Recently I have been hoofing through Mass Effect Andromeda in my spare time. Like, properly hoofing - 10 hours at a time, like I'm back to being an adolescent with nothing to do except play video games and eat huge quantities of the short-lived early-noughties crisp spinoff Wotsits Wafflers. If anyone knows where I can source Wafflers, please get in touch.
Much like the Wafflers, Andromeda is probably not quite as good as I remember, but I still don't think it's bad. And actually, looking at it with fresh eyes, there's a lot in there that shows how really nearly almost great it is. In fact, I think it would have been much improved with the addition of more trees.
I still think the concept of Andromeda is great. Exploring new worlds, encountering the aliens native to that galaxy, and having a hand in shaping them while also navigating ideas about colonialism meaningfully would have been amazing! It also has, no joke, probably the best combat in the whole series. But Andromeda - which I still don't think is actually bad - also doesn't really engage with the themes it sets up. Plus it kind of just warms over the bad guys from the original trilogy and the open-world-maps-with-a-hub-area kind of levels that I loved running around in Dragon Age: Inquisition without really doing anything new with it.
I can see why BioWare took that approach, though, because some of the levels in DA:I are absolutely fabulous. Even if you hate the Hinterlands because you got trapped there for the first 20 hours of the game, there's a lot of surprising things to find there, and key structures to aim for or use as waypoints (the chateau, the ruins in the woods, the farm, and so on). The maps in Inquistion are excellent examples of maps drawing your attention to head in the right direction, with bits of ruins or suspicious campfires in the distance giving you something to aim for.
"It's a salmon en croute where the pastry is an RPG with nice art and lighting, and the salmon is some twat asking you to find their brother or pick some plants."
Andromeda has some of that, too. Elaaden, a vast desert planet, is dotted with bright white rocks and trees with scarlet foliage. A massive crashed ship dominates the horizon. The permanently frozen Voeld has lights from encampments shining through the snowstorm. And it's not that Andromeda is lacking in that stuff compared to Inquisition; when you pay attention you can see they're both large sections of travelling interspersed with sections stuffed with busywork. A salmon en croute where the pastry is an RPG with nice art and lighting, and the salmon is some twat asking you to find their brother or pick some plants.
The difference is that Inquisition is does it with a defter sleight of hand. Like, the salmon is arranged just so on the plate, surrounded by eye-catching sauce and loads of adjacent greenery. The majority of the maps in Inquistion are full of plants and tinkling rivers so they feel dense even if they're not. Andromeda can't really do that, because the whole premise is that the worlds are mostly uninhabitable. So you don't have anything pretty and distracting to look at, and end up being like, "Wow, this sure is a barren wasteland with repetitive encounters with half a dozen bad guys, huh?"
Now, as fearless space adventurer Ryder, you jumpstart some alien tech to terraform the planets and make them habitable again. In the final game, this is represented by the weather getting less hostile - i.e.: you won't start to slowly be cooked to death whenever you step foot out of your space car. Yet it feels like - and I have no real proof of this, apart from my gut - that at some very early concept stage, there might have been an idea that the planets would gradually grow plants and become more verdant and interesting, which would have been fucking great. And if that's the case, it's very understandable that it was abandoned. Can you imagine the amount of work that would involve? A lot, that's how much.
Whatever happened, Andromeda feels empty in a way that Inquisition doesn't. (I also feel compelled to mention that I'm also in the middle of replaying all the Dragon Age games at the moment, too, and hoo boy, every time I play Origins there's a moment where I encounter that bit in the Fade, having wiped it from my memory every time, and I go "What? Is this?? What the fuck is this????")
There are just so many bits in Andromeda that show a bunch of thoughtful people were involved. Like, when you build a colony on the ice planet, the windows all have frost patterns on them. You can have a discussion with one of your crew about how her belief in God isn't incompatible with her work as a scientist. The frog aliens who are the native inhabitants of the system have three different accents, and it depends on which of their three major planets they came from. That is a very cool detail I'd never picked up on before.
At the same time, there are lots of frustrating bits. I go on a lot about how I am on "Team Andromeda Was Good, Actually", and I still think that. But the more interesting thing about it is how nearly great it was, mostly for want of some trees and grass. I am sad that it wasn't given three more years and a bajillion more dollars for development, basically. Elon Musk should be spunking his money on BioWare rather than useless tunnels, because that would be a measurable good for me, if not anyone else.