his kitten Tali’Zorah. (I’ve always thought that if I ever got a dog, I’d adopt a shepherd breed and name her Commander.) But he liked ME:A fine and thought I might too. One night last summer when we were making dinner at his house, he suggested I start a new character on his console and see how I liked the game. I did not love it, although I now know that this is partly due to the settings on his controller, which I managed badly. He patiently offered direction while I jump-jetted into canyons and spun the camera around wildly in search of quest markers. The opening sequence is interminable and I don’t think I made it all the way through before I suggested we go back to watching War & Peace instead.

I wish I could share my Skyrim analogy with him. I would have liked to know who he romanced in the game, if anyone, and whether he bothered returning to settled planets or left them to their own devices. It feels sad to think about, but I don’t hate that either. It feels appropriate: there is a pervasive melancholy to ME:A, even when it is hopeful. Everyone in the Andromeda galaxy has left something behind. In particular, the settlers migrated from the Milky Way and traveled in cryo for 600 years; even if they could communicate with their homeworlds, everyone they once knew is dead. It’s staggering to think about, and some of the characters are troubled by the enormous space between the present and the irretrievable past.

Tempted to make a space pun there, but I’ll leave it to your imagination.

Perhaps there will be a follow-up post when I have finished the main quest. Meanwhile, I really appreciated this Kotaku take: Andromeda as a management sim.

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