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‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ Review: Lost In Space

Mass Effect: Andromeda
Developer(s): BioWare
Publisher(s): Electronic Arts
Platform(s): Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date(s): March 21, 2017 (NA), March 23, 2017 (EU)

Pulp’s 2001 single ‘Bad Cover Version’ used questionable covers of beloved songs as a metaphor for future relationships that could never hope to compare to a previous lost love. It’s a poignant four minutes of britpop gold, and one that manages to succinctly explain the feelings associated with underwhelming romantic entanglements through the lens of pop-culture references in a tragically amusing way. Towards the end of the song, front-man Jarvis Cocker begins reciting other such analogues for disappointing love, including the television version of ‘Planet of the Apes’, the Rolling Stones in the ’80s, and the later ‘Tom & Jerry’ episodes in which the cat and mouse could talk. Had the tune been written today by a band of avid gamers, it’s not hard to imagine that “Mass Effect: Andromeda” could have been inserted into the song if only they’d thought of something to rhyme with it.

Mass Effect: Andromeda isn’t a bad game, per se, but it is one that feels from the opening moments to the last like a pale imitation of the popular trilogy of games that inspired it. There’s an awkward sense of desperation that creeps into the game repeatedly during the forty to fifty hour adventure where you can practically see BioWare pleading with you to be impressed, and while there is plenty worth seeing in Andromeda, the noticeable step down in quality—both narratively and from a gameplay perspective—is unavoidable. Every now and again there are flashes of the brilliance that made Mass Effect such a compelling series of games, but those moments are too few and too far between.

Taking place some two and a half million light years away from the Milky Way galaxy (and by proxy, the divisive and narratively problematic ending of Mass Effect 3) Andromeda tells us the tale of Scott and Sara Ryder, and a cross-species initiative to colonise another galaxy. Scott and Sara are the twin children of Alec Ryder—the “Pathfinder” and de facto leader of the human element of the Andromeda Initiative—and along with thousands of other souls they undergo cryogenic sleep in order to make the six hundred year journey to Andromeda to find a new beginning.

Scott and Sara Ryder are more interesting protagonists than Shepard.

Sending a crew of brave pioneers to a brand new, uncharted galaxy is a tantalising opportunity for an original work of science fiction, but that’s squandered time and again by a trope-laden and unsatisfying main narrative, and some liberal borrowing of storytelling elements from previous games in the series. As Andromeda begins, the human ark full of colonists has just arrived in the Heleus cluster—an area of space within Andromeda containing numerous planets that should be capable of supporting life—and it all starts going wrong. The ship runs afoul of an enormous, energy-based space anomaly that is quickly designated “The Scourge” that damages the ark and causes whichever Ryder twin you’re not playing as to be trapped in cryo-sleep.

Being so close to one of the potential home planets for the initiative—known as “Golden Worlds”—Alec Ryder and your Ryder decide to touch down on the planet with a couple of human comrades to investigate and see what life in the Andromeda galaxy is all about. For what it’s worth, the planet looks very nice, and Andromeda is a marked improvement over the last generation’s Mass Effect games in the graphical department, but in every other regard this is a strange and fumbled opening. Once your gang lands on the planet, your human buddies will continuously tell you how amazing this all is, and how spectacularly different Andromeda is to the Milky Way, as though if they say it enough times you’ll actually start believing it. Andromeda isn’t different to the Milky Way. There’s some floating rocks, sure, but other than that you could be walking on any of the dozens of planets from the original Mass Effect trilogy, and that’s disappointing.

The major conflict in Andromeda is similarly rote. While investigating the planet with your team, Ryder happens upon some silly looking aliens that appear to have been designed by a committee to look as much like baddies as possible. Without any pomp or circumstance the humans and the aliens—the kett—are shooting at each other, and we’re off. Some of the aliens can turn invisible which seems to be a jaw-dropping revelation to your squad mates, apparently forgetting that people could do that in the Milky Way, too. Otherwise the aliens all act like everyone you’ve ever fought before in Mass Effect, and they’re bullet sponges rather than intelligent opposition. Chaos ensues, one thing leads to another, and within an hour or so your chosen Ryder is the new human pathfinder and entrusted with the fate of the entire Andromeda Initiative etc. etc.

The main baddie of Andromeda is a strangely cute pantomime villain.

As the Pathfinder, you’re given access to an AI implant named SAM. This AI can talk to you, and will frequently commentate throughout your adventures, help you out when you need it, and scan things a lot. It also speaks in an amusingly dry and matter of fact way that will likely garner a few chuckles. SAM is an important character because as the Pathfinder A.I., he was previously tied to Alec Ryder, and throughout the game he will provide you with some of your father’s memories that shed light on the beginnings of the Andromeda Initiative and some personal family moments. These optional memories that you can unlock introduce an interesting mystery that unfortunately goes nowhere—presumably it’ll be resolved in DLC or Andromeda 2—as well as a plot twist that is so predictable that they might as well have given it away on the box.

Once you arrive at the Nexus—a space station sent to Andromeda months before the arks to act as a base for when the colonists arrive—you’re given the run down on the galaxy. It turns out that the “Golden Worlds” aren’t quite as golden as you’d hoped, and it’s up to you to make the planets viable for colonisation via a mixture of shooting things in the face and completing mundane fetch quests. Ryder assembles a crew, boards a fancy new ship called the Tempest, and jets off to save an all new galaxy.

The opening hours of Mass Effect: Andromeda aren’t as gripping as you’d expect. Mass Effect 2 and 3 both had blockbuster openings that did a superb job of setting the pace for what would follow in the remainder of the game, and Andromeda flounders a little in this regard. It’s not that any of it is particularly bad, but it never feels more vital than a DLC mission, and the reckless abandon with which we’re introduced to new characters/alien species and then watch them die/make them die means that there’s not a lot of time to actually find a reason to care about any of this.

The politics on board the Nexus are almost as messy as in the White House right now.

Once the obligatory opening preamble is out of the way and you’re allowed to play the game as you see fit it all starts to become a little more enjoyable. The main quest involves quashing in-fighting among the leaders of the Andromeda Initiative, uncovering the secrets of an ancient civilisation with advanced technology (yes, again), and stopping the kett and their moustache twirling leader from killing everyone for reasons that are barely explained. It’s all pretty standard fare, and by the time the various plot threads have been resolved (or maddeningly left dangling to be revisited in a future instalment) not much of anything worth writing home about has actually transpired. It’s not a bad campaign, and the story is at least as involving as most AAA blockbusters on the market today, but it’s notably weaker than the main narrative of any of the three previous Mass Effect games and that’s a shame.

Aside from the main storyline not being particularly interesting on a basic level, there’s a severe pacing issue in the game due to the semi-open world nature of the gameplay. Mass Effect always allowed you to travel the galaxy and approach the various missions in an order of your choosing, but this time around there’s a massive gap between important story beats because the sections of gameplay interspersed between them are so much longer, and so much duller. Upon landing on a planet, Ryder and the gang will be presented with a series of quests that can be completed, and then while exploring the planet they’ll locate more. While some of these quests are enjoyable, the vast majority of them are little more than busy work. One such quest involves organising a movie night that involves travelling to numerous locations to find a movie and other supplies, since apparently they don’t have Netflix and popcorn in the future. It’s dreadful.

Most side-quests in the game involve travelling to another point on the map and scanning three things, or finding three things, or shooting more than three things, and then travelling back for experience points and a couple of lines of dialogue. The quests are remarkably yawn-worthy, even in the early going, and they only become more dull as the game progresses and you learn just how little variety there actually is in Andromeda. This is busy work, thrown at the player in the name of keeping them playing longer but not having any more fun, and in a world where the complex side quest structure of The Witcher 3 exists, Andromeda’s approach feels positively archaic. Fortunately, you don’t have to do all or even many of the side quests in the game in order to progress, and the less time you spend on them the more like a traditional Mass Effect game it will feel, and the more fun you’ll probably have.

You better get used to exploring massive, empty, boring deserts. There’s three of them.

Travelling between the various quests is a massive inconvenience. The open world sections are big but largely lifeless, and so going on foot is a fantastically boring endeavour. Never fear, though, because BioWare decided to bring back the Mako—a massive six-wheeled people carrier—from the original Mass Effect to help you get from A to B. It’s now been rechristened the Nomad, and thankfully it controls a lot better than it’s predecessor did. No matter what you do to the thing it somehow always manages to land on its wheels, paying no mind to any known interpretation of the laws of physics, regardless of how far it falls or what trajectory it takes to hit the ground. The Nomad is largely fine as a means of transportation, but for some reason you have to manually switch to an uphill mode when driving up anything bigger than a small curb in order to not get stuck, which is an annoying and pointless distraction. You’ll likely forget to switch drive modes on numerous occasions during your adventure, and then have to watch as the Nomad slides helplessly, hilariously, backwards down any moderately steep incline.

Negotiating your available missions is also hindered by Andromeda featuring one of the most spectacularly unhelpful user interfaces I’ve ever seen in a AAA game. Quests are logged into various different categories, but the layout is confusing, and made worse by some bizarre design decisions. Quests are listed by planet, but it’s the planet you were given the quest on rather than the one you need to be on to progress that they’re listed under, and since many quests require you to travel to numerous worlds in order to finish them this can get very confusing. It’s actually much easier to just travel to a planet and then look at the map, see what quest markers are available and follow those than it is to use the tools you’ve been given, and that’s simply unacceptable.

The semi-open world nature of Mass Effect: Andromeda achieves little except to make a compelling case for Mass Effect: Andromeda 2 not being open world, but there are a few ways in which it is a legitimate improvement on the games that came before.

Drack is a cranky old Krogan that gets many of the best lines, but is a smart and thoughtful companion at times, too.

The combat in Andromeda is a definitive highlight of the experience. Shooting in Mass Effect has never been a reason that I was drawn to the series, but the changes made to the mechanics here are largely welcome. Ryder has a jet-pack which means (s)he can leap heroically into the air as well as perform mid-air dashes. This leads to combat arenas having a greater sense of verticality than in the previous games, and more frantic battles. There are some downsides to the combat in Andromeda—namely that you no longer have any control over when your squadmates use their powers—but by and large it’s a much improved experience over the stuffy cover based shooting of the original trilogy.

There’s a new system in which Ryder can switch between various classes on the fly, so if you begin the game as a soldier (guns and stuff) but want to be more of a biotic (space magician) you can do so without having to restart your game. You can also switch your chosen powers without any penalty, and so if you want to have one power from the combat tree, one from the biotic tree, and one from the tech tree, you can do so. This gives you a greater freedom to craft your character as you see fit, and it was one area that was of particular benefit to me as someone who likes to pick and choose the best bits from various classes.

The dialogue system in Andromeda is a massive improvement on the previous games in the series. The system works in a manner similar to that seen in Horizon Zero Dawn earlier in the year, whereby instead of having to constantly pick paragon or renegade choices but always having to pick the same one in order to rack up the points necessary for late game decisions, you can just freely choose what you want in any given situation. Sometimes you might want to be carefree or deliver a cheesy one liner, while other times you might want to show compassion or anger. People remember what you’ve said, and might call you up on it later, but you’re not manacled to a system the requires you to pick the blue option every time through fear of missing out. You’re free to approach conversation however you see fit in Andromeda, and it’s a much more enjoyable system than the binary choices the series is used to.

Peebee is more interesting than most asari that have appeared in the series, being less spiritual and monotone, and more quirky and rebellious.

The crew you’ll take on your adventures are, like in any other Mass Effect game, a bit of a mixed bag. In every game in the series barring Mass Effect 2 the human squad mates have been a bit of a damp squib, and Andromeda is no exception. The two human allies you’re given aren’t offensive in their banality, but given that you’ll only have six squad mates to choose from throughout the game it’s a little disappointing that two spaces on the roster are reserved for human characters that would cause you to dive up the fish aisle to avoid them if you saw them at a supermarket. Many of the wackier species are written out of the game—the quarians, hanar, drell and elcor had an issue with their ark before take off—and that’s a crying shame since another alien would have been a lot more interesting than the two stereotypical human soldiers we get instead. Cora is a dull, by the book commando, and Liam’s only vaguely interesting character trait is that he seems to have a strange fascination with not wearing shirts, ever.

The alien squad mates fare a lot better. There’s a grumpy old Krogan who’s only one “I’m getting too old for this shit” away from being a walking cliche, but he gets a lot of the best lines and his loyalty quest introduces some surprisingly touching aspects to his personality. Vetra is a female Turian who is very much the lady equivalent of Garrus from the original trilogy. Peebee—or Pelessaria B’Sayle—is a quirky asari that provides some much needed levity. And then there’s Jaal, a member from a brand new alien species indigenous to Andromeda who provides a lot of the game’s heart.

Getting to know these characters works in much the same way as previous entries in the series. Between missions you’ll have an opportunity to wander around on your ship and talk to the various members of your crew, learning more about them and eventually unlocking loyalty missions for them. The loyalty missions are the best side quests in the game, each providing a more intense look at what makes each of the various characters tick, and often yielding combat rewards, too, as you’ll gain new abilities by completing them. If you make a strong enough impression on any of the characters it’s possible that you might end up as more than just friends and squaddies, but while there are additional scenes if your Ryder is in a relationship, they don’t enhance the story in any dramatic way.

There’s a series of recurring puzzles in the game that’s like space sudoku. There’s dozens of them. And they’re every bit as fun as they sound.

The relationships between the characters and the sense of comradery you get from being on adventure with your squad has always been one of the strongest aspects of the Mass Effect series, and that’s no different here. While you’ll spend an awful lot of time trudging around boring, samey planets to complete boring, samey fetch quests, you’ll also spend an awful lot of time talking to your squad and other characters in the galaxy, and those moments are the ones that most frequently feel close to the previous Mass Effect games in terms of quality. While one game isn’t really enough to learn to love the characters like series favourites Garrus, Tali, or Liara, there’s enough to work with to imagine that some of Andromeda’s characters could become iconic in their own right if given sequels to work with. Peebee, Drack and Jaal are all interesting and amusing characters, and are certainly a lot more interesting than many of the squad mates that Commander Shepard fought alongside during the original trilogy.

And sequels are coming. BioWare might not be talking about the future of the series just yet, but it’s obvious that Andromeda is planned as the start of a new trilogy. Various storylines end abruptly without any real resolution, and there’s even a post-credits scene to tease what’s going to happen to next. Given the amount of plot threads left unfinished in the game it seems that BioWare has an actual plan for the sequels going forward, which is an exciting prospect given how they backed themselves into a narrative minefield by not planning for the future with the original trilogy.

BioWare also seem to have learned some lessons following the debacle surrounding the Mass Effect 3 ending. The finale of Andromeda is suitably exciting, and while it’s not a patch on the last mission in Mass Effect 2, it gets a lot of things right where Mass Effect 3 got them wrong. The decisions you make throughout the game don’t have earth-shattering consequences at the conclusion, but it’s nice to see the various allies you’ve made during your journey represented during the final showdown. It almost makes all the fetch quests worth it.

Drinking with Drack has a tendency to wind up in a fight.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the hubbub surrounding the technical issues prevalent in Mass Effect: Andromeda, but while I’ve seen enough evidence on social media to know that the problems exist, I have to say that first hand I experienced very little of it. During my fifty hours with the game I came across one fairly jarring moment in which a couple of my squad mates randomly started talking as though we were visiting a planet for the first time even though we’d been there numerous times, and there were a handful of minor issues—animation problems, audio overlapping or cutting short—but nothing game breaking. Perhaps I was one of the lucky ones, but the technical issues in the game mostly seemed comparable to those in earlier entries in the series, and occasionally slightly worse.

Graphically, the planets you’ll visit are impressive enough, but practically every location suffers from severe instances of pop in, and shoddy textures. There are some odd animations—I once caught a squad mate looking like they were trying to recreate Monty Python’s ministry of silly walks sketch—but they weren’t overly frequent or game breaking.  Writing is similarly inconsistent, with the loyalty quests and much of the interaction with companions being well written, and many of the side quests being awkward, bizarre, or illogical. It bares all the hallmarks of a game rushed out of the door despite the huge budget, massive publisher and five year development cycle behind it.

What you get out of Mass Effect: Andromeda will largely depend on what you want. The combat is improved and so if that’s your jam then this will be the best experience for you in the series so far. The loyalty quests and the squad mates you’ll spend time with are similar in quality to what came before. But the overarching narrative of the game is disappointing, managing to feel both inconsequential and a riff on tales already told in the series prior, and the new focus on exploration and more open world structure is a massive misstep, forcing you into long, boring stretches of gameplay that just get in the way of the next amusing bar scene with Drack, or crazy scheme cooked up by Peebee.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a great game buried under a mountain of poor design choices and narrative shortcomings. Everything is more complicated than it needs to be, and the sheer amount of busy work forced upon the player is staggering, but if you can be bothered to put in a few hours doing the admin then there are plenty of rewards for fans of the series. It’s not the Mass Effect you were hoping for, and it doesn’t live up to the high standard set by the original trilogy, but as a jumping off point for a new trilogy in a new galaxy there are enough promising characters and intriguing story elements to suggest that Andromeda 2 might be everything you wished this game would be.

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1 comment

Michael J. Riser April 9, 2017 at 3:23 am

Excellent review. Enjoyed the read.

Reply

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