Platforms: PC, Xbox One and PS4
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Developer: Bioware Montreal
Review copy provided free of charge by EA
The Mass Effect franchise is important to me, perhaps even more so than my own nieces. Given the choice between Mass Effect 2 and my nieces I’d be clutching that box to my heart faster than you could call social services. Sure, like most people I was left somewhat aghast at how the third game wrapped up the entire story, and to this day I’ve still only played Mass Effect 3 twice, despite it having numerous great moments leading up to that controversial finish. However, I’ve played Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 about a dozen times each, equalling hundreds of hours spent saving the galaxy and hanging out with a crew of characters that have become ingrained in my mind. A new entry in this beloved series, then, is one hell of an exciting prospect for me and to legions of fans everywhere. It has been five years since Bioware capped the original trilogy and there’s a lot of expectation for this fresh take. Have they screwed it up? A little bit, yup.
In order to avoid tripping over the original trilogy’s storyline Andromeda begins its tale between Mass Effect 2 and 3 with The Initiative sending Turian, Salarian, Asari and Human ark ships to the Andromeda system, a journey that takes some 600 years of stasis beauty sleep and ensures that there isn’t a Commander Shepard or Reaper in sight. Arriving in what will hopefully be humanity’s new home you’ll be playing as either Scott or Sara Ryder, taking on the roll of Pathfinder, a person charged with exploration of the new galaxy and finding places for thousands of colonists to call home. Naturally, though, things don’t go entirely to plan as Andromeda is in more of a mess than expected and there’s a horrible alien race running around called The Kett, plus some ancient technology. Dumped into the middle of it all it’s up to whichever Ryder twin you’re playing as to make friends, fight the enemies, fix up some planets and navigate the politics involved in making a new home.
RPGs often suffer from having slow starts due to their sheer size and Andromeda doesn’t manage to shrug that problem off, its story and characters taking a while to begin warming up. And even once it finally hits its stride it never does manage to come close to the wonderful Mass Effect 2 and its pressing suicide mission which gave the entire thing a powerful sense of urgency. Like before you’re given a ship, this time named the Tempest, a crew of misfits and a galaxy full of planets to explore. With a whole new galaxy brimming with potential it’s a fun premise for the game, yet while the foundation might be solid the execution is somewhat lacking. The problems stem from inconsistent writing that can leave you smiling and groaning in equal measure, and the fact that your crew of misfits do not have the same charisma as the original Mass Effect trilogy characters had. Indeed, though, comparing pretty much any videogame character to the likes of Garrus or Tali is like sentencing them to death; who could ever match the loyal crew members that so many of us spent three games getting to know?
Still, credit must be given where it’s due because why the crew of the Tempest may not have a Garrus or Tali the people who inhabit it can still be an engaging bunch to hang around. There’s the grumpy Drack, an older Krogan who is blunt, direct and willing to get into a good scrap, a symbolic relic of what Krogan were and what they arguably should be trying to escape from. There’s Peebee, the Asari who doesn’t like to settle, is a touch manic and probably should not be allowed near anything important on the ship in case she takes it apart. And then there’s Liam. He’s worse than Kaidan, somehow. The highlight is arguably Jaal, a member of a whole new species that almost made me forget that the Quarians are weirdly absent. Almost. The point is I genuinely found myself willing to spend time getting to know these characters, actively taking the time needed between missions to wander around the Tempest and learn about them, from the bigger revelations of loyalty missions to the smaller, funnier things like a phishing scam that fooled Drack.
A little disappointing are the two primary alien races you encounter in the Andromeda galaxy. The evil forces of the Kett are damn nearly instantly forgettable in their visual design, while the friendly Angarians are a bit more interesting thanks to their culture. However, the disappointing part is that both species look decidedly human. It’s understandable that the designers want to make them relatable, especially the Angarians, but in a completely different galaxy it would have been nice to see more alien aliens running around.
As for your character, I like him/her. You can opt to be either Scott or Sara Ryder with whichever sibling you don’t choose also being fully customizable and appearing in the game. For this review I’ll just be referring to Ryder as a male. He’s much younger and less experienced than the legendary Commander Shepard (this is my favorite website on the Citadel – Cm. Shepard) and has a much lighter, jokey tone that results in a couple of brilliant moments, including one where he happily tells an enemy how many fucks he gives. A lot of my like for the character stems from the altered dialogue system which still employs the traditional Bioware wheel but now there’s no Paragon and Renegade options like before, both choices that tend to be complete contrasts to each other. No, now choices are given emotional icons that indicate the general tone, like logical, emotional, casual etc. This makes for much subtler transitions between the different ways you can have conversations. It felt completely stupid to switch from a Paragon to Renegade stance in the previous games because it made Shepard look like a nutcase, but here altering your tone is much more natural. However, for people who love to roleplay a complete asshole it’s damn near impossible to be a true jerk in Andromeda, which means the story makes more sense but the tradeoff is obviously less player choice. It’s also worth noting that dialogue options too frequently boiled down to a measly two choices.
Speaking of which the Mass Effect series, right up to the finale of Mass Effect 3, has been about choice, with the decisions players making generally having a large impact upon the universe that makes each play through feel engaging. Here Andromeda drops the ball, offering up plenty of little fascinating decisions but failing to imbue them the impact they really need, typically opting for short-term changes instead of big, drastic alterations to the story. This can sometimes create very odd situations where something you do should leave people, including members of your own team, completely against you, and yet before long they’ll be acting as though nothing happened. It’s jarring and only serves to make the initially intriguing conundrums feel pointless. What does it actually matter if I choose the very first Initiative outpost to be scientific or militaristic? This key moment in the entire story is rendered meaningless, the player’s actions failing to reform the world, the very hallmark of the franchise being replaced by the generic open-world ideology of giving the player very little true influence upon events. It’s truly a shame that Bioware didn’t learn anything from the huge disappointment surrounding Mass Effect 3’s ending and how it abandoned everything players had done up to that point.
This also leads to Andromeda having no momentous moments where you’ll be left pondering what to do. Mass Effect 1 had situations where people could die, and Mass Effect 2 upped the stakes substantially with its mad suicide mission and it’s harrowing Mordin storyline. Andromeda has…nothing, really. I don’t even consider it a spoiler to say that none of your crew can die on this journey. In Mass Effect 2 you could beat the game and still walk away feeling like you failed because so many of your comrades fell to get the job done. It gave the game power, and that’s something Andromeda does not have. I can’t remember a single decision that has stuck with me during Andromeda because none of them were difficult calls to make because it never felt like it mattered.
A lot has been made of the game’s animations, especially the facial ones. While it has perhaps been blown out of proportion there’s denying that the quality of the animations is painfully bad for a triple-A title in 2017. Character’s faces often look stiff and awkward, like a barbie doll that has been possessed by a demon. They so very rarely manage to convey the needed emotion, and the horrifyingly wide eyes that jerk wildly from point to point aren’t helping the situation. For a series so focused on telling a good story the facial animations are simply crap and detract from the plot until you manage to keep your attention on the voice acting. The rest of the animations are pretty bad, too, with tons of clipping and glitches.
That’s on top of a bunch of other glitches like people falling from the sky or vanishing mysteriously, the wrong end of a gun being used to shoot someone, lots of getting caught on terrain, character’s hovering or running oddly and much, much more. Thankfully none of the ones I encountered were game breaking, falling more into the category of being amusing as hell, but it’s a frustrating lack of polish. It’s like the triple-A industry as a whole just doesn’t give a flying fuck about releasing reasonably tidy games these days.
In fine Mass Effect tradition, you’ll be hopping from planet to planet tackling main missions and a deluge of side-quests which will keep you playing for 30+ hours or considerably more if you want to see and do absolutely everything. The mission structure here is fairly predictable stuff: go there, grab a thing or kill everything and then go over there and repeat, but they’re solid enough. The problem is much the missions love to send you bouncing madly from planet to planet, something which would be fine if it wasn’t for the damn loading screens taking so long. On top of that while using the Galaxy Map to select where you’re going there are slow transition screens that move you from one location to the next. They’re kind of cool the first few times, but after that they lose their appeal and the constant 10-20 second animations add up very quickly in a game that wants you to travel all the time. In other words it’s best to do as much in one place as physically possible. I also didn’t like how many missions, especially the otherwise great loyalty missions for your crew, get put on hold for a while a character sets up a meeting or waits around to send you an email, killing engagement with mission and creating awkward pacing. Still, while these problems are certainly frustrating the majority of the quests are still a lot of fun to complete and have a reasonable amount of story context behind them, even if they don’t come even close to competing with The Witcher 3 in that sense.
Being a pathfinder a lot of the missions revolve around establishing colonies on worlds and helping support them by doing things like seeking out water or dealing with the local trouble. A big focus is the ancient vaults that will help sort a planet’s atmospheric conditions. Activating these requires you to visit monoliths that can only be turned on by solving ancient sudoku puzzles using glyphs that you scan for in the environment. It seems even Bioware realized this was a completely stupid feature because it vanishes at some point without an explanation, like someone suddenly figured out that completing them was tedious and hastily tried to delete them before the game was shipped. Regardless, seeing colonies get established does give the game a nice sense of progression, even if the way they magically appear makes the entire story feel like it’s taking place in some strange time warp. Yes, a sense of time is something Andromeda doesn’t have, the static NPCs, lack of day and night cycle and the way you travel back and forth between planets without any time seeming to pass all contributing to this.
While you’re busy doing all this colonizing and mission completing it’s worth stopping every now and then to take in the sights, because while Andromeda might have some seriously questionable animations its environments are frequently lovely, and sizable, too. There’s some beautiful art design on show that is used to forge unique and interesting worlds that you’ll hurtle around using the new all-terrain vehicle that is totally the MAKO from Mass Effect, but, y’know, good. The open maps on each world are quite substantial so driving from one objective can take a while, which has the effect of making everything feel bigger but obviously comes at the expense of potentially boring certain players. For this reason as you explore forward stations will be deployed that allow you to fast travel around the place.
A hell of a lot of what you’ll be doing in the game involves shooting stuff in the face. The combat has seen some nice improvements thanks to the inclusion of jump-jets that let you leap into the air, hover and dash in any direction while either in the air or on the ground. It makes fighting feel much more fluid and less static than it was previously. The cover system employed uses a mechanic where you just run into a wall or box or whatever and Ryder will automatically hunker into cover. It works reasonably well, bar a couple of moments where it can prove to be a touch clumsy. Regardless of that this is easily the best gunplay the series has seen to date, and I never found myself groaning at the thought of yet another fight like I did in the original trilogy.
Layered atop the plentiful amounts of shooting to be done is the skill system that manages to feel both deep enough and yet overly simplistic, an impressive feat indeed. For Ryder himself there’s a reasonable amount of stuff to go through the form of combat, biotic and tech skill menus, each boasting twelve different skills you can sink your points into. Want to fling foes around? Then biotic throwing is for you! Or maybe you want to be the straight-up soldier wielding assault rifles, grenades and deployable shields? There is no class system here as such so you’re free to put points into whatever you fancy, which I really like, especially since you can re-spec from medi-bay and thus spend time finding what works for you before truly committing. There is, however, a profile system where you can select your combat profile, boosting specific abilities and stats. Opt to be a soldier, for example, and it’ll pump up your weapon damage, health and general badassery. You’re never locked into a profile, leaving you free to swap to whatever you fancy.
As for your gear there are a few different types of armor to equip, and you can mix and match the different pieces if you prefer, plus there’s a standard selection of weapons with a few nice twists along the way. You can pick this stuff up from vendors as you go but there’s also a crafting system in place where you spend research points to develop new, improved versions of guns and armor before, adding augmentations and mods as you go. There’s nothing new or innovative about this crafting system, but it’s still satisfying to get your hands on the best stuff.
Where the leveling up let me down a tad was in the teamates who can only have their small selection of powers upgraded but not their armor or gear. You also can’t program them to behave in certain ways or even command them to use their powers on a specific target, something which limits the games combo system where various abilities can be combined for extra damage.
Multiplayer has also made a return, and I’m not going to delve too deeply into it because truthfully just getting the singleplayer portion of the game out of the way took long enough. It’s not changed much, putting a team of four players against waves of enemies. There are still classes to unlock, packs to be opened for cool gear and microtransactions if you fancy spending more money, which you really, really shouldn’t do. The improved combat makes it quite fun albeit in short stints. I can see myself spending a lot of time playing multiplayer, but certainly I’ll get some more matches under my belt before calling it a day. Plus, having real team mates does let you enjoy the combo system more.
There’s a new mission type that feeds into multiplayer as well called Strike Teams. Here you can deploy A.I. teams to various missions where they’ll level up, gain new perks and get some bonus loot for you. Certain missions are called Strike missions and you can fire these up in multiplayer if you prefer, significantly increasing the odds of success. It’s…fine. There’s not much to say about the Strike teams other than it works, it’s there and it probably won’t hold your interest.
Speaking of things that won’t hold your interest, scanning is back! Thankfully the game doesn’t demand you scan entire planets like in Mass Effect 2, but now when you’re on the ground you can go mining in your vehicle, which is almost as boring. It’s not vital to crafting or anything, though, so you can merrily ignore mining unless you happen to be driving through an area rich in a few resources.
Despite what the media is saying and the amount of dislike the game seems to be getting from the general public I think Andromeda is a good game, and I’ve enjoyed playing it from start to finish. With that said, it’s only a good game, and in a beloved franchise such as Mass Effect just being good isn’t enough. That leaves it in an awkward position where the Mass Effect name is doing more damage than help. Without it Andromeda would probably have been far better received from a critical standpoint. What this ultimately means is that Andromeda is a lot of fun provided you can go into it with the right expectations and mindset. In many ways its structure and design reflect Dragon Age: Inquisition more than it reflects the previous Mass Effect games.
Perhaps the defining moment was when the ending came. When I watched the credits roll in the original Mass Effect I instantly fired up a new game, dreaming of how I’d build my character this time, the things I would do differently and the moments I would relive. When I finished Mass Effect 2 I leaned back in my chair and finally breathed. It took me week to really digest what had happened, but once I did I jumped straight into a new game and did it all again. Even Mass Effect 3 hit me hard with its ending, forcing me to spend some time seriously contemplating life and how I felt about what Bioware had done. The point is that all three games made me feel something when they ended. But Andromeda didn’t. I watched the credits roll, thought briefly about how I had enjoyed myself and then I just…moved on. That’s wrong. I should never just move on when I finish a Mass Effect game. It’s not something I should be able to just move on from. It should be like that one ex who you can never quite get of your mind. Haunting. Beautiful. Frustrating. Amazing. Andromeda isn’t her. It never will be. Maybe that’s unfair, but then that’s life.