Mass Effect Andromeda screenshot

Mass Effect Andromeda story impressions

Mass Effect Andromeda LogoOver the last few days, I’ve been playing the opening of Mass Effect Andromeda on PC. I’ve read lots of discussions of animations, graphics and gameplay, but not much detailed analysis of the story. So let’s have at it!

For me, the storytelling is core to the appeal of Mass Effect and Bioware’s games more generally. Where their stories really shine is in appealing, interesting characters, and in giving you choices and consequences. Your choices might only occasionally change the overall story significantly, because the game still needs to follow the same overall structure, but your decisions allow you to really shape your character, allowing true “role-playing”. Key decisions often involve interesting, nuanced dilemmas, which can result in radically different outcomes for subplots and particular character arcs.

My character, Seren RyderSo how well do the opening hours of Mass Effect Andromeda establish its plot, characters, conflicts and themes? A good opening is one that makes you care about what happens next, and that can be done on several levels: plot, characters, concepts, themes and style. The more levels that a story works on, and the better they are interwoven, the more compelling a story is. Video games have the added challenge of integrating storytelling with the gameplay mechanics. The more these can be merged together in a seamless whole, the more satisfying the experience is. There’s a school of thought that says that the best way to do this is by “emergent storytelling” from clever game dynamics, but personally I prefer game narratives that are scripted but with built-in flexibility and choices.

The concept

Mass Effect Andromeda is about an interspecies initiative to colonise the Andromeda galaxy, with humans and other Milky Way species setting out in ark ships to settle on “golden worlds” in the Heleus Cluster. You play as one of the Ryder twins – either Scott or Sarah (if you stick with the default names). Your father is the Pathfinder for your space ark, basically explorer-in-chief responsible for scouting out the strange new worlds you’ll be settling on.
Arrival in the Andromeda Galaxy
Having a fresh start based around exploration and discovery makes an exciting and refreshing change after the darkness of the Mass Effect trilogy’s threat of the Reapers coming to exterminate all intelligent life in the galaxy. It neatly sidesteps the endings of Mass Effect 3 (which would be very hard to continue from), and sets the franchise on a new narrative direction. It’s a smart move from Bioware, and opens up plenty of new possibilities. If the original Mass Effect trilogy took Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games as a template, then Andromeda has a healthy dose of Star Trek‘s five-year mission of discovery. Unfortunately the set-up is conveyed in about 2 minutes of voiceover and some opening text, which is a little clunky and doesn’t do the best job of setting up some of the subsequent narrative beats.

Of course, things do not go to plan on arrival 600 years later… You wake from cryo-sleep only to be thrown immediately into the action. The human ark ship Hyperion finds itself damaged by a cloud of dark energy, and your twin’s cryo-pod is damaged, leaving them stuck in suspended animation. Humanity’s “golden world” is now riddled with dark energy and looking less than hospitable. Your father leads you and the rest of the Pathfinder team on a mission to the surface to investigate. Oh, and your team is connected to an AI called SAM, and if you know your Mass Effect, you’ll know that the conflict between artificial intelligences and their creators is a key theme of the series.

The dangers of assumed sympathy

All this happens very quickly, with only a brief sequence showing ships leaving to Milky Way to set up the initial scenario. Unfortunately it repeats one of the mistakes of Dragon Age 2, which is to assume sympathy for the main character and their family simply because they are the main character. In DA2, your opposite-gender sibling is killed off in the opening, but they have had little chance to do anything except complain about running away from the Blight, so it doesn’t feel much of a loss.

This is one of the ways in which the demands of gameplay can clash with those of storytelling. Since this is a game, Bioware naturally wants to get you into the thick of the action as quickly as possible. But I think a slightly extended opening would help here. It’s entirely possible to do an action-packed opening that’s emotional without long set-up. J J Abram’s Star Trek tugs on the heartstrings with the death of Kirk’s father as Kirk is being born is a good example within the space opera genre. Just a short scene with the Ryder family before they go into cryogenic suspension, sketching in their relationships and their hopes for the Andromeda galaxy, would make the opening feel that much more consequential. As it is, you’ve not even seen your sibling in the game when they are removed from the action (except in the character creator!), so putting them in danger has very little emotional impact.

First contact

Crashlanded on Habitat 7But although the opening doesn’t connect emotionally as well as it could, it is a very efficient set-up of the plot, and does plunge you straight into the action – and I do mean plunge, with a crash-landing on Habitat 7. The planet main distinguishing feature is floating rocks, which seems a little overly similar to the Fade in the Dragon Age series, or parts of Pandora in Avatar. But while somewhat derivative, the mix of weird physics, strange fungal plants and dangerous lightning strikes help establish it as an alien and dangerous landscape.

That’s when you run into some of the locals, and again the demands of being an action-shooter win out over narrative impact. Rather than feeling historic or monumental, your first encounter with the species that will later be identified as the Kett almost instantly devolves into a shootout. What disappointed me here is the seeming lack of moral ambiguity – Ryder comments on the fact that they are the “visitors”, but to be met with instant violence from the Kett seems like a cheap way to avoid difficult questions about the morality of colonialism, and whether the humans have any right to show up and start shooting. (It’s interesting that Bioware didn’t go down the route of making the colonists refugees from the Reapers

The Kett - generic enemies?I’d have loved more of am ambiguous first contact situation, where there’s more room to read the reaction of the Kett as a justified response to an invading alien threat. Another nice angle would have been if the violence was a result of a tragic misunderstanding, like the final battle in the Morte Darthur. In that, King Arthur and Mordred have brokered a peace, but a soldier draws his sword to kill an adder. Seeing the flash of metal, the other side smells treachery and fighting breaks out, resulting in the death of Arthur and his kingdom.

Worse, the Kett have neither a clear sense of purpose, nor an intriguing sense of mystery. Hopefully we’ll discover what they are doing and what they stand for, but there’s no particular mystery teased here. At this stage they are just generic alien bad guys for you to shoot, because the mechanics of the game demand it. The Andromeda Initiative’s First Contact Protocols are hilariously inadequate, seemingly nothing more than an instruction not to shoot first.

Choice and consequences

But whatever, the game demands you start shooting things, and there are the rest of your crew to find and mysterious alien ruins to be investigated. There’s a nice bit of narrative branching showcased early on here – if you fail to make the detour to rescue your crew-mate Greer, you will find his dead body on a Kett ship later on. By having an obvious branch early on, the game does a good job of establishing that your choices matter.

It’s a small detail but it hints early on at the kind of consequential storytelling that make Bioware games at their best a truly memorable experience. The suicide mission at the climax of Mass Effect 2 is rightly seen as one of the series’ high points, because depending on your choices through the game and in the final stages, literally everyone can live or die, and those high stakes make it thrilling and memorable. How well your choices will pay off throughout the game remains to be seen.

You are the Special

Emmett from The Lego MovieIn The Lego Movie, the gormless protagonist Emmett is told that according to the Prophecy, he is “the most special, most talented, and most extraordinary person in the universe!” Most Bioware games puts you in the position of The Special, with the fate of the world (or galaxy) on your shoulders, whether as Jedi Knight, Warden or Inquisitor. In the original Mass Effect trilogy, Shepherd was special by virtue of receiving visions of the Reapers from a Prothean beacon, plus being the first human granted Spectre status by the Council, before becoming a full-blown space messiah by the end of the trilogy.

(Dragon Age 2 is an interesting departure from the usual Bioware formula. The protagonist Hawke doesn’t inherit a grand title or destiny, but works up through society, slowly making a name. The story deliberately focuses on one location, the city of Kirkwall, over time, mediated through the lens of an unreliable narrator. It’s more political than good vs evil, and in the end events spiral out of Hawke’s control as he’s caught up in larger forces, rather than being able to fix everything. In concept, it’s one of Bioware’s most sophisticated and interesting stories, but unfortunately the execution of the concepts lets it down. There’s too much reuse of locations with too little dynamism over the years that pass, for one thing. And the final events seem more the result of characters being hit by a Stupidity Stick than true tragic inevitability.)

In this game, you quickly take on the mantle of Pathfinder. I won’t spoil how that happens exactly, but it does succeed in delivering more of an emotional punch because you’ve begun to get to know the characters better. It also raises lots of questions about your father’s plans and motives that will no doubt be key to how the story unfolds. The family dynamics have the potential to add a satisfying extra layer of personal interest and conflict. Going forward into the game, you can begin uncovering your family history, though the game mechanics for this are a bit clunky and don’t make a lot of sense.

Looking at the light

Ryder steps into the hero role unprepared and uncertain. Other characters are unconvinced by Ryder’s suitability for the role. This makes a change from Shepherd, who was always very self-assured and who had quite a reputation, even at the start of the first game. This isn’t entirely new territory for Bioware, of course. In Dragon Age: Inquisition you had a similar journey to go through in embracing and then proving yourself in the role of Inquisitor and Herald of Andraste. But it’s a sufficiently different variation on the theme to not feel like mere repetition. And while giving “Daddy Issues” to Ryder isn’t the most original move ever, there aren’t many dads who create illegal AIs linked to their children’s brains, so there’s plenty of potential for that to be meaningful both personally and in terms of Mass Effect’s wider themes of biological vs artificial intelligence.

What’s the main conflict?

At around 15 hours in, I’ve recruited all my crew, uncovered mysterious alien ruins, and began to get drawn into the politics among the Milky Way colonists. But most of the conflict so far has been with the environment, rather than among different people or factions. No one conflict has become the obvious overarching threat, and that leaves the story feeling less focused than the fight against the Reapers. While I enjoy the more open-ended exploration aspect of the game, the original Mass Effect trilogy had great secondary antagonists such as Saren and the Illusive Man, who you meet early on in Mass Effect 1 and 2 respectively.

After a couple of missions, I did run into a bad guy and his fleet (you know he’s the baddy because he frowns a lot and speaks in a deep, electronically distorted voice). But rather than upping the conflict by having him express a motive or philosophy that’s at odds with yours, or having him capture, hurt or endanger you, you just mouth off at him and run away. What should be an exciting moment is a mere teaser for later appearances – it doesn’t work dramatically in its own right, because there’s no meaningful change from before to after.

So far there’s also not a great deal of conflict among my crewmates either (though I’ve been able to flirt with them, to varying degrees of success!). Mass Effect 2 was great at bringing together a cast of characters with conflicting loyalties, such as Miranda, loyal to Cerberus, and Jack, looking for revenge on it; Legion, a member of the Geth, and Tali, used to fighting against them; Mordin, who helped strengthen the Genophage sterility virus, and Grunt, one of the Krogan victims of it. And the game made you pick sides between them. So far there I’ve not come across competing claims and loyalties of the same sort, but hopefully they will emerge in time – especially once I and my crew encounter those exiled from the Nexus and hear their side of the story.

Mass Effect Andromeda - cast

Potential?

Like many a pilot for a new TV series, Mass Effect Andromeda has some rough edges in its opening hours and doesn’t quite land all of its narrative punches. But there are promising ideas here with potentially massive dramatic payoffs to come, from missing arks to forbidden AIs to galaxy-reshaping technologies. The biggest promise comes with the characters, despite the lack of conflict among them so far. While it’s fun seeing Mass Effect take a pile of science fiction tropes, put them in the blender, and do its own remix on them, it’s smaller moments with characters like Garrus, Liara and Tali who really make the series memorable. While Liam, Cora, Vetra, Peebee, Jaal and the rest aren’t there yet, they are largely well-rounded and interesting, with room to grow, and to grow on me as the player.

Some clunky moments aside, my biggest concern is that the impact of the story will get lost in the open world structure – that there will be 20 hours of interesting gameplay and narrative, padded out with 50 hours of fetch-quests and busywork to unlock that story. Dragon Age Inquisition suffered from this problem, and while I like the idea of an immersive world to explore, unless that world is meaningful, then simply making it bigger and longer only dilutes the impact of the story. I still expect to enjoy Mass Effect Andromeda but I’m not confident that we’ll see another great Bioware game until the studio remembers that often, less is more.

Of course, you can only fully judge a story at its end. Check back for my final verdict once I’ve finished saving the Andromeda galaxy!

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