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Mass Effect multiplayer underlines Andromeda's by-the-numbers design

Nothing new under the new sun

I don't believe that Mass Effect: Andromeda [official site] is a train wreck. I do believe that it feels like a game made to spec, and is oddly soulless as a result. In singleplayer, this is to some extent disguised behind crusading dialogue and regular planet-hopping, but in multiplayer it is laid bare.

Here's the thing: even after some twenty underwhelming hours with singleplayer, I still want to love Mass Effect Andromeda, to the point where I repeatedly dispute the drab evidence right before my eyes and ears. Though never a full-blooded enthusiast for the series, for the past decade or so it's been a more-or-less happy mainstay of my gaming life. Over-the-top space shenanigans every few years, videogame sci-fi at its most ostentatious - a reliable constant.

For the past few years, I've been simply presuming that Andromeda would continue this trend. The series has had its ups and its downs, but it's always had games that I gladly play every minute of. Why would that change now? I did not expect revelation from Andromeda, but I expected to spend a couple of weeks entirely absorbed by it. Adapting to a reality where that has not happened - one where a new Mass Effect and I simply have not clicked - is an ongoing challenge. Frustrated by singleplayer, where the single greatest problem has been not feeling invested in its events, I turned instead to multiplayer, hoping that, free from rubber faces, leaden lines and an absence of intriguing sci-fi ideas, pure and simple space marine warfare might allow me to enjoy Andromeda.

Instead, what I found was yet more evidence of Mass Effect Andromeda's by-the-numbers design.

Broadly speaking, Mass Effect: Andromeda's team co-op vs AI multiplayer is quite similar to Mass Effect 3's. I rather enjoyed that, as a series of lightweight but engaging skirmishes that were more about having a blast than trying to be lord of all. The similarity is a double-edged sword. On the one side, it's using solid foundations, but on the other it suffers from the same creeping sense of 'been there, done that' that the singleplayer campaign has. Moment to moment in Andromeda's multiplayer, it took real effort to recall exactly which Mass Effect game I was playing and what year I was playing it in.

This is not to say that MEA's multiplayer is bad, or even that I dislike it - instead that, simply, it feels perfunctory. It is Mass Effect 3 multiplayer redux and will likely satisfy its fans, but it's hard to feel moved by more of the same - especially when it's more of something that was derivative in the first place. Mass Effect's multiplayer is AnyGame clad in a superficially high-tech skin, an endlessly spinning merry-go-round of shooting indistinct enemies for ephemeral prizes. The experience of battle is not of a desperate fight for victory or survival, but of hoping to ensure you will earn hundreds of thousands rather than merely tens of thousands of experience points.

Beneath all else, MEA's multiplayer is concerned only with an absurd amount of numbers, many of which also involve absurdly, meaninglessly high denominations. Experience points, three different types of in-game currency (one of which can be paid for with real money), character classes, character levels, character ranks, character skills, character Apex ratings and character-wide universal buffs, weapon rarities, weapon mods, short-term percentage boosters, purchasable packs with randomly allocated rewards... No individual action matters. No individual reward matters.

If anything, the meta-game here is significantly more involved than is the game itself, which involves solid but unexceptional bouts of fighting waves of AI attackers, with a mix of gunplay and hotbar powers. It's perfectly serviceable. I have no particular complaints, other than that the movement doesn't feel quite as fluid as it might in full-fledged shooter. I have no particular praise either, other than that nothing went wrong - no need for facial animations or expository conversations here - and that the moment in each mission where you have to hold out against endless enemies for a couple of minutes until evac arrives can be tight and thrilling.

Notably I have cared more about chasing this torrent of different numbers than I have about any character in Mass Effect Andromeda's singleplayer, including my own. That those numbers feel more personal than do any the stories or relationships I have thus far become embroiled in. No matter how many times I might roll my eyes at my lizard brain, it will always respond to a game that knowingly courts it, and this is no exception.

In the moment, every number feels essential. It is only afterwards that I question how I have passed the last hour or two of my time. About how I only kept playing because I might unlock this or that, but when this or that failed to truly change my experience, I simply turned to pursue the next this or that instead.

Stripped of singleplayer's saga, I see Mass Effect Andromeda more clearly for what I am sure it really is: a repackaging of what has gone before in order to sell it to a newer, younger audience, rather than to build upon past successes and create new ones.

All games are of course designed to sell, and sequels aren't known for often taking risks, but I expected more from Mass Effect's big fresh start in all areas. Instead of spinning in a new or different direction as it diverged from the older trilogy I got the guns-and-numbers structure I already know well both from this series and a thousand other games, particularly the ones which populate the AAA tier.

In order to sell big, they need familiarity and they need compulsion loops. Sometimes, this can be hidden - either by smart gimmicks or by engaging characters and tales, but Mass Effect Andromeda struggles to do this.

In multiplayer I fought half-height ED-209s and clomping rock-things, other times I fought humans and Salarians and Krogan and all the rest, and there was really no difference other than that some are weak, some are strong, some snipe and some thump. But at least, in multiplayer, those numbers are very directly tied to my own actions, my own successes or failures at shooting people in the head or space-knifing them in the belly or space-magicking them on fire.

This makes it, for all the numberwang presentation of levelling up, that little bit more meaningful than slack-jawed planet scanning or passing my tricorder over a new environment in the hope of finding glowing orange things that give me research points. It gains meaning by removing the pretence of meaning that haunts singleplayer.

To play this new Mass Effect's multiplayer for an evening or two or three or every evening for couple of months is not at all unpleasant. It is compulsive, even, in a low level way - and no doubt a fine platform for friends to casually play together. But it is an endless climb up a ladder we have climbed so many times before and without anything that makes this ladder stand out.

That, more than anything, is what makes me disappointed in Andromeda. There's nothing new under this new sun. This could be any Mass Effect. AnyGame.

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