Mass Effect: Andromeda’s aliens are a missed opportunity

In our last conversation about Mass Effect: Andromeda, we had divided opinions about its first few hours. That hasn’t changed as we’ve all ventured further, with disappointment over the plot and dialogue clashing with admiration for a pleasantly expansive RPG. But a few of us agree on one particular issue: where are all the cool aliens? 

Spoilers lie ahead, if you haven’t played past the first encounter on Aya, but we don’t reveal any major events of the mid-game or ending. We discuss our love of aliens, Andromeda’s disappointing commitment to the ones we know rather than the creatures that could have been, its lackluster handling of exploration, and whether or not space Sudoku is any good. We also spitball some ideas of our own, indulging in the ease of armchair game designing (or maybe hinting at a secret passion for fanfic writing).

James Davenport: What if, after 600 years of cryogenic sleep, you arrived at an earth-like cluster of planets and there were only four stiff, dull animals across all of them? And the only advanced lifeform was a fish-people who build homes into cliffsides that look like Asimov’s vision of Ikea in 100 years? I’d read it as a critique of the wonder and optimism that comes with space operas, but this is Mass Effect. I’m dying to be charmed and wooed by whatever wacky space nonsense it wants to throw at me. But there’s nothing there. No jellyfish people, no stumpy elcor, no new equivalent of the charming and rotund volus. Andromeda is vapid, at least in terms of how it makes use of the premise. 

Tyler Wilde: I had hoped we’d run into a vibrant galactic society, reliving the experience we had in Mass Effect 1, where we’re meeting aliens as a newcomer to the interstellar stage, except this time all my krogan, asari, and salarian pals would be newcomers, too. That seemed like it was the point of setting Andromeda in a new galaxy.

Everything here makes “what if an entire species of blue space babes” seem crazy and out-there by comparison.

Jody Macgregor: I assumed the Citadel was full of alien species we never even got to meet, that the elcor and the hanar were just the tip of an iceberg and that iceberg was made of weird space people who would be my friends. That there were even stranger species out there and it was only technical limitations that stopped us from meeting sentient equations or beings who existed as a quantum superposition outside of time or had, like, three eyes. I thought we'd get to meet them in Andromeda, but so far everything here makes “what if an entire species of blue space babes” seem crazy and out-there by comparison.

Evan Lahti: I want to be understanding about it. I mean, there are probably engine limitations to being able to easily create weird, quadrupedal, eyeless blobs who talk out of three vertical mouths. But when we meet Andromeda's 'big' new civilization, the Angarans, we're basically dropped on an Earthlike planet with waterfalls and ferns and thrown into Earthlike circumstances. They're humans in costume.

Tyler: First contact goes extremely smoothly, yeah. They treat you with caution, but it’s as if you’re a soldier on horseback riding out to negotiate a truce, not an intergalactic traveller. The big joke is that you do handshakes differently.

Jody: You meet an alien and he wears a poncho, but he doesn't call it a poncho. How exotic! The aliens in Andromeda are at basically the same tech level as the other aliens we've met, and even have the same backwards avian knees the turians, quarians, and other now-familiar species have. If they showed up on Omega we wouldn't have blinked.

There was such a great opportunity to do the ‘aliens land on earth’ story in reverse, with awe-struck aliens reacting to the existence of humans.

 Tyler: Suppose we met aliens who weren’t advanced space travelers? There was such a great opportunity to do the ‘aliens land on earth’ story in reverse, with awe-struck aliens reacting to the existence of humans. And then they’re blown over again when they discover humans also hang out with krogan, asari, and salarians. It’s the first scene I would’ve pitched!

Jody: Something like the “klaatu barada nikto” scene from The Day The Earth Stood Still only with us as the high-tech alien visitor? That would have been great. I'd have settled for the “bah-weep-graaaaagnah wheep ni ni bong” scene from Transformers: The Movie. On the subject of greeting aliens by saying space nonsense, isn't it convenient how quickly SAM and our omni-tool translators turn everything into English? And the aliens seem to have the same technology? They'd feel more alien if they didn't develop Australian accents so quickly is what I'm saying.

Tyler: I just wanted someone to cite the prime directive, dammit! Anyway, I do like one thing about the Angarans, which is that they aren’t a retread of an alien archetype—the warlike one, the logical one, the hyper-intelligent one. They’re just emotional fellows who love their families. It’s sort of sweet, if not exactly exciting.

Jody: I get the impression BioWare had no idea we'd want to bang turians and have been playing catch-up ever since. They thought we'd meet a crusty bird-dog man and think he was strange, and instead we wanted to smooch him. Maybe the angarans are familiar and equal because they were designed with the limits of bangability in mind. But everyone should know by now that there is nothing people on the internet won't want to shag. Aliens with three mouths? That's just more options for kissing with.

Tyler: You know someone would be into a romanceable volus. But I didn’t even need them to look wacky, I just wanted to really absorb a strange culture or way of thinking. Instead, there’s a sidequest about learning their complicated commerce laws.

A game like Astroneer does such a better job of inspiring you to explore, and it has zero NPCs.

Jody: It's cool how Andromeda commits to its theme of exploration so much that Ryder has the option to say “because adventure” and it's seen as a sensible reason for everything. But it's a game about exploration where you're part of the second wave. Almost everything on the maps has already been marked.

Tyler: I guess this is a spoiler, but the game never mentions the inconsistency as far as I can tell: Even your first contact with the Angarans isn’t actually first contact. You find out just a little later that they’ve already met humans and turians. In fact, they’re working with a human. So yeah, you’re very much the second wave. I’ve driven the Nomad all over the planets, and all I discover are the same Remnant obelisks, the same Kett dropships, the same sad colonists who want me to find something for them. I find this problem in a lot of games, though. What does make for good videogame exploration, without becoming frustrating because you're wandering aimlessly for hours?

James: I think good exploration is propped up by rewarding your natural curiosity. If I see something in the distance and go out of my way to check it out, I expect to find something new or strange there.

Tyler: Like aliens! Who aren’t shooting at me!

Evan: A game like Astroneer does such a better job of inspiring you to explore, and it has zero NPCs.

James: Yeah, and that isn’t to say I should find something every time, but often enough to make every smudge on the horizon a big juicy question mark. Andromeda has curious smudges on the horizon, but they’re all combat encounters with tech to scan or crashed ships waiting for a future quest to bring you back around. I can’t recall a single time that exploration led me to discover anything new about the world. I hollowed out an entire Remnant vault and all I got were some containers of loot. Even worse is that none of the worlds are dangerous. It’s possible to drive by nearly every encounter and there isn’t any territory full of high-level enemies I can’t take on. It’s all kett, bandits, and the same goofy bunch of animals.  

Tyler: And what is off-limits is that way because it’s irradiated, or whatever the planet’s special problem is. I remember when I first got to Eos, there were quest markers in one of the super-irradiated areas I couldn’t go to. So I knew what was there, I just wasn’t allowed to complete those quests yet.

Now we’ve discovered abandoned vaults that make the weather a bit better.

Jody: I like the glyphs. I've started looking up answers to the Sudoku puzzles, but I enjoy climbing up a spike and scanning a symbol that was written in negative space and my AI compares to the silences in music. Do the Remnants speak jazz? Is it about the gaps between the glyphs? Should I be enjoying the spaces between objective markers on the map?

Tyler: I do enjoy the little logic problem breaks from shooting. It’s so human, though, that it does make the Remnant feel quaint—maybe the galaxy was populated by an ancient species of Will Shortzes. That’s another disappointment for me. Yet again, we encounter ancient alien tech, but this time it’s… less interesting ancient alien tech. Back in the original trilogy humanity discovered abandoned gates that opened up interstellar travel—a dream come true. Now we’ve discovered abandoned vaults that make the weather a bit better.

Evan: I just don't feel like we're being unreasonable. I like a lot of sci-fi, and all of it is flawed. I haven't finished Andromeda yet, but it hasn't yet met my low expectations for exploration and pioneering. Hopefully some of the later quests will make me feel differently.

Tyler: I definitely put high expectations on Andromeda with my premature dreams of hanging out with a dozen new aliens. Obviously, there are limits to what really could have been done in five years. And I don’t think what BioWare made is bad, or that it would necessarily be better if it did everything I wanted it to do. I like being surprised. But it really commits to not surprising me. It immediately establishes that these Remnant vaults are the key to my task, and that the evil kett want to control them. The structure of the game is laid out before me: activate the vaults, establish more colonies, beat back the kett, and make inappropriate comments to my crewmates, who easily tell me their motivations, personalities, and backstory. Except PeeBee. She's one of the better characters, only for the reason that she keeps some things from you.

Jody: Our expectations have collided pretty hard with the reality of Andromeda. I expected to be surprised, which doesn't make much sense when you think about it. But yeah, it does lay everything out real quick. The pacing feels off, like there should have been more time to stumble through awkward first contact, or be weirded out by the situation on the Nexus when you first arrive. There's implied time passing when outposts are set up and during space travel (enough time for movie night), but for a game with such a slow start, Andromeda feels like it's rushing through the interesting bits. Experiencing culture clash with whole new species, driving off into an inexplicable frontier—that's the stuff I'd like it to dwell on.

Tyler: Totally agree. I would have given up much of the open world exploration if it meant a greater focus on making Andromeda a hotbed for alien life, with denser cities and more complicated relationships—both with my crew and with any unusual new cultures I encountered. The combat’s fun, though.