Exploring Andromeda's Heleus Cluster is a huge pain in the arse. The bloated, unskippable animations that take you from planet to planet are frustrating to sit through and once you're there the rewards are never more than a handful of XP or resources. But if you do have the patience to make it through, each cluster, system and planet has its own humble story to tell, paired with some truly stunning cosmic scenes.
When I first played Mass Effect: Andromeda, I found the exploration scenes as frustrating as most people have - especially while trying to rush to the end before the end of the review period. But when I got the chance to slow down and take each scene as it came, I found that the galaxy map could be a gorgeous zen game all of its own. Exploring it now tends to involve a cup of tea, a cat on my lap and veritable pillow fort around me. With the right conditions, I've easily spent hours at a time exploring the unknown galaxy. I've come to love the new galaxy map music, the way it weaves in the old, familiar refrains and still remains its own distinct theme.
After what feels like hours of zen-like exploration I've now visited every planet, comet and spaceship wreckage you can visit in the game. Most of these are complete non events, plotwise. But like Andromeda's other beautifully crafted incidentals, they build the galaxy out in a real, yet subtle, way.
Exploring the wider galaxy in your ship is the part of Mass Effect: Andromeda that feels the most like real space exploration, at least as we know it today. As a space nerd, I can't get enough of the little blurbs accompanying the hundreds of planets the Tempest never lands on.
In one sector it may be the remains of a gas giant, stripped away to its core by the forces of an aggressive black hole. In another, it's a thin-atmosphered planet being battered by solar storms, as is theorised was once the fate of our own neighbour Mars. On some planets, oddly specific conditions give rise to tiny patches of life - even if that life is an algal forest or a type of moss that thrives on the sides of violent volcanos. Hell, one planet even plays host to a colony of jellyfish-like aliens.
We're living in a time when space travel is experiencing a massive resurgence and the search for life outside our planet has become a greater priority. In this context, these quiet explorations through Andromeda's map feel the most real. Because let's be honest - if we do find alien life it's far more likely to be within an algae-rich extra-terrestrial sea than it is to be a civilisation like the angara.
Our search for a new habitable world may one day mirror Ryder's.
Beyond these little snatches of lore, there's another reason exploring the cluster keeps me coming back again and again: It's beautiful. While the long, drawn out zooms into each planet are a pain to sit through again and again, most of the vistas they reveal are nothing short of stunning. Even the Scourge has a different characteristic to its chaotic clusters in each system. In some it spirals around the fringes of the system in softly glowing turquoise, and in others pulses an angry, threatening red.
Each system has a flavour all of its own, which is generally compounded by a small snippet of dialogue spoken when the ship first enters it. Most of the time it's Suvi speaking, but sometimes your companions will weigh in on your destination, like the moments when Jaal explains the meaning of angaran system names. You can almost imagine the crew gathering on the bridge for the first glimpse of a beautiful, unexplored system.
Thought has clearly gone into naming these places. While many planets are classically named after legendary figures from the Milky Way races or the angara, others are named for contemporary pioneers from the Initiative. Some of the best names are thought up by the slightly less poetic exiles, though. One planet is simply called 'Grill', named for its hot, metallic surface.
Despite the obstacles to exploring it, I've somehow come to love the Heleus Cluster and its strange and beautiful worlds. Thank god we're finally getting a 'skip' button though.