Adventure is out there.
Every big video game has an identity of its own. Zelda has its repeating cycle of hero slaying a monster, Halo has the space marine fighting insurmountable odds, Dark Souls does the “die till you can’t die no more” thing better than anyone else out there. So it goes with BioWare’s Mass Effect, whose identity is essentially rooted in traveling to planets, peeling back ancient alien mysteries, and also the occasional roll in the hay with a sexy alien or three. The newest release in the series, Andromeda, has all of these things, but there are still those who would say that this installation doesn’t feel like a proper entry in the series.
Visually speaking, Andromeda looks like Mass Effect, of course. It still maintains the “clean sci-fi” aesthetic that the series is best known for, and despite newcomer John Paesano contributing to the score, the music still evokes shades of the trilogy’s work done by Jack Wall, Sam Hulick, and the rest of the EA Games’ music department. It’s more in the gameplay where this complaint comes from, to the point where many have considered it the Dragon Age II of the sci-fi franchise. Though the comparison is apt, the game that this new entry has more in common with is BioWare’s 2014 hit, Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Gameplay-wise, it makes a lot of sense for it to be similar to Dragon Age: Inquisition. It was the last game made by the studio prior to Andromeda, so it’s natural that some things feel familiar, such as the inclusion of melee weapons beyond the Omni-Blade or the positioning of the camera when Ryder is talking to non-essential NPCs. And much like how the Inquisitor could speak with their Advisors and choose who to send out to complete quests around the world, Ryder does the same with APEX Strike teams and choosing what branch of humans to release from cryo sleep.
Mineral collecting to make weapons and consumables. The banter between squad mates as you drive around in the Nomad. Even the changes to allow for the dialogue choices to give Ryder more freedom as opposed to Shepard, complete with icons to display each emotional response – all of these were in Inquisition, and you could reasonably think that they used that game as a testing ground for how to implement all of this for Andromeda. The first thing you have to do once you get your ship, the Tempest, is to touch down on the planet of Eos and establish footholds for humanity’s future, stopping at specific points to summon drop pods that also function as fast travel stations. It may not be quite the same as planting a flag down in the name of the Inquisitor, but it certainly comes close.
Where this comparison is most apt is in the greater focus on exploration than in previous Mass Effect titles. Sure, the original had players exploring planets in the Mako. Yet on many planets, there were long stretches of land where there wasn’t much to do while the distances between the three or four areas of interest were far. Dragon Age: Inquisition emphasized exploration as well, with the Hinterlands being the most infamous example. If you go back and ask veteran players about the area, they’ll tell you that there were long stretches of nothing to do, or they just assumed that it was the sole area for the entire game.
Unlike that opening area, Andromeda better conveys where to go. Ryder’s AI SAM thankfully identifies areas of importance, such as Remnant hot spots or enemy camps upon touching down on a new planet, always providing you with a clear idea of what to do and where to go. Driving around in the Nomad will lead to random spots of Kett or Remnant enemies for you to fight. It’s a marked improvement from both Dragon Age’s approach to an open world, as well as the original Mass Effect. Since the beginning, this game has been marketed with the theme of exploration in mind, whether it’s actually touching down on a planet and seeing whatever Remnant Tech and Kett strongholds it has to offer, or shooting down a probe and mining for resources. If we’re to believe that exploring is one of the core tenets of this series – given how people reacted to being unable to drive around in the Mako in the sequels, it definitely is – then driving around and listening to our squad mates banter in this new game, much like in Dragon Age, was always going to be an inevitability.
This approach to an open world game suits Mass Effect: Andromeda well. After all, when your job is to explore the unknown, your world needs to be full of things to be discovered. But it does mean that the game can sometimes shakily handle the “everything you do matters” angle of the side quests with the more episodic leanings of the main story and loyalty missions. You may forget that you’re supposed to be making planets viable for living, until the next time you go to the Nexus and Addison yells at you because the prospects are looking more and more grim. Or the looming threat of the Kett may not seem as immediate as the game likely wants it to be, as you scour planet after planet and handle everyone’s problems.
Whether one finds the Dragon Age-style handling of an open world a good fit for Mass Effect going forward will depend on how they felt about Inquisition. But as far as Andromeda is concerned, it’s a welcome addressing of the problems with the first game, and a nice compromise between that and the sequels having you just scan a planet looking for places to launch a probe. Improvements and changes will need to be made in the future, but much like the green Pathfinder we’re playing as, it’s finding its footing as things go on.