A veteran Mass Effect player and a complete novice walk into a bar.
This isn't the beginning of a terrible joke: Instead, it's the premise of a conversation between Engadget associate editor Timothy J. Seppala and senior reporter Jessica Conditt, both of whom have been playing the latest Mass Effect game, Andromeda, over the past few weeks. Tim has devoured and adored the Mass Effect series for almost a decade while Jessica has never touched the games before.
How does Andromeda compare to previous Mass Effect games? Does it stand on its own as a worthy addition to the sci-fi genre? Are the animations always this messed up? In the following conversation, Tim and Jessica discuss Andromeda's highs and lows from two vastly different perspectives -- and somehow, they end up with similar conclusions.
Spoilers for the entire Mass Effect series reside below; you've been warned.
Gallery: 'Mass Effect: Andromeda' | 21 Photos
Gallery: 'Mass Effect: Andromeda' | 21 Photos
Timothy J. Seppala, Mass Effect fan
Jess, it pains me to say this, but I don't want to play more of Mass Effect: Andromeda. I've spent hundreds of hours in that universe, playing through the previous trilogy a handful of times as the altruistic Timothy J. Shepard and as his evil counterpart Toni Shepard. Together, they helped form some of my fondest recent gaming memories. The games were nowhere near perfect, but their rough charm made them all the more endearing. It was easy to overlook how awful the UI and cover system were in the first game when I had a team of ridiculously well-developed alien compatriots along for the ride. More than in any series prior, Mass Effect's characters felt like friends.
The bond I formed with those characters helped carry me through the sequels and their increased focus on being action RPGs versus the hard-core role-playing games developer BioWare was known for. I'll never forget my reflexive scream when Legion, a former enemy robot, and Tali, a mysterious helmeted scientist, sacrificed themselves in Mass Effect 3 within moments of each other. I thought I'd saved them both from certain doom before that cliffside conversation. Watching helplessly as Legion gave his life and Tali took her own was a 1-2 punch to the gut after all the time we'd spent together.
It wasn't easy, but I managed to keep my expectations tempered going into Andromeda. And somehow, I'm still disappointed. You've never played a Mass Effect prior, so I'm curious how you're feeling about the game. After all, it's a new story line that's set in an entirely new galaxy, so it should be a good starting point for people, right?
Jessica Conditt, Mass Effect noob
I was worried I'd have to argue that one of your favorite series is actually generic and janky garbage, so I'm glad you came out and said it first.
Timothy J. Seppala
I can love something and still admit it has flaws! It's called being a rational adult.
You're a saint -- and I might have been a little harsh. I'm only a few hours into Andromeda, and I realize this game is not representative of the entire Mass Effect franchise. However, as a new player, it's all I have to go on. And so far, I simply don't understand the hype.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is broken. When I think about my time with the game, the first thing that springs to mind is how busted some of its mechanics, animations and narrative arcs are. The camera angles during dialogue scenes look as if they were directed by a film school sophomore attempting to "recapture Kubrick's melodrama" and the characters' facial animations are distractingly stilted, as the internet has already noticed.
It's not all terrible though. I truly enjoy Andromeda's combat; these scenes remind me of Halo and Gears of War but with a fun super-powered twist. I also love how my character looks: I'm playing as Chenault Ryder, a female model with neck and face tattoos and cotton-candy pink hair. It's wonderful to see her flying around deep space, kicking ass.
What I'm most curious about is the story. So far, Andromeda's narrative has felt uninspired, and I'd always had the sense that Mass Effect was a rich and unique sci-fi landscape. So, Tim, tell me: How does Andromeda's story compare with previous Mass Effect games?
Timothy J. Seppala
Well, so far, the narrative is on a much smaller scale -- the polar opposite of the previous games. The Shepard trilogy was a gigantic space opera about saving the galaxy from a race of ancient machines that emerge from their hiding spots and wipe the galaxy of all organic life every 50,000 years. You know, the usual. On top of that, Shepard him/herself had to represent humanity to the rest of the galaxy and prove that we aren't just a bunch of bullies. Or not. I mean, if your evil-speech skill was high enough, you could coerce the end boss to commit suicide.
In contrast, Andromeda feels a little more personal and self-contained. As one of the twentysomething Ryder twins (above), you're out to find your dad and somehow settle an entirely new galaxy. And then a few laborious hours of generic third-person shooting and an overlong vehicle segment later, Andromeda reveals its hand and shows what the game is really about. Rather than appeasing the Space United Nations, you're dealing with interpersonal conflicts. There are larger implications from your actions though. Will your first outpost on an alien world be a research facility focusing on science? Or is setting up a military to help guard against the Kett, your cannon fodder for the game, more your style?
Kill everyone, obviously.
Timothy J. Seppala
Jerk. See, I picked science because (at least in video games) I'm idealistic and want to show the galaxy that we don't always need to pull a gun to get a point across. That choice is already bearing fruit. Those narrative themes work for me; establishing an identity for the human race and settling worlds is kind of my jam. But Andromeda has other story ideas in mind too. Like the Kett leader who's a religious fanatic and effectively turns the game's new alien race into zombies. I could not care less for this. I'm guessing at some point I'll have to put my terraforming efforts and search for Dad aside and kill him. My hangup is that it's a generic sci-fi trope, and one that's been done many times over in other games. 'Sup, Halo?
More damning than that, Andromeda is doing a poor job of getting new players up to speed with the galaxy's goings-on. The story takes place 600 years adjacent to the original trilogy, but (spoiler) there are some returning names. Words like "genophage" and "geth" are peppered casually throughout conversations with no real explanation for what they are. Or when they are detailed it feels shoehorned in, like half-assed fan service.
To your larger point, what I've always loved about the series is its absurdly detailed world building. At the risk of oversimplifying, the Salarians and Krogan hate each other because the former used genetic engineering to reduce the latter's population. Krogan are a race that thrives on war and conflict, so in the interest of the greater good a vast majority of the race was sterilized with the genophage. In Mass Effect 3 I reversed that, and Mordin Solus, my crew's Salarian scientist, sacrificed his life doing so. The Krogan/Salarian relationship was one of many like it, and they were all incredibly well done.
That is what I'm missing from Andromeda: The sense of a living, complex universe.
Timothy J. Seppala
See, I thought it was just me.
One of my other gripes is that in the Shepard games, story and character development we not only delivered via exposition dumps or conversations but also peppered into combat. Picking my two squadmates before going planetside was dictated as much by who I wanted to learn more about as it was by their combat abilities. They'd chatter among themselves during quiet moments, and, in a firefight, I could use space magic to lift an enemy off the ground and have one squadmate slam him back into it while another sniped from a distance.
As far as I can tell, that isn't the case here. I spent the majority of my time on Havarl, the fourth planet, with two lockjawed squadmates. And aside from ordering my Krogan, Drack, to move to one position and Jaal the Angaran to another, there isn't much by way of tactics. It feels like a huge step backward both for gameplay and narrative reasons. In Andromeda I can sub in basically any squadmate and the sortie will feel the same. The combat is fine (aside from the finicky cover system), but it definitely doesn't feel like Mass Effect.
"The combat is fine" sums up my feelings as well. I actually enjoy the shooty-shooty-bang-bang portions of Andromeda so far, though I've played more-enthralling action games already this year. Of course, I'm not comparing Andromeda to the teamwork mechanics of previous games.
As for the narrative -- I love the idea of colonizing a new galaxy for the human race. That's an incredible premise for a video game, though it definitely has been done before. With such a pure sci-fi premise, Andromeda has to nail its storytelling arcs and build believable, complex characters and relationships; otherwise, the entire game becomes bland. Unfortunately, the details are precisely where the story falls apart for me. I don't care much about my crewmates yet, partially because I can hardly see their faces while I'm talking with them, and the story beats don't always align with the personality choices I make.
At one point, I land on an alien planet for the first time and instruct my crew to be vigilant yet respectful. "We're the aliens here," I say around bubblegum-pink lip gloss (Chenault is very on trend). A handful of minutes later, I'm pumping a horde of strange creatures full of lead and lasers, and my squadmates are telling me to shoot any other aliens that I see on sight, in a "give 'em hell, kid" kind of way. The transition from cautious explorer to violent conqueror is whiplash-inducing.
I love the epic scope of Andromeda. I think this kind of story -- one that deals with the cosmic future of the human race -- is relevant right now, as private companies are gearing up to colonize Mars and NASA is discovering potentially habitable planets in nearby galaxies. Essentially, it feels as if Andromeda represented a brilliant opportunity to tell a powerful story about humanity's future, and BioWare took the whole thing in an expected, generic direction.
It's not bad. It's just kind of boring.
Portions of Andromeda are gorgeous, though these are mainly cut scenes, and I adore my own character. The combat moments are engaging and fun, though so far they represent a minority of the gameplay. Much of Andromeda deals with dialogue choices and building personal relationships among the characters, but so far I haven't formed any memorable friendships, foes or love interests.
There's nothing about Andromeda that makes me want to boot it up at the end of the day; I don't ponder its story or crave its mechanics when I'm not playing. Unfortunately for BioWare, 2017 is a great year for role-playing games, with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn already on the market. In my mind, Andromeda just doesn't compare -- no matter how cool my character's hair is.
Timothy J. Seppala
"Andromeda is about new beginnings." That wasn't a quote from a developer or a PR rep; it came from a Krogan I happened upon in the game. While he was speaking directly about the titular galaxy, to me he was describing Mass Effect as a whole. If you want to take it even deeper, you could argue that the game's story of being prematurely forced into your dad's old role is allegorical for BioWare itself. We watched as numerous key talent left during Andromeda's development cycle - - including longtime executive producer Casey Hudson and, prior to that, studio founders Drs. Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk - - and I can't help but feel some of that is reflected in the game's narrative. That's not to mention the wildly inconsistent nuts and bolts of its gameplay.
If it weren't for the promise that everything I do in this game will carry forward, I wouldn't give a second thought to putting Andromeda down for good. Really all I want to do is drop the difficulty to "easy" so I can enjoy the best aspect of what I've played so far: lengthy bouts of talking with my crew. I'm well past the awful beginning hours that've plagued the series since 2007. Now? I want to get to the good stuff as frequently as possible. I have some time before the sequel though, so like you I'm going back to Zelda and Horizon. What makes Andromeda so troubling is that I'm not sure if Mass Effect is still for me and if BioWare remembers what made the previous games so special.