In a post-Witcher world, it should be abundantly clear to all makers of video games exactly how choice, consequence, and open world design should be done. I hear that Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a truly fantastic example of open world design as well.
Yet, for reasons that are still a mystery to me, these styles of questing and gameplay has not yet been copied relentlessly – which is as strange as the fact that a bajillion variations of Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system do not yet exist. Developers of the world – steal ideas from your peers, I beg of you. Your games will be better for it. And nowhere is the need for idea-stealing more obvious than in Mass Effect Andromeda.
I mentioned here – and nearly everyone who has played even a little of Andromeda has spoken of this – that Mass Effect has a serious filler problem. Faced with the prospect of a filling an open world with things to do, Bioware took a chapter out of Creating Bad Questlines for Dummies and filled the game with every possible flavour of ‘scan three things’. Heck, sometimes they get bold and reckless and make you scan as many as ten things. Dial it back a little, Bioware, I dunno if I can handle all that excitement.
But as a result, quests never feel organic, everything except the priority missions and the loyalty/ally quests feel pointless, and I wish I could set up an electronics store in the Tempest just to sell all the datapads I find lying around. Imagine the profits. I’d make a goddamn killing.
This is not a problem that’s limited to Bioware. Every open world game is full of pointless things to do just because big worlds need things to do. Developers spend many years and many more millions building these beautiful places to walk around in and then fill them with different flavours of ‘collect 3 of x for experience and money’.
Quests are not meant to turn a story’s protagonist into a glorified errand boy/girl. Quests are meant to flesh out these open spaces, to give players time to experience smaller stories within the context of the larger one, and to give the worlds weight and meaning so that players walk away with memories of things other than lighting and pretty scenery.
And, as an example, Bioware has all the systems in place for a true, living world. None of them are actually used effectively. Here’s what could have been done differently.
This is something that legitimately annoyed me. From beginning to end, the Nexus remained exactly the same. Granted, other races showed up on the Nexus as you rescued other Arks and the Angara got an embassy but the physical appearance of the Nexus remained exactly the same on the landing screen in space. For the entirety of the game, from beginning to end, it remained unfinished.
Fixing this would have been a small, but significant way to visually indicate progress in Andromeda, instead of having a screen that shows percentages for planets based on how many quests you’ve completed for each one. The meaning of ‘100% viability’ could have manifested in the Nexus being slowly completed by the end of the game.
If Bioware wanted to take matters one step further, they could have added new areas to an expanded, complete Nexus. As each planet hits 100% viability and funnels more and more resources into the Nexus, one small area that opens up with a set of self-contained quest lines: a separate area for hydroponics, R&D, the militia, and whatever else they cared to include.
That’s one way of having the game respond to player actions and decisions and, overall, makes actually playing the game feel much more meaningful. After all, as Pathfinder, your job is to take the Nexus from ‘oh god, everything is broken’ to ‘we did it, team, woo!’
Percentage bars and tick marks in a journal aren’t the best way of communicating that change.
This is the crux of why I believe Andromeda’s open worlds are a missed opportunity. The Heleus Cluster is a gloriously blank template. Except for the Kett and the Angara and packs of angry stealth-dogs, it is literally empty. Bioware could have used outposts to tremendous effect.
Let’s say, on Eos, you set up a military outpost. First in Andromeda. When you return a planet or two later after the radiation has cleared out a little, you run into roving bands of Turian/Human milita. People armed to the teeth and patrolling designated areas, fighting off Kett, or launching a brutal, unyielding offensive against the local dinosaurs.
Quests come from these roving bands of milita. Perhaps you run into a group fighting off Kett and learn that they’ve been hitting Kett forward bases in the area, searching for the Kett leader. They put you in touch with two other groups that may have intel. You help the other groups out, maybe scan a couple of things, intercept Kett transmissions, and narrow down a couple of possible locations for a Kett base.
The milita tells you they’ll investigate and the quest goes on hold for a bit. You bugger off, do something else, and get an email after some time. You return to the Tempest to read your email since your AI can alter your physiology to improve your combat effectiveness or even bring you back from the dead, but can’t route email to your omni tool because science. Reading this email tell you that the milita found the Kett base but it’s packed to the gills with Kett so would you kindly come help them shoot all the things?
Of course you go. And with your squad of you + 2 and eight to ten members of the Eos milita at your back, you storm the Kett outpost. In mission, you send each of the milita groups off on objectives – disable shields, hack comms, hold a position. You reinforce where required, jumping around the battlefield like a Biotic God. Fifteen to twenty minutes later, the bad guys are dead, you rifle through their pockets and take their stuff, everyone goes home and eats space cake.
That’s an experience. Hitting rocks for science is not.
You can flip the experience for a science outpost. Instead of fighting off the Kett, the poor scientists are being viciously bullied by those bone-armoured Ewoks. Their goal is to set up as many automated defences as they can so they can focus on doing what they do best, and leave security to turrets and mechs. Cue rescue missions, research missions – perhaps involving the scanning of Remnant tech, because we have to scan something – ending in an outpost full of scientists that can launch an orbital strike if a stealth-dog farts menacingly halfway across the planet.
Okay, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but you get the point, yes? Make the world react to player decisions. Make quests meaningful, so that they actually contribute to the success or failure of an outpost. Heck, if I refuse enough quests from an outpost, have the Kett blow it up. Literally nuke it off the face of Eos. Leave the ruins there for the rest of the game. Make people hate me. Turn the Nexus against me. Make me face the consequences of not giving a crap.
Basically, make. questing. matter.
Defrosting someone should be a big deal in Andromeda. As a mile marker, it’s tremendously significant. It means that the Nexus, which was once struggling to feed and house people who were already awake, has achieved enough stability that they can afford to bring more people out of cryo sleep. It should be meaningful. Naturally, it is not.
The only benefit to bringing someone out of cryo sleep is that every hour or so I will get a package of either planetary resources or cold, hard space cash. Wot.
The whole defrosting experience really should trigger quests. Researchers that have been thawed could be deployed at Remnant sites, for example, and that could result in an escort + protection series of missions in which you help them establish themselves at a specific site.
Military personnel could need help reclaiming resources or taking control of Kett outposts, or setting up new forward bases across the map – which themselves could play roles in quest lines later; an organized Kett attack on these fortifications, similar to the quest that required players to defend Vigil’s Keep in Dragon Age: Awakening, maybe?
Finance and Trade personnel, on the other hand, could have more scanning-oriented missions. Track down missing shipments. Find and kill pirates. Root out gangs that are attacking trading posts. Perhaps even dialogue-oriented mini-quests like brokering trade deals, or getting a cheeky merchant out of trouble with the Angara because he tried to haggle too much.
These are things that I believe fit in with a Pathfinder’s role in Andromeda. Some of these things can overlap with strike missions; perhaps after too many trade ships are attacked, you dispatch a strike team to gather intel, which triggers a quest to take out a pirate ship and recover resources. That would allow for tighter integration of strike teams as well, beyond them just being a console that gives you periodic rewards or a way to access multiplayer.
Instead, the Pathfinder is the space age equivalent of Amazon.com. People place an order, Pathfinder delivers, gets paid, and leaves to fulfil the next order. For every five datapads scanned, he’ll scan a sixth one for free. And the first quest giver on a planet gets an early bird discount. Ugh.
So, to sum this up …
I really enjoyed Andromeda. It may not seem that way from the lengthy rant, but the fact of the matter is that the ranting comes from a place of love. I’ve loved Bioware games ever since Baldur’s Gate and I’ve played very nearly everything they’ve ever put out, with the most notable exception being Dragon Age Inquisition. But the gameplay hasn’t evolved drastically over the years.
Mass Effect was a step forward, a storytelling experience that put it firmly at the top of my greatest games of all time list. I loved the series so much that when ME3 came out, I installed it and then played ME1, 2 and 3 back to back just so I could experience the entire trilogy together. That also possibly makes me crazy, but that’s another problem entirely.
Between the original ME trilogy and Andromeda, Bioware has done very little that’s new. Bioware RPGs are cast in a very specific mould that Andromeda does not deviate from that in any way except the size of the maps. Frostbite is beautiful and serves the game very well; Ryder’s no Shepard, but he’ll do; the story and its delivery are classic Bioware fare, as are the characters; and the Remnant and Kett don’t inspire quite the same awe and naked terror as the Reapers did, but they’re certainly not poor substitutes.
What frustrates me about Andromeda is not that it is a bad game. It is a good game. I have 71 hours in it on my Xbox and I just started a New Game+ on Insanity with the intention of going for a 100% playthrough (my first was 89%) because I’m masochistic like that.
What frustrates me is Bioware had all of the tools for a truly great RPG, one that sets the standard for all open world RPGs that follow it. They just haven’t used any of them.