Mass Effect: Andromeda was met with disappointment, and, in the worst parts of the internet, harassment campaigns. The game had Mass Effect in the title but it didn’t quite feel one. But Mass Effect: Andromeda deserves to be remembered as more than just another hyped AAA game that failed to meet fan expectations and corporate sales goals.
After almost a year of trawling through the game’s cookie-cutter planets and rote to-do lists, I’ve come to fall in love with Andromeda as management sim. It’s first and foremost a game about cultivating a new civilization in a distant galaxy. Colonizing it is a lot of work, a project that will span generations and which the game, knowingly or not, communicates through its understated exploration structure. There are a million things to get done, as in most role-playing games, but instead of feeling like a distraction, Andromeda elevates thankless busy work to center stage.
They call you the Pathfinder in the game, but really you’re the galaxy’s super, plugging leaky pipes, changing out fuses and making sure the furnace keeps running. It’s a different kind of labor than most games ask you to contribute; less flashy but more soothing and dependable in its pay-off. Everyone’s always asking you for all kinds of stuff, ranging from the menial “deliver this package” to the exotically macabre “locate someone’s remains and tell a loved one how they died.” Even quick chats or errands can be light years out of the way. It all adds to your overfilled schedule, but also makes you feel that much more helpful and indispensable.
Juggling these tasks and finding optimized ways to complete them is where the game ends up feeling most satisfying. Setting a waypoint marker, traveling to a planet, and speeding around in the Nomad to service broken down space gizmos or search for missing colonists becomes a ritual. Like making coffee in the morning or mailing a package at the post office, playing Mass Effect: Andromeda helps you appreciate the small wrinkles in life. The similarities between all of these tasks let you feel good about streamlining the order and method of their completion while the minute differences help the planets always feel more granular and too big to ever know fully.
Take Voeld, the frozen celestial rock I still sometimes daydream about. Like every other planet in the cluster it’s a mix of several things: gorgeous, deadly, incredibly spread out, and quietly tragic. Andromeda is a game about finding planets for Milky Way inhabitants to settle on (whether they come as benign explorers or presumptuous imperialists is up to the player). Voeld was supposed to be one of these new homes when ships full of humans, turians, asari, and salarians first set out during the chaotic events of the original trilogy.
They titled it “Habitat 6” and selected it for colonization because of its temperate climate and lush vegetation. By the time you arrive, however, it’s a cold and desolate world where people need to take shelter deep within caves in order to survive. A mysterious cataclysmic event from centuries ago threw off the planet’s orbit and caused it to go into an ice age as it drifted away from its sun. The pockets of Angara life that remain are locked in a war with the game’s main antagonists, the Khett, compounding its fate.
It was the middle of last summer during a heat wave on the East coast when I spent most of my time on the planet. I don’t have air conditioning but somehow managed to forget about the sweat running down my back because of the view laid out before me. I was plowing through the snowy expanse beneath an aurora, with wheels the size of boulders, scavenging for whatever the game told me I needed, while the space shield over the Khetts outpost glowed in the distance.
Rock monsters sometimes come tumbling over the horizon at you while you’re trying to loot alien dig sites or spy on smugglers. The customizable guns are punchy, and the pop of the double-jump jetpack as you hopscotch across the tundra never gets old. For all its faults, it turns out Andromeda does third-person action and vehicle exploration well, which is partially also why I found myself dipping in and out of the game for the rest of 2017.
This is pretty much what you do on every planet in the game, at least the ones you can visit. People bumbling around futuristic IKEA colony outposts tell you about their friend who got lost, or the medical supplies that got stolen, or the data samples they always need help collecting (the Andromeda Initiative probably could have chosen some better scientists). You then add it to your quest list, a log that by the end of the game has more in common with Microsoft Outlook than a readable plot summary. All that’s left is to follow the star that appears on the minimap and waltz around scanning for the objective while occasionally looking in awe at the game’s vibrant color palette.
One mission called “Cultivation” has you searching for plant specimens that can be used for the Andromeda Initiative hydroponics program. The one you get from Voeld is named Cardacha Cthonis, an octopus plant with a big watery stem that keeps edible seeds inside. The mission yields very little experience and the doctor who sends you on it is kind of an asshole. Most of the flowers are beautiful to look at, though.
On route to or from these locations, the hum of the Nomad’s engine perfectly encapsulates the sense of control, freedom, and mundane purpose of, say, driving a car to the Lowes to buy hardware, picking up groceries for the coming week, or sitting in traffic during the morning commute to a boring job. In Andromeda, as in real life, there’s not much glory in any of these types of activities, but they do manage to elegantly fill the small voids left in day-to-day existence we might struggle with otherwise. Andromeda is both the feeling of being at work fantasizing about a vacation and being on a vacation wishing you had work to do, except made into a sci-fi game.
There’s just enough that’s different to make it feel like new possibilities are waiting around every corner even while you spend most of your time doing the same few actions over and over (set the waypoint, find the thing, scan the thing). It becomes an adventure in the same way going to a different supermarket on the other side of town does, even though you’re still picking up the same milk, eggs and bread you always do. Andromeda’s supermarkets just happen to benefit from also being in outer space.
Where the first three games were a space odyssey, Andromeda turned out to be a much more limited saga about the everyday trials and tribulations of colonizing planets millions of light years away. While the villains of Andromeda are threatening genocide, the sheer number of planets to explore and the litany of side missions and subtasks berating you every time the game is paused make that conflict with the Khett feel anything but central.
After the credits roll, the game sends players back to their ship to attend to all the work that’s still unfinished. For all the hemming and hawing about stopping the megalomaniacle Khett or finding the secret, alien-made utopia hidden somewhere in the Helios clust, it’s these loose ends where the game succeeds most. Understandably, making sure terraforming gizmos were working correctly and mining weirdly named minerals was not the mission most players had in mind when they signed up for the game, but the game nails this management loop with admirable efficiency. Completing missions to make your colonization efforts more sustainable earns points that can be invested to reap daily rewards like blueprints for better armor, upgrades to the Nomad, and cheaper prices for commodities at trading posts. You can also go shoot stuff in the online cooperative mode, building out other characters and their skill trees in exchange for more money and materials to outfit your main character with stronger equipment to make maintenance runs on hostile planet surfaces that much easier.
When I first started the game I rolled my eyes at this bloated spreadsheet, like a more complicated version of the stickers a parent might award a child to make doing chores seem fun. The upshot of these baroque RPG systems, however, is that they give you endless reasons to explore the star system, either on foot or by ship. Voeld, as well as the shimmering jungles on Havarl and the brutal, sun-baked surface of Elaaden, are all worth the countless visits it’ll take to sort out their myriad problems. The fights with giant robot artifacts on the latter two alone warrant an extra trip.
These places, like the galaxy they call home, feel lived in, even if they’re sparse and mostly unpopulated. They’re welcoming not in the spending a month at your grandmother’s bungalow during the summer kind of way but rather like when you rent a shorehouse for a week and fill it with your favorite junk food. The furniture is all beachy and generic. A sign saying something like “Sandy Toes And Salty Kisses” hangs inexplicably by the entrance way and yet it feels immediately yours.. At just about any time in Andromeda you can go to just about any part of it and scan something, shoot something, or flirt with someone.
The stuff you get will disappear into a crowded inventory or the words spoken will quickly be forgotten, like most conversations we ever have. Almost every time you come back, however, they’ll still be something else for you to go do, a few more mindless jobs to complete for perfect NPC strangers.. If you want to save the galaxy, there’s no better games than the original Mass Effect trilogy. But if you want to actually live in it and come to know it intimately, you have to toil in Mass Effect: Andromeda.