Mass Effect Andromeda does all it can to make its vast explorable world feel like one of those underwater tunnels you get at SeaWorld. You're transported into a place you've never seen before, able to gawp at the incredible sights all around you, but you're essentially walking through a tunnel from point A to point B. You can go off the signposted path, but why would you when you're being steered so pointedly by the powers that be? That, and you'd probably just find the janitor's closet (although there's probably a mission in Andromeda just like that).
EA's latest sci-fi RPG struggles to lift itself away from extremely heavy handholding. Yet, look no further than this week's retro revival 3D platformer, Yooka-Laylee, and you'll see a game that adopts a polar opposite game design mindset that eschews hands completely. Rather than build SeaWorld, Playtonic has hired a boat, sailed out to sea, and charged you to jump from a plank. Everything is out there if you look for it, but the boat is on its way back to shore already and you've got to remember how you used to swim 20 years ago.
While neither Mass Effect Andromeda or Yooka-Laylee's design choices are quite as blunt as I've suggested, they're not far off, and both would have benefitted from taking parts from the other. Andromeda feels like the culmination of years of triple-A game development ideology, where gameplay systems have been shaped (or more accurately, ground down) by focus groups in order for the next blockbuster game to appeal to the largest possible audience. Yooka-Laylee might as well have been created by a dev team educated in the 90s then cut off from every other significant video game milestone since.
I was going to highlight a specific mission in Andromeda to make my point, but there's no need as the mission itself is irrelevant. The structure is always the same: go to the waypoint on your map (walk, run, drive, fly... it doesn't matter), interact (press a button or a series of buttons) with a person or an object when you get there, shoot enemies, interact with another person or object, and achieve cool thing. I lost count of the number of times a cool sounding mission was proposed only for it to be broken down into yet another button press, fight, button press sequence.
Combine the mission mundanity with open worlds and tracking systems that do nothing to promote natural discovery, and Andromeda never manages to be anything more than OK. Large parts of the game see Ryder and team trying to find ancient vaults, but for the player there's no 'try' at all. There's zero sense of achievement as you're guided to each one by a massive orange light. It's for this reason that I enjoyed the game's pesky Remnant Decryption Puzzles. I was actually doing something for myself (although, yes, you can skip them if you find some tokens!).
Wouldn't it have been better if Andromeda let you discover things, let you explore for a purpose other than to stave off the boredom of wandering along the main path? Wouldn't it have been better had it been more like Yooka-Laylee? If you're new to the world of 3D platformers, the kind that found fame on Nintendo's wonderful N64, the lack of guidance in Playtonic's game will be as welcoming as a cold shower on a wintery morning, but there's something to be said for letting the player do things on their own.
I might (do) find mindlessly wandering the game's large worlds looking for the next item of interest a bit of a waste of valuable time, but it's a hell of a lot more rewarding to do that than be given everything on a futuristic plate (no doubt 3D printed or formed from a solid hologram or whatever the future holds). Of the 140+ Pagies you can find in Yooka-Laylee, plus the 25 ghosts, and selection of other items, I can count on one hand (definitely no more than two) the times they are given to you without a challenge of some sort. This is a game in which I've struggled to locate new zones from within the sprawling hub area, let alone find the five invisible ghosts! There are plenty of plates offering up tasty delights, but in Yooka-Laylee you've got to wrestle them from the N64-pad-shaped fingers of developers clinging to the past.
Whereas Mass Effect Andromeda has a map for every location, complete with a legend and waypoints, Yooka-Laylee has nothing. You can see how many collectables you've found on each level, and that's your lot. There's no quest log, no map, no waypoints, nothing that would make your time with the game a little easier. A map is pretty much essential in a game that delivers large open worlds to explore, and even more so if those worlds are made of interconnected passages that create shortcuts and reveal new zones.
Add to the Yooka-Laylee mix a list of abilities that unlock over the course of the game, meaning you'll encounter puzzles that you have no way of solving (but don't know for sure) at that point in time, and the total lack of modern functionality becomes an invisible elephant in the room. You're forced to remember everything (area layouts, item locations, power-ups, special moves), which inevitably fails as most of us struggle to stay focused on one task let alone a string of 20. Playtonic has created the game it promised, but a little modernity lifted from the likes of Mass Effect Andromeda would have solved the majority of my gripes.
I'm not suggesting that all games homogenise to the point that they are all runny/shooty/jumpy athons with maps and objectives that direct but don't dictate, but there's certainly a case for today's games to look to the past. Retro love-ins are a rarer breed, but they need to realise what areas need to be left behind. What I'm saying is that we need SeaWorld but with a maze of underwater tunnels. Or Zelda: Breath of the Wild. You hear that BioWare? Make Breath of the Wild in space but with underwater maze tunnels!