Mass Effect: Andromeda
Release Date: March 21, 2017
Platform Reviewed: PC
Time Played: 100 hours
Concept and Execution
The Mass Effect franchise has, up until this point, established a clear set of expectations for itself. Starting out as a planet-hopping open-world RPG in its first outing, the series found its place by narrowing its scope down into concise, story driven moments that cut down on the unnecessary footwork. The series also found its niche through its paragon/renegade social system, where players could follow a black and white morality framework and be complete jerks or total saints, reaping rewards or suffering setbacks for their choices. It comes off as disorienting, then, when much of these franchise-defining features are missing.
In Mass Effect: Andromeda, players take on the role of either Sara or Scott Ryder, a pair of twins who, alongside their dad Alec, have decided to join the Andromeda Initiative. The Initiative itself is a less-than-forthcoming mission to take some of the galaxy’s population, split up by species in giant Arks, and send them to the Andromeda galaxy in hopes of colonizing said galaxy. Things go awry, however, as the seven “golden worlds” that were planned for colonization turn out to have no longer support life, the result of an artificial hazard known as the Scourge. To make matters worse, a hyper-aggressive alien species known as the Kett are also investigating this strange hazard and seem extremely intent on making these newcomers very dead. Oh, and there’s a friendly alien species, the Angaara, that seem to have a history with the Kett and, understandably, don’t trust you or the horse you rode in on.
Andromeda does all this in its effort to establish a new reason for you to care about a universe that, for all intents and purposes, is resolved of major conflict. After the events of the original trilogy, there was little reason for massive, galaxy shaking stories to exist. The Reapers, god-like constructs that threatened to destroy all of civilization, were put to rest in some form or another, so establishing a new threat capable of rivaling them in the same universe is, well, a bit of an undertaking. In that regard, Bioware has done a decent job of making a new world for players to care about.
Emulating the “unexplored frontier” aspect of its narrative, Andromeda’s gameplay loop centralizes around restoring these golden worlds through vaults constructed by, you guessed it, an ancient alien species, known this time a the Remnant. Which, let’s admit, having another ancient alien species that went missing under mysterious circumstances isn’t wildly inventive. Activating these vaults magically restores the planets their on to a livable environment, after which you can establish an outpost. Complicating matters further is the Nexus, Andromeda’s version of the Citadel, a space station that is in dire need of help when you first arrive. Activating vaults, clearing planets of hazards, and launching settlements means gains you perks with the Nexus as more settlers are brought out of stasis.
Narratively speaking, the process of getting to this loop starts out almost painfully slow, and with an inadequate amount of direction. I found myself frustrated in the first few hours as none of the aforementioned expectations were met. Admittedly, it’s unfair to dock a game for expected features that were never promised in the first place, though it is jarring to have an established formula so thoroughly shunted. Quest tracking is another mess, with tasks not clearly assigned to where one would assume they should be, leaving players to trudge through list after list to find the right mission to track.
Fortunately, Andromeda manages to find its bearings shortly after this shaky opening, and it only improves from that point onward. Similar to the original trilogy, Andromeda’s story is staggered, leaving players to complete as much or as little side content as they want before tackling a pivotal story mission. None of the decisions involved feel as important, though, and the lack of the morality system means there’s no clear moral compass involved in making these decisions. When I had to choose between the suave double crossing smuggler or the no-nonsense outlaw leader, neither option felt like the right choice. This leaves me a little conflicted, as this feels like how it should be–morality shouldn’t exist as an easy binary state. On the other hand, lacking such a system deprives Mass Effect of its most thrilling roleplaying moments.
Andromeda stumbles, quite a bit in fact, but manages to lay out a framework on which to build itself. Where most games peter out as they go on, Andromeda manages to build momentum up until its climax.
Concept and Execution: 19/25 C
Andromeda sticks with its tried-and-true third-person shooter action system, though this time with a twist. With the switch to the Frostbite engine, Bioware has introduced a game-changing feature: the ability to jump. I realize this may sound silly, but this single addition is the biggest improvement to the feel of a Mass Effect game the series has ever seen. What’s more is how this addition enables new types of environments previously not possible in the series.
Jumping is perhaps the biggest keystone on which the open-world nature of Andromeda is constructed. Each planet that players can land hosts a bevy of quests, some story critical, some trivial. Players explore most of these planets with the NOMAD, an all-terrain vehicle that harkens back to Mass Effect’s MAKO, sans hyper-silly physics. The NOMAD, like most things in Andromeda, feels clunkier than it needs to be. Rather than just always being able to climb ridiculous surfaces, it has a “go-fast” and a “climb-stuff” toggle that you can accidentally toggle in the worst situations, causing your vehicle to lose its footing and plummet off that sixty degree incline you were trying to conquer for the last five minutes.
Skills and classes in Andromeda, on the other hand, are executed far better than any other entry in the series. Rather than sticking to pre-set classes with their own skills, players can now pick and choose any skill from any of the three focuses–combat, biotics, and tech–and then pair them with a “profile” that provides bonuses to any or all of these three trees. For example, I was a big fan of the slam-nova vanguard in Mass Effect 3 and wanted to emulate that in Andromeda. Sure enough I could dump my points into those two skills and then select a “vanguard” profile that boosted my shields, biotic damage, and melee damage, as well as providing a unique rider to melee attacks. Investing points into combat and biotics improved the vanguard profile, conferring stronger bonuses. What’s more is that you aren’t locked into a specific profile. If you feel like a suite of tech skills are better suited for a mission, you can swap to a different profile complete with different skills at will. It’s an incredibly robust class system and quite possibly the most interesting one I’ve ever seen. The customizability and fluidity of it means that you’re never completely locked out of having a way to deal with an encounter.
Equipment is handled in a messier fashion, requiring both initial research to craft, and then materials gathered on planets to complete the crafting process, during which players can add modifiers that alter the behaviors of the equipment or add static bonuses. This means going planet-side and scanning various objects for research points and then roving around in the NOMAD, looking out for mining zones to plunder for resources. Most of this happens through gameplay and exploration, so it doesn’t exactly require players to go out of their way just to make something, though it does put a limit on what you can and cannot make. In the end, though, the customizability of gear was a welcomed edition. As a vanguard, I focused on shotguns. One mod for weapons is a seeking plasma system, something that when added to a shotgun turned it into a formidable mid-range weapon. Alternately, you could add a grenade launcher mod and get real goofy with each pellet turning into a bouncing ball of fire.
Multiplayer follows the same beats as Mass Effect 3, with classes and weapons locked behind booster packs. In a way, this feels a tad pay-to-win, as players with the most money can dump funds into boosters and get equipment that directly leads to more experience, more damage output, and more health. It is possible to sustain yourself on a strictly free basis, though, as even the easiest missions provide enough of a reward to restock any consumables that you might burn through on said missions. These consumables come across as nigh-mandatory, especially for anything higher than the easiest difficulty. The Cobra RPG, for example, quickly becomes a “I’m not dealing with this” button, instantly killing or severely damaging every enemy in its radius. Other consumables consist of instant ammo refills, instant revives, and instant health and shield refills. These often mean the difference between success and failure, more so than they should. It’s clear that difficulty is balanced around these items, which turn them from nice pick-me-ups to use-or-die items.
While Andromeda stumbles on itself narratively, it executes flawlessly on its combat and exploration. Maneuverability is better than any entry thus far, and its robust class system means more customization and choice than ever. Multiplayer sticks to the same systems as before, but nonetheless provides a thrilling experience every time.
Mechanics Score: 24/25 A+
The Mass Effect franchise has never strayed away from creating fantastical environments, and Andromeda is no different. From the introductory cutscene, Bioware shows it knows how to create impressive set pieces. The arks and the nexus both convey a wonderful sense of scale, something that instantly transfers over to the Andromeda galaxy itself and Habitat-7, the first planet you land on. Everything comes across as appropriately alien–even to a society that has seen the whole alien thing play out countless times–while still providing a sense of recognition. It makes sense that, given the limited building blocks of the universe, there would be planets that while alien, appear in some form familiar and habitable. But that’s another conversation that I’m not qualified to speak on.
One of the most striking features of these environments is the way that Bioware handles planetary restoration. Each planet that you settle on starts off with some major hazard that not only affects you, but the way the world looks. The first planet you settle, for example, has a severe radiation problem, leaving a layer of dust in the air that colors the world around you and chokes the sky. Activating the vault clears the radiation, leaving the planet with a pleasant blue sky and bright, welcoming sun. It’s a stark change that effectively drives home what you did.
Settlements themselves aren’t particularly fleshed-out, each one constructed of the same pre-fab buildings and materials. It makes sense in-universe, but it comes across as almost too clean for what’s supposed to be this haphazard plan that’s been thrown wildly off course. Additionally, the settlements don’t have a great deal of life to them. Shuttles come and go, but every inhabitant is static, an avatar for consequenceless dialogues. A few might have side-quests that don’t amount to anything impactful, but that’s about it.
Dialogue and character interactions are another issue. While the story picks up and carries itself well, it doesn’t do so with the help of its animations or voice performances. Almost every character comes across as stilted in their movements, especially humans and their closest alien comparisons, the Asari. When I arrived at the Nexus, I was a tad flabbergasted and just how awkward Director Tann, the Salarian in charge of the operation, was. Alec, Sara, and Scott Ryder all have respectable performances, though. Frydda Wolf and Tom Taylorson play Sara and Scott respectively, both of which have previous experience in Octodad: Dadliest Catch. Another notable mention is Natalie Dorner of Game of Thrones fame, who puts in a wonderful performance as Dr. Lexi T’Perro, the requisite medical expert among Ryder’s crew.
Music in Andromeda, composed by John Paesano, does well in capturing the “epic space-opera” feel conveyed in past entries. Even the introductory piece, “A Better Beginning,” evokes a sense of exploration and pride. Music ties well into the multiplayer, something that I had never given much thought to previously. Its addition makes even the filler survival waves exciting.
Like its conceptual execution, Andromeda falters in its ability to sell its world through poor animations and voice acting. It’s not enough to severely hinder the game, but it does leave a sore spot that is hard to ignore.
Atmosphere Score: 19/25 C
Narratively, Andromeda rests in a weird space. As an overarching whole, the story was satisfying to complete, and sets up nicely for future entries in this new arc. Indeed, I feel compelled to load up a new game plus to not only play through the game again, but to fix choices I made in my first run now knowing the outcomes. However, each moment that makes up the story falls a little flat. Romances aren’t as robust; I accidentally turned a one-time fling with Peebee, your Asari team member, into a full on relationship (well, part of it was out of guilt, but that’s neither here nor there). Your interaction with your sibling is also poorly handled, an attempt to wring emotional impact out of a relationship that the player cannot possibly have any emotional investment in beforehand.
Side missions, and even some major missions, also lack some clear impact after their resolution. In one mission, Ryder is tasked with deciding whether or not to tap a river that has, until this point, remained unclaimed and open to everybody. Doing so could mean ruin for an independent nation of peaceful exiles. The alternative, taping a reserve of natural gas, would lead to pollution in the future. Neither option provides a meaningful outcome, however. Quite literally, neither choice has a different outcome, to the point that the parties asking you to make this decision never follow up on it. Andromeda practically begs for player investment, but refuses to make good on its promises.
The Kett also come across as poor villains. They follow similar tropes from past entries’ foes, and in doing so lose a strong identity of their own. What made the original trilogy so strong, and something that culminated in Mass Effect 3, was the clear and memorable factions that players fought against. The Reaper faction, for example, had a suite of terrifying simulacrums for each major alien type with memorable effects like the banshee, a monstrous Asari that would teleport around the battlefield. In Andromeda, you have space pirates, chitinous aliens, and ancient alien robots. They’re all distinct from each other, but none feel particularly evocative.
Andromeda has to tackle the issue of both maintaining its thread to the original Mass Effect universe while standing out on its own, and it musters that while losing some of its drive. By attempting, and for the most part succeeding, to tell a story that works well enough to drive a sixty hour experience, Andromeda dilutes itself. In crafting another open world, Bioware has effectively taken a step back from the hard-hitting thriller of Mass Effect 2 and 3 and into the freewheeling, slower atmosphere of the first Mass Effect. And, despite its flaws, works well enough to fuel a 60 hour story.
Entertainment Value: 19/25 C
If you were to place a fork in the road immediately following the original Mass Effect, you would have Mass Effect 2 on one path and Andromeda on the other. Where Mass Effect 2 honed in the narrative experience of the series, Andromeda takes the original’s focus on exploration and resource gather in the other direction. In a way, Andromeda is a truer sequel to Mass Effect than Mass Effect 2 was. It just so happens that there’s still a lot of work to do to make that feel like home again.
Overall Score: 81 B-