It’s no secret that the latest addition to the Mass Effect franchise has been much maligned already for a variety of reasons, some justified while others not. The game has suffered from technical issues such as texture pop-in and facial animations, maintenance issues such as multiplayer performance, and the main story is in many ways very similar to that of the Halo games than a unique creation. Despite this though the game does contain a remarkable improvement when it comes to the characters you go along with.
As someone who has played the original trilogy many times now I have to say that for all the brilliant world-building they did and the general quality of the games (minus that shitty ending of course) the squadmates were really not very well-separated each other when created, instead with the quality being largely reliant on the performance put in with Garrus and Tali well-loved while other such as the Space Racist were disdained for years. While on the surface many of the characters had a few differences at the core many all shared the exact same motivations.
In the first game pretty much every character’s story was related to a bad thing having happened in the past. For Ashley this was the dark cloud hanging over her family from the First Contact War, Kaidan killed a trainer at a biotic camp, Wrex wanted to recover his family’s armour, Tali wanted data to help with the Geth-Quarian conflict, and Garrus was still chasing that one case he never managed to solve. Even Shepard himself faced a story from his past. The only squaddie who didn’t fall into this category was Liara, whose issues relating to her mother came from the game itself. Over the course of the game each character’s arc is essentially to see them gain a way to make up for those flaws during a generic sidequest and that’s it.
Outside of this much of the conversation content each spoke related almost entirely to how Shepard changed their lives by taking them on board the Normandy and what they’d do afterwards. Here the key outsider was Wrex who largely functioned as exposition about Saren and what the Turian nemesis was doing up until the start of the game.
Moving on to the second game this problem of virtually identical character motivation is shoved even more to the forefront with the game’s need for you to finish loyalty missions. In this one, despite increasing the number of companions from six to thirteen, every single character motivation is a family issue that happened before the game began. From Jacob with his raping father to Garrus and his “family” of vigilantes all the way to Legion and his “family” of Geth programs the game is obsessed with this idea of family. In many ways it seems the game was trying to pull from the works of Joss Whedon, who also frequently uses the idea of family in his shows, but here it comes off much weaker.
Many of the resolutions for the character are also the same. The game starts with them having lost a part of themselves and after completing their loyalty mission they gain the chance to repair at least part of that damage. Miranda was forced to give up her sibling but now has her back, Grunt didn’t have a clan but is now Clan Urdnot, and Tali is able to clear her father’s name (usually) and stop her exile. Again the similarities are notable and it’s only the performances of the voice cast that really set them apart, with Jacob being a big serving of boring while Tali is able to work both strength and weakness into her lines.
These weaknesses in two are also put heavily in the spotlight when supporting characters, such as Wrex, come across much more vividly during their short and sweet sections of the game than those who are on the cover of the box.
In three however the characters are barely existent, with some barely even talking and even when they do it’s usually “oh, isn’t the war terrible”. It didn’t help that both three and its predecessor artificially locked certain characters out of the game until you reach certain points, forcing their quest lines to be rushed at best and non-existent at worst. The main example of this can be seen with Tali, who in both two and three is locked behind two-thirds of the main story.
So at this point what do we have? Well we have three games that, while fun as a whole, had only one or two memorable characters while many of the others ended up quite bland and boring, having become known by one or two lines they said at one point, with their motivations and storylines all remarkably similar in origin and outcome. Going into the new spin-off I was expecting more of the same but I was honestly surprised by how much had changed.
One of the first key changes was that none of the characters are locked out for “story” reasons for long, with all of then becoming available by about 3-4 hours into the main story once you reach the Angaran sanctuary of Aya. This already allows the character building to be as large as possible given the circumstances. The biggest change however was the sheer difference in identity and motivation between each of the six characters.
First off we have the two human side-kicks, the staple of series, in the form of ex-cop Liam and Asari-trained biotic Cora. In the leadup to the game I thought they’d just be Jacob and Miranda 2.0 but instead I was pleasantly surprised. While Liam in many ways is similar to the more generic squadmates of old his backstory deliberately sets him apart from those. Almost immediately he explains that he had a great life back on Earth before the Initiative with a happy family and lifestyle, his only issues being that he didn’t feel he was that great a cop. Instead it was his sense of adventure that drove him into going. This is in complete contrast to Cora, who came out of a sense of duty, imparted to her by the Asari Commandos she trained under for so many years.
Moving outside of this we have the “Space Mum and Dad” Vetra and Drack who both ended up on the journey through Drack’s granddaughter Kesh. Both of them came for more familiar family reasons than the others, with Vetra in Andromeda to provide a new start for her sister who she had to raise after their parents left while Drack wants to keep an eye on his favourite family member. Despite the family story being used in previous games here it’s more unique in that they’re actively trying to provide for the family in a positive way rather than a negative one.
Finally the last two fellow travellers are the more individualistic Peebee and Jaal. Peebee is very upfront about herself, she wants to search for new artefacts while also just living the life of a free spirit. This isn’t to say she doesn’t have baggage of her own but she isn’t really tied down by it. Jaal on the other hand is an individual from a collectivist society, someone who enjoys the new experiences that the “aliens” can bring to their fight against the Kett while still connected with his large family.
Along with the more varied origins their character journeys also have a lot greater variety and effort put into them than many in the past (where only one or two would get substantial work) but if there was a theme to all I’d have to say it was the idea of growing up. With our two humans they each face getting their previous views crushed and having to grow up to the new reality. For Liam this sees his rather naïve views of how the world works crushed, as a daring and off-the-books attempt to get both the Angara and Initiative to work together puts everyone at risk. Cora on the other hand sees her mentor shown as nothing more than a hypocrite, who let others die and then lied about it to save face, breaking her faith in the idea that the rules being followed always leads to the best outcome.
With the space parents their character journeys are also linked to their family ties but unlike others that dealt with negative outcomes such as betrayal or death these two realise more that the kids are growing up. Vetra has to see her “kid sister” Sid break out from the protected upbringing that was built for her, though with Vetra having to rescue her from troubled waters once more. On Drack’s side his comes more as a side-aspect of saving a genetic vault from a group of raiders, where he’s confronted with a Krogan trying to win his granddaughters affections leading to a rather fun sitcom-style standoff. Both are forced to realise that those they used to take care of are now ready to leave the nest and that it’s them, not the kids, who are having the most trouble dealing with it.
Finally we have Peebee and Jaal whose journey is more about finding a new place to belong or rather to fit into the place they’ve found themselves in. For Peebee this is tied directly into the old tale of betrayal with a former partner (and hinted at former lover) competing with her for an artefact. It’s this former partner’s betrayal that makes it so hard for Peebee to put down roots with others and what makes her story so interesting over the course of the game, as she goes from outsider to almost annoyingly pushy when it comes to interacting with the rest of the crew. For Jaal it’s almost the opposite as he has to transition from a society that puts family, nuclear and extended, at the heart of their world to one where bonds are a lot rarer and personal space is more appreciated. His story also sees betrayal however, having to see close members of his family join with the extreme xenophobic elements of the Angaran Resistance.
Already right there we can see three distinct groupings of themes and motivations amongst the crew but even better the game has increased not only the “squad banter” from previous games but also the dynamic nature of conversations between crewmembers on the ships to. In the old games it was very common for the ship characters to never interact at all, each inhabiting their own little space. Here however it’s common to see characters chattering from all different areas of the ship in a way that feels very organic and realistic, with some having arguments about how they treat the ship and other times talking about hobbies. The planetside banter also feels less scripted due to the non-linear nature of the game, with different pairings yielding different results which for my favourite pairing of Vetra and Drack saw many discussions relating to worries over whether they’re raising their dependants right and the “kids these days”.
If there was any weakness on the new lot of characters it’s probably that a lot of the supporting cast are very stale and have nothing really to say outside of the missions. On the ship Suvi and Lexi were the main sufferers of this, both being quite boring to talk to which is a shame given their excellent voice actors (Lexi of course voiced by the talented Natalie Dormer). Spinning from this it has to be said all of the voice work in this game is very good, with even the weakest squadmate Liam being very well done and clearly having passion on what they say.
So in the end what is the conclusion of this incredibly long and rambling post of mine that I’ve decided to do? Well if I had to sum it up it’d be that in Andromeda the squadmates are significantly improved at every level from the old games due to the following factors:
· A variety of character motivation and growth not seen in previous games, which makes each feel more distinct right from the introduction.
· Less of a reliance on the player character being the centre of their world, more of a passenger along for the ride.
· A much more dynamic shipboard and on the ground dialogue system makes the whole thing feel less stilted and pre-scripted.
· The small number of characters means each has had far more work put in meaning there isn’t an obvious “shit one” like in previous entries.