Review: Mass Effect: Andromeda

BioWare has had a long history of creating deep and compelling RPGs, from Baldur’s Gate to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The last generation was a pivotal era for the Edmonton-based developer, not only being acquired by Electronic Arts, but creating two of the most highly regarded franchises: Mass Effect and Dragon Age. While both of them have seen their share of setbacks in the past, there little doubt about the mark they have left on the industry. Mass Effect and its sequel were two of the most influential games of the last ten years, establishing an RPG of absurd proportions. They were filled with loveable characters, a compelling futuristic plot and a story that revolves around not only you, but also the entire galaxy. Who didn’t want to be their own spaceship captain, flying around and solving intergalactic mysteries? Being that the original trilogy has come to a close, BioWare continues to push forward with the franchise, moving things into the distance future to tell a completely new tale. While this is an ambitious departure, it’s not without its missteps.

The original Mass Effect trilogy feels far more like Star Wars, with a soldier protagonist who’s meant to save the galaxy. Mass Effect: Andromeda on the other hand is more in line with Star Trek, as you’re an adventurer, going to uncharted territory and making a good first impression on new species, while at the same time obtaining a means to continue surviving in a foreign galaxy. This is one of the more appealing aspects as the mystery established early on will keep your interest, even though the main antagonist ends up being more of a looming threat than anything else. The main story regarding the new race isn’t as compelling as you may think, and is relatively short if you just mainline the campaign, but it’s the incredible number of side quests that help fill in the plot. Travelling six-hundred years to another galaxy has posed some unforeseen problems, which puts into question how the thousands of candidates were chosen in the first place. Many individuals don’t seem to understand what they’re doing is supposed to be for the common good, and instead break off to become bandits and raiders. A good deal of the plot isn’t given to you through traditional means, as you’ll need to go through the extensive codex as it updates to help fill you in on both the back-stories and general character behaviors.

Characters are arguably the biggest factor of any Mass Effect game as the crew is essentially family, not only having each other’s back in firefights, but also constantly engaging in conversation. The ally selection in Mass Effect: Andromeda is just OK, with only a couple of standout additions. Liam is easily the best of the bunch as he bring the most comical performance out of everyone, not to mention having the most memorable Loyalty Mission. Peebee also has her moments, as she’s a very curious and free spirit, while Drack is a grumpy old Krogan who loves to fight. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast can be less than ideal. Cora is a rather boring individual as she’s stern with very little to add to. Jaal, a character among the new race, is only appealing when he’s chatting with Liam in the crew quarters. Finally, Vetra, while she showed incredible potential early on, doesn’t quite evolve as much as we hoped for as the story progressed. This is a very by the books crew as you can tell the developers were trying to replicate the phenomenal formula between the various personalities of past games, but it doesn’t quite come together as well as it could have. This may have to do with the lack of true character introductions, as everyone just happens to fall in your lap within the first two major events. You’re no longer going out and recruiting a team; everyone is just given to you right away with little reasoning.

Outside of the actual story, there are a surprising number of baffling design decisions that either fail to streamline a process or end up toning down specific aspects of a system. For example, moving from planet to planet is a long a tedious process. It’s meant to show the size and scale of how far you’re traveling and the beauty of the system. It may look impressive at first, but it takes so long to get into orbit, with most of the planets being not beneficial at all. The dialogue tree has also had some questionable changes. BioWare has added icons to better identify the type of mood you want to set. While this is a nice visual touch as it does allow you to know how Ryder (our protagonist) is going to express him or herself, the vast majority of choices are limited to two responses (logical & emotional, or casual & professional). These will generally lead to the same result, although there are a couple instances where the scene will play out slightly different due to your choice. Flirting also seems abrupt, with an immediate “I’m interested in you” dialogue choice (literally) being available right off the bat.

This also ties into the next issue: Ryder is no Shepard. There aren’t Paragon or Renegade meters, which results in very little aggression. Ryder primarily plays it cool, which feels odd when quick-time events occur and he or she can be a complete dick, which seems somewhat out of character. It feels like you don’t have complete control over how you want to shape Ryder, but instead are given a set path with slight adjustments down the way. There are even times when choice is a mere illusion. For example, one side quest had us excited to play an investigator, interrogating two individuals in order to notice any faults in their alibi. After talking with the two, we headed over to the client to give our answer, only to realize we didn’t actually have a choice and instead the game did the work for us. There are obviously overarching choices that will affect the world and events, but there are significantly more moments like this that left us disappointed.

When you look back at the original Mass Effect, it’s hard to believe how far we’ve come in terms of gameplay. Both the combat and exploration elements in Mass Effect: Andromeda are incredible highlights, showcasing both fast paced action and a profound sense of curiosity. Players will have complete control of how they want to spec their character, earning skill points to put into either Combat, Biotics or Tech trees. This means you won’t be locked to one specific profile, allowing for a highly customizable experience. Whether you want to stay back and snipe with self-buffing abilities, or be in the vanguard going head to head with foes is completely adaptable. Thanks to the jetpack, Ryder becomes ridiculously agile, being able to dodge enemy fire and getting in and out of combat seamlessly. The platforming elements with this can be a bit cumbersome, but at the very least firefights feel engaging thanks to this addition. The only downside to combat is that your teammates and the enemy artificial intelligence aren’t the brightest bunch, constantly standing out in the open and rarely utilizing cover.

In terms of exploration, when landing on a new planet, you’ll be overwhelmed with the sheer scale of the map. Planetary exploration is what Andromeda does best, as there’s a certain appeal about going to a new galaxy and exploring these seemingly inhabitable locations. Each one has their own dangerous traits you have to overcome through Remnant Vault, essentially terraforming the planet so it becomes more inhabitable. I don’t know why two of the five colonize-ready planets had to be desert locations, but at least their aesthetic is a little different (one being closer to Mars while the other is more like Tatooine), and there are different logical environmental hazards that are associated with them. There’s a lot to do and find in these open areas thanks to the new versatile vehicle Nomad, such as lengthy side quests and ancient hidden treasures. Whether it’s the scorching heat or the frigid snow, there’s a staggering amount to do and see in this new galaxy.

Now for the section of the review that brings me no joy talking about: bugs. While all open world games have issues due to the large number of moving parts, Mass Effect: Andromeda is a complete mess. Over the sixty hours we put into Andromeda, we ran into a staggering amount of issues in the open world, conversations, cutscenes and segmented missions. For starters, we’ve had party member models multiply in the Tempest (your ship), enemies fight in the T-pose position, doors refusing to open, trapping us inside, having the ability to phase through geometry, and NPCs and enemies who turned invisible (we’re not talking about the ones who have a cloaking ability, either). There were also environmental models that disappeared, allies that merged into the floor horizontally, enemies either skated around or floated in the air, event triggers refused to occur, objects obstructed our vision in conversations, and we even phased through the ground a couple of times and were unable to escape. These are just a handful of the many bugs we ran into during our time in the Andromeda galaxy, causing much frustration and constantly reloading.

Fortunately, none of these are game breaking issues, or at least the ones we listed above aren’t. There were a couple of instances that forced us to close the application entirely. For starters, after sending a probe to an asteroid, the camera would occasionally swoop in automatically and stay peering at an infinite abyss, with button commands ceasing any functionality. After restarting the game, we came back only to see Ryder had taken massive damage, from what I expect is from being jettisoned into deep space instead of the probe. While this happened multiple times, they don’t compare to the completely broken segments and scenes. One specific instance that’s still fresh on the mind is during one of the Loyalty missions, where a platform for an elevator was nowhere to be seen. After about ten minutes of wandering around a lifeless station, I jumped outside the boundaries only to be teleported back to the beginning of the checkpoint with newly spawned enemies and the elevator finally intact. After riding the elevator and defeating a handful of gun-toting raiders in the following area, the final scene for the mission completely broke animations, scene camera positions, and even character models, just before going into an endless loading screen. At the very least Mass Effect: Andromeda is generous with the autosaves, but this is just one example of many instances that occurred throughout our lengthy playthrough. It was a nightmare.

Similar to Mass Effect 3, Andromeda features a surprisingly robust cooperative experience. We’re not talking about in the main campaign, but a multiplayer mode that puts players up against waves of enemies. This horde mode throws four players into one of six maps and gives them objectives to complete, from extraction to hacking. It’s entirely RPG based as you’ll be leveling up specific characters and assigning points to their small tree. You will be able to buy packs with two types of in-game currency that unlock new characters, weapons, equipment and boosters for battle, which certainly help during the final wave when things get hectic. This is just as entertaining as it was five years ago, albeit a bit shallow compared to other games, but more than ever, it’s only fun when playing with four friends who can coordinate properly. Playing with random individuals with no microphones is nothing short of a pain in the behind as players will need to stick together to overcome obstacles and survive the onslaught of enemies.

Visually, Mass Effect: Andromeda is gorgeous, at least when it comes to the environments. BioWare certainly used the Frostbite engine to their advantage as almost every area is immaculately designed with exceptional lighting. There are the oddities here and there, such as stretched out textures on slopes, and we did run into an area or two off the beaten path that probably was meant to be taken out, but overall, you’ll most likely be impressed with both the open world variety and the attention to detail in more closed off sections. Unfortunately, the same can’t really be said about the characters. While Andromeda does come with a surprisingly in-depth character creator, models, especially humans, aren’t the best you’ll see. It doesn’t help that most of the clothing outside of Ryder’s shiny helmet generally looks low resolution. This also ties into a somewhat hot button issue among the community right now: animation. Facial animation is definitely a strange entity as, while general movement has its quirky moments, players will quickly notice something off during conversations. It’s primarily the overemphasized lip animations – not to mention surprisingly frequent creepy smiles – and character eyes being void of any life that really create an unsettling time. Finally, there are also some weird frame rate issues here and there (at least on PlayStation 4), but outside of one specific remnant vault where things got mind-numbingly bad, they seemed to come erratically, most of the time within an open area. Regardless, despite these pestering issues, the art team has done a fantastic job with Mass Effect: Andromeda.

Closing Comments:

Mass Effect: Andromeda is an unbalanced experience. It’s an incredibly ambitious game with a colossal scope, but it doesn’t always hit the right notes. While there’s an air of mystery behind the story that will keep you going, the cast of supporting characters are far from the most compelling bunch, not to mention decision-making feels far less important than ever before. There will certainly be moments that resonant with fans, but at the same time, there are design decisions that are put into question. Combat and the sense of exploration are the key components and thankfully, they’re done perfectly. You will be engrossed in the vast new beautiful worlds and immersed within the fully versatile combat system. Unfortunately, even by open world standards, this is an absurdly bug-ridden game. I by no means regret the 60+ hours I put into Andromeda as it does have an addictive quality that draws you in, but it’s marred by frequent technical issues. Every time I begin to have fun, I’m quickly reminded of just how unpolished things are. When it works, Mass Effect: Andromeda is a stimulating adventure. When it doesn’t, it’s nothing short of dispiriting.