Mass Effect Andromeda Review
System: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Mass Effect was one of those series from the previous console generation that eluded me. It’s funny because on paper it pretty much speaks to me on every single level. RPG? Check. Space Opera? Check. Hot alien babes? Check. I think it might be due to the fact that I had a PS3 and wasn’t afforded entry into this esteemed series until the sequel. Maybe it was due to the lack of income a student such as myself had available for such novelties such as videogames. Or maybe it was just a case of right game at the wrong time. Nonetheless, my friends would constantly tell me how good the series was, how it redefined immersion and storytelling in the medium, how it was one of the greatest videogame trilogies of all time – in fact some of them classified it as their favorite series of all times. I quite enjoyed Bioware’s sister series with Dragon Age: Origin’s back in the day so I knew it was only time – and the constant yammering in my ear from my peers – before I would jump into this much lauded universe.
Almost a decade later and I can finally see exactly why I should’ve gotten my act together in the first place, or so I thought.
After spending 3 of the first 5 hours reading the codex logs chock-full of backstory and history, I instantly saw the magic, wonder, and love that was put into the series; a love that greatly inspired much of the gaming landscape today. I felt connected to the struggle of evolutionary survival of the Genophage-afflicted Krogan, I was mesmerized by the Salarian and their supreme intellect and mental capabilities at the expense of a shorter life cycle, and I wasn’t the least bit surprised to find out the most respected and influential species in the universe, the Asari, were run by a matriarchal society. These codex entries served as a perfect set up and sales pitch for my upcoming plunge into Andromeda and its vast ocean of stars and planets. Unfortunately whoever wrote the travel brochure sure didn’t share the same enthusiasm and passion as those who created this universe; Andromeda is a shell of the game that was promised and the first true disappointment of the year.
The story follows the Andromeda Initiative in the form of one of two siblings, Sara or Scott Ryder depending on who you choose, who along with a menagerie of space beings from the Milky Way have been cryogenically frozen and shipped via Arks to Andromeda to continue the discovery of the universe in hopes of terraforming possible habitable planets for colonization in the Heleus Nebula. When their Ark reaches its destination some 600 years in the future, they are rudely awaken by a calamity in space – colloquially known as the Scourge – that has displaced the remaining Arks carrying the rest of the Andromeda Initiative and relegated these promising new planets inhabitable. Upon journeying to the surface of one of these planets, they stumble upon ancient alien technology that has the power to change the atmospheric composition of the planet as well as a new malicious species known as the Kett who have their own interest in this technology as well.
What could’ve been a stand out story with a fresh new canvas is instead a fairly conventional tale. It’s not a terrible by any stretch of the imagination and it has its moments, but there are very few new or interesting ideas present here. Given the series pedigree for its storytelling, it’s a shame that we don’t get a more ambitious effort as the games that used its series’ groundwork as inspiration, namely The Witcher and Horizon, have much more interesting stories to tell and are far better written.
This is where the story falls flat for me: the execution. The actual writing is either on the nose at best and trite or even cringeworthy at worst – especially when Ryder or fellow compatriots try to crack a joke. With the series patented dialogue wheel – which shapes the character’s story and interactions in the world by allowing you to select choices that come in the form of Emotional, Logical, Casual and Professional – you would expect a discerning difference in the type of responses Ryder will give, but they are all so down the middle and earnest that they carry little or no impact. This is a bigger shame considering the actual written summaries for these choices lead you to believe the oral responses will be more interesting than what actually follows.
This weak characterization carries through to your team as well. Throughout the game you will be introduced to new members of your crew aboard the Tempest – your primary means of transportation across the universe. Some of this motley crew are likeable and memorable such as the enigmatic Asari recluse known as Peebee or Jaal, an emotional Angara – a species new to the series – who doesn’t shy away from his thoughts and feelings. Whereas I still remember fondly the likes of Morrigan, Alistair and Leliana from Dragon Age Origins, I find it unlikely it that I will be looking back at this crew in the same regard. Again, none of them are inherently dislikable – unlike the supporting character Director Tann, who is played impeccably by Kumail Nanjiani – but the majority of them come across as flat or uninteresting and this again comes down to the less than inspired character arcs and writing coupled with inconsistent voice performances and terrible facial animation.
Yes, there has been considerable backlash regarding the animation in this game and while it is not deserving of unwarranted personal threats and online vitriol that have unfortunately come with it, I can indeed confirm that it is bad. Bad enough that it did take me out of the experience throughout the 30 hours I spent in Andromeda. While it’s not surprising to see some weird things going on with faces in today’s open world games, the quality seems to be a generational step back from where we’ve landed, with some faces contorting or eyes bugging out in ways that make Fallout 4 look like its broken through the uncanny valley. It’s a shame because the rest of the game looks mostly fantastic, especially in 4K on a PS4 Pro. The layered texturing of a Krogan or Turian’s skin, the way the horizon reflects off Ryder’s armor, the wonderful architectural designs of cities and outposts are all sight to behold. This strength in presentation carries over into the pretty solid – if sometimes uninspired – voice acting, subtle but effective score, and excellent sound design. Nothing gave me more chills than when I was walking through the bustling smuggler outpost on the planet Kadara, bombarded with the conversations and commerce of the locals, only to be caught off guard with a passing airship – really playing off its Star Wars inspirations to full effect.
Unfortunately all of this is rendered less impressive by a myriad of glitches and technical problems that range from inconvenient, to intrusive, to even game breaking. While there are too many to list here, let me give you a quick rundown of some of the most memorable I encountered. Having containers disappear the moment Ryder gets in vicinity only to have them reappear when she steps away, having Ryder inexplicably teleport to the other end of a room for no apparent reason, having Ryder stopped in mid motion while the sound effects of movement are still heard, only to have her continue running 10 seconds later. You will surely experience at least 2 of the 3 and possibly even more that have yet to be discovered. It was very clear that this game was rushed out to market way before it was ready and you can see this every time you touch down on a new planet and explore. While the game never hard-crashed on me – surprising right? – there was an overall sense of walking on eggshells for much of the journey, like the whole enterprise was being hold together by the thinnest of threads at all times with the risk of it coming apart without a moments notice. It made the actual act of playing the game more of a chore to play than it already was and that in turns is the game’s biggest flaw – it’s a chore to play.
Mass Effect Andromeda is exactly what fans will expect from Bioware, a story-based Action RPG and it comes with all the trappings. You will be given standard story missions which all revolve around some sort of skirmish-based exploration of a dungeon or dungeon-like area. If you just want to play through the main campaign, the pacing is solid and rarely outstays its welcome jumping from planet to planet just as you are becoming too comfortable with your surroundings. Many of them culminate in some sort of final encounter with a boss or enemy wave and are all fairly competent if not repetitive by the end of its roughly 20 hour runtime.
If you are looking for additional content that you expect from large open worlds than you will be treated to many side quests that range from the memorable, including a morally ambiguous murder case, to the less memorable: every task-based collectathon. These are further compounded with the constant need to scan the environment for flora, fauna, minerals and other points of interest. It becomes incredibly tedious early on and doesn’t get any better the more you play it.
Bioware, with its countless years of wisdom and success in the genre – and industry in general – seemed to have made Mass Effect Andromeda in a bubble. While this open world – sorry, open universe – is very large and very ambitious in scope, the developer forgot that it isn’t the early-to-mid 2000’s anymore and its not the size of the world that matters but what kind of worthwhile delights you fill said world with. I would love to say the beautiful renderings of these over half-dozen celestial bodies, in which you will be spending most of your time adventuring, are worth your hard earned time, but they only serve as an artifice for what they actually are: an empty sea of colorful polygons that house the mundane. Whereas recent games like Breath of the Wild couple scope of world with density, Mass Effect Andromeda, for all of its hundreds of side quests and points of interest, is a shallow experience that doesn’t reward the player nearly as often as it should – especially for a game about space exploration. Many times I would run into an abandoned outpost or ruin, only to be rewarded by a solitary treasure chest housing something wholly uninteresting or at times would be rewarded with nothing at all. Worst of all is that the game requires a whole lot of interspace travel in many of its sidequests, which wouldn’t be nearly as big of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that you are greeted with an unskippable cutscene every time you make your way to a different location. While at first these are a cool novelty, they quickly become tiresome and will take what would normally have been a quick 5 minute mission and turn it into a 20 minute slog.
Not all of it is disappointing news though, there are a couple of really well implemented elements that shine and give this game some much-needed purpose.
Let’s take the actual action for example. The game breaks down its action abilities into three-fold: Combat, Biotics, and Tech – staples from previous games. Combat specs focus on guns and other weapon-based projectiles such as grenades and concussive blasts. Biotics and Techs focus on inherent and man-made special abilities that can allow you to warp the battlefield to your fitting such as giving you an AOE shockwave, an ammo deflecting energy shield, or the ability to grab and throw enemies at the click of a shoulder button. The actual gunplay is really solid and each weapon type from pistols to snipers has a satisfying feel to them. This in conjunction with the use of Bitoics and Tech abilities can field some extraordinary results. It was really satisfying picking off enemies with my pistol only to reflect the bombarding attacks from flanking units with my backlash ability and then use pull to bring them in for a melee finish. There are plenty of these combinations, some which when combined with the right ability can synch up for some pretty devastating results. What’s great is your AI party – who are surprisingly competent in battle – can prime targets with their own abilities unique to each character giving you extra incentive to try each member out and see who’s range of abilities best matches up with your play style.
Remember how I said scanning in the game is an overbearing bore? Well it does bring about some cool elements. Whenever you scan a new species of plant, indigenous life, mineral, or relic you will be given research points, which can be used to procure blueprints, which in turn can be developed into weapons, armor, and augmentations. This is where some of the best equipment can be made and it is incredibly rewarding being able to create your own specialized weapons of death. Augmentations come in the form of inherited enhancements that can add unique properties to you weapons. You can convert the source of your weapon’s ammunition into elemental firepower such as electrical current or plasma blasts or even imbue your ammo with the ability to ricochet off of flat surfaces. The amount of options and abilities at your disposal to customize your weapons is generous. When I crafted my high level pistol that recharged my shield everytime it reloaded while also shooting plasma grenades, it was a joy to see the fruits of my labor – and imagination – in action and made investing the time into scanning that much less of a pain.
Another cool element is Andromeda Viability Points. Every time you complete a mission or task on a given planet you will increase the percentage that it will become habitable to life. When you reach a certain percentage you can then create an outpost and begin colonizing said planet. Gain enough AVP and you will gain points, which can be used to upgrade your Initiative’s future endeavors. Want to focus on wartime and military efforts, which will give you access to more frequent munitions drops? Or do you prefer the additional mining benefits that investing in science and exploratory efforts will afford you? Or how about lower prices from merchants by investing in leveling up your commerce initiatives? Having a tangible reward such as this makes the repetitive and uninspired side quest and exploration structure easier to chew on, and hey, who doesn’t want to carve out your own little slice of home in the universe?
While there are a lot of cool elements that really show the underpinnings of a great game somewhere buried in Mass Effect Andromeda’s cluster of stars, it’s the sloppy execution that prevents this from ever shining through. From the cluttered menus, to the many interesting but poorly implemented systems – that could really have taken a page from a game like Horizon, which streamlined many processes without sacrificing any depth – to the clunkiness of controlling Ryder and the Nomad – your planetary Dune Buggy – Mass Effect Andromeda doesn’t feel right most of the time.
Starting with the menus, good lord, talk about information overload. Just figuring where everything is needs a codex of its own. Checking missions, inventory, or skills for upgrades requires mulling through countless sub menus and becomes a real pain in the ass when you just want to get something done in reasonable fashion. On top of it being use unintuitive as fuck, it suffers from needlessly obtuse core game design implementation. For example, why can’t I change my weapon and armor loadout in the menus whenever I want and instead have to prep either before missions or whenever I find a terminal or forward station – fast travel nodes – that will allow me to do so? This is something that would have been old news a decade ago, so its inexcusable that the game puts this type of constraint on the player, especially since experimenting with different weapons and abilities is the game’s strongest asset.
Speaking of poorly implemented systems, in a game where picking up loot and items is as central to the game as most open world games these days, why is it such a pain to pick up the fucking loot. Not only do you have to have the item in your highlighted view – instead of today’s conventional: stand over item and press a button – but you have to hold the button a good second longer than any other of its contemporaries, which feels not only unintuitive but breaks up the flow of movement throughout the world.
This brings up my single biggest gripe with Mass Effect Andromeda and why it feels like a chore to play much of the time: it feels clunky to control.
To me the single most important element of any game is the actual feel of the game. You can put as much in a game as you want and make it as pretty as possible but if handling the main character doesn’t feel right, you’ve got a problem. There is a sluggish weight to everything Ryder does. It feels clunky in the way the original Gears of War feels now. While not a deal breaker in close quarters combat situations where the gun handling and auto-aim is thankfully forgiving enough to compensate, anytime you need to move around with any sort of competence, it feels unnatural, unintuitive, and unsatisfying. Take for example the jetpack ability – new to Mass Effect – that allows Ryder to jump to great heights or across the battlefield quickly, it never feels accurate enough controlling it when you want to get behind cover – which boy I’ll get to. Its as if the gravity of space has caused forward momentum to last a moment longer than it should. This becomes a bigger problem with the cover system because it doesn’t work by button prompt, but instead automatically the moment you hug the wall. You will be constantly jumping in and out of cover without a say in the matter and in fights that require you to manage your surroundings effectively as enemies will try to flank you, fighting the controls isn’t really something I want to be doing in the middle of incoming fire. Thankfully – and sadly to the game’s detriment – the AI is stupid enough most of the time that this wont become a life or death issue, but it is still disappointing when the actual gunplay in these fights is real good.
Where this poor handling becomes most detrimental to the game – and the major reason I couldn’t continue playing much longer after the credits – is in the exploration. These open planets you explore are huge and whether it be by foot or by Nomad, it just felt stiff and laborious travelling to the next mission point or over the next ridge. At some point, I didn’t even care if there was a hedonistic robot sex party on the other side of the mountain.
By the way there is a multiplayer mode and it’s…surprisingly decent – when it doesn’t bug out. Mixing the aforementioned Gears of War style, wave-based Horde mode with mission-based objectives. If you enjoyed the actual action from the main campaign enough, you will most likely get a kick out of it for a couple of hours – especially if you have 3 other friends with a copy. It does employ microtransaction-based progression, but from the handful of matches I played, I received enough in-game credits that it didn’t seem overly egregious.
2.5 out of 5
The funny thing about Mass Effect Andromeda is that after all is said and done, after the 30 hours I put in, knowing I will probably never come back to it, I saw glimpses of what makes this series so revered. From the world building in terms of lore and visual splendor, to the deep systems, to the impressively well-executed and dynamic combat, to the ambition and general scope and breadth, the game has much to admire. But for everything this game does right, it does 2 things that are to its detriment including poor writing, overly complicated and unintuitive design philosophies, clunky controls and handling, and a myriad of inexcusable bugs and technical issues that should’ve had this game cooking in the oven for at least another year.
As an outsider looking in, I was disappointed with its unfulfilled potential; I can’t imagine the disappointment of those waiting six years. If this was a generation ago, some of these flaws could be overlooked, but in an age and in a medium that is progressing faster and faster in terms of what is the gold standard for interactive immersion, Bioware and their once heralded series are no longer that standard bearer. In space, no one can hear you groan.