Mass Effect Andromeda
Current Status: credits have rolled. Approximately 60 hours, approximately 80% game completion. Level 53. Still a few side quests to tool around with, as well as a narrative epilogue to wrap up.
It’s interesting to me how, even though I’ve been playing games for most of my life, I don’t necessarily have the same associative recall with games that I do with, say, music or books or film. For instance: I saw Pulp Fiction in the $1.50 theater about 8 or 10 times one summer with my best friend Steve, and so I will always associate that movie with him. My girlfriend in high school introduced me to The Smiths and The Cure and, though she didn’t mean to, made me hate Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”. I will always remember listening to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” with my friend Aleks, as we gorged on junk food. The first time I ever got stoned, my soundtrack was Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland” – an album I’d appreciated but clearly didn’t get, on a visceral level, until that one fateful evening.
There are a few game-centered memories, of course; my younger brother had a Sega Genesis when he was growing up, and we’d play NBA Jam and Streets of Rage 1-3 long after my mom had given up trying to get us to show up for dinner. Jongre, my first real friend at my first real job out of college, had a PS1 and we played Oddworld and Crash Bandicoot all the goddamned time (while listening to Aceyalone’s “Book of Human Language”). My other friend (and very occasional SFTC contributor) Greg and I would nerd out endlessly over Grim Fandango and Giants: Citizen Kabuto. (We still nerd out about games pretty much every day, as it turns out.) I had some friends from the Gamespot forums in the early 00s that I will always associate with Burnout 3, Ghost Recon, and Phantom Dust.
But the truth is, over the last 17 years or so my life has been somewhat static; I don’t have the same associative memories if only because not all that much has changed. I’m married and have a kid and I moved to the suburbs, but my day job is still the same and I don’t necessarily hang out with people the way I used to. In other words, there is less of an opportunity for me to associate media with people, because I’m a lot less social now than I used to be.
In any event, I did not play 60 hours of Mass Effect Andromeda because it was a good game (though it became… well… less bad after a while). I played 60 hours of MEA because I was in a dark place last week, missing out on a Florida vacation with my wife and kid so that I could stay behind and help my mom recover from a nearly-fatal illness. MEA was the thing that helped pull me through each difficult day. I’d come home from the hospital exhausted and depleted, and MEA had just enough shit to do to help distract me from missing my family. Ironically, MEA’s below-average storytelling is probably the reason why I kept with it; which is to say, I didn’t have to pay attention to what I was doing; I just had a ton of stuff to do, and I did it, and because I didn’t particularly care what it was that I was doing, it was easy to turn off when I had to go to bed.
MEA is not a bad game. It does feel undercooked and scatterbrained, and it’s clearly going for the “let’s fill up the map with waaaaay too much shit to do” ideal of level design pioneered by Ubisoft. And it’s buggy, even after the most recent patch – while I didn’t encounter any hard crashes after that patch, I did fall through the world a few times, and I had to reload the final boss battle because of a weird bug. And its UI is a goddamned mess – I know nothing about game design but I could probably crank out at least 1000 words on MEA’s UI issues alone. I think it’s easy to piss all over it because the original trilogy is held in such high regard (especially by me), and MEA is disappointing in almost every respect when compared to its predecessors.
In and of itself, though, it probably has the best combat in the entire series – and while combat is not why I play Mass Effect games, it’s the primary reason why I didn’t turn this one off immediately. Sure, some of the random encounters on hostile planets get tedious and annoying, but the actual mission setpieces are quite fun and enjoyable and satisfying to complete.
If MEA is the launching pad for a new trilogy, I think there’s a tremendous amount of potential for this series to regain its footing. But I also think that it’s perhaps a little too restricted by its forebears; this is a new galaxy, and because it’s not really tied into the events of the first trilogy it shouldn’t necessarily be required to think the same way. I suppose my real disappointment with MEA’s narrative is simply that, for all intents and purposes, the new species of alien aren’t that much different from the Milky Way’s aliens; I was sort of hoping that we’d get into not just a different physical look, but a whole new way of thought and communication and living. Instead, it’s just a British accent and some different weaponry, but the same mundane neuroses and petty political squabbles apply. MEA feels almost too familiar, as if Bioware were afraid to mess with their pre-established formula.
I am aware that I’ve spent nearly this entire post being negative; and if I were giving the game a score, I’d probably aim for the 6-7 out of 10 range. And yet I played it to completion, and I don’t regret doing so. It was mindless and big and helped me escape my own loneliness and depression, at least for a little while. I only hope that I don’t have to play MEA2 under similar circumstances.