While it’s mostly known for powerhouse Western RPG franchises like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, it’s easy to forget that Canadian developer BioWare started making games based on the popular tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons. A favorite of VB’s Jeff, Baldur’s Gate and its sequel are still considered the gold standard for D&D-based games, and the acclaimed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic pulled its infrastructure from Wizards of the Coast’s Star Wars d20 (literally just D&D but with lightsabers).
The appeal of making a video game based on tabletop is clear to anyone who enjoys both hobbies. There’s nothing quite as interesting, exciting, and memorable as a good game of your favorite pen and paper system, but the time, resources, and schedule coordination necessary to make an ongoing campaign happen means that it’s rare you’ll be able to play more than one good, meaty adventure every few years. In this regard, BioWare’s attempts at emulating the expansive glory of a good campaign is admirable. However, I feel like they have never quite hit the nail on the head of a strong D&D game, always being just a little too serious or a little too game-y to make it work. Until now.
Roughly 30 hours in, I can say that Mass Effect: Andromeda is the closest BioWare has gotten to the feel of a good tabletop campaign, and here’s why.
The Players Take A Bit To Ease Into Their Characters, And That’s Alright
Some have said that the cast of Mass Effect: Andromeda is not as strong as the original trilogy. That fact is up for debate, but I think what they really mean is that the cast doesn’t make as big of a first impression. Nobody (except maybe Drack or Vetra) has an entrance that’s quite as cool as Thane snapping necks, Jack punching a mech, or Wrex threatening to murder everyone in sight. However, with a little of time, the cast fleshes out and become interesting, nuanced, and likable characters. For the first time in a BioWare game, I can honestly say I like every member of my squad.
It feels a lot like the party of a good tabletop game. At first the group hasn’t warmed up to each other yet because they’re new characters, the party isn’t comfortable with roleplaying yet, or they’re feeling out how the characters interact with each other. However, as time goes on, the team falls into a groove, dynamics are built, and suddenly your friends around the table are also your friends in the fantasy world you inhabit. Andromeda is the game we all hope for, where everyone has made a character concept that works, unlike last time when Bob decided a frat boy marine would be fun for, like, two sessions.
There Are So Many Options, Your Head Spins
Any good tabletop system has a lot of different options and ways to build out the character, especially if you’re playing something with a lot of supplements like a d20 system. This is one of a handful of ways I feel Andromeda has actually outclassed the original trilogy. The six classes of classic Mass Effect kept you limited to a pretty linear path of skills and upgrades (although there was definitely plenty of variation). With the ability to mix and match 3 abilities and up to four weapons from any of the three skill trees, plus three diverging upgrades per ability, three passives per tree, and the ability to keep four profiles saved at a time, the amount of options is mind-boggling. That’s not even getting into things like weapon mods and augments that completely change the way they play.
Obviously rules must be upheld, so you can’t do anything you want with character building in Andromeda, but it feels closer than any game I’ve played to the complete freedom of character building in more rules-light RPG systems. There are almost too many options, to the point that I have already respeced twice and might go back for a third to get the build that is just right.
You Can Probably Go There, And There Will Probably Be Something
One significant edge that tabletops games have over any other form of game is their adaptability: a real human is running the game in real-time with you, so if you decide that you want to abandon the current quest and burn the bar to the ground, you can. Your DM might be very angry with you, but you can.
Obviously, Andromeda (or any video game, for that matter) can’t offer quite that degree of freedom, but it rivals Skyrim in the notion that picking a direction and going will eventually lead you to something noteworthy and interesting, even if it’s as simple as a mining node or a new piece of research to discover. It’s not quite the same, but that degree of freedom is refreshing to see in a franchise that has normally been a lot more limiting in the locations you can see and explore.
It Is Occasionally Quite Silly
There’s a common joke in tabletop communities that every game of D&D starts as Lord of the Rings and eventually becomes Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That many people in a room with that much snack food and boundless imagination is bound to result in an atmosphere that is wacky, ridiculous, and not afraid to poke fun at itself.
This is probably my favorite change Andromeda has made over the original trilogy. The original games had humor, of course, but Ryder as a protagonist is generally funnier, more laidback, and more self-aware than even the snarkiest of Commander Shepards.
During Liam’s loyalty mission, you can choose to quote Han Solo from A New Hope, insisting over comms that everything is fine down there, how are you? While Ryder is quoting the classic line, Liam is barely containing a laugh because he knows what you’re quoting. This is exactly the kind of interaction you would have with an NPC in your average tabletop game, down to the pop culture reference. After completing one of the major missions on Voeld, Ryder can come face to face with an enemy leader and tell her “I’m gonna fuck your shit up”, which is precisely what a player says during the dramatic moment when tensions are high and proper in-character decorum has fallen to the wayside.
These interactions make the whole game feel more genuine and real, while also lending the game a more fun, bombastic tone, which I find appropriate when giant genocidal space squids aren’t on the menu anymore.
So yes, Andromeda is not a perfect game. But in many ways it reminds me of a hobby I love, and I think in that respect is achieves something BioWare has been aiming for for a long time. If you enjoyed these aspects of the game, maybe you should round up some friends, learn a simple system like Savage Worlds, and put together a game.