Reviewed on: Playstation 4. Copy supplied by publisher.
As someone who was a huge fan of Bioware’s original Mass Effect trilogy, despite its ultimately unsatisfying conclusion, I had some high hopes going in to Mass Effect Andromeda. I was looking forward to diving back into a sci-fi universe packed with inter-species politics, engaging characters and some real chin-scratching ethical dilemmas. To recapture the intergalactic stakes of having the responsibility of defending civilisation on my shoulders. To form bonds with a whole new crew of misfits so I could experience fresh tales of anguish as I watched them die.
But despite my persistence with Andromeda, it never quite recaptured the magic. Sure, my rose-tinted glasses are undeniably a factor here, but I would argue Andromeda’s weaker characters, questionable writing, average combat and infamous technical problems are equally to blame.
So as to avoid a whole host of contextual issues, Andromeda ignores the lasting impacts of the events of the original trilogy by being set 600 years in the future and in a whole new galaxy. While Commander Shepard was battling the Reapers in the Milky Way, a large collection of humans, Turians, Asari, Silurians and Krogan were in cryo-sleep travelling to the Andromeda galaxy in the hopes of finding a new home. You play the role of Sara or Scott Ryder, the twin children of Alec Ryder, the designated “Pathfinder”, or person-trained-in-finding-habitable-planets. FYI, I chose Sara for my playthrough, so I’ll refer to Ryder as female from now on.
Pretty soon after arriving in Andromeda the entire plan goes to hell, as none of the planets previously vetted are habitable, the other species’ arks have disappeared, and on the first planet Alec sacrifices himself to save Ryder’s life. His final act is naming her the new Pathfinder, granting her access to SAM, his personal AI assistant and all its resources. From there, Ryder must adjust to their new role and overcome the challenges of making the galaxy habitable, which primarily means finding and activating ancient “Remnant” terraforming technology and battling it out with the Kett, an aggressive alien species hell bent on capturing the technology first.
As a sci-fi narrative this premise is intriguing, and it certainly fueled me with enough curiosity to find out what happens next. But as I mentioned in the introduction, the whole thing is ultimately let down by poor writing. OK, the writing isn’t entirely terrible, in fact my favourite aspect of the game as a whole, much like the originals, was having idle chitchat with the side characters and learning more about them as people. Some of them do genuinely have really interesting backstories, like Cora and her time as a human in the Asari army, or the struggles of the team leaders aboard the Nexus who all got their roles thanks to their predecessors being killed on the journey over. As for the rest of the cast, they’re fine, but they certainly never had the impact of the likes of Liara, Wrex or my buddy Garrus.
But the bigger narrative elements, like Ryder’s personal struggle with being chosen as Pathfinder, feel very contrived. She, and others around her, keep questioning why her father chose her to be his successor, forgetting it was a situation of him seeing his daughter about to die and having the natural inclination to save her life, while also transferring SAM over to her so the mission could continue since there was literally no one else around to choose otherwise. It may seem like a minor nitpick, but it’s paraded as a such a big part of Ryder’s character development that it became very grating.
The average writing and characterisation certainly wasn’t helped by the now infamous animation and technical woes. I was playing Andromeda both before and after Bioware released patches to address the facial animation issues, and while they noticeably improved post-patch, they still retained a rather lifeless look about them. Having characters emoting vocally yet having the expressions of the most dumbfounded bureaucrats can really take you out of the moment. My personal favourite is still Foster Addison, director of the settlement colonies and someone who I was incredibly disappointed to discover wasn’t an android the entire time.
Other technical glitches weren’t as horrendously prevalent as the facial animations, at least not in my case, but I did encounter a fair few. Squad mates spawned in the sky, sometimes they just spun around in circles, and once or twice I just fell through the floor. There’s also some serious frame rate drops on console at times. Make no mistake, however, Andromeda is still playable and most of the glitches can be resolved via a respawn or just moving forward with the game, but yeah, it’s still a bit of a buggy mess.
As for the actually playable elements of Mass Effect Andromeda, it is a video game after all, they’re a bit hit and miss. Outside of wandering around your spaceship and dialogue tree conversations, gameplay boils down to two elements: planet exploration and combat. Planet exploration combines elements from previous Mass Effects, mainly the open map driving from the first game and the planet scanning/probing for resources from the second. Resources are used to research and develop new weapons and armour, as well as purchase ammo types and buffs. It’s all relatively straight forward, although the UI menus could be a little more streamlined as it was initially hard to navigate.
Combat, on the other hand, is where Andromeda stumbles quite a bit. The combat mechanics were never a highlight of the franchise to begin with, but it was at least a little more engaging and involved, with the ability to command and utilise the abilities of your squad mates and find the perfect team composition for your needs. Andromeda strips back a lot of those features, removing the old “power wheel” and reducing squad mate interaction of directing them where to defend or who to attack, with no control over when they use a special ability. This is particularly frustrating as while Ryder can learn to use a wide array of abilities, from grenades, hacks and Biotic powers (sci-fi wizard stuff), she can only equip three of them at any one time. This means that even if you choose your squad so they have a different spread of abilities, you’re relying on their AI in order to use them, and let me tell you, it’s never when you want them to.
Ryder’s personal powers do make combat a little more fun, being able to combo abilities into some cool chains, like levitating an enemy before pushing them off the map. But thanks to the three power limit and their respective cool-downs, you’ll be relying on your firearms a lot, and the gun combat leaves a lot to be desired. Outside of the starting M8 assault rifles I found most other weapons to be far too inaccurate and unwieldy, particularly the shotguns since it’s so easy to get surrounded and killed when you’re up that close and personal. Enemies are mainly bullet sponges thanks to their shielding or armour, but thankfully there are consumable ammo types to help overcome them so they can be susceptible to your Biotic powers.
You’ll often find yourself wrestling with the cover system. On more than one occasion I found myself popping out of cover to shoot an enemy I was aiming at, only for the act of standing up to shift my targeting cross-hair downwards and end up shooting the floor. Oh, and the cover system is automatic, with Ryder sticking to walls when her weapon’s drawn. It works most of the time, but being killed when it doesn’t is mighty frustrating.
Again, much like the glitches, it’s still functional, but it still isn’t the greatest.
There’s a lot more I could talk about, like the online multiplayer Strike Missions, which were OK, but more of the same combat only with more competent allies. Or how the character creator at the start has a whole bunch of options to choose from, but unless you choose a very plain, no scars or tattoos face, your Ryder really won’t fit in with the rest of the cast. But those are all minor elements in the Mass Effect Andromeda experience, and the major ones just weren’t up to snuff this time around. It’s not a complete mess, it’s just, well, average.
But hey, you can still sleep with half your crew members, so at least that series’ staple remains intact.