The Mass Effect trilogy holds a special place in many gamers’ hearts, with its rich backstory, character development, and epic scale. Seeking to sidestep the consequences (and the controversy) of the Mass Effect 3 ending, Mass Effect: Andromeda literally uproots the action and moves it to another galaxy, while simultaneously leaning heavily on the player’s nostalgia for the series.
Before the events of Mass Effect, a organization called the Andromeda Initiative started constructing massive colony ships called Arks with the intent of making a centuries long trip to the Andromeda galaxy. Publicly it is portrayed as a mission of discovery, however privately its leadership have become aware of the threat of the Reapers, and are seeking to ensure the survival of the Alliance races by seeding them in a new galaxy. Each of the Alliance races had an Ark: human, salarian, turian and asari, each carrying 20,000 colonists that remain in cryosleep for centuries to reach Andromeda. Their goal was to each settle one of the “Golden Worlds” that had been discovered in the Heleus cluster within Andromeda, seven perfect worlds that had been identified in close proximity as having perfect conditions for life. After Sovereign’s attack in Mass Effect, the Andromeda Initiative could delay no longer. The four Arks launched together with the Nexus (effectively an Initiative version of the Citadel), a massive space station meant to operate as a central hub and temporary home for colonists in Andromeda while settlement was ongoing. Traveling faster than light it would still take them 600 years to cross the 2.5 million light year gulf between Andromeda and the Milky Way, leaving their former lives, and hopefully the threat of the Reapers, behind.
Leading each expedition is a Pathfinder, a combination of soldier, scout, and explorer, given a wide latitude to act in the best interests of their Ark and the initiative as a whole. In the context of Mass Effect, the Pathfinders are effectively the Initiative version of Spectres, but with a unique twist. Each Pathfinder has an implant that links their mind with an unfettered AI core aboard each Ark, called SAM (Simulated Adaptive Matrix). The SAM implant gives each Pathfinder a significant advantage in the field, allowing data collection and analysis, scanning, and hacking, as well as some interesting new gameplay tricks new to Mass Effect that we’ll talk about later.
The player assumes the role of either Sarah or Scott Ryder (depending on your gender choice), child of the human Pathfinder, Alec Ryder. You emerge from cryosleep to find yourself in Andromeda, with the human Ark Hyperion being critically damaged by a strange space anomaly called the Scourge. It threads all throughout the Heleus cluster, making navigation and sensors virtually useless. With the human Ark Hyperion damaged, your “Golden World” an environmental disaster, and the Nexus and other Arks nowhere to be found. Low on power and supplies and your new home a bust, desperate measures must be taken in order to survive. It’s up to you as a Pathfinder to find your people a new home.
Early in the game, you will encounter the Kett, a militaristic alien race whose initial motivations seem cartoonishly one dimensional. Only after several missions (namely including an encounter with their leader, The Archon) do their actions and strategy start to gain any depth. The Archon as an antagonist doesn’t break the mold, but still serves as an excellent foil for Ryder personally as they cross paths several times over the course of the story. The menace of the Kett is defined largely by seeing the results of their conquest of the other major new alien race, the Angara. They have been subjugated and harvested for years, facing brutal slaughter at the hands of the Kett. Spread over many worlds, their once thriving culture has been shattered. Whole familes now fight in the Resistance, working to defeat the Kett invaders who threaten their race. Much of your diplomatic efforts will center on winning the trust of the Angara leadership. After their last experience with outsiders they are naturally reluctant to trust the Initiative’s motives, and and overcoming that mistrust will be your first real test in the Andromeda galaxy. With enough time and effort, you can prove your good intentions and turn the Angarans into allies against the Kett.
Complicating matters are strange ruins and relics from a race of beings long gone, dubbed the Remnant. Centuries old machines still guard these ruins, building more robotic sentinels to resist any and all incursions. For some reason the Kett are very interested in Remnant ruins and technology, and frequently you will find them clashing with Remnant robots as they try to plunder their former structures for their secrets. What exactly the Kett want with the Remnant is unknown, but theirs is the key to the mystery of the Kett, and what they want in Heleus.
(NOTE: For the purpose of this review I’m going to refer to Ryder as “he”, given that my Ryder, named “Jack,” was male.)
The storyline of Mass Effect: Andromeda is almost a metanarrative of the experience of playing the game itself. Much like the Andromeda Initiative moves to a new galaxy, Andromeda itself branches off from the original plot before the events of Mass Effect 2, allowing the game to have all of the familiar trappings of the Mass Effect universe without the need to account for any of the player choices or their consequences from the original trilogy, most notably obviating the need to address the contentious endings of Mass Effect 3.
The first ten hours of the game are a chaotic mess. Much as Ryder struggles to deal with his constantly changing circumstances, so too is the player assaulted with tutorials and the arbitrary actions that support them, with convenient tasks cropping up in the player’s way that only they can address according to the narrative spackle troweled into the cracks in the logic of the situation. Over and over, I found myself jumping through mission shaped hoops as those new concepts were awkwardly shoehorned into my repertoire. After coming off the brilliantly designed tutorials of Horizon: Zero Dawn, I couldn’t help but find these hours interminable. That all changes once you’re given access to your new faux-Normandy ship, the Tempest, and you are finally free to explore the universe and travel planet to planet as you see fit.
Bringing the metanarrative thread to a close, after Ryder arrives on the first colonizable planet and starts to hit his stride in his new role as Pathfinder, so too does the game finally open up and actually start to feel like a Mass Effect game, ironically by adopting a gameplay mechanic completely unlike the previous games. Taking a nod from their experience with Dragon Age: Inquisition, Andromeda adopts a semi-open world approach, with each of the four major worlds being a massive map that links encounter areas, rather than the straight corridor shooter style of previous games. Each map will veritably bristle with quest markers, random enemy camps, salvage and mining opportunities, ensuring that you’ll never go from one place to another without having your attention drawn to ten things along the way.
In order to traverse this new environment, Ryder is given access to the Nomad, a latter-day MAKO style rover. Unlike the MAKO from Mass Effect, the Nomad has responsive controls, a feeling of realistic weight and momentum, and a low gear for climbing steep terrain. In addition, you can develop upgrades for the Nomad to improve its speed, survivability, boost ability, and jump jet height. All of this was fantastic news to me, as I absolutely despised the MAKO and was dreading a similar experience with Andromeda. Which makes it an even bigger irony that the very second I got access to the Nomad was exactly the moment that I started to have fun with the game. There are plenty of fast travel points you can activate on the map to cut down on travel time, but often I found myself enjoying the drive. The placement of locations on a larger map grounded these planets as real places in my mind, rather than just small sections of a planet that were locked off like previous Mass Effect maps.
The combat of Andromeda will be largely familiar to Mass Effect veterans, with three major differences. First, Andromeda introduces the jump-jet, allowing you additional vertical traversal or horizontal evasion. With the addition of the z-axis into the mix, you’ll find that enemies too will tend to jump up and down from higher platforms, or try to vault obstacles to reach a player hunkered behind cover. Second, the weapon wheel has been restructured, with your powers/abilities removed from the wheel and placed on your shoulder buttons. This limits you to three powers available at a time, rather than having them all available on the wheel whenever you want. Similarly, you can no longer order your two squad members to perform specific abilities, and have to rely their AI to trigger effects.
The third point somewhat mitigates the second, and is a distinct departure from the original Mass Effect series. Unlike previous entries in the series, where a player would have to choose a class at character creation and would be stuck with that class throughout their playthrough, in Andromeda players assign points to one of three categories (Combat, Biotics, And Tech), and the Class (now known as a Profile) only grants different bonuses and can be changed at any time from the menu. Further, players can choose their three skills from any of the three skill categories, adding further mix-and-match customization despite only having three skills equipped at a time. Players do have the option of assigning their Profile and selected skills to one of four favorite slots, allowing you to swap between sets on the fly from the weapon wheel. Swapping between profiles will cause all of your skills to go into cooldown however, so choose your moment wisely.
Using SAM to scan objects will give you technology points that you can use to research weapons and armor based on Initiative, Kett or Remnant technology. Each weapon and armor piece can be researched multiple times, resulting in a higher class item (between I-X) getting better statistics with each iteration. Once researched, they can then be Developed assuming you have scavenged or purchased enough of the various raw materials necessary for construction. You can also research and develop Augmentations, permanent buffs that can be applied to weapons and armor during Development to give them unique bonuses or resistances customized to your needs. In addition to Augmentations, there are also Mods which can be swapped out, allowing for further customization without needing to rebuild the item from scratch. The weapons you craft are significantly more powerful than those you pick up or purchase in the store, so its always prudent to pick up materials from every deposit you find on the map, loot every container and fallen enemy remains. You also have a mining scanner on the Nomad which allows you to find larger veins of minerals and harvest them in bulk from deposits on the map. The mining scanner will tell you when each deposit is depleted so you know when to move on. You can also break down weapons and armor for a portion of their component materials, so no loot is worthless loot. You also use minerals to develop upgrades to your Nomad as well to improve speed, climbing ability and life support among other improvements, something which should be done as soon as feasibly possible.
As you complete missions on each planet, you will slowly improve the Viability rating of the world. After a lot of work and effort, you will be given the opportunity to land an outpost on the planet, allowing you to set up a permanent settlement. This typically comes with new quests and vendors with unique goods in each place, but more importantly it comes with Andromeda Viability Points (AVP). Gain enough points and you can gain access to permanent bonuses from waking specialists from cryopods. These can have extremely useful benefits, such as increasing your inventory size, adding additional slots for equipped weapons or consumables, or giving a regular supply of resources, research, or credits every 45 minutes. There are 28 different bonuses, but you won’t have enough points to take all of the bonsues, so choose wisely because your choice is permanent.
Finally, there’s the cooperative multiplayer mode known as APEX, which ties into the single player experience through a similar mission based system as recent Assassin’s Creed games had. Each NPC team gains levels by completing missions, earning you credits and item rewards. Each team also has traits which can give you positive or negative modifiers based on the characteristics of each mission and how suited the team is for it. Deploying an NPC team in this way takes anywhere from 30 minutes to five hours, during which time the team will be unavailable. Some of the missions can be played directly by the player, taking the role of one of the members of the team and reaping immediate rewards upon completion. From the main menu, you can also jump into random missions, building up your multiplayer characters and their various profiles. Its very similar to the multiplayer in Mass Effect 3, but with an even more compelling integration into the single player game.
As I mentioned before, the open world design of the major planets really does lend itself to making each one feel like a real place. Once you get into the main game and the world opens up for exploration, the feeling that you are building something out of nothing is powerful. As you progress through missions and gain allies, it truly feels as though you are forging a new Alliance. The interactions you have with some of the major NPCs, both enemy and ally, really bring to life the complexities of the troubled political environment in which you find yourself in Heleus. Especially within the Initiative itself, having traveled across the universe leaving everything they knew behind and instead of paradise finding themselves in a bitter struggle for survival, many either choose to or are forced to go into exile. Having Alliance races attacking Angaran outposts for supplies doesn’t make your diplomatic job any easier.
The new skills and profiles systems lend so much variety to the Mass Effect experience that it makes you look forward to trying new things, or experimenting with combinations of abilities that had never been possible in previous games. The combo system has also been streamlined, clearly identifying which powers set up an enemy for follow up, and made it much easier to do so. In addition, the new crafting system also reinforced the feeling that you were literally on the edge of extinction, scrounging for the materials you needed to stay alive. You have a lot more control over what equipment you carry, and how you customize it to suit your playstyle. With the new profile favorites system, it reduces your reliance on your squad mates abilities, and lets you chose a character that is more narratively appropriate for some missions without worrying about being hamstrung in combat.
No longer shackled to the binary choice of Paragon or Renegade, Ryder can choose responses that are Emotional, Logical, Casual or Professional, giving a lot more subtlety to your character’s answers. These conversations are where Bioware shines, and Ryder, even at his most professional is more charismatic than Commander Shepard ever was on his best day. Perhaps it’s because the male voice of Ryder played by Tom Taylorson, really sounds like Nolan North. Seriously, at times I even wondered if Tom Taylorson was just a pseudonym that Nolan North used to prevent overexposure. Regardless, I found myself playing Ryder as a lot more of a swashbuckling adventurer as a result, causing some of the most entertaining exchanges I’d ever had in a Mass Effect game.
The overall plot may not have been amazing, but it was solid, and throughout the game I was thoroughly entertained. Having a smaller squad and crew means that you spent a lot more time with each one, learning about their characters. Your squad’s loyalty missions have multiple parts now, really giving you the feeling that you’re building a relationship with your companions. This was something I was not expecting to happen, after the strong attachment I had formed to the crew of the Normandy over the course of the trilogy and everything that we had gone through. Unlike the original crew, these were beings who were struggling to build a common home, fighting for survival against a common foe. After everything we went through, they won me over, by the end of Andromeda forming a real connection to this brand new crew (despite being entirely Garrus free.) They became familiar. They became like family.
They aren’t finished either; you can already see the shape of things to come with seeds being planted for additional stories in this new galaxy. Mass Effect: Andromeda ends in a satisfying way but definitely has a plan for the future, with several plot points introduced at or near the end of the game, as well as some follow up details in the epilogue that are likely setting up the inevitable DLC.
Right up front, there’s no denying that the game has a number of technical issues. Probably the most well known being the strange animations and character design of the NPC humans in the game. The first time I talked with Director Addison on the Nexus, I couldn’t even concentrate on what she was saying because her face and eyes were so unnatural that it brought me right out of the moment. The other Alliance races didn’t seem to have the same issue, nor did the Angarans or the Kett, but every time I talked to a human that wasn’t on the Tempest’s crew, it was consistently disturbing and distracting. It didn’t help that those conversations were also being interrupted by the usual Bioware sudden camera angle changes and close-ups, getting in tight on dead eyes and wiry hair that looks like it is made of straw.
Contextual actions on characters or objects are sometimes hard to trigger, as you have to approach them from a certain side and be facing them in order to get the prompt. This can be espeically tricky with NPCs at times, as they wander around and face objects, preventing you from getting within their forward quarter where you need to be to get the “talk” prompt.
There is a ton of texture pop-in and z-fighting, especially in some of the landing sequences with the Tempest. The landing on Voeld is especially egregious, as you watch whole sections of the ship’s hull textures ripple into place. Sometimes you’ll even get hitching happening as you move over the terrain. If it were a multiplayer game, I’d say it was lag, but in single player it seems to be freezing while the game streams/loads in the background. If the game isn’t hitching, it also has periods of slowdown, even on the PlayStation 4 Pro. Likely this will be addressed with a patch, but for the time being it can be irritating.
The open world design is something of a double edged sword, too. Sometimes you will get objectives out of order because of irregular exploration. Several times I was completing objectives for a quest that didn’t even appear in my journal yet. In one case I met an NPC quest giver, who talked to me as though he knew who I was. I completed his quest, but there was still an indicator over his head that he still had another quest to give. I could no longer interact with him so I left. About 20 minutes later, I ran across a large Kett base and I got a communication from the broken quest giver, introducing himself and telling me to come find him, at which point all of the quest objectives marked themselves complete immediately and the quest marker went away. That was the best case scenario. I have two other quests which are broken and can’t be completed, and narrowly avoided at least three more breaking by backtracking through autosaves when objectives didn’t trigger immediately upon completion. Aside from broken quests, there were also so many fetch quests where you would be forced to travel all over a planet, sometimes between several planets, usually after I’d gone to the trouble of completing all the quests available on a planet before moving on. There certainly wasn’t enough variation in those quests to avoid becoming repetitive at times.
Narratively, while you can tackle important missions in any order you want, it has a deleterious effect on the pacing of the overall story. Because there are no consequences for taking your time to complete the priority missions, it robs the overall plot of any sense of urgency for the first half of the game. Particularly since your first several meetings with the Kett are strictly rote combat encounters, with no sense that they have any kind of plan or purpose until later in the game. Once you start to learn more about them their true motivations are fleshed out somewhat, but outside of the Archon, the Kett are largely generic and interchangeable. An equivalent example would be the Collectors and Harbinger from Mass Effect 2, they’re mostly there just to be shot. While you will fight some exiles as well as militant Angarans called the Roekar, enemy variety isn’t great but it doesn’t take that much away from your enjoyment. Enemy AI hasn’t improved much from previous Mass Effect games however, despite their added ability to jump up and down levels. Many times you’d find enemies running back and forth or jumping up and down levels, presenting an easy target for you. I haven’t played on Insanity difficulty yet, so perhaps it gets better, but if my past experience with Mass Effect is anything to go by, this is probably representative of the whole.
Remnant structures and ruins have very little variaion, and most of the structures and bases you’ll encounter as you travel will be largely cookie cutter constructions with no major defining features. Unlike the major cities, which are fully fleshed out, these might as well be drag and drop locations that a modder might create in a map maker. The Kett facilities in general serve no point, unless they are tied to a specific mission. Even if you clear them out, they’ll just eventually repopulate like a Far Cry 2 checkpoint.
While the plot was enjoyable, there were far too many convenient ties to the major Mass Effect characters. It got to the point that with every NPC conversation, I found myself wondering which Forrest Gump style connection would come up next. It felt like Bioware wasn’t confident enough in the strength of the Andromeda plot and sought to reinforce ties to the original trilogy wherever possible to evoke player’s nostalgia, winking at you all the while. They could also have done a better job of concealing some of the “choices that aren’t really choices” in the dialogue. Many times, you’d be in a key negotiation or conflict and you got the impression that no matter what you chose to say or do, the end result would be the same. That is the reality in a game like Mass Effect, but at times the blatant funneling of your selected outcome back into a single storyline really undermined your illusion of choice.
Right up front, I want to say that I was a huge fan of the original Mass Effect trilogy, and as a result was fully expecting not to enjoy Andromeda at all. My cynicism stemmed largely from what I viewed as a narrative cop-out on the part of Bioware, by building their convenient sidestep to plot resolution for the choices of the original trilogy right into the concept of the game. By moving the action to another galaxy, they could narratively have their cake and eat it too. Once I got past that knee jerk reaction (and the awkward tutorials), I found myself liking the game in spite of myself. I realized in the moment that I was viewing Mass Effect as a franchise through the lens of having played it over and over again, and becoming familiar with every aspect of it over time. To continue the Garrus comparison, I thought back to my first Mass Effect experience and I realized that I barely even used my stalwart turian companion on my initial playthrough, only assigning him importance over multiple years of experience. Comparing the weight of that franchise against Andromeda‘s soft reboot was not only unfair, but short-sighted.
And that’s the problem in a nutshell. The Mass Effect name brings with it a built in audience, but unfortunately also carries certain expectations, and unfortunately due to the pedigree of its predecessors, the comparison with Andromeda isn’t always favorable. If this game had been released in a world that never knew Mass Effect, I strongly doubt that it would have been judged so harshly. While Mass Effect: Andromeda may not be the best Mass Effect game in the franchise, it is still a very good game and a worthy successor to the series.
I find myself looking forward to the sequels, excited for Mass Effect again. Something that I would have never thought possible a few months ago. I want to have more adventures with Ryder and the Tempest crew, and that in and of itself is a victory for Bioware.
|FINAL SCORE||THE GOOD||THE BAD|
|MASS EFFECT: ANDROMEDA · Played to completion (~90 hours) · Purchased game|