Spoilers ahead, including for the ending.
I finished Mass Effect: Andromeda last night—the main story, that is, because I will never hundred-percent those wasted planets—and felt the opposite of what I've been feeling for nearly 10 years now. I don’t want more Mass Effect. At least, not if it stays this course.
Andromeda is a thousand ton tangle of narrative cables spread across a galaxy, ambitious and unwieldy. Characters reference events that haven’t happened, talk over themselves, don’t know if you’re coming or going—their dialogue only guesses at what part of the tangle you’ve navigated so far. That isn't my problem with Andromeda. Only BioWare makes RPGs like this, and each of its games is a hell of an achievement, even one as knotty and wild as Andromeda.
I enjoyed Andromeda in part because of that heft. As I pushed through bugs and boring sidequests it could still delight me with a casual exchange between my squadmates, a reference to something I’d done earlier or a joke at my expense. I’m not hung up on animation glitches and I’ve pushed aside the reams of dull, expository dialogue to appreciate the fun exchanges where I’m getting shit for cheating on my ship girlfriend with my land boyfriend.
Even if it were untangled and smoothed over, which BioWare , I still wouldn’t have left Andromeda feeling primed to come back. If a sequel happens—and this—I hope they freeze me and shoot me at another star 600 years away. Start the whole thing over, because this canvas was primed with bad paint: a science fiction story that runs away from all its interesting science fiction ideas. Andromeda is afraid of its own premise.
Party boat colonizers
Few aboard the arks had a good reason to colonize Andromeda. It wasn’t for a more comfortable life. Settler life is hard. It wasn’t for freedom or wealth—though the civilizations of the Milky Way are capitalist—because there’s no way to trade with their home galaxy or ever return, and the Initiative isn't exactly egalitarian. It wasn’t to escape impending doom, though doom was impending. When asked, the characters answer: Because science! Because exploration! To escape something in my past?
These are ridiculous reasons to colonize a new galaxy. The Milky Way includes 100 billion stars, and that wasn’t enough?
If you watched all the dad fragments, you know the truth: the Reapers were the motivation for the Andromeda Initiative. Of course they were, but why this is a secret baffles me. If the settlers believed they were the last of their kind, a science fiction story could begin—what would humanity do to survive? But with nearly everyone blissfully ignorant, they’re just a bunch of weirdo tourists who slept their way across dark space because it seemed cool.
The Andromeda Initiative is an aimless, friendly invasion, which helps it avoid too much discomfort. Rather than conquering Aya and Havarl, the two most viable planets, humans and the Milky Way aliens make nice with the pleasant angaran natives, who integrate easily even as we kill their people in skirmishes with the anti-alien Roekaar faction. The real enemies are the kett, after all, competing invaders who are violent, cult-like assimilators akin to the borg. We’re cleared to kill them on sight within minutes of arriving in Andromeda. And shooting the Roekaar is just self-defense on our part, not on theirs.
But it is self-defense for them. The Roekaar are called xenophobic for their distrust of aliens, but they’re not xenophobes, they’re responding to an invasion. The Initiative is clearly more advanced than the angara, and when advanced civilizations meet less-advanced civilizations, history is clear on what happens—I assume even in Mass Effect’s world.
But not this time! Andromeda concludes that despite a few political differences here and there, we’re fundamentally good invaders in contrast to the kett, who are fundamentally bad invaders. They want to assimilate you into their collective. We, however, just came to hang out.
Had the kett been just as hostile but natives themselves—not evil co-invaders bent on galactic domination—Andromeda’s characters would’ve had some real struggles. If we win the war, which we initiated by flying into their galaxy, what will we do to them then? Does our survival matter more than theirs? As it is, the issue is intentionally avoided and then barely addressed with the Roekaar, who Ryder kills without much guilt. We came to a new place, defeated the other invaders, and saved the natives (except for a few bad seeds who just didn't get us), just like no culture in recorded history has done. We're the kindest colonialists ever.
The Nexus uprising comes closer to having an idea. What happens when a civilization is stranded, never able to return to home, and hope is dying? Andromeda’s answer is authoritarianism, rebellion, and exile. This bubble is prodded more thoroughly than the colonization bubble, but never popped. Is Director Tann a fascist hiding behind pleasantries? Even if he is, Ryder can laugh it off.
Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Liu Cixin’s science fiction series, Remembrance of Earth’s Past, alongside playing Andromeda. It also involves aliens who threaten human life, interstellar travel, and space colonization—and I could quote it endlessly.
“Life reached an evolutionary milestone when it climbed onto land from the ocean, but those first fish that climbed onto land ceased to be fish,” warns one character in Death’s End, the final novel of the trilogy. “Similarly, when humans truly enter space and are freed from the Earth, they cease to be human. So, to all of you I say this: When you think about heading into outer space without looking back, please reconsider. The cost you must pay is far greater than you could imagine.”
The cost in Andromeda’s case was about 10 hours of space mining, but more to the point, I can’t think of a single interesting quote from Andromeda. Where Liu fills hundreds of pages with questions about cosmic sociology, space fascism, quantum mechanics, colonization, and war, Andromeda whispers them. They float around, listless and transparent, drifting away when the story needs to progress and far duller questions are asked and answered. What would happen if evil aliens assimilated other species, integrating their DNA and turning them into drone-like cultists, but you could kill them? You’d kill them. What would happen if you found ancient alien tech that could terraform planets? You might try to turn it on. Did God create us? Maybe, or maybe it was ancient aliens.
Leave it all behind, I say. The kett aren’t interesting. The angara aren’t interesting. They’re muck that chokes all the actually interesting ideas in Mass Effect, like why a society terrified by artificial intelligence keeps building the damn things, and whether or not every corner of the universe is stuffed with aliens who want to kill us. If you believe Liu, it is, and for a good reason—one Andromeda doesn’t even wonder about while we craft our shotguns. No one asks why the kett are doing what they're doing. They're just bad.
The big Mass Effect reset, as much as I enjoyed the little character details and the combat, was a dud for me. It starts with a great premise—humanity is invading a new galaxy—and then shies away from asking what humanity becomes as a result. But it can be reset again.
As Chris wrote in , Mass Effect is a series of reinventions. They’re always imperfect, but starting with Mass Effect 2 each game has ambitiously formed its own identity and defied expectations. What I currently expect from an Andromeda sequel is another big kett bad guy—the end sets that up very clearly—and more driving around planets helping people stuck in sinkholes. I hope it defies that expectation.