Two hours into Mass Effect: Andromeda, I was pretty lost and more than usually confused. To be clear though, I mean that as compliment. Let me back up a bit.
I’m a sucker for music, so it features prominently in many of my fond game memories. I remember the thrill I felt the first time I launched Knights of the Old Republic. I still frequently find myself whistling the theme from the first Dragon Warrior that I played on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. And of course I like the music from the original Mass Effect: the gentle atmospheric theme over the start screen, the driving melody in the opening cinematic, all of it.
Naturally, I was pretty excited to start Mass Effect Andromeda and then sit patiently, listening without playing it.
The menu music is a little reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel soundtrack. I like it. It’s evocative, as much mood as melody, but it’s not just noise. (Which distinguishes it from much of Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel soundtrack, which is just noise.) What does it evoke? For me, melancholy but vast open spaces, with a touch of challenge and hope. That is to say that I think it does a nice job of setting up a story about a one way trip to a huge unknown galaxy, a story about finding a way to live there since going home isn’t an option. As I sat there listening to the music, I was pretty sure I was going to like the game.
I read some reviews that didn’t like the character editor. I thought it was fine. It’s pretty largely unchanged from the previous games, although I found it easier than they were. Plus, I got to design two characters instead of just one. I decided to make the brother/sister pair look like how I imagine my own kids will look when they’re older.
If something happens to one of them, I’m going to be pretty upset.
I’ll admit that the opening of the game surprised me a bit. The first Mass Effect had a brilliant opening cinematic that really got me invested both in my character and in the excitement of exploring this interesting future world. Mass Effect 2’s opening was ill-conceived (like most of the game), but action packed. Mass Effect 3’s opening had some slow parts (and was also ill-conceived), but opened with something dramatic and ended with lots of action.
Mass Effect: Andromeda begins with some shuttles flying away from Earth and around the moon. They fly toward Ark Hyperion; the people on board the shuttle look excited. The Hyperion sits perfectly still. There’s the standard “story so far” text, the Andromeda logo, and then Ark Hyperion appears as if from nowhere in Andromeda. It travels slowly past the camera. A handy display informs us that this is hour 0 day 0. My character wakes up with a gasp. Someone offers him coffee.
I kid you not.
It’s a very different style of opening. It’s easy to imagine a slightly more dramatic one, too, something that communicates the inherent potential of the game’s setting. Maybe start with a scene of the Arks approaching the edge of the Milky Way. Crew are shouting last minute commands. The player character and his family are getting ready to go into stasis. The music swells. Finally everything is ready; someone gives the order. Insert the “Story so far text.” The music reaches its crescendo and we cut back to the arks as they jump to Faster than Light speed and the “Mass Effect Andromeda” logo appears in their place.
Then maybe have a montage, scenes of an empty ship patiently waiting intercut with pictures of sleeping people. Every couple of seconds, pop up a display of how many years have passed. Finally at the end, we see the Hyperion appearing in Andromeda. Then the hour 0 day 0 has more of a punch.
In any event, I was a little surprised. That being said, I didn’t feel as disappointed as one might expect. Something about the peacefulness of the Hyperion’s slow flyby, its 0 hour designation, the calm conversation that follows, they helped me feel connected to one clear mood: Andromeda as a new place, an empty canvas. There’s a lot of excitement in the idea of just getting to explore it. The slow opening rather unexpectedly helped me focus on that excitement.
Maybe that’s intentional. I’ll come back to it again in a little while.
Signs of Trouble
My character’s exciting new life of exploration gets off to a bit of a rocky start. I don’t think the reveal of the dark energy cloud is handled very well, but I mostly think that in retrospect. At the time I thought the sudden impact nicely communicated what my character was feeling: everything was going well and then something really worrisome happened.
Again, while the game is clearly going to have some sort of plot and conflict or it would be dull, I thought the opening did a good job of establishing the baseline as exploration and opportunity. Rather than feeling like a action game with a slow beginning, it felt like an exploration game in which there’s sudden conflict.
The next bits didn’t go well for me, the player, either. This is the first Mass Effect I’ve played on a console with a controller, so I was finding it really difficult to orient myself. People were shouting at me. There was a definite sense of urgency. Messages kept popping up on the screen with hints and instructions. I just couldn’t read any of the messages because the text was too small, and I didn’t hear any of the shouted instructions because I was trying to read the game hints, and I couldn’t figure out where the door was or which way I was supposed to be looking because I didn’t get any of the instructions.
It’s probably a good thing that 20,000 colonists weren’t depending on me.
Then there was another cinematic involving people flying on shuttles. Bioware must have invested heavily in shuttles, and wanted to get their money’s worth. I guess I can appreciate the immersion, but at the time I was mostly thinking that, instead of seeing a great view of what was outside the Hyperion, I was seeing the back of my character while he saw a great view.
At which point I was starting to worry about the game.
Then this happened:
When everything took a bad turn for my character, it took a good turn for me. Once I was on the planet, I started liking just about everything. This goes back to the joy of exploration that I mentioned earlier. I suddenly felt really strongly that I was a stranger in a new galaxy, and that I was allowed to explore it. Even more, I felt like the galaxy was worth exploring.
This is what I meant about being lost and confused. There was so much map for me to explore that I got turned around, and that much room is exactly what an exploration game needs. Better yet, I never felt like I was just marching through empty (albeit beautiful) filler. Everywhere I went I found something interesting. I didn’t know what most of it was, but it was interesting and I was allowed to investigate it.
In short I felt like someone on a strange planet, and I was thrilled. I can’t wait to play more.