I was pretty negative last time, so I want to be clear. Four hours into Mass Effect: Andromeda, I was really enjoying myself and was glad I had bought the game. (That last is more significant than it may seem. I nearly never buy games at launch; I wait until the price drops, usually a lot.) I already thought it was great.
Then it impressed me.
When You Say Nothing At All
After elder Ryder hastily sacrificed himself and my character became the unlikely new Pathfinder, there was a cutscene featuring the aliens I’d been fighting, folk I now know to call “the Kett.”
It was impressive because it was subtle. The game had already established a language barrier, so there wasn’t any dialogue. That’s always a tricky limitation, but not only was it not a problem, the scene was so good that I didn’t even notice that no one was speaking. It was even surprisingly poignant.
At first an obviously important fellow joined the rest of the Kett. (I’m going to call him Ring-head, at least until some better name comes along.) They were on the platform outside of what I’m going to call the Lightning Control Triangle–I don’t have any idea what else to call it—the platform where my character had been fighting just before. There was something going on, it involved a little drone. I was curious to see where it was going.
Then Ring-head walked up to the Lightning Control Triangle. At this point I started to piece things together. Because I had explored the planet so thoroughly, I had learned that the Kett seemed to be researching the older artifacts on the planet, artifacts that seemed to be contemporaries of the Doom Lightning Spire. It made sense that they had probably been trying to get into the Lightning Control Triangle themselves. Then the drone projected a recording of what elder Ryder had done, and that made sense too. They wanted to know what we had been doing there.
Then Ring-head hesitantly, almost innocently, mimicked what elder Ryder had done with his hand.
Nothing happened for him, so soon he lowered his hand again and looked at it with disappointment.
Then he looked at the hologram of elder Ryder, and I completely empathized with him. I didn’t know what it is he was looking for or why, but I understood that he was frustrated. Crazy aliens had just fallen out of the sky and done something he still couldn’t do, and couldn’t even understand.
It was a very gentle and nuanced introduction to a character I presume is one of the major antagonists of the game. It’s in stark contrast, for example, to the cutscene from Mass Effect 1 in which Saren throws a tantrum and trashes his own room. And it was all done without any dialogue.
Lives of Quiet Desperation
Then the game jumped to the Hyperion arriving at the Nexus. I admit to being slightly confused at the time. Some character expressed concern that the Nexus wasn’t finished yet, and I didn’t understand why they would expect it to be finished. I had to go into the Codex and do some reading to find out that the Nexus left first and was supposed to be ready and waiting for the arks.
In any event, a worrisome lack of greeting greeted my weary new Pathfinder. Naturally, my team and I disembarked to investigate, and we found the Nexus dark, unfinished, and seemingly abandoned. At that point the game could have gone any number of ways. Everyone could have really been gone, and finding them could have been part of the plot. Everyone could have been dead, and fighting what killed them could have been part of the plot. Maybe what killed them might have still been there in the dark, waiting to jump out at me.
I expected to find monsters, or bodies, or mystery. Instead I found an engineer doing repairs by himself in the dark. Then I expected him to be some sort of zombie. Instead, he was just really confused. The people on the Nexus had given up hope.
To be entirely honest, I’m still a little bit confused about how the Nexus was supposed to arrive early and yet everyone on board was surprised that it arrived before anyone else. Nevertheless, I like how the game doubled down on one of its central conceits: the trip to Andromeda is a huge risk. There’s no going back, and no chance for rescue.
There are lots of different ways to communicate that. The most obvious would have been some sort of greeting party, who welcomed us to the Nexus and mentioned that they had stopped expecting us. It was just so much more effective to show that they had stopped expecting anyone by having the welcome area completely abandoned. And then the confused engineer made it more heartbreaking. They had lived with despair so long that he didn’t even know how to react when something good happened.
I really appreciated that tone on the Nexus as I explored it. To be clear I don’t like soul-sucking despair, I just like that the game has taken such pains to establish an interesting, dramatic, and sympathetic starting point for adventure. I’ve said before that I liked the focus on exploration, the vast galaxy and the chance to investigate it. My time on the Nexus added a new layer to it: Andromeda isn’t just a huge and interesting space, it’s also daunting.
I can’t wait to get out in it.