Mass Effect: Andromeda Review
Andromeda might not shine where you expect it to, but it still shines
It many ways, BioWare were faced with an impossible task when it came to rebooting the Mass Effect series. Pleasing the large existing fan base, bringing in new players and meeting sky-high expectations is certainly a tricky situation to be in, compounded by the fact that the developers chose to make a more or less clean break from the original trilogy, meaning there are no existing characters and plotlines to fall back on. It is perhaps unsurprising then that Mass Effect: Andromeda falls a bit short of the originals in a few different aspects, and a bit more surprising that after such a long development cycle the game is rather rough around the edges. However there is still a lot to like about Andromeda once you come to terms with its focus on exploration and side-stories over a single captivating narrative thread, and it ends up being a pretty good experience overall.
The premise that BioWare came up with to allow for a fresh start is immediately intriguing. Around the same time as the events of Mass Effect 2 (after the events of Eden Prime in Mass Effect 1 and before the full-on Reaper invasion of Mass Effect 3), several of the Milky Way species created an initiative to travel to and colonize the Heleus cluster of the Andromeda galaxy. Taking the 600-year journey is a huge space station dubbed the Nexus that serves as the equivalent to the Citadel, as well as separate arcs from the Humans, Turians, Asari and Salarians. Each arc is led by a Pathfinder who is tasked with exploring and assessing a few chosen or ‘golden’ worlds identified within Andromeda for colonization.
The game starts with you as one of the Ryder siblings coming out of Cryo-sleep on the human Arc, with events early in the story leading to you becoming the human Pathfinder and once again receiving control of your own ship and crew. This is a great setup as it feels like a mostly un-contrived way of creating a totally fresh start within the Mass Effect universe, and I couldn’t wait to see what awaited me in the new Galaxy. Ultimately, the game doesn’t fully deliver on this potential, but it doesn’t fall flat on its face either. More so than any BioWare game I can recall, Andromeda forgoes a prominent central narrative in favor of several loosely connected subplots, some of which work better than others. There is a main thread with a central villain that emerges, but this storyline mostly retreads old ground in an uninspired manner, and does not live up to the epic stories found in the original games.
Fortunately, this underwhelming main storyline does not make up the bulk of the Andromeda experience. It mainly serves to move you between new planets where the real meat of the game lies. There are five main planets in Andromeda, with each one containing its own storyline that often culminate in important decisions for Ryder. Typically, these quest lines are done in service of improving the viability of that planet for colonization and eventually establishing an outpost. Andromeda’s best stories and characters are found in these sub-plots, and each of them are substantially long. What is surprising is that these questlines are not marked as ‘priority ops,’ meaning they are not critical to your progress in the game, and can be skipped.
Returning from Mass Effect 2 and 3 are loyalty missions you can complete for your squad members. While you only have six squad members, they all have lengthy questlines that include some of the best parts of the game. Initially, I was a bit underwhelmed with my crew members, with only one that I found immediately interesting. However after going through their questlines, I grew to like them all except for one who I found consistently bland. This is fortunate, as memorable characters outside your crew are few and far between, though they do exist.
One area of wasted potential is the lack of interesting new aliens. There are only two new species you communicate with in Andromeda, and only one of them is friendly. They both prove to be pretty uninteresting, with the friendly Angara being the worst offenders; your in-built AI instantly translates their language into a random assortment of emotionless vaguely foreign accents, with most Angarans having a rather goofy appearance and the personality of a sack of flour.
Goofy looking characters are in fact a recurring problem in Andromeda. While most of the Milky Way races who took part in the initiative look more or less how you probably remember, apparently 600 years of cryo-sleep has caused the eyes and faces of the Humans and Asari to expand, because neither race look quite right. While BioWare games have never really had cutting-edge facial animations, they are particularly bad here, especially with humans whose eye movements and lip-syncing can sometimes do weird things during conversations that might be initially distracting. Fortunately, most non-humans don’t look nearly as bad and once you progress past the human-heavy early stages of the game this becomes less of an issue.
The voice acting and writing are also generally inconsistent. Andromeda does away with the classic Renegade/Paragon system of previous games, in favor of giving you a variety of more emotionally determined responses like being casual, logical or personal. The system itself is fine as it helps introduce some grey area into the previously black and white morality that the series had. The problem comes with the delivery and tone of some responses. It almost seems like BioWare tried to imbue Ryder with the more roguish and care-free personality and mannerisms of Nathan Drake from the earlier Uncharted games. This ultimately serves to give the entire game a lighter tone that honestly isn’t a great fit and undermines the feeling of desperation that should come with struggling to survive in a foreign and often hostile new galaxy.
Andromeda is at its best when it finds a good balance of story and gameplay, which it does eventually. Apart from certain missions, most of your time not in conversation will be spent driving around planets taking part in occasional combat encounters and the odd puzzle. Andromeda strikes a great balance between the big, empty planets of Mass Effect 1 and the more linear levels of the rest of the trilogy by giving you large and content-filled but relatively few planets to explore. The idea with most of them is that you go down as the Pathfinder to assess and improve the planet surfaces for a colony outpost.
This sets up a great story premise for exploration, as what you need to do for each planet varies, and you will generally spend a lot of time driving around getting distracted by abundant side quests that exist on top of the story-linked ones. The Mako from Mass Effect 1 has returned in spirit, now called the Nomad, with the notable difference that the new one actually handles well and is fun to drive. It has two modes, one for speed, and one that activates six-wheel drive for going up steep hills. In combination with a booster and jump capability it makes for a rather fun way to tackle the often rocky and mountainous terrain of the planet surfaces. Generally speaking when you get to your destination or get distracted by something you find, you will have to do some fighting.
Combat in Andromeda is a significant departure from the previous games. You can still take cover, but it is automatic, and cover can sometimes be destroyed. Instead, the game encourages speed and mobility as every character is equipped with jump-jets that let them blast into the air, dash in any direction, and even hover in place to make a few head shots. There is a good variety of enemies with different strengths and weaknesses, ranging from small and fast to big and hulking, with a few great boss-battles to boot. The weapons and powers are reminiscent of previous Mass Effect games, though you are no longer limited to using powers from a single class. Instead, you can mix and match powers as you please, though you can only use three at any given time. You can however set ‘favorites’ which lets you switch between profiles, and access different power loadouts on the fly.
Another big change is that you can no longer pause combat to order your squad-mates to use their powers. You can still order them to move around and attack a specific enemy, but cannot tell them when to use specific abilities. The result is combat that feels faster and more action-oriented with less time spent in cover and more time spent dodging around. Different ammo types are no longer linked to skills, and instead come in the form of usable items. I grew to quite like the new combat system, as the removal of class restrictions on learning abilities allows a level of flexibility in character progression well beyond that of previous games. Factor in just how fun a lot of the abilities are to use, and the satisfying and extremely varied arsenal of weapons at your disposal, and I would say the combat in Andromeda is the best in the series.
While Mass Effect 2 and 3 paired down loot and inventory management to a minimum, they have made a return here. There is a lot of weapon and armor variety, and while you can get by with finding or buying equipment, the best stuff is reserved for the fairly in-depth crafting system, which is divided into research and development. When you are running around on planets, you can use a scanner to obtain information about any unfamiliar technology you encounter. This data can then be used to research new weapons, armor and modifications. To develop this equipment, you will need to obtain resources either by planet scanning, mining on planets, or by purchasing them.
Planet scanning remains a tedious endeavor, especially in light of a new animation that plays whenever you move between planets or systems. I found however that I was able to get most of the materials I needed by mining on the ground via the Nomad, which involves launching a probe when in a resource-rich location. The crafting system itself is quite good as it allows you to perform interesting modifications to your weapons in particular, such as the ability to change bullets into homing-bolts or even explosive projectiles. The interface bogs down the process, unfortunately, as research and development are in different menus and it is not easy to tell when researching new equipment if you will have the necessary resources to develop it.
The poor crafting interface and over-long space travel animations are good indicators of the general lack of polish found within Andromeda. Minor bugs are common during conversations, where characters will twitch and jerk about, or even clip into each other. Sometimes the camera will face the wrong direction so it feels like you are having a conversation with disembodied voices. Outside of conversations I experienced one or two scripting bugs that forced me to reload a previous checkpoint, and another where my Nomad suddenly decided it wanted to be an indoor vehicle and warped inside a building. Andromeda is yet another major game that would have benefited from more development time, and as such, waiting for a few patches before jumping in is advised.
Most of these bugs seem tied to the singleplayer, as the returning co-operative multiplayer seems comparatively bug-free. The four-player multiplayer hasn’t changed much in structure from Mass Effect 3; essentially it is a wave-based survival mode where you occasionally need to complete some basic objectives. This mode is no longer tied to story progress, though you can access special ‘Apex’ multiplayer missions from your campaign for singleplayer and multiplayer rewards. This remains a fun but unremarkable distraction, and works especially well with the new more action-oriented combat. Multiplayer progression is tied to leveling up your character and skills so that you can tackle higher difficulties. Annoyingly the only way to unlock new gear is by opening blind boxes which are purchased with in-game currency or microtransactions.
The Mass Effect games were never known for technically impressive visuals, and this changes here to some extent with the move over to Frostbite engine. Aside from character faces and the drab looking Nexus, Andromeda is quite a good looking game. The environments you explore are varied and generally look great. You will go through deserts, ice-planets, jungles and ancient alien structures, with a lot of detail in each; you can practically feel the heat on one of the desert planets thanks to some convincing lighting effects. Performance is mostly fine, though some planets are more demanding than others and I experienced a couple of hard crashes. The sound design is on point as well; weapons sound great, and biotic powers sound just like you would expect from a Mass Effect game. Environmental sounds do wonders for the atmosphere in some spots. The original soundtrack isn’t the strongest in the series, but it is still very solid and true its roots. Andromeda looks, sounds and feels like Mass Effect.
Even though Andromeda’s perfunctory central storyline, tonal issues and lack of polish are a bit surprising and disappointing after such a long wait, I still think it succeeds as a Mass Effect game. The focus on side-stories and exploration harken back to Mass Effect 1, and once you get into the rhythm of exploring planets, completing interesting side quests and improving your arsenal, there is a substantial and satisfying space adventure to be found here. I’m not sure if Andromeda will do much to change the minds of series skeptics, but if you are looking for another adventure within the Mass Effect universe, this should do nicely, though waiting for a few patches is recommended.