When Mass Effect Andromeda first released nearly two years ago, I was pretty hard on it. The original Mass Effect trilogy is one of my favourite game series of all time, and a lot of what I loved about those games just didn't seem to be present in Bioware's ambitiously sprawling open world sequel.
This article contains spoilers for Mass Effect Andromeda.
Where Mass Effect had focused on introducing me to a galaxy that felt strange and new, Andromeda seemed to be content with just showing me new coats of paint on species I already knew. There was an Asari who was obsessed with an alien race from the past; a human woman who was so perfect it was a problem for her; a battle-ready Krogan male who hated the Salarians; and a snarky pilot. It was nothing I'd not already seen.
Sure, I would eventually meet Jaal, a single solitary crew member of a new alien species, but it felt like a token new piece of content in a sea of returning characters. The whole premise of Mass Effect Andromeda is that we we're exploring a brand new unexplored galaxy. The Salarian, Turian, and Asari arks have gone missing, with only the human ark arriving intact. It's a perfect excuse to populate the game's hub with a minimal selection of familiar alien races, and let us go out and meet a bunch of new aliens before returning the familiar alien races to the plot later.
Along with the species I already knew, I revisited conflicts I thought I had solved in Mass Effect 3. I no longer had the sense that I was some awesome hero out to single-handedly save the world. I was doing nothing more than trying to turn off big alien dehumidifiers and finding spots so we could build a home on a giant ball of ice. I expected more Mass Effect – but Andromeda was offering something much different than what I had anticipated.
I spent a lot of time in my first playthrough of Mass Effect Andromeda focusing on what the game is not. Now, two years later, I'm finally starting to see it for what it is.
I started replaying Mass Effect Andromeda a few weeks ago, largely out of desire for more Mass Effect. Replaying the original trilogy with my partner made me crave more of that universe, and it got me thinking about how much I wanted to like Andromeda. I don't know if it's the years that have passed since it released, or it it's having my expectations better in check a second time around, but finally, I'm starting to see the beauty of Andromeda.
Sure, its world is bloated and too sprawling, but that's sort of integral to its story. Andromeda is about exploring a completely new galaxy, trying to find a home, and feeling alone in a remote corner of space. Planets with huge amounts of open space, covered in tough-to-manoeuvre terrain, aren't fun to traverse if you're just racing from A to B in pursuit of the next story mission. But it's the things you find as you traverse along the path between missions that's truly amazing.
There's a real sense that you're alone, charting a very important map. It's easy to believe that, without your exploration, these planets would never grow to be the sprawling metropoles present in the original Mass Effect trilogy. Whether you're finding pieces of missing ships or interacting with sages who believe their species is capable of reincarnation, it's all about stopping every few minutes to find a new plot thread, each one pulling you in a totally different direction.
If you try to fix every problem on a planet you'll be there forever, but if you follow the most interesting and pressing threads, you'll find yourself in the middle of some truly captivating stories.
Andromeda is a game about being a settler rather than a soldier, and that's something I needed to adjust to. I'm not here to kick down doors with a rifle in my hands; I'm here to help a new species of alien learn to trust outsiders. I'm here to keep people calm, and keep them believing that they have not arrived in Andromeda simply to die alone in space.
It's not a game about racing between objectives; it's a game about exploring, about making small steps that add up in order to improve life on these planets in meaningful ways. Sure, you can kill the aliens attacking a planet, but the real solution is to provide their own planet with increased water production and answers about their ecology.
A lot of the moral choices made in Mass Effect Andromeda don't feel like they have any lasting impact on the way the game ends, which on my first playthrough I saw as a failure. Choices about whether to harvest fish for their anti-enemy weaponry properties, or to protect them for their historical value don't really change anything later in the game, which originally felt like a frustrating illusion of choice. New dialogue options no longer opened up based on how I had been playing, and it was unclear when a choice was purely cosmetic or was genuinely impactful.
On a second playthrough however, I accepted that not every choice had to have a mechanical consequence. In doing so, it allowed some choices to merely be moral quandaries. That's something that was missing from earlier games in the series.
When a moral choice has a set path that leads to characters staying alive or communities thriving, it's easy to look at the results rather than the underlying moral question. There's something rather nice about personally pondering these queries without worrying that the game would consider one option to be better or worse than another.
When I found a man in prison, charged with murder of his commanding officer, I pulled a thread that led to discovering he had not actually fired the shot that killed his officer – but he'd intended to and thought he had. I had to discuss with politicians whether it was right to convict a man who was technically innocent of murder, but guilty of attempted murder. The new colony he was a part of was already unstable, so we also had to discuss whether hiding his intent was worth the risk of extra instability.
There was no red or blue meter to fill nor any signposting to which answer might have effects on the future; just a personal moral choice that differing schools of philosophy would have different answers to.
Where the original Mass Effect's dialogue option and moral choice systems combined to create a game where players are rewarded for either being a consistent lawful or chaotic character, Andromeda muddies those waters in ways which made me need to stop and think.
While I've written a lot here about design choices that are not inherently better or worse in Andromeda compared to the original trilogy, simply different, I do have to mention some undeniable improvements Andromeda made to the series. Namely, the combat feels a lot smoother, the jetpack jumping movement options are very rewarding, and the options for controlling how you level up your character are far better fleshed out.
Mass Effect Andromeda didn't do a good job of setting expectations for fans of the original trilogy. The decision not to factor in your choices from the original games left many players feeling like their choices were ignored, not to mention the game relied too heavily on familiar alien archetypes, its worlds felt unfocused, and it was undeniably broken at launch. Still, a couple of years on, I can say that I like Mass Effect Andromeda a lot more than I once did.
It might not shine brightly as a sequel to the original Mass Effect trilogy, but it does shine when given space to be its own, unique experience. Now, if only they'd given me a Hanar squad member, I'd have probably called it game of the year. Let me play as a squishy religious jellyfish brain creature already, Bioware.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour with a U from the British isles.