In Mass Effect Andromeda, you can play as either Scott Ryder or Sara Ryder. Unlike Commander Shepard, you’re not hot-swapping the gender of the protagonist. If you play as Sara then you have Scott as your sibling and if you play as Scott then you’ve got Sara for a sibling. Your sibling ends up stuck in the fridge for most of the game and they’re not really relevant until the very end, but the Ryder twins really are two different peopleThey still have a lot of identical dialog, but you know what I mean. and not just a Maleshep vs. Femshep aesthetic choice.
For the purposes of this write-up, I’ll be discussing the plot in terms of having Sara as the main character. As with my series on the Mass Effect trilogy, it’s just easier to pick one sibling rather than juggle neutral pronouns and use slashes to refer to Sara/Scott or Scott/Sara.
Sara wakes up in the Cryo Bay at the end of their 600 year voyage. The dialog does a pretty good job of explaining the premise to the player without dropping into heavy-handed exposition mode. I mention this now because while some of the dialog in this game is shamefully bad, there are spots like this where it keeps things reasonably brisk and efficient by the standards of the genre.
The ship has just arrived in the Heleus Cluster, which is part of the Andromeda galaxyWithout the mass relay network, we can no longer have a galaxy-wide adventure. I really appreciate that the writers stuck to this and didn’t feel the need to go “big” again.. Sara is on the “Pathfinder” team. Her Father, Alec Ryder, is the Pathfinder for the human ark and is in charge of scouting out their prospective home. 600 years ago they picked out several promising planets in the Heleus ClusterThe story explains that scientists used a mass effect relay to “look” into the distant galaxy, which is how they were able to see so much detail over such insane distances. This is one of the details I’m willing to handwave as part of establishing the new premise. that could be suitable for settlement.
Alec Ryder is an N7, which is the same designation as Commander Shepard. I’m sure this is a deliberate move on the part of the writer, to have a Commander Shepard stand-in to hand the franchise over our new hero.
The ship runs into some strange tendrils of… what? I don’t know. The characters call it “dark energy”, but it looks like mold to me. This stuff is called “the scourge”. It’s an energy cloud of space-mold that reaches across the cluster. The important part is that for now, flying through it messes up the ship. Equipment goes haywire. Scott’s cryo pod gets damaged and the team has to keep him under rather than thawing him out for duty.
Scott and Sara are both on the ten-person Pathfinder team. This looks like some pretty flagrant nepotism. Are we supposed to believe that, among the 20,000 people on the human ark, both of Alec’s kids just happen to be in the top 10? Don’t get me wrong, I can totally get behind the notion that Alec was able to wrangle his kids these high-profile positions. He’s one of the founding members of the Andromeda Initiative and was free to hand-pick his team members. My problem is that nobody else in this world seems to notice this. Charges of privilege and nepotism ought to hang over Sara’s head constantly, yet nobody ever brings this up.
The Human ark has arrived to find that their intended homeworld – Habitat 7 – looks wrong. It was supposedly a “golden world” when they left the Milky Way 600 years ago, but since then it seems to have gone off.
The Pathfinder team jumps in a shuttle to go down and scout the planet, which is plagued by constant electricity storms. On the way down some lightning blows the shuttle in half. Sara freefalls to the surface and only survives because of her jump-jet boots.
We meet up with some of the other members of the team, get our navigation and movement tutorials out of the way, and watch some snazzy cutscenes of alien strangeness. The game is admirably slow in its opening. All told, I think it’s over twenty minutes between the time where we hit the “New Game” button and the point where we shoot our first mook. That’s normally a bad thing in a game, but in a story-heavy RPG like this the lore is the content. The story isn’t just here as an excuse to shoot space orcs behind cover. We’re also here for the the lore, the characters, and dialog choices. I wouldn’t tolerate a slow opening from the likes of Bulletstorm, Wolfenstein, or DOOM. But here in the RPG genre a rushed opening can harm your story. I’m glad the team was allowed to adopt a pace that made sense for the story, rather than being forced to adhere to modern shooter conventions.
So we’re 20 minutes into the game, and so far everything feels roughly Mass Effect-ish. We meet characters, learn backstory stuff, and generally acclimate ourselves to this new world. So far so good. But this is where things get stupid, because now it’s time to meet…
These enemy designs are just awful. As we’ll learn later, the Kett are gene collectors and operate kind of like an organic version of Star Trek’s Borg. They find new species and “exalt” them by splicing in Kett DNA, which turns them into space-monsters. That’s a cool idea for popcorn sci-fi, but it’s undercut by these terrible designs. These guys are supposedly the pinnacle of engineered evolution, but they look like melted plastic action figures. Their faces have vaguely derpy expressions, and then they have big monster teeth in an attempt to make them look scary. They’re covered in these pointy bones that are supposed to make them look tough, but instead makes them look like someone dropped them in glue and rolled them in cat litter. They don’t look scary, proud, cunning or imposing. The design is incredibly busy without offering any compelling detail. It’s as if someone took the ultra-generic design for the Collectors in Mass Effect 2 and tried to somehow make them less interesting.
So we crossed the vastness of dark space to find ourselves in a galaxy millions of light-years away, 600 years in the future, and we encounter upright bipeds with human facial arrangements, human limb configuration, and who stand at about human height. They talk with their mouths and they use firearms that look like lumpier versions of the stuff we brought with us. (They even use compatible ammunition!!!!) The aliens the writer ditched back in the Milky Way (Elcor and Volus) are more “alien” than the inhabitants of Andromeda! Compare these guys to the Krogan, Hanar, or Geth. All of those races look far less human than the Kett.
This is where I’d normally put “How I’d have done it”, but I’d like to put that off until later in the story. Party because it will be easier to explain once we know more about these guys, but also because there are a lot of other things going wrong in this section and I don’t want to get sidetracked right now. So let’s just shoot these guys and move on.
I do like that the Andromeda Initiative has policy for first contact situations, and that the game will allow you to attempt a peaceful encounter. It doesn’t work out of course, but I’m glad we can try for the purposes of roleplaying.
The Weather Tower
The team manages to regroup and fix their remaining shuttle, but the storm is too violent for them to risk taking off. In the distance the team can see this huge alien tower. It’s not Kett in design. (The Kett are actually studying it, which is why they’re here.) Alec looks at the tower, and he figures it must be controlling the storm. He assumes that if we can take the tower we’ll be able to find a control panel and shut down the machine, which will end the electrical storms.
And he’s right on all counts!
The story just introduced us to the central obstacle: The golden worlds are a bust and their climates are a mess. And ten minutes later the writer turns around and offers a magical solution to the problem in the form of alien technology that’s apparently effortless to figure out and control. The rest of the game will be spent fighting over these alien climate towers.
This is wrong in two ways. One, this is just too convenient. We were barely introduced to the central conflict before we were presented with a magical solution we don’t understand and did nothing to earn. The other problem is that this just kills all sense of mystery.
The whole thing reminds me of the Crucible from Mass Effect 3. The writer hands us an insurmountable problem, and then they give us a magical technology that will solve the problem for us. You don’t get to unravel mysteries and find answers that lead to a solution at the end, you get the solution at the beginning and then you just have to shoot all the dudes standing between you and the button to activate the magic solution-machine.
How I’d have done it:
The most obvious thing we can do is take away the copy of the script that Alec Ryder seems to be carrying around. I know the writers are really enamored of their surrogate Commander Shepard and they don’t want to make him fallible, but presenting him as Mr. Perfect is hurting this story in multiple ways. The first thing we need to do is have him misunderstand this alien tech.
We present the situation a little differently: The Humans can’t leave while the storm is raging. They (wrongly) assume that the storm will blow over on its own. The problem is that they’re afraid that the Kett will amass and wipe them out if they sit still that long, and they can’t hope to evade the Kett while carrying the wounded. When Alec sees the big alien tower pumping out energy, he assumes it’s some sort of alien super-weapon. He figures he can use it to wipe out the Kett in the area, and then they can wait for the storm to blow over. Even if they can’t use the superweapon, the assault ought to draw the Kett away from the wounded.
Then once we clear the tower Alec discovers he was wrong. It’s not an Alien weapon, it’s a device for climate regulation.
This doesn’t really fix this section of the game, but it does fix the silly notion of Alec looking at an alien outpost from a mile away and instantly intuiting what it does and how it works. It reinforces the notion that our heroes are the aliens here.
At the start of this chapter we were treated to fantastical imagery: Floating rocks, a vortex of lightning, twisting cliff faces, and wild plant life. The artist is trying to create a sense of wonder and alienation. It’s an admirable effort, but that sense of marvel and trepidation is completely undercut by having our heroes instantly understand the world around them. I realize having them accidentally fix the climate is still a huge contrivance, but it least it would support the intended mood.
Once final nitpick is that we never come back here. We fix the electrical storms and then just leave. Maybe that’s due to the toxic atmosphere, but considering what a terrible dump the rest of the planets are it seems odd this one doesn’t at least warrant a mention. It’s the most visually interesting of all the planets, and when I began driving across the second lifeless orange desert planet on our journey I started to really miss this place .
 They still have a lot of identical dialog, but you know what I mean.
 Without the mass relay network, we can no longer have a galaxy-wide adventure. I really appreciate that the writers stuck to this and didn’t feel the need to go “big” again.
 The story explains that scientists used a mass effect relay to “look” into the distant galaxy, which is how they were able to see so much detail over such insane distances. This is one of the details I’m willing to handwave as part of establishing the new premise.
Even allegedly smart people can make life-changing blunders that seem very, very obvious in retrospect.
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