Five years after Mass Effect 3 “finished the fight” Bioware is finally back with a new tale to tell in their celebrated Sci-Fi universe. The game casts you as Ryder, the son or daughter (your choice) of the “Pathfinder” – a leader to the human component of a 600 year long expedition to the Andromeda galaxy in search of a new home. The game begins with you being woken up from your sleep as your ship, the Hyperion, finally arrives at its destination. However as it approaches the planet it becomes clear that something serious has happened during the years that your ship’s crew were under. An anomaly called The Scourge has had a devastating impact on your destination and it’s up to your father’s team to investigate.
In the chronology of the franchise, the Hyperion left the Milky Way during the events of Mass Effect 2 so the outcome of the final game are not reflected here at all. As a result it conveniently sidesteps a major issue – Mass Effect 3‘s controversial endings and Bioware having to choose one as canon for a sequel. There’s no red, blue or green options hovering over us here.
However the benefit with this option is that it has allowed Bioware to retain much of the original game’s flavour minus any of the baggage that some fans had perceived as ruining it. It might be considered a little bit of a cheat but it does give Andromeda an opportunity to reset a part of the series and also stand on its own feet. The opening of the game is a little slow as you run through the tutorial tasks (probably doesn’t help that this area is also a bit bland) but it is made up for by your first planetside visit which opens quite spectacularly. So far with my time in the game that early moment might still rank as a highlight that truly shows what a next generation Mass Effect is capable of. It’s incredibly impressive.
After getting through the trials and tribulations of this first planet you’ll get a feel for what to expect in the rest of the game which is a third person shooter with heavy RPG elements. It’s a trend the games have moved towards over the years and this one feels even more focused on that result. Thankfully it’s not a linear experience as the game soon begins to open up more by giving you a ship and the ability to recruit additional companions and travelling to destinations in mostly your own time and choosing. Your new ship, the Tempest, has echoes of the Normandy in its design but is a lot more spacious (best. bedroom. ever!). A nice touch is how your views from the bridge and captain’s quarters reflect your location – there’s some spectacular views out there during your travels.
The core game seems to be broken up into four game mechanics that you’ll use often: Conversation, Combat, Collecting and Sudoku. And no, I’m not making the last one up. The conversation system bear some resemblences to past games but this time make uses of visual indicators to help players be more understanding of the direction their dialogue choices may take them. There’s no Paragon or Renegade paths this time around which may be missed and might have opened up additional options for players. There appears to be no real side effects I’ve seen so far from making any choices which might imply that the game may not follow tradition and have a direct sequel.
The quality of Mass Effect Andromeda‘s conversation cutscenes can be some of the best I’ve seen so far in the series but they also come crashing down when you see how characters animate or the poor choice of camera angles. During one chat with Cora I thought I may have jumped back in time to a Thunderbirds episode where Lady Penelope had decided it was time to get a really neat hair cut. Aliens get a bit of a pass card here but the human faces can look a little wrong with odd lighting, bad lip syncing and weird expressions. No need to worry about the uncanny valley… they smashed into a mountain well before arriving there. It’s worth noting though a post release update to the game has helped to remedy the situation a little but there’s still more room for improvement.
Relationships with your comrades continues to be a key part of Mass Effect Andromeda. Much like Shepherd in the ME trilogy and the incomparable Captain James T. Kirk, the galaxy’s denizens exist not only to shoot at but to hook up with too. Considering the kinds of shenanigans that your character can get up to with others characters it really seems like it is “Ryder by name, Ryder by nature”. You still have to put in a bit of work in the conversations to make it all happen but the new system is handy if you want to keep in the “friend zone”. I think it still need to spend more time getting to know them all but in the beginning it’s hard to compare them to characters such as Garrus, Liara or Tali.
When you’re not talking to aliens, odds are likely you are shooting at them and during those times Andromeda plays like a third person shooter. It’s functional but certainly not near the quality of a Gears of War. Sometimes it can be an exercise in frustration as despite the movement options you have available (boosted jumps and dodges) your character doesn’t always feel like the nimblest of persons. Being a “shoot first, use biotics later” kind of player it didn’t always work out well for me. Make a wrong turn in a firefight and your attempts at finding cover may fail more than you want. The intelligent cover system is not bad and supports blind firing which can give you the moments you need to restore your shields. It’s worth noting though that ME2 and ME3 weren’t great at this either so it’s by no means worse, just not any large strides better.
Tip: Cover is your friend. As you level up you can get access to buffs to improve your survivability further behind cover. If that is your favoured strategy in combat it’s worth working towards.
One gripe I do have is the inability to swap out your gear as you play – initially you are restricted to doing so before you start a mission. You can get access to forward supply stations as your explore locations further that will let you swap gear out but it does stop you from immediately trying that neat armour or weapon you just picked up. If you can’t find the gear you want travelling the galaxy, the next best thing is to craft it yourself. As you play you begin to accrue points that can go into researching technologies within three different tiers. Once you achieve that you then have the option to build what you need but only if you have the resources necessary which can lead you to chasing up resources as you travel to planets in the hope of getting what you need to build the “good stuff”. Some vendors you encounter will even sell you what you need but it’ll be for a substantial price. From what I’ve seen so far, the odds are very unlikely that you’d unlock everything and have a vast armoury at your disposal so being selective from the outset may be advisable.
So far the majority of puzzle elements I’ve found in the game consist of “cracking” alien machines through a Sudoku like mechanic that is interesting but is perhaps used more than it is needed. You can usually predict when you are going to face another puzzle and they often involve hunting around the environment for missing icons to allow it to be completed. You do get access to tools that can automatically solve the puzzle for you but they are one use items that come at a price. Initially I wanted to avoid them but once I got used to how they worked it was only a minor distraction… at least until I made a mistake and was beaten down by a wave of enemies.
Tip: once you get used to substituting numbers for icons, the puzzles are relatively easy to solve. They usually involve a small set of icons (I’ve seen as much as 5 so far) so you can save a lot by not buying the tools to crack them. Maybe two or three minutes at most to complete.
The best way to describe the game’s visuals would be “frustrating” – there are areas that look astonishingly good with epic environments and stunning backgrounds but then the illusion is broken by character animations that seem a little too generic for their own good. Seeing humans walking around stiffly and creatures getting stuck behind trees can look pretty bad. Audio however is mostly good – I’ve found some incidents when voices cut in and out during conversations but the sound effects and music are top notch. Previous games ran off the Unreal Engine but this time around it is powered by DICE’s Frostbite engine (Battlefield 1, Star Wars Battlefront) and if there’s one thing that is universal about these games it’s the ability to crank out some amazing sound.
Multiplayer is much like ME3 in that it throws you onto a selection of unique maps against waves of enemies. However this time around it also integrates into the campaign and the Apex HQ mobile app. If you’re not planning on spending a lot of time online you can send squads you recruit in your place to earn the XP and resources. It’s not essential to the game but handling it this way might convince people to try it out from time to time and you get a bit of a boost from what your squads have accomplished. If you do take up the challenge it’ll be best to bring a bunch of friends too because it appears to not scale the difficulty appropriately. Or it might be a little harder to play than I had expected.
The strength of Mass Effect has always been how well it sucked you into the world and then fed you with the kinds of stories that you’ve likely seen from a variety of popular science fiction. With a galaxy to explore, anything is possible and when Andromeda hits its stride it can reach some impressive highs thanks to some great imagery and epic moments. However this is also balanced out by a lack of polish and less memorable characters leaving me feeling like this game is just a little short of being in the same league as its predecessors.
Despite my negativity and numerous snide comments, I’m still playing the game and wanting to see where it will take me. You aren’t short of things to do and the game does throw in enough side quests and objectives to make revisiting locations worthwhile. So I think it is safe to say that Mass Effect Andromeda is a good example of a game that as a whole experience is far greater than the sum of its parts. EA and Bioware are also committed to supporting the game post release, so with luck we’ll see the game get closer to being the best it can be.
Mass Effect Andromeda is out now for PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Reviewed on Xbox One.