Enthralling science fiction set in outer-space is usually a voyage on two levels: a trip outwards — towards planets and galaxies unknown — and a trip inwards — peeling back the veneer of social constructs to explore the human (or alien) psyche. That is precisely where Mass Effect: Andromeda fails and Mass Effect 2 succeeds: the former mostly foregoes inner geography to focus on outer geography — to the detriment of its overall narrative impact.
“Key to Mass Effect 2’s brilliance is 2010 Bioware’s shrewd decision to disrupt the classic ‘hero’s journey’.”
Key to Mass Effect 2’s brilliance is Bioware’s shrewd decision to disrupt the classic ‘hero’s journey’. This is accomplished by injecting the story with narrative friction and forcing the player to question their moral high ground. Shepard is resurrected and bankrolled by Cerberus — a shadowy organization of human supremacists — and this fact casts a shadow over her identity for the duration of the game.
The leader of Cerberus — a character aptly named the ‘Illusive Man’ — feels inherently untrustworthy; part of the thrill of Mass Effect 2 is the gradual exploration of his inscrutable motivations. To complicate things further, your affiliation with Cerberus causes many potential shipmates to treat you with distrust or outright hostility — giving you a good reason to find out more about why they feel that way. This turns your recruitment efforts into an uphill battle and makes the process of gaining their trust a satisfying endeavor.
Morally, it’s up to the player to plot a course through the viscous ambiguity that Mass Effect 2 is so replete with. I found myself frowning on Mordan’s role in developing an ethnic-cleansing virus while (mostly) accepting Jack’s penchant for murder. I condoned Thane’s work as an assassin but had real difficulty accepting Miranda’s militaristic devotion to Cerberus — preferring Jacob’s mercenary skepticism in its stead.
“In the end, successfully defeating the ‘bad guys’ felt a lot less important than getting to know my shipmates along the way.”
More importantly, I spent a lot of time exploring the corridors of these characters’ minds, slowly finding out what made each of them tick. These lush internal geographies — and the ‘Loyalty Missions’ that allowed me to explore them — were probably my favorite parts of the game. In the end, successfully defeating the ‘bad guys’ felt a lot less important than getting to know my shipmates along the way.
“The premise is ripe for friction, but 2017 Bioware fails to exploit it.”
In contrast, Mass Effect: Andromeda immediately sets you up as a Hero with a capital H, tasking you with colonizing the Andromeda galaxy for a coalition of races. The premise is ripe for friction, but 2017 Bioware fails to exploit it: there’s little-to-no questioning of colonization as a ‘good’ act, no real competition between the different races sending ‘Arks’ into space, and the over-arching mystery feels decidedly un-intriguing.
It’s hard to feel curious about the Kett (‘bad aliens’), the Scourge (‘bad weather’) or the Remnant (ancient aliens whose technological artifacts are linked to said weather). They can all basically be defined as ‘obstacles to colonization’. None of them generate what was great about Mass Effect 2: intricate galactic politics, true moral ambiguity, noir-like criminal intrigue.
As a result of this, Mass Effect: Andromeda suffers from a lack of meaningful friction on both a micro and macro level. This isn’t helped by a cast of characters that, although charming, all seem immediately on board to either kill Kett, clean up the bad weather, or find out what the Remnant are. Where’s the challenge in winning them over? Yes, Drack is grumpy and brutish, Peebee is aloof and curious, and Jaal is moody and stoic, but all of them wear these traits on their sleeves — there’s no real reason to dig further, to convince them you’re worth their loyalty.
The game ends up being driven by a puree of good-ish intentions orbiting a protagonist elevated to the status of Hero by accident. Planets abound — and you’ll spend plenty of time driving around them from icon to icon — but internal geography is a surprisingly rare commodity. For a game that should be more about exploration than the original Mass Effect trilogy, Andromeda mostly fails to provide depths to explore: players are invited to travel to a whole new Galaxy, but its planets — and people — feel uninhabited.