Reviewed on Xbox One.
At its core, Mass Effect Andromeda is about legacy.
Fraught with grand expectations and lofty ideals of living up to its namesake, this legacy runs deep. While Andromeda’s story is about the expansion of humanity’s legacy—told by a family whose name and title are passed down through generations—it was also developed by a company whose brand is intrinsically tied to the history of role-playing video games.
Shannon L. Adler once said that “A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you”.
Unfortunately, Mass Effect Andromeda is not a story worth sharing.
Edmonton based developer BioWare has spent the better part of the last decade crafting a genre defining epic in the Mass Effect series. A trilogy that broke ground with its player driven narrative and scope, the Mass Effect title carries with it a well-earned gravitas. Fan investment in the series is a curated beast; lovingly pieced together over three games by a studio who’s utmost respect for the medium and it’s narrative potential has resulted in a fevered demand for more.
In a decision that sits uncomfortably between smart and cowardly, Andromeda removes itself entirely from the happenings of the original trilogy. The turmoil of Mass Effect 2 results in the galaxy’s leading (read: marketable) alien races launching the titular Andromeda Initiative, a collective mission to traverse dark space and forge a new home in a galaxy far, far away. Each of these races occupies an Ark, gigantic ships housing thousands of cryogenically frozen individuals who are eager to settle new colonies. Each Ark is led by a Pathfinder, the designated leader into the unknown, aided by an internal AI companion and some magnificent abilities.
It’s an intriguing concept and a very human story, carrying with it a promise of something new.
Travelling 2.5 million light years away from the familiar, jettisoning the baggage of the past games in the process, leaves Andromeda free to experiment with the Mass Effect formula. Which is why it’s such a profound disappointment that this game goes out of its way to do almost nothing new. Worse still, it is littered with bugs, the severity of which ranges from hilarious to game breaking.
The opening hours of the game stumble frequently; moments that are designed to be impactful instead fall completely flat because, well, it’s the opening hours! It doesn’t help that Andromeda does very little to establish its story; throwaway lines of dialogue are meant to convey major plot points and as such, the story buckles under its own inability to explain itself. You are dubbed Pathfinder, told you are the only chance humanity has and off you go. Not entirely sure what your role is in all this? Confused as to why major decisions now fall to you simply by virtue of your last name? Doesn’t matter, go fetch me that data pad!
The staples of previous games are all present, if only through a weaker facsimile of themselves.
I liked the idea of avoiding any direct comparisons to the first game in this review and perhaps if the developers of Andromeda stuck to that philosophy, I may have been able to as well. I don’t begrudge BioWare for building on the foundations of the Mass Effect legacy but this is blatant recycling—down to hitting many of the same plot points as the first game, with only the order in which they occur changed.
The ragtag crew you find yourself shackled to isn’t much better. There’s the war hungry Krogan, the inquisitive Asari, the military-minded human female and a Turian with contacts. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. They’re not entirely without charm but are also devoid of any proper depth. Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer imbues the script with some much-needed life, while the interplay between Ryder and Cora (the unofficial protege to the Pathfinder) is a compelling subplot. There’s no sense of excitement as your crew expands either, no compelling reason given when new members join up, they’re just suddenly along for the ride because the game is so eager to hit on the same beats as it’s predecessors.
Worst of all is the squad mate installed in Ryder’s head, your AI companion SAM.
In a series which has done so much with its robotic characters, it’s bizarre how badly SAM is written, acted and implemented. His voice work is the single worst performance in the game, driven into your skull repeatedly by his constant reminders about mining and scanning opportunities. Tell me again how I have AVP outstanding SAM, I dare you.
The most noteworthy of your crew stems from the game’s major strength; the new alien race.
The Angaran are a strange and wonderful people who I fell in love with almost immediately thanks to Andromeda taking to the time to fully explore their history and culture. Some of the strongest writing in the game is present here; there wasn’t a single Angaran I didn’t enjoy talking to, which in a game full of cardboard characters is a miracle. The Angara have large families that honour their mothers, spiritually minded but incredibly wary of humanity and the impending colonisation of their home worlds. Undeniably the most charming of the Angara, Jaal Ama Darav, decides he wants to travel with you in an attempt at bridging the gap between species.
I adore Jaal (he adores me too, by the way).
The games narrative dances with ideas of a deeper, more meaningful version of itself but never truly finds its feet. It goes far enough to set up the beats for a great story but consistently misses the mark (or ignores it entirely). The Angara wrestle with a newly blooming racism toward outsiders, resulting in radical splinter groups gathering to fight off what they perceive to be an invading force of humans. The races of the Nexus are constantly running into opposition and problems while settling new worlds, resulting in an uprising that cripples the Andromeda Initiative from the inside. The Kett, the other new alien race in the game, are a single-minded collection of fanatics whose goals prove to be sinister and somewhat sacred in practice.
These are all genuinely intriguing concepts and perhaps had the game spent more time focusing on them instead of sending me on countless fetch quests for characters named ‘Hopeful Mother’ and ‘Concerned Citizen’ I’d remember my time with Andromeda more fondly. Instead, the big issues are solved in small moments, with the world barely reacting to your choices; it’s difficult to care about the results of your actions when the galaxy merely shrugs. It also doesn’t help that the fascinating history of the Andromeda Initiative is buried under a dull fetch quest which sees you having to repeatedly return to the Nexus and talk to SAM before you can watch some frustratingly short cutscenes.
The first encounter you have with a new alien race, the Kett I mentioned earlier, is emblematic of the games poor writing. Instead of using this as an opportunity to educate you about the new galaxy in which you’ve found yourself, it’s a moment reduced to a cover based shooting tutorial. Ryder proclaims that she doesn’t understand their language before raising her weapon and screaming that if they don’t comply that things will get ugly. It’s lazy, tonally inconsistent and in a more action-focused game it’d be passable—but this is Mass Effect, and that’s meant to mean something.
Ryder, it has to be said, is a much more fleshed out character than Sheppard was, moving away from the blank slate approach of most RPGs. His or her character occasionally results in some genuine moments (some early dialogue between Ryder and her father is touching and relatable) but like everything else about Andromeda eventually, stumbles. Those inconsistencies with the writing I mentioned earlier are in full force with Ryder’s responses to situations; her character swings wildly between hardened space marine, cocky captain and bumbling suitor. It’s jarring and creates a barrier between player and character. Worse still, BioWare has removed the Renegade/Paragon system in an effort to move away from the good/bad binary options of previous games. Unfortunately, nothing replaces these options, resulting in even fewer ways for you to shape your Ryder.
There are small clusters of bright stars in the dark space, however; combat and the associated skills shine brightest through their fluidity and implementation.
While some depth of combat has been removed from previous entries, in its place is a much more robust set of movement options and power combinations. Biotic, Tech and Combat perks are now able to be combined freely, replacing the restrictions of the old class system with a refurbished Profile system. The more points invested in particular power options offers more options for passive boosts from these profiles; my Pathfinder is a powerful Adept but with additional points into the combat skill tree rolls like a one woman army. It’s a refreshing take on a decade old system and one of the improvements BioWare have implemented into Andromeda.
Ryder is also equipped with some tech that was sorely lacking from the Milky Way.
A shiny new jetpack elevates player movement with swift jumps and dodges, all animated with beautiful sophistication. Zipping around the battlefield looks and feels fantastic, with player movement imbuing tangible weight to combat. Slamming into the ground amid a blaze of biotic energy is a pure rush, one of the few mechanics that holds up over the dozens of hours of gameplay.
While the jetpack elevates gameplay, moment to moment combat suffers from an atrophy that settles in early and erodes the core of the game as time goes on. Encounters that provide a thrill at first are soon robbed of any spark when you see them repeated countless times over again. All enemy factions, regardless of variety in appearance, maintain the exact same units; why exactly each faction has attack dog type creatures at their disposal is beyond me. The only exception being the ancient robotic hordes that guard the alien Vaults and even then, you won’t be fighting anything that doesn’t mimic basic human combat manoeuvres.
The shooting is a notable improvement over previous entries but is let down by a ‘dynamic’ cover system which sees Ryder attempt, and frequently fail, at naturally moving into cover behind objects. Moving around the battlefield is also hampered by somewhat lacklustre level design. It’s hardly an original sin; walk into a large room full of waist high crates and walls and you know exactly how things are going to go down.
The hefty movement, powerful abilities and glut of weapons all serve to make you feel fierce.
It goads the player into feeling emboldened and ready to go toe to toe with enemies, in what proves to be ultimately a false sense of empowerment. When enemies aren’t glued to cover on the opposite side of the map they are overly aggressive, swift to flank you and your abilities lead you to do the same. Only you can’t, because your shields don’t mean shit out in the open and even the most basic enemy requires an ungodly amount of ammunition to take down. Mind you, none of this equates to difficulty, but rather a prevailing sense of imbalance.
The missions Ryder is sent on all sound vaguely important; find and rescue a missing ship, solve the brewing conflict on the new Krogan home world, stop a drug dealer from poisoning the population etc. The actual process of completing these tasks is more often than not a series of menial chores and checklists. Countless missions require you to survey the surrounding area with your SAM powered Scanner, interact with the same generic terminals by holding down the Y button, usually concluding with a short, uninspired combat sequence.
I distinctly remember the mission that broke me, however, the last stone I bothered turning over before wrapping up my time with Andromeda. I was bumming around on Kedara when I stumbled upon a small prison cell on the lower levels; a man was locked up, complaining to the guard about his improper imprisonment. After a brief conversation, he informed me that his girlfriend, who worked in the nightclub below us, needed to be told that he was locked up and that she should wait for him. Being humanity’s savior, I obliged to pass on the message, so after the loading screen between levels, I found the girl and we had a quick chat. She laughed about his love for her and told me to tell him that she wasn’t interested. Another loading screen later I was in the prison again, telling the man the news. He thanked me for my time, the mission complete tone sounded and…that’s it. No surprises, no impact on the world, just another tick against a list of missions I still couldn’t see the end of.
A brand new galaxy means new planets. And where Andromeda falters with its facial animations it flourishes with world design.
Publisher Electronic Arts’ in-house game engine Frostbite works overtime to provide gorgeous interstellar worlds. There is some truly standout artwork here; Kedara in particular with its acidic pools, seedy city underbelly and the intimidating terrain is a treat to explore. With a couple of other exceptions (do yourself a favour and don’t skip any missions on a meteoroid), these new planets, in turn, fall victim to the same drudgery that plagues the rest of the game. My first encounter with a space dinosaur on Eos brought a smile to my face, not so much when I ran into that exact same creature on three more planets, each in different systems. Nothing feels suitably alien either; Andromeda is a new galaxy and yet all you’ll see are deserts, forests and snow.
Exploring these miniature open worlds exposes yet another set of challenges.
Planet traversal falls to the Nomad, an all terrain beast of a machine which, though customisable to an extent, never quite moves fast enough. It is not particularly responsive, nor is it capable of any sort of combat or the kind of rough and tumble exploration you’d expect it to be able to handle. Mission objectives were often placed atop mountain peaks which the space car of the future would awkwardly clamber half way up to and then lose steam, only to put me further away than when I started. This isn’t just the fault of the Nomad; the map screen is a minimalist artwork which conveys little useful information and the lack of minimap during gameplay hampers exploration also.
The architecture on every single planet is the same metallic IKEA-looking cut ‘n’ paste design. As such, the human-built Nexus (a poor man’s Citadel) mimics the architecture of the Angaran home world and once again, the sense of anything even remotely alien is stripped away. Almost every door in the game requires a sometimes lengthy animation of Ryder playing with her Omni-Tool to open it (yes, even the doors on planets with an entirely different race and technology). Many of the locations you’ll visit are huge, but without any real life imbued into them. NPC’s are always in the same place, cycling through robotic animations. The Angaran streets have the same markets and staples as human settlements because of course they too have capitalism and our appreciation for military statues.
Character creation, meanwhile, is visually ripped straight out of 2007, complete with awkward hair textures and the constant fear that the time you’ve spent crafting your character will result in a parody of itself when gameplay actually begins. A good episode of Monster Factory this game would not make.
By this point, the animation issues of Andromeda have been thoroughly documented and I’d give anything to have to not pile on. Unfortunately, my time with the game was a tour de force of awkward facial expressions, broken character models and missing textures. I had to reload saves several times over to make the floor pop in, lest Ryder fall for an eternity again and again; I don’t imagine BioWare were intentionally referencing 2001 A Space Odyssey here.
There have been several statements made by developers regarding the facial animations and the ways in which things could have gone wrong. The entire ordeal has made for a fascinating case study in high-end gaming development and corporate mismanagement; it’s a shame that none of that matters in the face of a disappointing game. The success of Mass Effect’s ethos hinges entirely upon the player’s ability to invest in the game’s story, in the conversations and interactions that provide the building blocks for emotional motivation. The poor facial animations are an active deterrent to that investment; it’s next to impossible to feel anything in a tense moment when a character’s left eye has decided to wander slightly out of its socket.
These issues aren’t just restricted to facial movement either.
Ryder and companions are constantly clipping through the world and each other, characters pop in and out of existence, the camera becomes stuck on objects during major cinematics (even in minor conversations it tends to plant itself in an awkward over the shoulder position and rarely moves again), planets load in trees but not the landmass those trees should rest on, multiple lines of dialogue play at once leading to an audible jumble. It’s a mess.
I haven’t even mentioned the multiple systems that are layered into the game.
Your ship has crafting and research stations where you can build new weapons and gear, a mission control centre that allows Ryder to command strike teams across the galaxy, the persistent resource gathering of the Andromeda Viability Point system, split between Science, Military and Commerce as well as planet scanning and mining. The AVP system requires Ryder to check in at a console on the ship every 45 minutes to collect rewards, a gross appropriation of mobile gaming design. All of these systems, once folded in with your standard quest log, present an overwhelming amount of content, all of which is buried under cumbersome menus and walls of text.
It’s death by a thousand cuts; actions take longer than they should, every system unwieldy and the list of quests longer than my arm is more bloat than substance. Tedious design choices are reinforced by copious loading screens and overly glossy UI, with the killing blow dealt by writing that leans more toward an undergraduate student than a major game developer.
Even at its best, Andromeda feels like a game out of time; it’s been a decade since the release of the first Mass Effect, a ten year period in which games writing and design has grown more sophisticated and nuanced, but very few of those improvements are to be found in Bioware’s latest.
There’s a whole lot of space to explore here, it’s a shame it’s mostly lifeless.