Mass Effect Andromeda is celebrating its 5-year anniversary today, March 21, 2023. Below, we take a look at how the sequel grappled with the complicated legacy of the trilogy that preceded it.
Following up Mass Effect 3's widely derided ending is a bit like trying to write a Star Wars movie that canonically takes place after The Rise of Skywalker. What the hell are you actually supposed to do? Both these franchises seemed to simply avoid the question for a while--BioWare followed ME3 with post-launch DLC and then eventually made a sequel, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and Disney has been working on several Star Wars movies these past few years, some of which are reportedly taking place after the events of Episode 9. Star Wars has the benefit of only exploring a few planets in the movies that exist, leaving plenty of room for these upcoming movies to explore unseen corners of the galaxy after The Rise of Skywalker. Mass Effect, however, isn't as lucky--most of the Milky Way has been seen and explored by the events of Mass Effect 3. As such, Mass Effect: Andromeda went to a different galaxy entirely in its exploration of Mass Effect's future. In theory, this change in setting opens the franchise up to new horizons, but in practice Andromeda feels simultaneously burdened with and ashamed of its past.
Mass Effect: Andromeda begins sometime in between Mass Effect 2 and 3, with the Andromeda Initiative launching ships to the distant galaxy of the same name. The game then picks up 600 years later, where--upon waking from cryosleep--protagonist Ryder finds that the verdant alien worlds the initiative was supposed to colonize have come under threat during the centuries-long journey. An environmental terror called the Scourge has rendered them inhospitable and a hostile alien race called the Kett has made attempts to find and colonize other planets difficult. As one of several Pathfinders, it is Ryder's job to find a new home for these wayward colonists and discover the galaxy's secrets.
With only a few callbacks to the events and characters of the previous three games, Mass Effect: Andromeda isn't a direct sequel to the original trilogy, but these loose narrative connections also prevent it from being a full reboot. It is best understood as a revisitation of Mass Effect's gameplay and narrative themes, with BioWare approaching what it's done before from a slightly different angle. It incorporates features from all of the previous games--loyalty missions, driving around hostile alien worlds, gaining resources to build toward a larger militarized goal, weapons modifications, and much more are all welded together with the finesse of kids playing with a blowtorch. The result is not sprawling but busy. A franchise's worth of ideas flavor-blasted into one package that makes the whole thing bland and over-powering. In their best moments, each Mass Effect game evokes specific roles and ideas. Andromeda’s buffet ensures that no individual system gets the care it deserves, likely the result of a troubled production.
The biggest difference is the role you play in Andromeda--the role of "Pathfinder" is less a militarized role than Spectre, granting authority over most aspects of the colonization process and exploration protocols. While this set-up certainly gives the player power--more on that later--the sensation of playing as Ryder is less empowering than Shepard. You're not a special ops soldier without oversight who everyone immediately respects regardless of species--you're a cog in a very big machine who answers to a lot of bureaucratic nonsense and leads a team of squadmates who don't necessarily respect you at first. This translates into many of the missions in the first third of the game feeling more like watching paperwork stack up on an office desk because that's what much of it is--you're the privileged kid who got handed an opportunity and no one thinks you're up to the task, so you're assigned largely meaningless work to prove yourself.
In theory, this is not a bad thing. Forming a community on a new planet requires endless labor. Andromeda does an impressive job of mapping out the practical, political, and emotional needs of a community. The problem is that Andromeda attempts to meld these new ideas onto the franchise’s prior frameworks and the contemporary conventions of the open world. Each entry of the original Mass Effect trilogy is loosely themed: Mass Effect 1 tackles exploration, Mass Effect 2 is a dangerous heist, and Mass Effect 3 explodes into an intergalactic war. While none of those games are elegant pieces of design, there is a clear logic to most of the systems in each game. Andromeda slices each of these ideas up into endless map icons. Thematically, it attempts to model the mundane faith and work required to make new communities and friendships. In practice, it feels more like faint echoes of past glories. .
This chopped-up approach extends to the narrative. Mass Effect: Andromeda's various obstacles are just slices of the Reapers that are compartmentalized to be more manageable. The Scourge, a galaxy-wide environmental phenomenon that makes space travel very difficult, is mysterious and powerful beyond human comprehension, for example. The Remnant, robots and tech left behind by ancient aliens, stand in for the various cycles that were formally destroyed by the Reapers. The game's principal villains, the Kett, are the machine gods' practical violent element, the enemies that can be shot and killed. All these problems are immense, but do not carry the same weight as nigh-invisible gods from beyond the stars.
This partial recreation of the original bad guys is driven out of both reverence and fear. In some sense, the Reapers' power was the problem that created Mass Effect 3's ending. How do you establish that the Reapers are powerful beyond any sentient effort and also allow players to have any semblance of an empowered, happy ending? By lowering the stakes, Andromeda gets out of the way of those kinds of storytelling considerations.
However, those massive stakes gave the original games a sometimes striking existential quality. In Mass Effect 1, flickers of individual lives languish on distant worlds that are mostly mountains and meadows, if not just cold rock. The game's principle plot involves discovering a threat to all life, but most of its runtime is spent with the petty conflicts of individuals and communities. It's a massive galaxy that you only explore through the narrow lens of smaller conflicts.
Mass Effect: Andromeda's open-world structure and scale mean the occasionally grounded and touching writing gets swallowed in an endless sea of content. Most of Andromeda's principle cast (screw Cora) make a lovely first impression, but you spend comparatively very little time with them for most of the game as their big story beats don't unfold until the back half. Until that point, most of Andromeda is spent in menus, researching new guns or buying materials, and out in the world, riding a six-wheel exploration vehicle.
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Weirdly, this does have some positive side effects. In previous Mass Effect games, your relationship with any particular planet and its environment is fleeting. You are there to achieve a single task. You may complete side quests on the way, but once your time in a particular location is over, you will likely never return. Andromeda is much more ambitious, asking players to consistently return to previous locations, helping colonists thrive in their new environment. It also forces players to contend with the natural world, facing atmospheric radiation or incredible cold. This is Andromeda's most interesting idea, the kind of system that could have been built out into its own game. Instead, it's a sliver of a system in a game made up of such slivers. This is not a game about trying to exist on hostile worlds, as perhaps it should have been; it's just another game about power.
As I and many others have written about, Mass Effect is a franchise about being a cop. Shepard is an arm of the law, a peacekeeper who solves problems that are not their own. Ryder's stated role is a bit different--they're also scientist and explorer as well as a soldier--but subtextually, the two operate virtually the same. In Andromeda, you problem-solve for communities--an early side quest involves solving a murder, for instance--and make planets more habitable for those who want to live there. The way in which you do this is awfully similar to how Shepard handles problems however: extracting resources and killing interlopers. While you occasionally have to make important choices, the trajectory, like it has been in past games, is towards the fantasy of importance. I laughed out loud upon completing a mission in which the one native Andromedean in the party told me that I had proven my friendly intentions by clearing one outpost. This is distinctly unemotive, without the messy conflict of cultures. Instead, it is the cold, imperial logic of video games. You are the good colonizer who kills the bad ones. Your power will expand and theirs will fade.
In some sense, the exploration of a new galaxy is an opportunity to make something new. But Andromeda's very premise is bound up in the same power fantasy as the original games. You are the axis on which the whole galaxy turns. In the heart of that fantasy lies a hollow truth. Mass Effect: Andromeda simultaneously reveres and dreads its past. It runs from the events of past games, even as it pain-stakingly recreates their territory. Its primary innovation is an exhausting, endless scale.Mass Effect’s next entry will return to the Milky Wayand likely will only cursorily address any of Andromeda’s dangling threads. But if that entry is going to be a success, it should learn from the past and not just recreate its failures.
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