The following is just opinion, nothing more, nothing less. No offense is intended, these are just the musings of a twenty-something idiot.
There will be SPOILERS involved.
Mass Effect 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, and that isn’t a statement I make lightly. I’m not the most avid gamer, nor have I ever been, but I enjoy casual gaming as much as the next person. Normally, it’s difficult to really say what games rank on my personal top *insert number here* lists, but Mass Effect 2, and it’s predecessor Mas Effect, most definitely make that list because of how much I love them. I have many fond memories of exploring alien worlds, bonding with my team, and kicking ass as a female Commander Shepard, my personal preference for a variety of reasons—including the fact that I feel her voice acting is far, far better than her male counterpart’s—and really taking my time learning the lore of the Mass Effect universe. And then Mass Effect 3 happened.
I will not lie: I have personally not played Mass Effect 3. I have watched Let’s Plays, seen countless video clips, and even done a bit of digging around the internet to see all the things that I missed. But I did not play it, nor will I likely ever play it, because for me, as a fan, it is a huge disappointment. Many agree with this, many disagree; ultimately, it’s something that has become a bit of a taboo topic from what I’ve seen in the Mass Effect community, a community I consider myself a member of, even though I don’t frequent message boards or upload any Mass Effect-related content. I suppose it’s only fair to say I’m more of a casual fan, but even then, my love for the series feels like it goes beyond the casual.
I wasn’t sold when I first heard about the next Mass Effect game. I hadn’t heard much, but when the information began pouring out, I was only mildly interested. I was still disappointed by the decisions Bioware had made regarding ME3, and I’ll admit I was still rather bitter about it. After all, they had ruined a game that I had looked forward to playing, and I felt cheated in a way. I realize I could have just played it to the ending portion and then stopped, or played it all the way through and sucked it up. Countless others likely did and they were fine. But me? No, it was harder for me, which is why I didn’t do that. I am the kind of gamer who can get too attached to characters I’ve come to know and care for—in a virtual sort of way, of course. And that was what happened with me and my crew, as well as my Shepard herself. Still, as the months ticked by, I did find myself curious about Mass Effect: Andromeda.
I think the thing that sparked my interest was when I learned that there would be two potential playable characters, and that they would be a brother and a sister. That interested me in part because it created a different dynamic when I thought of Shepard, and when it seemed that they would both exist in the universe at the same time, I was further intrigued. Besides that, though, I stayed away from information. I didn’t watch any trailers or look at any news updates on gaming sites; it wasn’t until a friend of mine told me about it that I started to do some digging—read: spoiling—of the game and found myself growing more and more interested. That old spark was back, and I was fine with it. So, I wound up getting it. And I have to say, I’m glad that I did.
Starting Mass Effect: Andromeda, I was hit with a sense of nostalgia for the first two games as I began to customize my Pathfinder, Sara Ryder. I decided to go with cropped blonde hair, bright, almost inhuman green eyes, and a star tattoo around her left ear that dipped down. I then customized her brother Scott to match her appearance, because in my head, the two were twins, so it only made sense that they would look as alike as possible. Then I started the game proper, and my nostalgia increased even further when the voice of Alec Ryder—voiced by Clancy Brown, known as Lex Luthor and Mr. Krabs, among other characters for those who know his voice acting roles—began to narrate the game. I was grinning. I was giddy. For the first time in a long time, I was playing Mass Effect again, and it was both the same and entirely new.
Now, before I go any further, I started the game post-patch, meaning some of the things that shipped out with the default game—IE, facial animation problems and other minor bugs—had already been touched up. So, I was not greeted by blank-faced characters with poor lip-syncing and badly timed expressions, but rather decently-animated faces and mostly good expressions that helped set the mood for the scenes they were in. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it wasn’t something that took me out of the game as the story began proper, and I found myself landing on an alien planet—well, ‘landing’ is probably a poor word choice, falling would be the better one, I think—and running about, exploring, jumping, and shooting just like the old days, just with a fresh coat of paint and a handful of new mechanics that I quickly got used to.
It’s been a bit over two weeks now since I first began the game, and while a minor detail led to me restarting—it’s nothing to do with the game itself, just something I wasn’t satisfied with—and here I am, almost halfway through the story, nearly at the part I was last at before I decided to start my adventure over. That said, I’ve had enough experience in the game to where I feel comfortable enough expressing my opinion of it, of the characters, the pros, the cons, and everything else in between.
To start with, I think I will give my opinion on one of the biggest aspects of the game, especially when compared to the previous games in the Mass Effect series: the protagonists.
Again, SPOILER WARNING.
Commander Shepard is a badass. Regardless if you choose to play a male or female, and regardless of what moral alignment you play as, there is no doubt that Shepard is a certified badass. After all, they have to be: they’re the protagonist in the Mass Effect trilogy, and when you’re facing off against a race of massive, organic-hating machines, you kind of have to be awesome, otherwise the entire galaxy is doomed.
But even though Shepard is awesome, there were always certain things about her—I realize Shepard can be a man, but I always played them as a woman, so canon Shepard for me is FemShep—that kind of… bugged me. It wasn’t anything majorly game-ruining, just minor things here and there that I kind of felt were lacking or could’ve been explored.
Perhaps the biggest aspect of Shepard that I found the most in need of time and development was the fact that Shepard was kind of blank in the personality department. Sure, you could give them one of three basic backstories that tweaked the dialogue options they possessed, added a unique side quest, and altered how your Shepard was viewed by a handful of other characters, but in the end, choosing whether they were born on Earth or a space colony, and then deciding if they were ruthless, a war hero, or the sole survivor of a failed mission didn’t really add anything to the character on a deeper, more emotional level. I also recognize that the dialogue choices and major decisions played into Shepard’s personality, which includes the Paragon and Renegade interrupts and options that certainly create an air about the character. Again, even though I could write them off to fit whatever story I was trying to tell about Shepard, they felt more like surface-related things.
There wasn’t much depth to them.
Commander Shepard was a badass. And that was really their only character trait. They could be ruthless or heroic, or somewhere skirting the lines between the two, in their actions, they could sometimes snark at others or get upset, and in a few cases for FemShep, sound genuinely terrifying and acidic thanks in part to her voice actors, Jennifer Hale. Yet what else was there to Shepard? And I don’t mean their relationships to their friends and potential loved ones, I mean who is Commander Shepard underneath all that. Strip away the badassery and the fact they have no fear of the Reapers—or anything for that matter—and really look at the person they are. What is there to them, besides what the player chooses? Now, I know that there is a certain beauty in being able to mold Shepard to be the kind of character the player wants. I did it, and I enjoyed doing it. But still, there was always a sort of longing for something more, for something that allowed me to weave a narrative about Shepard without having to add in details within my own mind.
Maybe I’m alone in my line of thinking, and that’s alright. But I’m the sort of gamer that loves being able to play games where the character has a story, and where you as the player can add onto that. RPG games where you can create your character’s background—and personality—are the most fun for me personally. It was why I was drawn to Dragon Age: Origins, another of my favorite games despite some of its flaws (and things I found lacking personally). Even then, I liked the concept of being able to select a different background that, even though you wound up in the same place, at least there was some variation to how you got there. It was something I latched onto.
And then Ryder came along.
Right off the bat, when I started Andromeda, I was happily surprised that the Paragon and Renegade options were gone. The moral compass was no longer skewed towards two cardinal directions, but rather, was now far more open with the new dialogue system allowing for players to make Ryder emotional, casual, logical, or professional-sounding. These not only influenced the responses they got, but they also helped craft more of a personality for Ryder, and even better, they—save for some rare occasions—were constant. Perhaps even better was the fact that, regardless of what route you went, Ryder always has actual personality.
When an emotional Ryder is angry, you can feel the rage due to the tone underlying their words. When a casual Ryder is cracking a joke, you can smile, groan, or laugh because they’re trying at being humorous—and even then, they’re much snarkier even without dialogue prompts. This isn’t for everybody, I get that, but I’ve loved every second of it. And I’m not saying Shepard didn’t have any emotion, yet it always felt like there wasn’t a whole lot there, save for a handful of very noteworthy scenes. With Ryder, it’s constant.
I became invested in Sara Ryder so much quicker than I did Commander Shepard, because even though Sara wasn’t an experienced soldier or a hardcore badass the way Shepard was, she has way more personality going on. She cracks jokes, she gets pissed off, she curses freely, and she grows as a character, in the sense that when you start, she’s as green as green can be and nobody takes her seriously. But as the game goes on, she sounds and feels more confident, and people within the game actually take notice of her. With Shepard, she was already a decorated soldier with a good head on her shoulders and people knew who she was. Sure, not everyone took her seriously at first—and they regretted it later—but most people learned to recognize her as the badass hero she was. Ryder has to grow into that as the game plays out.