There’s something to be said for striving to correct past mistakes, but being able to do so requires you to actually know what you did wrong in the first place.
If there’s one thing “Mass Effect: Andromeda” makes absolutely clear, it’s that developer Bioware had no idea what mistakes it made (or what it did right) with the “Mass Effect” trilogy. The result is that “Andromeda” is an incoherent hodgepodge of old ideas executed in a new way. The idea seems to have been that the problem in previous “Mass Effect” games was that those aspects fans complained about simply weren’t quite right the first time — and so they used this reboot of sorts to improve all that stuff.
This is an intriguing premise if you don’t know what it was Bioware was going to try again in “Andromeda.” The old “Mass Effect” trilogy was the sort of creative endeavor that was this close to achieving real greatness — this close to being the kind of game we could point as the pioneer in interactive entertainment that finally granted the medium some kind of artistic legitimacy. “Mass Effect 3” was about as close as any game has ever gotten to accomplishing that, but its flaws were so glaring that it was hard to look past them.
But 2017 brought another chance at greatness. Bioware left behind the Reaper War in the Milky Way, which inevitably had such a profound impact on the galaxy depending on what choice you made at the end that there was no real way to pick up where “Mass Effect 3” left off. So “Andromeda,” as the title suggests, avoids the Milky Way all together and takes you on an expedition to the Andromeda galaxy.
That expedition is known as the Andromeda Initiative, and it’s full of all the aliens you know and love from previous games. The Initiative’s target is a star cluster called Heleus at the galactic fringe. Your job, first as a member of the human Pathfinder team and then as the boss Pathfinder, is to lead the way in colonizing a handful of so-called “golden worlds.”
But nothing goes as planned. The human “ark” shows up in Andromeda and can’t contact the other four big ships. Plus there’s this weird astronomical phenomenon called the Scourge — it’s basically a space coral reef made of dark energy — making it hard to get around and ruining the planets you were hoping to colonize. The first expedition goes wrong because your target world is all messed up and is full of weird hostile aliens, and the original human Pathfinder — the player character’s dad — ends up dead. Suddenly you’re the Pathfinder even though you aren’t really qualified for the job. What follows is a handful of hours of real plot and dozens of hours of Stuff To Do.
And therein lies the heart of Bioware’s complete and utter failure with “Mass Effect: Andromeda.”
There is one thing, and only one thing, that Bioware is known for, as an institution in the video games industry: storytelling. We know Bioware because they made “Star Was: Knights of the Old Republic,” a game released during the prequel era and had a much better understanding of “Star Wars” than those movies did. We know Bioware for its promise of interactive art — TV shows where you get to develop the main character as he or she navigates the plot. The appeal of Bioware isn’t “stuff do to.” Many other game studios have that territory handled.
No, the appeal of Bioware is the opportunity to participate in a story — one that’s well told and is the quality of movies we love. That’s it. But as simple as that idea is, it’s one that the powers-that-be at Bioware itself, or its parent company EA, apparently don’t get.
The main story in “Mass Effect: Andromeda, as sparse as it is, seems to exist for no better reason than to carry you to all the different planets so you can pick up optional stuff to do. Most of the Stuff To Do in “Andromeda” is just a “side quest,” there just in case you’d rather do that than play the main story. There, essentially, just because.
You’ll go to a planet because the story tells you to, and as you go about your mandated business you pick up dozens of other random tasks. Some colonist wants you to find some missing drones. Some other colonist was accused of murder but his wife says he didn’t do it. One of your crew members wants you to meet up with his mom. Some local aliens lost track of some satellites around the cluster and need your help finding them.
If you want good gear you need to make it yourself, which means mining as you drive your rover around (why your rover can mine I have no idea). The environments on the planets you go to are all messed up because the ancient machines aren’t working and you have to fix them. And let’s not forget the war you stepped into between the nice local aliens and the evil local aliens.
All this is why “Andromeda” as a complete package is so appalling. It doesn’t tell a good or even complete story. Instead, it provides only a profoundly fractured experience that is unsatisfying all the way around. And that’s largely because of the stubborn insistence on bringing back revamped versions of bad ideas from past games, in what feels like an attempt to apologize for the failure of those previous attempts. It feels like some bizarre way of acknowledging fan complaints, without really understanding why those things were worthy of complaints.
Time-wasting puzzles and space mining were bad because they were inherently bad ideas, not because they were implemented poorly. The problem with irrelevant side quests is that they’re irrelevant, not that they’re shoddily designed. But for some reason Bioware felt compelled to bring them back.
On the flip side, “Andromeda” is missing nearly everything that made “Mass Effect 3” come so close to hitting the mark. That game was long but had a singular focus on delivering the player a series of stories that all added up to a single epic tale. Its pacing was stellar, keeping time wasted at a minimum. But its ending was so bad, and the outcry so loud, that they threw the baby out with the bathwater this time around. The core story barely holds together, and “Andromeda” is constantly trying to draw the player’s attention away from that core with its endless array of nonsense other crap.
The irony in all this is that “Andromeda” doesn’t have a good ending either. You never find out what’s up with all those ancient robots and their weather machines. You never figure out how to deal with the dark energy space reefs. None of the choices you make along the way actually matter in how the story plays out. If you make friends with various factions in your new galaxy they’ll help out in the final battle, but it’s just cosmetic and there are no consequences for not having them help.
We’ve wound up with a game that feels like an intentional deviation from Bioware’s long-held promise of crafting well told interactive narratives. “Andromeda,” for long stretches, is difficult to recognize as either a “Mass Effect” game or even the product of Bioware. At this point, it’s hard to imagine they even care about delivering the one thing they’d spent decades trying to give us.