Way back at the beginning of the year, I decided that I needed to spend some time whittling down the pile of shame I've amassed over the last couple of years. It's gotten to the point of being ridiculous - a drawer full of Xbox One games, a smattering of PS4 games, more digital games than I can be bothered to count. Worse still is that none of this appears to stop me from buying new games - or, in the case of my Nintendo Switch, new systems. A new system which is now busily amassing its own pile of shame.
In the last month or so, I've finished Metro Exodus and The Walking Dead: The Final Season. I've torn through numerous indie games - The Gardens Between, Tacoma, and What Remains Of Edith Finch (which is the first game my daughter has ever fallen in love with, and is without doubt one of the most beautiful games I've ever played.) All of those were comparatively short-haul though. I was nibbling around the edges of the pile when what I needed to be doing was to take an enormous bite. It was time to cross off one of the big ones. Looking through the collection, there was one obvious standout - and that was Mass Effect Andromeda. I fired up my save, and sure enough, there I was. Somewhere, doing something, for someone. I couldn't remember where I was, what I was doing, or who I was doing it for. The game was happy for me to continue merrily on, piecing my recollection together as I went - but I decided it would be easiest to start again. So I did. And I'm glad I did. After a period of time enjoying shorter and more focused experiences, I'm enjoying the sheer scale.
Mass Effect Andromeda gets a bad rap. Coming after a trilogy that some regard as being the best gaming has to offer was never going to be an easy feat, but its problems were compounded by a difficult development and some questionable narrative decisions. It's been done to death in other places, many times. It absolutely deserves a lot of the criticism that's leveled at it; the dialogue is at times cringe-worthy, the characters often cliched caricatures. The story, even as close to the beginning as I am, is nothing that hasn't been done before. I haven't hit the inevitable twist in it yet but have a feeling I know what it's going to be, having just landed on the ice planet Voeld. And yet in spite of these issues, I'm having a lot of fun. In fact - and this might be controversial - I think I'm having more fun with this one than I did with Mass Effect 3. The animation issues that plagued it at launch have obviously been patched (or I've been lucky in not running into them yet), and the game runs well in 4K on my Xbox One X - I've only experienced one little stutter.
This is a game that's remembered for so many of the bad things it did that the good things are often overlooked - and these are the things that I'm finding myself enjoying the most as I play through it.
If there's one thing the Mass Effect games have long been recognised for, it's their scale. A Mass Effect game should be massive. It should encompass planets and star systems, with missions causing you to traverse them. A conversation with an NPC in one hub world or another can lead you on a wild goose chase across several systems, with branching narratives and different possible outcomes. Andromeda conforms to this expectation - not only in the sheer number of different planets out there, but also in terms of the environments that you'll visit. Each remnant monolith site is enormous, built to an alien scale that dwarfs anything seen in most games. These spaces, while actually a linear set of corridors and combat bubbles, give the illusion of an unfathomably massive underground space that a person could get lost in forever.
The open areas of the various planets are large too - but what I'm enjoying most is the visual distinctions. The hub of the Nexus looks completely different to Aya. Eos is a desert, Havarl is an Avatar-inspired luminescent jungle. Voeld is a frozen mass, with massive creatures swimming in the ocean and just visible through the ice. The variety is holding my attention for the moment - and it helps that the environments look great and sound good too. Each new planet seems to bring a new alien race, and with it more lore for the universe, more quests and side quests. The depth is added layer by layer, and in a way that's similar to the earlier games, learning the different perspectives of events experienced by the different races paints the story and history of the Andromeda galaxy in shades of grey.
You travel between the worlds using Andromeda's answer to the Normandy SR-2 - the Tempest. She looks like the Normandy. Her capabilities are reminiscent of those of the Normandy. Even her layout is basically the same - and yet none of this detracts from her. The spaceship that acts as your central hub in the Mass Effect series has always been aesthetically gorgeous. It's your own Starship Enterprise; your own Millennium Falcon. Or your own Serenity. I think more console games need spaceships - but they need to become more than what they are. I long for a game where I can own a spacecraft and customise it. In terms of its appearance, and its performance. I want one that can pick up scuffs and scratches and need repairs. A craft that's as much a character as the people who travel within it. This is not that game - but seeing as it doesn't pretend to be, that can't be used as a criticism of it. The Tempest does what it needs to do - looks cool, and lets you sort stuff out between missions. It's just not something you're likely to get too attached to.
Where I'm finding Andromeda to really shine though is in the combat and the customisation - and with the benefit of hindsight, there's another game that employs these systems as effectively as they are here. That game is Anthem.
I didn't put too much time into Anthem - it had far more issues than I was willing to tolerate, and I ended up uninstalling it before I even reached the end of the campaign. However, my limited time with it did reveal two features that impressed me. The first of these was the combo driven combat, the second was a deep visual customisation system. At the time, not having played too much of Mass Effect Andromeda, I believed that both of these features were new additions to the Bioware stable. And... I was wrong. Much as I did in Anthem, I discovered the combos in Andromeda's combat system by accident. After levelling up a couple of times, I had a loadout that consisted of a concussion shot, an incendiary shot, and a biotic "push" ability - the latter of which hurled an enemy into the air. I found that hitting an enemy with a concussion shot followed by an incendiary shot would cause "combo!" to display, and massive damage to be dealt. I could get the same result by using the push ability and then, while the affected enemy was airborne, hitting them with a concussion shot. There's a lot of text in Mass Effect Andromeda - it could well be that this is explained somewhere within it - but as in Anthem, it's not specifically explained during the natural course of gameplay. The stats on this achievement say it all:
Less than 20% of players managed to perform this action 100 times - even though once you learn it's there and that it's one of the most effective tactics, you'll do it constantly. It works exactly the same as it does in Anthem... meaning that one of the things I liked most about that game wasn't actually new.
The visual customisation system allows you to apply different tints to different layers of your armour, and automatically inherit the settings on to any new armour picked up. It's easy to use, effective... and it's basically identical to the one used in Anthem. The difference is that in Anthem this feature was front and centre (hell, it was shown off in reveal trailers!) whereas in Andromeda, it resides in a console in your quarters on The Tempest. If you don't specifically visit it, you'd never know it was there.
I'm going to stick with Andromeda until I finish it, this time. It didn't grab me enough to stand against whatever it was that dragged me away from it in July 2017 - but that's not the case this time around. I've found myself invested in it. I'm having fun with it, and it's scratching my RPG itch nicely. No, it's not perfect. No, it's perhaps not as good as its predecessors. It gets a lot wrong - especially if you view it through the narrow lens of comparison with the games that came before it. But in the years that have passed since it released, with the volume of the online hate turned down, I don't think it's anywhere near as bad as it was made out to be. Time has a way of putting things in perspective. At the time that Andromeda launched, Bioware was a studio with an excellent reputation. Andromeda put a dent in that reputation, while Anthem has subsequently beaten it to within an inch of its life. Andromeda is no longer "the game that killed Bioware" or "the worst game Bioware ever made" - these days it's simply "the Mass Effect game that isn't quite as good as some of the earlier ones", which is a far more fitting description of it. Andromeda should also serve as a reminder: That even the "worst" Mass Effect game can still be better than a lot of other games. And if that's not a reason to hope that Bioware take another swing at it, then nothing ever will be.