Arguably the biggest contribution in recent years to the space-opera genre—that heady mix of sci-fi, fantasy adventure, and careful plotting that defines works like Star Wars and Doctor Who—has come from a video-game series: Mass Effect. With three titles released in 2007, 2010, and 2012, Mass Effect stood out for its close attention to world-building, complex storytelling, and customizability, allowing players’ choices to shape every narrative arc. The (multiple) endings of Mass Effect 3 were so controversial that the studio BioWare created an “extended cut” to try and mollify a vocally outraged subset of fans.
For better or worse, Mass Effect 3 ended the grand saga of Commander Shepherd and his loyal friends, leaving behind a beloved galaxy of alien races, intricate backstories, and storytelling possibilities. As Shepherd, the hero of the first three games, you were a military commander waging war against ancient celestial beings. But the game’s greatest moments often came in its less epic side-plots, which could range from detective mysteries to the kind of allegories on racism and class stratification one might associate with Star Trek. Five years later, there’s finally a new title in the series, Mass Effect: Andromeda, which offers the chance to play around in the same world—but without the frequently overwhelming storyline of the original games.
This move ends up being a surprisingly mixed bag. Andromeda appears to respond to some of the criticisms aimed at the earlier series: It’s much more open-world, concentrating on the exploration of other planets rather than a military campaign against a specific threat. It’s moved the setting to a new galaxy to shake up the established politics of the earlier games. And the possibilities for customization are practically limitless—every conversation you have can branch in several different directions, while every item, weapon, and piece of armor you own can be crafted, enhanced, and broken into pieces according to your whims.
If the earlier Mass Effect games were fantasy epics, Andromeda is more like a Western: Players are focused on the difficulties of life as a pioneer, living far from civilization, meeting unfamiliar friends and foes, and trying to create a habitable future. Set in between the first and second Mass Effect games (thus avoiding any controversy over that series’s ending), Andromeda focuses on Ryder, a “Pathfinder” sent on a deep-space colonization mission to another galaxy. As is typical for Mass Effect, you can pick your character’s first name, gender, and face. As the game progresses, you can embark on romantic partnerships, alliances, and certain stories.
The main difference is that, in earlier games, these options ended up guiding you toward inevitable confrontations. As Commander Shepherd, your job was to earn your team’s trust (by completing specific missions with them) and then send them out into battle. As Ryder in Andromeda, you still have the option of building a team of dependable companions (there’s a whole cast of characters for you to meet and stock your ship with), but your job is more amorphous—you visit hostile planets, terraform them so they can support life, and then pick which stories you pursue from there.
So, much of Andromeda’s suspense revolves around the conversations you have, the political choices you make, and the places you travel to. It’s staggeringly ambitious, but also painfully slow and detail-oriented at times, even though the game has also tried to diversify the combat systems of the earlier Mass Effects. (Andromeda makes battles against alien villains more chaotic and open, whereas the earlier games’ action sequences were straightforwardly on rails.) Andromeda will probably appeal to a smaller audience, one more enthusiastic about Mass Effect’s promise of customizable narratives than about its cinematic approach to sci-fi storytelling.
This emphasis on choice appears to be en vogue for some of the big-budget, open-world games of the moment. Ever since Grand Theft Auto III invented the format of the “sandbox” game that players can explore freely, game developers have promised more, more, more. Open-ended phenomenon games like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky put stock in randomness, allowing each player to experience unique worlds and build infinitely varied items to tackle them. Huge-scale RPGs like Skyrim, The Witcher 3, and Fallout 4 have central narratives that players can just decide to ignore, since there’s so much else to do on the periphery. Fallout 4, ostensibly a post-apocalyptic action game, literally lets you build your own city from the ground up.
Andromeda offers similar scale, but it’s almost hard to evaluate how well the pieces fit together. The opening hours of the game are a long, drawn-out tutorial that sees you explore and terraform a planet while doing battle with a hostile alien race. It’s a slog to get through, especially for an experienced Mass Effect player. But once the tutorial is over, the game becomes much more familiar and exciting, letting the player decide whether to focus on exploration, politics, action, or a mix of the three. Quests are more drawn-out and intricate; rather than taking place in some specific level, they can be spread out across an entire planet.
This industry trend toward ever more expansive gameplay calls to mind efforts by film and TV studios to get audiences on board for the long haul—whether via binge-friendly seasons or a whole universe of interconnected movies. In some ways, this approach offers the potential for real creative freedom. But as with some of the more bloated streaming shows, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the new Mass Effect game is a time investment so massive, that once you’ve made it, you need to stick around regardless of continued interest. Playing Andromeda is likely to eat up many hours of my life. But I’m still not sure it’ll be worth it.