A Missed Shot
Mass Effect Andromeda isn’t a horrible or a particularly bad game. But it is a letdown.
This soft-reboot of the series follows Bioware and EA’s critically acclaimed trilogy, which banked on a plethora of diverse characters, memorable quests and breathtaking worlds inhabiting every nook and cranny. Mass Effect 2 in particular is one of my favourite games. I spent tens of hours ploughing through side quests, scouring planets for Element Eezo and feeling absolutely devastated in the game’s conclusion after saying goodbye to some of my most cherished crewmates. It refined the loose combat mechanics from its predecessor and reformed gameplay to allow for sturdier cover based mechanics. The two games either side of it weren’t perfect, but the sum of its parts culminated in something greater than the individual pieces.
And this leads me to Andromeda. On paper, this game has a lot of interesting proposals that should push the series in unique directions and for the most part, it does. The issue at hand, though, is that the looming reputation of its name magnifies any misstep. Perhaps this game is the victim of a big name and long development time, but Andromeda feels like the prequels of the Star Wars saga. Overly ambitious, but failing to meet the mark.
We kick off between the first two of the Mass Effect games. Thousands of species flee on massive arks in cryosleep, with the hope that they can start anew. You play as either a male or female Ryder twin, whose father is one of few navigators to help guide each race to their new home. Obviously, without getting too much into plot details, things go awry and you are soon thrust into a leadership role with a ship and a crew and sent away to get on with it.
This fresh start not only does away with the complicated challenges of following up every player choice from the original trilogy, it should mean that everything feels new for every player; each planet is relatively undiscovered and this lack of baggage feels refreshing – each decision to land feels somewhat momentous because history hasn’t been formed beforehand as a reference point. Swooping around to each new possible home feels like a lucky dip that tantalisingly teases at new adventures, replete with beautiful vistas and creatures never seen before.
But Andromeda kind of shanks the opportunity for new discoveries because the vast majority of the territory that was covered from the last game has been hauled along with the cargo in this one. Andromeda tries to add to the lore that has been set up before by introducing new cultures and factions to the mix, but inevitably doubledips into well-trodden stuff brought from the previous games. In my opinion, there aren’t enough new things in the game to add a sense of wonder, and some of the characters feel like re-skins of old.
Andromeda doesn’t do anyone any favours at the start of the game by dragging players by the heels through exposition and sluggish gameplay. It immediately tries to draw emotional links to characters that I barely know and then expect me to care when something significant happens. It wants to slowly build up the mysterious antagonists through multiple interactions, but after a while, it feels like it has been artificially stalled rather than allowed to take a natural course. Once a time investment has been made and the six hour hump has been overcome, the game truly kicks into gear and the pacing issues mostly dissolve away.
What is impressive, however, is the sheer variety of planets that we can visit. Each landable planet is diverse, but they are also just as dangerous. Havarl crawls with a cornucopia of creatures and beasts that scutter between the dense forest jungle. Across the galaxy, Elaaden is the settled planet for the stubborn Krogan, with its dusty, unfathomably hot humidity laying host to an alien worm the size of a cruise liner. Scavengers litter the wasteland in the shade of a massive alien ship and movement in the revamped NOMAD vehicle – a throwback to ME1’s pernickety Mako – is made harder with sinkholes reminiscent of Tatooine. Bringing it back may split fans, but in my opinion, the NOMAD is far more consistent this time around; especially after upgrades have been sunk in.
Voeld is the opposite of Elaaden – its frozen tundra buffets movement, with the native Angara – a newly introduced race somewhat resemblant of hammerhead sharks – hunkering down inside caves to avoid the storms. Mostly all of the planets suffer from the same issue at hand, however; there is largely not much to do inside these vast landscapes. And what there is to do, is a mile wide and a millimetre deep, with very few memorable quests.
While there is plenty to stare at – and by god, it is really pretty to just stand and stare – each explorable world lacks the density and variety to match games like the Witcher 3, which prides itself on its consistency to divert attention to little side quests on route to missions. Each location asks you to complete fetch quests, raids and searches for lost NPCs to meet a “habitability requirement”, with additional puzzle sections built into towers to be completed to solve issues plaguing the planet. After a while, it starts to feel somewhat old, as it becomes a cycle of reskinned quests – meet the natives, find the towers and complete the puzzles. While there are little strands that are enjoyable and that leave little bits hanging to be completed at a later time, this lack of variety is concerning considering the amount of time in development that the game had.
On a technical level, Andromeda can be a hit and a miss. For the Xbox One version of the game, draw distances can be incredibly short, visibly flickering in just metres ahead of the NOMAD while travelling. The game froze sometimes, and once crashed on me at the very end of the game, to my aghast frustration. A lot has been made of the in-game cutscenes, with some horror show animations on YouTube. For me personally, it wasn’t glaringly bad, but there were a few characters that looked damn creepy in how wooden they looked, with eyebrow movements of a botoxed, fallen Disney star and perplexing facial expressions that hark of an alien trying to mimic a manual on how to smile or cry. It’s hard to twist the nail in for this issue because in general, Mass Effect hasn’t been known for amazing dialogue cutscenes. There has always been an issue of not-quite-there lip flapping in key conversations, but with games like Grand Theft Auto V, we know it can be done better.
Combat has been revamped, with a cover-based tactical third person gameplay mostly scrapped for a shwashbuckling-fast power system mapped to the triggers to rapidly fire off singularities, a flamethrower and a vast repertoire of moves. The class system from the previous trilogy has been changed to allow for a fluid “pick and mix” set-up, allowing players to equip themselves how they pleased for every possible scenario. Couple that with a jetpack system that totally changes movement and fighting scenarios – flipping a battle against a camping sniper into a constantly transitioning game of seeking higher ground – and it has been proven that a lot of changes have been made in the franchises’ favour in the long run. After playing using this combat system, it feels hard to look back and consider to return to the rush and cover shooting from Mass Effect 3. Combat feels dynamic and manic at times, constantly moving and shifting behind terrain.
This adaptation does lessen the impact of choosing a class at the beginning, however. While in theory you could never invest in every skilltree, there are plenty of opportunities to mix and match as you please, with even their “profiles” (stat buffs for certain powers) changeable on the fly. If you could switch from a gun-master soldier to a biotic to an engineer with very few repercussions, what is the point of deliberating over classes at the start? Unless you REALLY wanted to stick with your favourite abilities, the classes meld together as you play, following suit as you tailor your character; if you invest a lot into biotic powers and a smidge of engineer skills for example, over time the profile buffs reflect that.
This game, feels like the child of its parents – if having three of them is a thing. Mass Effect has always had an identity problem of sorts. It wants to homage towards the hopefulness of Star Trek politics, but can’t quite figure out what delivery system to use and in what ratio.
The first game tried to pitch for scale, but ended up creating barren worlds that had little to do and forced you to travel in long stretches inside what was basically a barge on wheels. Two and three tightened things up by slimming down the variety of options, but ultimately tried giving players a meaningful choice from what was available. All three couldn’t decide on the ratio of action to RPG and this indecision kind of shows here. The open world from Andromeda harks back to the original, and while it does improve on what didn’t work last time, I feel that it still doesn’t feel at home playing as stretched as it does.
Again, like the original, it hunkers down in heavy RPG inventory management – juggling reams of menus of different types of weapons, upgrades and amplifications. Like every Mass Effect game, it allows you to invest the time in your squad, slowly chiseling them to fit how you want to play. But it also stumbles where many of the series has before. And as much as I wanted it to, it doesn’t feel like a leap and bound ahead of the last generation games in terms of story. For some, it might feel like a regression.
There is plenty of promise in Andromeda; chunks of the winning DNA have been brought wholesale into Andromeda and the additions transplanted in have definitely improved the game. In light of the criticisms that I have made, there was always something compelling in this game for me to constantly want to boot it back up and dive back in. This strive for scale is something that the game series will inevitably push further towards as the studio becomes more accustomed to the Frostbite engine, but at the moment it feels like the first uneven steps made as it learns to walk.