The original Mass Effect trilogy holds some of my fondest gaming memories. My FemShep was a ruthless and aggressive space bitch who ruled with an iron fist and suffered no fools. She loved as much as she lost during the desperate struggle against the Reapers; breaking hearts, kicking arse and taking names. Given my love of those games it’s surprising the muted hype I had prior to Mass Effect: Andromeda’s release. Maybe it’s because I was worried that lightning couldn’t strike twice, but I kept an open mind as I delved into BioWare’s latest offering, and after spending over seventy hours in the Andromeda galaxy I’ve come back to Earth to give my report.
A whole new world
ME:A takes place in the titular Andromeda galaxy, many light years from the Milky Way. This galaxy had previously been assessed as possessing several habitats rich with life and suitable for exploration and potential settlement. Thousands of intrepid souls signed up to make the epic voyage to Andromeda, requiring leaving everything behind and a hefty 600-year cryo snooze. Upon arriving it seems that these habitable worlds were perhaps not what they were made out to be on the post cards, and there’s also the small matter of a destructive dark energy permeating the cluster dubbed the Scourge that tends to tear apart ships that pass through it. You play either a male or female character known as Ryder, who is awakened from cryo sleep amongst the relative chaos of arriving in Andromeda. You must assume your destiny as a Pathfinder and battle the odds to carve out a new existence for not only humanity, but several races that have also left the Milky Way in search of greener pastures and a fresh start in Andromeda.
Andromeda’s setting is quite clever in that it doesn’t need to be a continuation of the original trilogy, but can nonetheless draw on its rich lore, in particular its many alien species and their storied pasts. While some of the races that you know and love like the quarians, batarians and drell don’t make an appearance, others like the salarian, asari, turian and krogan are front and centre. While Andromeda is supposed to be a fresh start for these alien races, their history has still managed to follow them across the expanses of space, and the pitfalls of looking backwards and clinging to old feuds is ever present. I do feel like Andromeda is a bit of a missed opportunity to introduce more novel alien species (there are only three new ones really), but familiar species do help ground the experience.
One thing that Andromeda struggles with is its sense of scale. We’re made to believe that this is an entirely new galaxy full of exciting possibilities, but even though there are multiple solar systems to explore, the lack of interactivity makes it feel like a token universe rather than a dynamic space full of life. There are dozens of planets to discover, but 95% of them have barely more than a point of interest that will grant you minerals or XP, and more often than not contain nothing of interest at all. It takes the fun out of exploration and makes the galaxy feel like an empty wasted space. Similar criticisms were levelled at the original trilogy, but in those games I feel that the rich lore and sense of place buoyed the experience and brought a sense of identity to the galaxy; politics, religion, racial tensions and fundamental biological differences made for a rich tapestry of intrigue that made you feel small despite your important role… I did not get that same sense in Andromeda. Elements of it are there, but if feels like a watered-down version of what BioWare are capable of.
Despite issues with creating a truly convincing universe, the main story still has a heart and depth that manages to chart a promising course for future entries. Several key mysteries are woven into the story and some of the twists and turns show flashes of true inspiration. Between some of the choppy pacing there are some truly fantastic moments that give us glimpses into how great the tale could have been as a whole. Unfortunately, ME:A hides its great moments amongst a cavalcade of uninteresting side missions, where quality is unceremoniously murdered in favour of relentless quantity. There is an insane amount of tasks to complete in Andromeda; every square inch feels packed with points of interest and side quests from random NPCs. The problem is that very few of these quests feel worthwhile completing outside of XP gain, and several times I found myself simply going through the motions to clear my quest log. Occasionally you’ll stumble across an interesting side quest that has that distinctive BioWare flare, but far too infrequently.
The issue with side quests is compounded by the annoyances of travelling from system to system in order to perform menial tasks. You have free use of a ship called the Tempest which can shuffle you around the galaxy, but the novelty soon wears off when you realise you have to travel to the other end of the galaxy in order to hear a single line of dialogue to advance a quest. For instance, a quest might be picked up on one planet and require you to briefly visit two other planets in other systems, and in this case you are looking at a minimum of six loading screens (or loading screens in disguise) to sit through. On the upside this gives you plenty of time to check to see if you have any more messages from your Managing Director asking where the hell your Mass Effect review is.
Not in Kansas anymore Toto
Proof that global warming is a hoax. Checkmate, atheists
Hot to trot
Despite issues with creating a truly convincing universe, the main story still has a heart and depth that manages to chart a promising course for future entries. Several key mysteries are woven into the story and some of the twists and turns show flashes of true inspiration.
Possibly one of my greatest disappointments in ME: A was with Ryder herself, and how difficult it was to imbue her with the personality I wanted. From the awful physical customisation at the beginning of the game to the anemic conversation options, my Ryder never felt like my Ryder. One of the greatest strengths of the original trilogy was that if you didn’t like someone, you could generally let them know in a conversation. Here I felt like Ryder was too subservient and taciturn, and I seethed in frustration when the closest I could get to expressing hostility was some limp-wristed sarcasm. This is obviously intended to be the first game in a series, and it’s likely your character will be able to carry over to future titles, and if that’s the case I really want a Ryder with a little more chutzpah.
Stop, criminal scum!
One aspect that is head and shoulders above the trilogy is the combat. Andromeda feels like every aspect of Mass Effect’s third-person cover-based combat has been expertly honed, and the pace has also been given a decent shot in the arm. Familiar weapon classes like assault rifles, sniper rifles, pistols and shotguns are all present, but these are much more diverse in terms of form, function and variety. Signature tech and biotic powers (read: space magic) return too (with a couple of new ones), and levelling up individual skills and using them in devastating combos is a continual source of satisfaction. A limitless dash move has also been introduced that allows you to quickly close distance between points of cover, and omni tool upgrades also give access to varying types of melee attacks.
The rigid classes of the original trilogy are eschewed in favour of a system that rewards certain playstyles and evolves as you level up and customise your Pathfinder. I chose the Adept class which favoured biotic abilities and granted biotic-specific perks, and by the end of the game I became an unstoppable space wizard who controlled the battlefield with area of effect powers that lined up enemies for explosive combos. I also sunk a decent amount of points into basic weapons skills too, and these two aspects working in tandem made me a force to be reckoned with. There’s an incredible level of customisation in combat style, and powers and classes can be swapped easily to adapt to certain situations. Respeccing is also encouraged, and the game’s combat can suddenly take on a whole different flavour when you start experimenting with different combos.
I feel that combat and customisability are Andromeda’s strongest assets, and being mindful of your approach is legitimised by a fairly sharp difficulty curve (playing on Hard). Until I learned the importance of cover and maintaining motion I died plenty of times, but as I learned my enemies’ strengths and weaknesses and mastered my abilities my confidence grew. There’s a great sense of burgeoning power in Andromeda that is really the essential core of any good RPG. One aspect that I wasn’t thrilled with was a lack of control over my party’s abilities and a general toning down of the squad-based aspects compared to the original ME. While party AI is commendable and they tend to naturally use their abilities in synergy with your own, I miss being able to specifically unleash certain powers on specific enemies for the best results. Only having control of Ryder does streamline combat to a certain extent, but I miss having fine control over my squad. Another issue is some ludicrously brutal checkpoint placements and monster closet enemy spawns that turn interesting missions like raiding massive strongholds into unfair slogs.
Despite decent story and great combat, one of the things that will unfortunately come to define ME:A is its extreme lack of visual polish. Much has been made of the janky facial animations, and really all the criticism is 100% fair; cold, dead eyes stare lifelessly from plastic faces with ghoulishly pallid complexions and odd features. As characters speak their mouths move but their faces don’t. Some female characters end up looking like creepy blow-up sex dolls. At best it’s mildly disconcerting to watch, at worst it’s nightmare fuel. While good graphics aren’t totally necessary for good gameplay, it’s hard to be invested in someone’s personal dilemmas when they look like the hideous love child of processed cheese and a rock with googly eyes glued to it. Animations are also extremely awkward, including when Ryder runs around looking like she’s ridden a horse for two weeks straight. For some reason characters also twitch and shake when they’re supposed to be motionless too, like someone has just force fed them thirteen cups of coffee laced with Ritalin. It looks like it may be a problem with the physics system and how it handles minor collisions between character models and clothing, but whatever the reason it’s an utter train wreck to behold.
It’s certainly not all bad in the visual department though. Some of the explorable planets can be staggering in their beauty and quite varied in their look and feel. Subterranean vaults are also extremely impressive, with impossibly large spaces filled with incredible alien architecture bathed in faded neon lighting. There are occasions when you look around in wonder and understand the developer’s grand aspirations for Andromeda.
Andromedan kebab is an acquired taste
Peebee: Down to meld
That moment when you forget how to cup
While good graphics aren’t totally necessary for good gameplay, it’s hard to be invested in someone’s personal dilemmas when they look like the hideous love child of processed cheese and a rock with googly eyes glued to it.
One might forgive the animation issues, but the sheer magnitude of technical problems is impossible to ignore. The game stutters frequently, often grinding to a halt and freezing long enough that you wonder if you are supposed to reset your console. Many quests are bugged, either not initiating properly or not registering when they’re complete. NPCs skate around, enemies get stuck in mid-air and sometimes teleport in out of thin air and deliver swift death. Textures and characters pop-in constantly and people and objects clip awkwardly; it’s a real clusterfuck. There is zero chance that BioWare were not aware of these glaring issues prior to release, and the decision to kick this ugly mewling babe out the door in this abysmal state and hope to patch its shortcomings later is a decision that will haunt both BioWare and EA for the foreseeable future.
Subterranean vaults are incredible
God, Jaal. No
ME:A should serve as a cautionary tale for large publishers and developers. What should have been a bold step forward in a new galaxy has ended up being more of a confused stumble marred by too much filler gameplay and persistent visual and technical issues. Fans of the series and BioWare in general will likely forgive the issues and be able to find enjoyment in the stunning moments that ME:A is capable of delivering, but the fact you have to fight the game at every turn to find these diamonds in the rough is disheartening. ME:A needed more time in the oven but was dumped on the masses to meet an arbitrary deadline. While few gamers welcome delays in development for anticipated titles, I don’t think you’ll find anyone who thinks ME:A should have released in the state that it did. On the balance of things I enjoyed my time with BioWare’s space opera, but glaring technical issues, general lack of polish and serious side quest bloat tried to thwart me at every turn. Although I was ultimately able to look past Andromeda’s faults, I don’t think I’d blame anyone who couldn’t.
Reviewed on PS4