The enemies in BioWare’s Mass Effect: Andromeda worship science. The kett are an alien species of bone-encrusted bug men, violent and duplicitous, who maintain control over their home galaxy under the direction of a towering leader known as the Archon. Exploring their bases to better understand how to combat their seemingly endless forces, the player is struck by the organic geometry and mucosal sheen of their work stations and research quarters. Like a gentler version of a Giger painting, the kett’s world is one whose appearance instantly communicates a technological sophistication so advanced it has nearly merged with the natural.
At one point, a recording of the Archon’s voice sneers “Biology has no use for poetry” from a terminal within a kett facility where specimens of other aliens are being evaluated by the eugenical commander. It’s the kind of mustache-twirling (tentacle-twirling?) villainy that defines Andromeda’s broad-brush approach to morality. It’s also, like much of the game’s writing, complete nonsense—a statement that contradicts the message implied by everything else the player is seeing all around her at the time. The synthesis of logic and chaos represented by the kett’s technology doesn’t square with the ideology they espouse. In their world, and in all of Andromeda’s design, there’s a profound confusion about the ways in which systemic and spontaneous thinking might coexist. There’s poetry in the game’s science, but only very rarely.
This isn’t a fault of Andromeda’s premise. Ryder, a player-created character, leads a coalition of Milky Way species on their mission to “discover” the (already inhabited) Andromeda galaxy. She is the de facto leader of the Andromeda Initiative—humanity’s representative and apparently the only person capable of getting shit done among thousands of emigrants. Partially, her outsized role is the result of problems on the deep space flight to Andromeda having resulted in Initiative vessels being scattered upon arrival, every homesteading ship but the human’s lost in some far flung corner of the galaxy. More so, Ryder’s leadership comes down to the fact that she is the player’s avatar and, in true role-playing tradition, the center of even the most expansive universe.
The enormous responsibility foisted upon Ryder works well as a set-up for the story to come. It provides an excuse for the involved detective work of meeting planetary leaders and helping to solve their problems, finding suitable locations to install outposts for the Initiative’s population to live in, and trying to understand the source of the kett’s antagonism and the nature of the strange robotic Remnant who mutely populate Andromeda. It’s a power fantasy that rationalizes itself when Andromeda sticks to its central plot, but one that falls flat when the game begins to introduce a numbing flood of trivial objectives.
It’s expected now that role-playing and open world games will bulk out their main story with side activities: typically ancillary scenes and objectives that serve to offer non-crucial narrative context and opportunities to strengthen player characters beyond what’s required to finish the primary plot. In their best instances, side missions function like interactive appendices, offering extra detail for those with a real desire to learn everything possible about a game’s fiction or combat systems. In the worst, they obscure theme, purpose or pace, distracting from an intended experience and mood to pad out a runtime or tick the “Player Freedom” feature checkbox modern games demand. Andromeda takes the latter approach, miring a straightforward story of first contact with alien species in a self-made, directionless potpourri of time-wasting distraction.
While it seems important to learn more about the varied cultures of the galaxy’s planets or to spend time getting to know Ryder’s crew—a ragtag group of fellow soldiers that includes a grumpy, battle-hardened grandpa from the toad-like krogan species and a flighty, manic pixie alien girl from the typically sagelike, psychically-gifted asari—Andromeda mixes these in with a tidal wave of excruciating minutiae. The worst, labeled “Tasks” in a menu screen that makes no effort to disguise that it’s an almost infinitely expanding list of chores, involve brain-melters like using Ryder’s computer bracelet to trace glowing lines from one area to another or travelling great distances and multiple loading screens to, say, find a corpse, then talk to someone about the corpse, run to scan for corpse-related clues, report on the corpse clues, talk to more people about the corpse, travel other places and finally offer the evidence to another party.
If these kind of activities were placed in the context of genuine mysteries or anything that offered insight into the game’s characters and invented cultures, they might be tolerable. As it is, the side missions are almost uniformly bland, serving only to keep the player on a hamster wheel of dopamine drip checklist completion and minimap clutter cleaning. Navigating the world to perform these tasks doesn’t help. A beautiful if predictable set of planets (sand world, ice world, jungle world, etc.) are full of either impassable cliffs and bodies of water or wide open, rolling hills which require constant reference of the menu’s minimally detailed map to negotiate. Andromeda possibly wants to communicate the difficulties of trying to get anything done while crossing rugged terrain—a frontier that the player is exhausted by exploring—but the implementation of mission objectives suggests that this might be too generous an interpretation. Even after crisscrossing the same areas countless times, having set up new outposts or lines of communication between groups of city-dwelling characters, Ryder is stuck forever running back and forth through worlds as inhospitable to newcomers as they are to those who have worked to make their surroundings more accommodating.
Entering into a fight is one of the only means of relief. Ryder and two crew members are equipped with jump jets, guns, explosives and superpowers that make simply shooting and avoiding being shot enjoyable, even if a small range of unsophisticatedly behaved enemy types and messy level design full of alien-hiding corners fail to make the most of great fundamentals. Combat suffers from the same problem as the game’s side missions, though. There’s too much of it and, after too many similar-playing firefights in a row, it becomes dull—an automatic set of steps to sleepwalk through on the road to another objective.
Andromeda’s overstuffed design does more than frustrate. It also makes it far more difficult to appreciate the game’s best moments by drowning them in distraction. The status of the many other non-human voyagers lost on the journey to Andromeda; the difficulty of trying to find a way to peacefully coexist with alien cultures; the validity of expanding into new territories not just to discover more of the universe but to colonize—all of these are great topics for a participatory sci-fi story, and each is only touched upon in optional missions that are spread too far apart, or, worse, possible to miss entirely by a player understandably unwilling to sift through the sand of unrewarding side objectives for an occasional narrative jewel.
This seems like an unimaginable problem for a game that takes place in a brand new galaxy, far in the future, to have. An early scene where Ryder approaches a kett soldier for the first time, unsure of whether to open fire on the unknown species or hold her hands out in a gesture of peace, delivers more on the promise of Andromeda’s setting than anything else presented in the dozens of following hours. Too soon, the game falls into a typical retread of the prior Mass Effect trilogy. A monstrous villain is trying to exploit the universe-shattering power of a long-vanished group of aliens and it’s up to the player to band together various factions of aliens to stop him. Even the previous galaxy’s species are the same, excepting the newly introduced kett and the angara—a race of bowlegged shark people with heads wreathed in what looks like a fleshy, melted pool noodle.
Still, in light of all its issues, a real examination of the core tension at the heart of a game about colonizing an entire galaxy could have offered some redemption. The Archon is revealed to have brutally conquered the angara. His people, the kett, are enforcing a eugenics-based forced assimilation program. Ryder and the Initiative are meant to be a softer option, their mission being founded on an exchange of knowledge and mutually advantageous cohabitation (far more nuanced than the loaded term of “colonization” which this game dubs this process again and again). This clash of ideals exists as subtext, but is never grappled with on more than the most sophomoric level of heroes versus villains. It’s undermined, too, by the game’s systems, which replace narrative nuance with percentages to raise and objectives to complete before a planet is ready to host an outpost. There are no shortage of opportunities for Andromeda to explore the complex ironies of Ryder’s mission—to set it apart from the blunt ideology of the kett—but, for all the optional missions the game includes, very few are willing to say anything of worth.
There are a handful of good stories to be found in Andromeda, but they’re hidden away, worthwhile moments tucked within hours and hours of disposable ones. In an effort to be as comprehensive as possible in tone, styles of mission objective and purpose, the game ends up feeling as impossibly vast as nature but as rigid and artificial as a computer system.
Mass Effect: Andromeda was developed by BioWare and published by Electronic Arts. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto whose work has appeared at Kill Screen and Playboy. He is the co-editor of SHOOTER (a compilation of critical essays on the shooter genre), edits Bullet Points Monthly, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast and tweets @reidmccarter.