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Analysis / Mass Effect: Andromeda

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Mass Effect Andromeda is what Mass Effect 1 tried to be, before getting sidetracked by the plot

"It's funny. We finally get out here and the final frontier was already settled. And most of them don't even feel impressed by the view!!"
Kaidan Alenko, Mass Effect

Imagine that you've created a new science fiction franchise - one focused on space travel. Imagine that your selected method to go to FTL is based on some newly discovered Applied Phlebotinum. Now imagine that the name of this phlebotinum is the title of your franchise. And now you are faced with the challenge - where do we go from here?

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In the real world, once this means to travel at superluminal speeds and reach distant stars well within our lifetime has been actualized, most people will want to use it to explore. They will want to see other stars, other planets, nebulae, proto-stars and other cosmic phenomena. They will wonder if there is life somewhere out there? And if so, can we observe it? Study it? Possibly even interact with it? Is it intelligent life? If so, can we have a cultural interaction? Share technology? Share ideas? This sense of wonder, of curiosity, of the thirst to explore this new opened up universe, is the first instinct a lot of people would have.

And so, a lot of fictional universes where superluminal space travel is present, try to present to you that same sense of wonder, of curiosity, of an excitement in exploring previously unseen places. Star Trek achieved that with their slogan being about "boldly going where no one has gone before", the X Universe and other {{4X}} games did that too. And for all appearances, a game called Mass Effect seemed poised to do that, what with the titular mass effect being the engine that drove superluminal propulsion, and the opening screen explaining how humans discovered this technology.

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And then - the game turns into a political-military thriller set in space. You don't go to Eden Prime because it is an unexplored newly discovered planet, you are going there to pick up something found at an archeological dig site in an already established well known human colony. And from there on, the story becomes about an elite covert operative who turned against his masters, and you chasing him all over to bring him down. You don't fly off to other clusters because you are curious about what's there, you go there because something you found while scouring places for clues on your fugitive, sent you there on a strike op. Or a navy admiral sent you there on a commando mission. Yes, you are given fetch quests to survey minerals, locate ancient artifacts etc, but these are seen as distractions. Exploration, curiosity and wonder takes back seat here. Alien life does exist, but everything about them is already known and codified in codices, and the aliens as a whole seem unimpressed to annoyed with us. It is as if Star Trek: The Original Series wasn't about James Kirk the explorer/diplomat exploring space, it was instead about James Kirk the Section 31 Agent hunting another rogue agent. That was what became of the first Mass Effect game.

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And yet ... Players felt somehow robbed of that sense of exploratory wonder. There were star systems to go to, planets to land on and explore with a rover, difficult to drive though, it may be. That sense of exploring stars and planets was still there, lurking in the background, ignored but wanting to get a chance at being front and center.

Until now.

That is in essence what Bioware has created here, with this game. Here, you aren't some covert agent like James Bond; here you can be like James Kirk. Your mandate here is to be that explorer looking for interesting planets, that diplomat encountering a new species and learning to deal with them. In the first Mass Effect, you were meant to be feared as a Spectre, over here you are meant to be an inspirer. In the first game, you landed somewhere to engage in combat, with exploration being an annoyance. Here, exploration and discovery is your primary goal, with combat often becoming an annoyance. In the first game, the antagonist had an imposing menacing look to him, in this game, the antagonist looks clownish and can't be taken seriously as a villain. That's reinforcing the fact that your primary goal isn't to defeat this enemy - your primary goal is to find a way to make this sector more habitable for life. In fact, had you taken the Kett completely out of this story, replacing them with exiles and Roekarr, you still would have had a compelling exploration story about activating vaults, finding more vaults, finding Meridian and finally activating it. And uncovering information about the Angaara and the Scourge along the way. Now imagine if this already established exploratory mission had you getting introduced to mass effect technology, to biotics, to omnitools, to VI and AI distinction, all for the first time!!

This game, in other words, was the exploratory entry point thus franchise never got.

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