Mass Effect Andromeda Review – A Roller Coaster in More than One Way
After years in the oven, Mass Effect is back, and while it probably won't satisfy the lofty expectations it set, it's still a satisfying RPG experience.
As I’m sitting here to put my thoughts into written words, I know this isn’t going to be easy. It hasn’t been easy since the moment in which I booted up Mass Effect: Andromeda for the first time.
That’s not because the game is particularly bad, but because it’s extremely inconsistent. There are some truly great moment and elements in BioWare’s latest RPG, but they suddenly clash against completely opposite issues that almost made me feel like I was being bounced around between two different games, made by two different teams, and then put together by a third party.
So fasten your seat belt, because this is going to be a bumpy ride.
The premise of the story is extremely promising: an organization named Andromeda Initiative decides to colonize the distant Andromeda galaxy, and after titanic efforts, manages to send multiple colony shops, named arks, in the centuries-long voyage towards promising planets where no man has gone before.
Yet in centuries things can change, and the colonists from the Milky Way find out that the promised “Golden Worlds” are nothing like what they expected, finding themselves stranded in uncharted space, with limited supplies and no way to go back.
Players steps into the boots of one of the Ryder twins, male or female, following in the footsteps of Alec Ryder, stern father and human Pathfinder, basically the man in charge of finding a new home for the human race.
As thing spiral very much out of control, our Ryder finds himself (or herself) having to take up the Pathfinder role, with the Nexus (which is basically the new Citadel) plagued by energy and supply shortages, and a large part of the colonist population still in cryosleep until viable colonies are opened up for them. And that’s easier said than done.
The overall story has plenty of potential, and most of it is fulfilled through the game, with epic moments, a villain who appears to be a total cliche but actually comes with deeper layers worth exploring, and a lot of interesting characters to talk and relate with, often getting chances to find new buddies and enemies much beyond your usual squad members and rivals.
This is one of the best elements of Mass Effect Andromeda: while we’re far from the promise of exploring a whole galaxy, and the planets we can actually visite aren’t that many, they’re populated by a veritable cornucopia of individuals that provide a ton of variety. Pair that with beefy enough critical path and a ton of side content, and you get a game that definitely satisfies in terms of quantity.
Quality is another story: storytelling and writing are the first areas in which we experience the conflict I mentioned above. Parts of the game feature great storytelling and compelling writing, while other moments and characters seem to come straight out of mediocre fanfiction. While the positives certainly outweigh the negatives here, if you look at the overall picture and actually delve deeply into the game, the discrepancies appear even within the writing on the same character.
Some of the writing relies heavily on memes and puns, and that’s all fine until we get into memes and puns that come straight out of internet culture, and that normally people wouldn’t use while actually chatting with each other in real life. They pull you straight out of the story, and you get slapped hard with the realization that this is a game, and a game in which a writer tried a bit too hard to be funny.
Luckily, those moments don’t happen often enough to ruin the enjoyment of the game’s story, or to make most characters unlikable, but when they did happen, they really made me roll my eyes.
Jarring moments aside, there are some veritable treasures of character design to enjoy in Mass Effect Andromeda, and quite unsurprisingly they’re found in the less “human-like” aliens. The Angara Jaal and the Turian Vetra are a pleasure to converse with (and Vetra will definitely shake up your image of Turians mostly built by three games of fangirling on Garrus), while the old and grizzled (but adorable) Krogan Drack is probably one of the best companions ever written in a BioWare game.
The rest of the squad isn’t bad, but it’s a bit less memorable, with Liam representing the high point for the human crew. While he isn’t as interesting as our alien companions, he is just a genuinely likable buddy to have around.
One great thing about Mass Effect Andromeda is how close you can get to your companions, and to a slightly lesser extent, to quite a few other people you’ll meet in Andromeda and on the Nexus. This goes beyond winning their favor and ultimately achieving a moment in bed, that was mostly the point in previous BioWare games.
Mass Effect Andromeda definitely allows you to play satisfying relationships with many characters without ever romancing them. Extremes are easy to simulate, with love and hate having been done over and over by RPGs, but designing genuine friendship and camaraderie is much more challenging, and this is one thing in which this game succeeds, in a way that’s not very different from what Final Fantasy XV achieved last year.
Unfortunately, voice acting is one of the weak points of the game, and that does at times influence negatively the enjoyment of the story and its characters. The delivery of quite a large amount of conversations appears disjointed, with actors failing to carry on intentions into consecutive lines. While it’s pretty much industry standard to divide a script into chunks recorded out of order, it appears that this was done a bit too much with Andromeda, or that some of the actors, even in primary roles, lacked the required experience to keep things neatly pieced together and coherent.
The appreciation of accents is a very personal thing, so this won’t weigh in my overall judgement, but I found some to be rather extreme, negatively impacting my enjoyment of a few characters.
While voice acting for major characters is quite hit-and-miss, that of many minor roles and nameless passers-by is absolutely atrocious, achieving degrees of lifelessness that are hard to justify in professional work. For example, you’ll meet a throng of protesters demanding to have their relatives and families pulled out of cryosleep. The situation would dictate them to be emotional and desperate, but they instead result almost completely unemotional, like a first timer reading lines off a page, with no direction or any knowledge of the character’s situation.
Luckily, sound design is on the other end of the spectrum, proving excellent across the board, and the score is majestic, bringing forth a variety of tunes that are subtle enough not to steal the scene, but still epic and compelling, providing the perfect complement for the story.
Now, let’s get into another big contrasting area, the visuals.
Starting with the bad, human character design can only be defined very mediocre. People you’ll meet in your travels will mostly be rather simplistic in their design, and affected by an abundant coat of uncanny valley effect. Most pretty much look like lifeless dolls, and this extends to the most human-like of aliens, the Asari.
One of the culprit for this issue appears to be the fact that BioWare did not include industry-standard (at least for AAA games) shaders for eyes and skin. Eyes in particular are pretty simple spheres lacking the proper reflections and subsurface scattering. This causes them to be less expressive, and ultimately contributes to make them look pretty much out of place.
Facial animations are also very spotty, with several instances in which they’re either severely underplayed or overly exaggerated. While this doesn’t always apply (contributing to the problematic moments standing out even more), there are plenty of times in which characters will either feel highly inexpressive and stiff, while in other cases they will look almost like cartoons straight out of Looney Toons.
Again, we’re not talking about the whole time, and during a large percentage of gameplay and story, facial animations and expression are adequate, but the amount of variance between the extremes mentioned above is so large that it almost seems that BioWare was forced to outsource part of the work to different companies, and then had to plug it all into the system in a hurry. I don’t know if this is what happened, but it certainly feels that way.
Unfortunately, the same can be said, even if to a lesser extent, about body animation, that is competent in most cases, but comes with moments that are extremely stiff or straight-out glitchy.
Moving on to the good, most aliens are definitely enjoyable and memorable in their design. Since they are indeed alien, the uncanny valley effect doesn’t come into play, and given that we don’t really unconsciously know how their faces are supposed to animate, BioWare’s artists were able to take a lot more liberties. As a result, scenes involving the least human-looking aliens are consistently interesting and fun, with no distracting elements detracting from the narration.
The best element of the game’s visuals is without a doubt environmental designs. Especially explorable planets are absolutely monumental in their beauty and spectacle, with the only low side being a excessive repetition in the use of models for artificial structures.
BioWare’s level designers did a fantastic job in conveying a sense of exploration by creating worlds that appear at the same time beautiful and believable, grounded in ecosystems that look like they could actually exist if we were to venture towards the stars.
This level of quality adds greatly to the sense of immersion and enjoyment of what ends up being the real core of the game, exploration.
A special note of praise should go to the design of the environments and architecture bound to the Angara and Remnant. While they are opposite in nature, they feel like great attention and research went into creating distinctly alien cultures and the most tangible results of their civilizations.
If you’re looking into Mass Effect Andromeda mostly for the idea of exploring uncharted planets and meeting fascinating aliens, then you’re probably going to enjoy the game’s visual suite more, overlooking the weirdly disjointed human side.
Gameplay is split pretty much in the middle between peaceful areas and exploration/combat. Most of the slower character progression and interaction is done in the relatively peaceful environments of the Nexus, the Tempest starhip and similar environments. On the other hand, things get a lot more hectic on the field of the planets, even if there is still plenty of dialogue and banter to keep the story going.
Besides the critical path, which feels a bit tighter than in previous Mass-effect games, but very solid in terms of quality, there are plenty of side-quests that can vary among solving additional mysteries, earning the loyalty of a certain companion, or simpler quests based on running around the Nexus and being your usual Shepard-like busybody, or going out to slaughter hostiles.
Even here, there is a rather wide degree of variation in the enjoyment of the most complex and story-driven quests compared to the less relevant ones, that feel a bit more like filler. Yet, the overall balance is mostly positive, and there are some really great stories to explore, and genuinely awesome characters to meet outside of the critical path. Mass Effect Andromeda is definitely one of those games in which, if you’re rushing to the end ignoring most of the side content, you’re doing it wrong.
Coversations are a rather large departure from previous Mass Effect Games. Gone is the “press up for nice, press down for ass*ole” dilemma between Paragon and Renegade, replaced by multiple “tones” that let you shape your character and the way he or she acts more than the actual outcome of an action. There definitely are choices with consequences, but most of them are a lot more subtle and unpredictable than the old and rather trite “good guy/annoying guy” (because you were never really allowed to be evil, anyway) dichotomy. Personally, I find this one of the best improvements that the game brings over the old trilogy. Considering how relevant character development is in an RPG, it isn’t certainly a small one.
Handy is also the fact that romance options are clearly indicated, so you won’t suddenly find yourself entangled on a space sofa with a character that you have no real romantic or sexual interest in.
Some of the choices you’re given are also definitely interesting from a moral standpoint, like one that you’ll have to make close to the beginning of the game during a side quest (I can’t say more, or I’ll spoil it, but you’ll probably recognize it when you come across it). In most cases, the game doesn’t really telegraph a “right” or “wrong” option, and makes you wonder what the consequences will be in the long term, and whether there will be any or not.
Once you set your eyes on an objective on the field, it’s time to move on to the action, and there’s a whole lot to enjoy there.
Esploring planets with the Nomad is a ton of fun: I wasn’t among the many who absolutely hated the Mako, but BioWare took all that was wrong with it and tossed it out of the airlock. preserving the most enjoyable elements and elaborating on them.
Speeding across unexplored planets while wisely handling the transmission makes for wild and exhilarating rides, and more than once I simply found pleasure in exploring and challenging the terrain to see how far I could push the vehicle. Researching the Agility mode adds even more fun to the whole thing, letting you remove stability assists at will.
Of course, the heart of the game’s action is represented by the third-person-shooter mechanics, and BioWare did a great job in polishing and improving on the game’s traditional gameplay. Lack of verticality and clunky traversal have always been the weak points of the series, and the addition of handy jump jets changes everything.
You’re able to jump on top of buildings and vehicles (including the Tempest, sparking hilarious comments from its Salarian pilot Kallo Jath), and dash horizontally to get yourself in and out of trouble. Perhaps the most spectacular (and useful) is the ability to hover, delivering death from above to enemies in cover. Of course this will also leave you right in the open, so you should use the option wisely depending on the tactical situation.
Familiar gun archetypes return from the trilogy, and feel satisfying and crunchy in the way they mow down enemies, creating truly enjoyable firefights in combination with a good number of biotic powers and the simple but engaging power combo system.
Another relevant element is the automatic cover system, that lets you slide seamlessly in and out of cover just by running to an object that is supposed to provide it. It works mostly very well, especially for those like me who suck at shooters, and often forget to get into cover at all. I had a few instances in which it didn’t seem to perform as intended or as instantly as I would have liked, but those were a small minority, and on normal difficulty they never really costed me a reload.
Unfortunately, not everything about the gameplay works as well as the action combat, and I found the “deep” crafting system to be bloody hindering awkward, especially due to the clunky UI design. It’s deep all right, and the large amount of equipment and weapons you’ll get to craft would have been fine or even welcome, if you had better ways to navigate through them, and to identify the appropriate choices for your tactical situation. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
The UI is unwieldy and lacks options, not even allowing you to equip newly-crafted guns on the fly (And even more weirdly, you’ll have to go to two different rooms of the Tempest to wear your armor and select its colors), or to compare them directly with those you own until after you have crafted them.
The overall interface is split between way too many screens, often in ways that aren’t too intuitive, forcing you to spend a bit too much time outside of the action and story to set things up.
The scanning system is also a missed opportunity turned into an annoyance. If you want to research new equipment, you’ll need to accrue research points, and the best way to do that is to scan every point of interest around you.
On one side, that provides lovely snippets of lore and information, that are definitely worth reading if you want to immerse yourself into the world of Mass Effect Andromeda. On the other hand, it’ll push you to waste a lot of time plodding around slowly, firing up your scanner every few seconds.
The same can be said about the return of scanning for anomalies in space. While the process is fairly streamlined, you’ll still be watching a relatively short cutscene every time you fly to a new system or to a new planet, only to be rewarded by tidbits of written lore, a bare bones minigame that consists literally of moving a cursor on the anomaly and firing a probe, and some resources or research points. It’s interesting if you’re keen on reading the information, but it gets tedious really, really fast.
Your actions in quite a few different areas impact an overall metagame that deals with how Mass Effect handles the overall colonization process of the Heleus cluster in Andromeda. Gradually, you will increase the habitability ratio of certain planets, allowing more colonists to be woken up from cryosleep to settle them.
This impact you have on the world and the people inhabiting it is quite satisfying, and will let you feel that you’re actually making a difference beyond the personal story of your Ryder. The feature pokes a bit too much beyond fourth wall with “gamey” terms like “Andromeda Viability Points” actually mentioned in dialogue, but besides this little detail, it’s a nice ribbon tying everything up together in a satisfying way.
While most probably aren’t looking at Mass Effect Andromeda as their multiplayer third-person-shooter of choice, there is a solid wave-based co-op package coming with the game. If you played Mass Effect 3, you’ll find yourself right at home, but the jump jets and improved traversal make quite the difference, boosting the fun factor of the feature significantly.
More interesting is that multiplayer is truly optional, with no real influence on the story, but it still ties in very nicely with it. Missions will see you play as members of the APEX militia from the Nexus, and will net bonus rewards for both multiplayer and single player.
If you don’t care to play with others, you can hire NPC strike teams that will perform the missions for you, bringing back just the single player rewards over time. They can also level up and acquire positive and negative traits depending on their results, adding a nice little feature that you can enjoy when you don’t have time to actually play the game.
While Mass Effect Andromeda comes weighed down by a rather sizable load of flaws, it’s fair to mention that we have found those, one way or another, in petty much every modern BioWare game. Cheesy and meme-filled dialogue, spotty character design and animation, writing that alternates epic moments to mediocre fanfiction-like awkwardness… These are all elements that BioWare fans are well used to, even if most of us (yes, I am one of us) probably would word them differently.
Perhaps the issue isn’t that BioWare’s storytelling has suddenly worsened, but in the past few years, storytelling and writing in video games habe made significant strides ahead, and the studio that brought us some of the most beloved RPGs in the last two decades simply didn’t keep up as well as it could have. The masters of character-driven RPGs have been overtaken by a few of their disciples, and elements that impressed us when things were simpler and more naive, aren’t as close to the edge anymore.
If you’re a long-time BioWare fan, well used to their quirks and idiosyncrasies, you’re probably going to enjoy the game a whole lot more than younger and less experienced gamers coming in fresh from more advanced and polished RPGs.
I am certainly part of the first lot, and in fact, despite the flaws, I really enjoyed most of Mass Effect Andromeda, its lovable alien buddies, its beautiful exotic planets, its story full of mysteries and surprises to uncover. The tight combat gameplay definitely adds to the package, making this a game worth playing.
Perhaps Mass Effect Andromeda will serve as a wake-up call for BioWare, letting them realize that it’s time to evolve beyond the change of setting and cast. In the meanwhile, we’re still given a game that might not be the monumental fresh start that the masses expected, but is still a quite solid experience that many will enjoy.