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Spectacle over Story – Why you should be worried about Mass Effect: Andromeda
With the return of Mass Effect upon us, Deputy Editor Harry Turner shares his hopes and concerns about BioWare’s latest installment
In little over a month, the Mass Effect franchise will be making its return, after what has now been a five-year hiatus. Yet the video-gaming world that Mass Effect: Andromeda will be releasing in is quite different to the one which the franchise’s last entry saw – both in terms of the industry at large, and more specifically, in terms of BioWare’s (and Mass Effect’s) standing in it. With this in mind, as that March 21st release-date creeps ever closer, let’s take an extended look at what Andromeda has to offer.
The trailers and gameplay reveals for Andromeda – somewhat strange for such a big release – have been quite scarce, and only recently have we been getting a better look at what the game has to offer. So far, these glimpses have almost entirely emphasised Andromeda’s graphics and gameplay – and, from the looks of it rightly so. Running off the Frostbite 3 engine, the trailers suggest a game full of sweeping, vibrant alien vistas, and worlds rife with density and detail – whether that be the urban sprawl of a recently set-up colony, or the wild wastes of the untamed planet. Whilst it’s unlikely the game will run at such a fidelity for most – a 4K TV being just one of the devices needed to run the game at its max (and even then, the higher-end visuals likely being reserved for the monster PCs) – it’s impressive nonetheless, and certainly a selling point.
As with the graphics, the gameplay department appears to have been kicked up a notch too, with Andromeda offering a marked upgrade to the combat that the previous games offered. Undeniably the original trilogy’s combat certainly improved with each game, yet even with Mass Effect 3, combat revolved around basic cover systems, a limited use of your class’s powers, and – somewhat amusingly – an overreliance on the A/X button. Whether that latter feature has been rectified remains to be seen, but Andromeda otherwise seems set to offer a much more mobile, much more creative combat system than previous installments. Armed with a jet/booster-pack and a neural interface that allows the tweaking of classes and powers on the fly, Ryder – the game’s new playable protagonist – is a much more mobile combatant than Shepherd ever was; capable of zipping across the battlefield, and of generating personal biotic shields instead of hunkering down behind cover. Perhaps taking influence from the speedier shooters of late and their booster-packs, this is a refreshing change. Whilst it’s a shame Andromeda didn’t take the opportunity to allow the playing of the series’ various alien races to mix up combat, what is there is an undeniable improvement over the original trilogy – and something that could, perhaps, rival the likes of straight-up shooters and action games alike.
On a similar note, Andromeda boasts a rich open-world to explore – purportedly allowing the travel between ship-to-planet without any loading screens. With open-worlds being the big craze at the moment – be they for RPGs or action games – Andromeda appears to be offering one of the largest and most versatile – and all brought to life with the Frostbite engine’s graphical fidelity. With the development of the new Nomad vehicle having been assisted by the team behind Need for Speed games, exploring the Helios Cluster’s rich, new worlds looks to be as a much as a treat as seeing them.
But what about the story? What about Andromeda’s cast of characters? The Mass Effect series has always tried to emphasise the action part of its action-RPG identity, yet for everything the original trilogy did right, it was the story and characters, the RPG, that made Mass Effect the juggernaut it is today – and it is perhaps telling that it’s taken this article this long to come to these things. Only with the most recent trailers have we got a good look at what Andromeda’s story is, and who will be accompanying us for it – which is strange, considering how acclaimed the previous games were in this department – and to a certain extent, what has been shown so far hasn’t been particularly impressive in its own right.
Certainly, the game’s concept is intriguing: an ambitious program to expand beyond the Milky Way, a crew awakening after centuries of cryo sleep in a galaxy lightyears from their own, and one populated by new, unknown alien species’ and their civilisations. There’s a lot to play with there. The likes of krogan, turians – even humans – are now made all the more special since they’re only a relative handful in this vast new galaxy. Likewise, the fact that these handful are effectively ambassadors for their species, and encountering an entirely new galactic system, is an exciting one. Added to this are the theories surrounding the Andromeda Initiative, and some of the characters that will serve as your companions. Without spoiling anything for anyone that wants to go in clean, both suggest that the game will not be leaving the original trilogy behind completely.
Yet for all this, Andromeda’s story otherwise looks somewhat underwhelming so far. The game is relying on tropes that the original trilogy, and other games, long-since exhausted. A highly advanced precursor race; a big bad that so far looks like just another Corypheus from Dragon Age. With such an interesting setting, why not take the opportunity to tell a more complex story – where the main drive is ensuring that your, humanity’s, and maybe even the Andromeda Initiative’s, interests are preserved in this uncharted galaxy? More significantly, there was the opportunity with Andromeda for BioWare to weave its gameplay into its narrative – with the most recent trailer stressing the limited resources that the Andromeda Initiative has at their disposal, and the need to find a new world before they run out. This could have been another suicide mission scenario – as in Mass Effect 2 – something for the game to work around, and something for all the game’s major choices to revolve around, and have an impact on. Admittedly, perhaps this is all too harsh and too premature – as said, the game’s marketing has revealed markedly little in terms of the story’s themes or central conflict, and perhaps BioWare and EA are deliberately keeping story details close to the chest.
A bigger problem, and a bigger concern, however, is that Andromeda’s story has been made to fit its preoccupations with gameplay – or more specifically, a certain style of gameplay: the endless checklists. This wouldn’t be something new for BioWare. Arguably what brought Dragon Age: Inquisition’s story down the most was the game’s fixation on MMO-esque tasks – collecting enough elfroot to upgrade a potion, enough iron to craft new armour, or something else entirely to create a new dye, repair the keep, etc., etc. Whilst your advisers dealt with court intrigue in faraway lands or helped unearth the secrets of the game’s villain, you were out scouring the game’s various environments for plants. Worryingly, Andromeda’s marketing has presented the game as perhaps having a similar fixation on item collection and crafting – with trailers repeatedly emphasising how this is an uncharted galaxy rich with resources, and how you are on your own, and need to rely on yourself to upgrade your gear.
In moderation, this style of gameplay is fine – but done to the extreme, as Inquisition arguably did, and the game becomes a checklist of hunting down items of insignificance en-masse. This is the Ubisoft style of open-world – populating a massive space with various collectables and repeated tasks (be they watchtowers to climb or bases to clear out – of which Andromeda seems to have analogues for both). Recent action-RPGs like The Witcher 3 have done well to skirt away from this emphasis (or mostly, anyway), populating its massive world with stories spanning numerous quests to just one; filling it with characters both strange and serious. This was better than any of the mindless search-and-collect busy work or tick-box tasks that Inquisition, and Witcher 3, offered – and is something that Andromeda could do to much better utilise its own open world.
Once again, this may be too harsh, too premature – time may tell that Andromeda was paying attention to some of the best RPGs and open-world-games to have come out since the conclusion of the original Mass Effect trilogy – but BioWare isn’t the developer that it was ten years ago, and the gaming industry today isn’t the same either. The likes of The Witcher 3 changed the role-playing game landscape by, in some ways, subverting the trends that BioWare had for years used to great success; whilst the likes of Dragon Age: Inquisition saw BioWare following a somewhat paradoxical philosophy that a single-player MMO is a great thing. It wasn’t; it isn’t. Although there’s a conversation to be had about the prioritisation of gameplay over story, with RPGs – even action-RPGs – that choice is simple. Engaging stories and memorable characters (admittedly through gameplay interaction most of all) are the single-best thing that RPGs have to offer – which is, fundamentally, why Andromeda’s emphasis thus far on the combat and graphics in place of these things is so concerning.
Nobody wants Mass Effect: Andromeda to fail. The original trilogy remains one of the greatest RPGs of all time, its cast of characters beloved by the world over. Yet there remains reason to be tentative about the series’ latest entry. With the gameplay running the risk of being a repeat of some of Dragon Age: Inquisition’s worst moments, and with the story and characters thin on the ground so far, I know that I, for one, won’t be purchasing the game until I know for certain the kind of action-RPG that Andromeda really is.