When multiple big games come out at the same time, I let out a groan. I usually wind up choosing one over the other. But in the case of the most recent pair of huge virtual worlds, I decided to play them both at once.
And so I am bouncing between Mass Effect: Andromeda, which Electronic Arts published this week, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild at the same time. The experience has made me see some common threads in how developers try to entertain someone inside a vast virtual space.
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But I’m getting to the point where I realize that both games are really long and it will take me forever to finish both at this pace. These worlds are so big that I could play for scores of hours before finishing. So I have to think about which one I’m going to finish as I just don’t have the time that I once did.
Zelda has certainly gotten better reviews, with an average score of 97 on review aggregator Metacritic, while Mass Effect: Andromeda has an average score of 77. But I have fond memories of the past Mass Effect games, which have made me a loyal player of the series. I believe that BioWare is capable of delivering outstanding narrative-based open worlds.
When Andromeda arrived, I clearly had the intention of playing that game all the way through and dropping Zelda. But this generation of consoles enables truly vast worlds, play spaces that load a vast amount of territory into the game’s memory before you ever see a loading screen.
Zelda has a more powerful pull for me. I can pop into the game and play a quick mission, like solving a puzzle in a shrine to get a Spirit Orb reward. Zelda is also the first recent game that caught the attention of my 13 year old. We played it together for some hours together and loved the music.
While Zelda has more of an anime style to its art, its world is surprisingly immersive. There are many moments when I’m riding through the world on a horse where it feels so beautiful, with the vast views of distant peaks and the grass swaying in the wind, that I stop and soak in the world.
While Andromeda’s art style is more realistic, it seems more artificial. BioWare’s artists tried to create realistic human faces, and something seems a little off. That’s why there have been so many people making fun of the game on the internet.
Andromeda’s story of finding a new home for humanity in a new galaxy should be compelling. The delight of the Mass Effect series is that you could pursue a mission and uncover something that you weren’t expecting, like a story within a story. It’s like that old line from Frank Herbert’s Dune sci-fi novel: Plans within plans within plans. It makes the galaxy seem like it is full of complexity, and the characters on your spaceship are like The Seven Samurai, where each character has a secret or a rich back story. You can form the deepest relationships with them and level them up to be badasses.
Zelda, by contrast, has a solitary main character whose closest companion is a horse. It’s a lonely experience, with a fairly simple story of beating the dragon and rescuing the princess. You have to solve the puzzles, find the treasures, and defeat the bosses. It shouldn’t be a better game than Andromeda, and yet that seems to be the case.
Both games cater to the completionist. With Zelda, you have to go to four different territories to collect enough stuff to undertake the main mission of the game. With Andromeda, you must also visit a half-dozen planets, blast all the bad aliens, solve a bunch of mysteries, and finally find a new home for humanity. And sometimes, even on one of the planets, you have to go all over the place to complete a three-part task. I have lots of unfinished side quests in Andromeda, but have fewer undone tasks in Zelda.
Each game also has some maddening navigation problems. In Zelda, the 2D minimap isn’t that useful in figuring out where you need to go in a vast territory, which has a number of vertical mountains and hills that can obscure your view of great distances. Andromeda’s minimap is equally bad, like in real life when you’re trying to get an Uber amid some skyscrapers and you can’t get a good location fix.
With Mass Effect: Andromeda, I try to stay on task. It’s not easy, given the confusing minimap. But the main story of trying to tame vast worlds for the sake of humanity’s future is a compelling one. And I don’t really want to stray from it. But when I finish one story thread, I’m not sure where to go next sometimes. That leaves me wandering when I don’t want to.
But in Zelda, I find that I’m drawn away from my quests more often. I dismount my horse and go collecting mushrooms or fireflies in the woods. I stop and take on the Bokoblins by lobbing bombs at them. I even enjoy sitting by the fire and cooking meals with different ingredients. Even figuring out how to tame a horse or hunting your food is fun.
Zelda also has an advantage over Andromeda in other ways. It’s so easy to go back to Zelda because of the nature of its hardware, the Switch. I can play it on the TV or pull it out while on the run and enjoy it for some short moments.
By comparison, I have to be home to play Andromeda. I have to turn on the TV, switch on the Xbox One, log in, and wait for the game to load. That process never seemed like a long wait until I was able to press four buttons on the Switch and pick up Zelda exactly where I left it.
Of course, it is quite possible that I’m not going to have the time to finish either game. If that’s the case, I’ll feel like a failure. But at least I’ll get to enjoy the slices of life in two very big make-believe universes.