Mass Effect: Andromeda is a complicated experience. It’s grandiose in its scale and delivery, yet it cuts its own corners, stunting its potential for greatness. For every aspect Andromeda takes a step forward in, it falls two steps back in another. It stumbles and trips over its own ambitious feet, barely falling over the finish line and into the realm of what most gamers had anticipated. It’s a good game amongst a great franchise that fails to reach the series standards in storytelling, dialogue and technical quality. The expectations the game does meet, however, are the fully-realised alien planets that are mostly a joy to explore, as well as a much-improved combat system that is a shining element in an otherwise disappointing sequel.
Mass Effect: Andromeda sees Milky Way inhabitants venturing where no man, woman or frog-like creature has gone before: to the Andromeda galaxy in the hopes of discovering a perfect world to call Home 2.0. Of course, this space mission of epic proportions doesn’t quite go to plan, and soon you and hundreds of thousands of others are stranded in unfamiliar and dangerous space.
Contrasting the badass mega soldier that was Commander Shepard are Andromeda’s two playable protagonists: Scott and Sara Ryder, the twin son and daughter of an ex-N7 member Alec Ryder, who, after dying, grants you with the title of Pathfinder — basically the person in charge of finding safe haven for the stranded explorers. The risks are high and the pressure is on, and I found the desperation and stakes of Andromeda’s story much more compelling and believable than a simple “save the humanity from the big bad alien” mission. Don’t get me wrong, though, there’s still a fair few monstrous enemies to vanquish, there is more at play here in Andromeda. And it’s this that lends to making Ryder’s initial goals more grounded and significant.
The core idea of colonizing and exploring unknown alien worlds is exciting in theory and luckily remains mostly so in practice within the game. However, it is hindered by an all-too-familiar story that loosely strings the core plot of Andromeda all together. Disappointingly (and certainly not for the first time), Mass Effect introduces us to something we’ve all heard before, just packaged within shiny Andromeda accoutrements. An ancient alien race has left behind structures and secrets to its an advanced technology, which is exactly what the main antagonist, The Archon, is after. He’s a stereotyped but functional and terrifying villain for the most part, and succeeds as an intimidating opposition; but, like his motives, he will feel unsurprising and even mundane to some.
Running alongside this central plot is, of course, the secondary threat that Ryder must constantly tend to: establishing a functioning and suitable home for his/her people. Completing tasks and watching outposts and the central home, called “The Nexus,” grow is genuinely satisfying and gives a great sense of accomplishment. Though I would rather have experienced a simpler and less predictable, against-the-odds, “Lewis and Clark”-style journey through the savage unknown in Andromeda, both primary and sub plot end on a gratifying note. It seems the satisfying resolution partially makes up for the so-so rise.
The four main planets you’ll visit in Andromeda are huge, and varied in flora and fauna, but all have the unique trait that they’re usually out to eat you or want to spit acid in your eyes. Scattered on the surface of these planets are everything from abandoned alien structures, mercenary basses and lush tropical jungles, to barren deserts and icy caverns that begged to be explored. Between landmarks, there is a large amount of empty space, scarcely filled with enemies you’ll want to fight for research purposes. Luckily, the franchise signature Nomad, a juiced up six-wheel drive space rover, is at your control. It’s more than just mindless boosting through the open world with the Nomad, however, as it requires you to change gears to scale steep hills and hop over hazards.
There is also a very simple platforming element to exploring Andromeda’s planets and ancient ruins with Ryder’s jump jet. I would have preferred the jump jet being used to scale unexplored mountains lava pits and other treacherous landmarks, but I’m glad there was at least some element of exploration that revolved around a small sense of danger.
Again, I would have liked a more rugged terrain that I was forced to chart, perhaps creating a sense of the planets are something to battle against as well, but the exploration is still above and beyond what Mass Effect fans have been wanting for a long time.
However, most of the missions you’ll be doing amongst these beautiful and interesting locales are quite the opposite. Grindy, MMO fetch quests are far too common in Andromeda, and are sprinkled between interesting side missions throughout the entire game. What makes these even worse is their locations. There is an overwhelming amount of these side objectives that require you to “go here, collect three of these.” These are all over the place — literally, as they will require you to traverse far from your main objectives. So, if you’re a someone like me who likes to complete everything in the most efficient way possible, you’re going to run into a frustrating hurdle. The location and number of these missions really could have been refined down, it almost feels as if BioWare went for a quantity over quality ideology. Simply put, most of these fetch quests that are there to encourage exploration turn quickly into a chore instead of a joy. Like a kick in the shin, I can get over it, but it’s painfully annoying.
Some side stories deal with love, intergalactic racism, intrigue, murder and the morality and fragility of humanity’s grand scheme of colonisation. These sorts of engrossing side missions will make up for some of the time you’ll spend walking from point A to point B looking for forgettable items, but you’ll really wish there was more of these types of missions at the end of your 50 hour or so journey.
Probing planets for resources also returns in Andromeda, and, like its previous incarnations, many will find it tedious. In fact, I enjoy resource management and scanning planets for certain minerals, but I can’t imagine many players will want to constantly scan plant after planet, repeating the same tedious task.
Joining you on your adventures and missions is (of course) your trusted band of crew-mates who are (again) an assortment of soldiers, rebels, scientists and space babes who each have their own unique stories. Some crew members have far more interesting histories than others, but none quite recapture the engagement of the original trilogy that boasted crew-mates like a war crime-committing scientist and a spiritual assassin with a terminal disease. It’s a smaller crew than Mass Effect 3, so you’ll have more time to grow stronger relationships with each of them, but some crew-mates will just leave you missing the old faces of the original gang. What’s more disappointing in Andromeda is the lack of new alien races; only one of which joins your crew (he’s also probably the most interesting, go figure). Only two races, the villainous Kett and the impassioned Angara, live amongst Andromeda when you arrive, and that’s a huge bummer. The initial trilogy has dozens of aliens, great and small, gelatinous and bulky, and it’s really disheartening to see so few new sentient beings here in Andromeda.
Another large change for Andromeda is its new dialogue system that replaces the old paragon and renegade system of the original trilogy. The new dialogue wheel now offers up responses based on certain tones, like realistic, casual, emotional and professional. This is a neat idea in practice, and works for general conversations in Andromeda, but when it came to the big moments, I couldn’t help feel that the impact and gravity of my choices wasn’t there. It only ever boiled down to realistic or optimistic options, and though it’s less black-and-white than the old system, it somehow carries significantly less weight and sucked the tension out of some large moments.
It doesn’t help that dialogue in Andromeda is also noticeably bad in several instances. I couldn’t help but cringe at a few romance lines in the game and notice how stilted and rigid some dialogue was written. Voice acting from the cast is of BioWare standard, which is very good, and in particular the talented Fryda Wolff (who voices Sara Ryder) does a phenomenal job, but you’re only as good as your material. It’s just unfortunate some of Mass Effect: Andromeda’s dialogue feels below par.
Now it’s time to address the elephant in the room: Mass Effect: Andromeda’s animations. A majority of the facial animations are unrealistic and seem almost rubbery. When not in a cut scene or a conversation Ryder’s eyes don’t blink, and it’s as though everyone is animated as if they were aliens, most of which animate relatively fine. Some walking and crouching animations, particularly from NPCs, are also pretty strange and some animations noticeably flawed in notably cut scenes. It’s not always terribly noticeable, but it’s not what one would expect. I played Andromeda on a high-end gaming PC and didn’t have any issues with texture pop-ins and loading times were pretty fast, but I did notice several audio bugs that layered audio on top of each other. It only happened once or twice, but it’s something worth noting.
Combat in Andromeda is the exact opposite however. It’s by far the best feature in Andromeda and really gives the player a sense of freedom to tackle the dangers of the universe as they see fit. Once you get over the fact there isn’t a dedicated cover button, Andromeda’s third-person shooting feels tight and intuitive, and the new profiles system allows you to pick and craft the ultimate alien-killing Ryder you can think of. No longer are you restricted to a class that binds what weapons and abilities you use; this time when you level up, you can choose to put your points in either combat, biotic or tech. With these you can also select profiles, which were classes in the original franchise. Additionally, instead of dictating what abilities you can and cannot use, they will simply passively bolster statistics corresponding to either one of the three skill trees.
I loved this new system, as I was basically able to build my Ryder into a terrifying biotic juggernaut that froze enemies before throwing them into the air and shooting them with a shotgun like a skeet shooter. You can swap between up to three profiles at any time, so if you want to mix it up, you can. Like I said before, Ryder also has a jump jet that’s made for more than just hopping over gaps; it’s also excellent in combat. It’s great for dodging enemy attacks, flanking and can even be combined with sever abilities like the biotics Nova, which sends Ryder crashing to the ground, throwing enemies hit in all directions. It makes combat more vertical, and, combined with the new profile system, offers up the most satisfying and enjoyable combat experience Mass Effect has delivered to date.
Mass Effect: Andromeda also sees the return of multiplayer strike missions, which have you defend against waves of enemies in a cooperative setting with three other friends. This mode is integrated and linked in with the single-player mode, as Ryder can apex missions from the command deck in The Nexus. Like World of Warcraft’s garrison missions, these have different difficulty ratings and time limits if you choose to send AI, but I like the idea that a couple of buddies and myself can tackle them and contribute to the main section of the game. Likewise, you contribute to your online character, gaining loot packs that contain random upgrades. Like Mass Effect 3’s online mode, it’s more fun than one would expect and is a sure play if you’re a fan of Anromeda’s combat.
It seems BioWare tried to run with “the bigger, the better” motif with Andromeda, trading overall quality for a grand sense of scale. This lack of shine doesn’t lead Mass Effect: Andromeda down the road of gaming’s biggest failures, but certainly plants a seed of doubt for the inevitable sequel. If you love space, intuitive combat, customisation, the series’ lore, exploration or putting your tongue in other aliens’ mouths, then Mass Effect: Andromeda will deliver. But like the rocky landing humanity finds in Andromeda, so does BioWare exploring the next step of the historic franchise.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is best described as the runt of the litter: it’s not an awful game, but its noticeably flawed and is simply not as good as the rest of the historic installments. Regardless, as aforementioned, if you’re a fan of the wide unknown, Mass Effect‘s canon and having sex with aliens, Andromeda is sure to fulfil your needs. Let’s just hope the next space venture in this grand franchise find its feet, picks itself back up and learns from its mistakes.