Opinion: Why does Mass Effect: Andromeda's open world feel so closed?

Mass Effect: Andromeda is brilliant pulpy fun. But it seems to be the latest in a line of recent games that struggle to give meaning to the vastness of their open spaces.

The invisible wall shimmered against Eos’ sky, a beckoning mirage. Finally, a glimpse of the invisible barrier that put limits on Mass Effect: Andromeda’s “open world.”

In all of these games I find myself yearning for those Matrix-like glitches, those reminders that you’re in the “simulation”--comedy is sure to follow, much as it did when I somehow managed to park my Nomad atop a pillar deep inside one of the game’s Remnant vaults. 

It breaks up the monotony, after all, one that demands Fast and the Furious-style speed racing to bolt through with ever sweeter upgrades to your nitro boost.

That thought never quite left me as I literally charged across Andromeda’s worlds: for all their vastness, you’re never quite meant to appreciate them. To stop and smell the roses is to invite boredom in the extreme. Don’t get me wrong: the Nomad is an adventure in its own right, and perhaps that’s the ultimate ludic meaning of the wide open spaces. A vast road rally, free from consequences and the demands of car insurance premiums; impossible stunts and repeated sticks in the eye of Isaac Newton all make for a relaxing game within a game.

But it does leave me wondering, as this is just the latest open world game to leave a hint of sour aftertaste in my mouth, why does the “openness” of these games feel more like a trick of the light than ever?

Part of the problem is that everything in the open world is, often as not, either empty or a shooting gallery. Kotaku’s Patricia Hernandez pointed out a prime example of this in Fallout 4 where an exciting robot race at an abandoned horse racing track was nothing more than an especially elaborate arrangement of mobs to kill. As she put it so well: “The game itself will spoil its neatest surprises with a consistency that makes me wonder where the heart of Fallout 4 even lies,” words that might well apply to so many other games that promise open play environments.

Natural environments are rich in character; theirs is a visceral beauty that can collapse eternity into a vista. Some games come close to capturing that, in those rare moments where Extremely Good Graphics™ make a meaningful difference. But Mass Effect’s characters were always, well, characters, and they thrive in those artificial social jungles better known as towns and cities. For a game as vast as Andromeda, the settled parts of it felt depressingly small. 

Aya hints at terraced townships and satellite settlements that we never get to see. Despite its age and its significance to the Angara, everything feels a little like side rooms rather than places with true meaning. Nothing feels lived-in.

The Nexus, despite aping the Citadel down to inexplicable background forests on a space station that has to ration a limited food supply, is depressingly small. Everyone seems to live in the same row of ten apartments. Early on, a couple of new areas open up to you once you make progress on settling new worlds and it seems, for a brief and happy moment, that the Nexus will grow in tandem with your success throughout the Heleus Cluster. Instead, it remains a stillborn affair that grows a bit like a Chia Pet; there’s life there, indisputably, but shallow and closely manicured into a shape that belies its lack of depth.

It’s a testament to the strength of BioWare’s characters that they shine on despite that and leave indelible moments scattered like gems across Andromeda’s set pieces.

But places like Kadira Port needed more; as it was, Kadira Port felt like a diorama of concept art my character could walk through (and hey, isn’t that a nifty idea all its own?) It gave a scent of something, and there were places that felt like top-notch cinematography come to life--like Sloane’s throne, for instance, set against the mercilessly lit window blinds. The dead body suddenly appearing on the street and its blue bloodstains never quite going away were also brilliant touches that helped make the place feel more real, as did an illegal free clinic being run out of a shipping container. Kadira Port, more than any other city in the game, did right by its concept. Yet it needed to be bigger, a wretched city of neighborhoods.

Why oh why does the vastness of an “open world” in an RPG never seem to apply to the concept of a living city these days?

One might get the impression that I detested Andromeda, but the game commanded my attention for days; 69 hours, to be precise, with me on my computer and my partner on the Xbox One by my side, charging through our own Heleus Clusters together. For what it is, Andromeda was brilliant pulpy fun. But it seems to be the latest in a line of recent games that struggle to give meaning to the vastness of their open spaces.

It does feel good to not be hemmed into painfully artificial paths when moving, but that should be a beginning, not an end in itself.

For a genre rich in legendary cities--from Waterdeep to Minas Tirith to Menzoberranzan--RPGs rarely seem to present us with truly open cities in video game form. Perhaps it’s time for that to change.

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