TL;DR – Andromeda takes Mass Effect in a new direction whilst still remaining true to its roots, though some areas did need a bit more polish.
Score – 3.5 out of 5 stars
I can remember the first time I ever got to play Mass Effect, it was back in 2008 and my brother had to trade his Wii for his friends Xbox 360 and we had only one week to binge through the first game before we had to give the Xbox back. We were looking for something to rise to the same standard as Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect exceeded them in every way. Since then I have played through the whole trilogy a couple of times, I’ve played as Male-Shep and Fem-Shep, I’ve reunited the Geth and the Quarians, watched a galaxy burn because everyone ignored me, helped a despot reclaim control of a smugglers headquarters, fell in love several times, told Kaidan to go jump when they accused me of cheating on them when they were the one who said we should be on a break, found friendship in one who is many yet still one, brought more than one race back from the dead, watched a trusted crew member sacrifice their lives with a song on their lips to put right the demons of the past, and explored ever single planet that the Milky Way had to offer. So to say I was excited about a new Mass Effect is a bit of an understatement, and now it is finally here I was more than ready to jump back into this universe, taking one more ride into this great space opera that BioWare created. But even though I was excited, that excitement was measured with a bit of hesitation, Mass Effect 3 was brilliant, one of the few games that have ever made me cry¹, however, that final decision left a lot to be desired, now I know that a lot of people liked it, but for me it was a letdown. So I had this combination of emotions going into this new game, but now I have played through till the end let’s look at how well they did with Mass Effect Andromeda.
Now to quickly clarify a couple of things before we start, in my play through I went with the Male-Ryder (Tom Taylorson), who I called Flynn Ryder because I liked the way it fit, only to remember half an hour into the game that it was a name from a character from Tangled, but that is who I picked so bring on Flynn Ryder. Now I have only played it through once, so while I have finished all the missions (although not all the tasks there are only so many rock samples one person can do), I have not played through all the different decisions/potential story choices/love interests yet. Now the version I played on was the Digital Deluxe version on PC, and I have only played the single player, I have no real interest in the multiplayer, so I can’t tell you if that section of the game is good or not. Now with all this being clarified, let’s start getting into both the good and the bad of Mass Effect Andromeda. Now I will try and make this review as spoiler-free as possible, but we will be talking about locations and characters in the game so if you don’t want to know any of that then you might want to skip this review, and there is one big spoiler that we talk about towards the end but it is clearly labelled so that you can avoid it if you want to.
So the first thing I’m going to talk about today is the technical side of things because this is the area that is probably the biggest mixed bag for Mass Effect Andromeda. Now before the game released the one thing everyone was talking about is the odd animations whilst moving around and in the cut scenes. Now for me ,who has very recently played through the original trilogy, I can tell you that the facial animations are mostly on par with ME3, there was the same head clipping through armour, the same odd interaction with props etc, I mean at least Mass Effect Andromeda didn’t have a character pull a full Exorcist head spin on me. Now this being said in the five or so years since ME3 motion capture has improved significantly, so while it would have been nice to see an improvement here, it wasn’t a deal breaker for me. From a technical perspective, I think the move to the Frostbite engine was a good one as it helped with creating the different game environments we get to experience. I have to say I did love all the different planets, on each of them there were always those wonderful stop and take a picture moments or vistas that you just want to slow-pan to take it all in, I think my favourite was the big reveal on Voeld, I was shocked at just how beautiful it was. So whether you are in the jungles of Havarl or the dunes of Elaaden they feel like detailed ecosystems, which is important for emersion. This is added to by some really great music, nothing quite stood out to me like the themes from ME3, but it created a great setting for the action to take part in.
Now for the first time getting around on the planets and many of the battlefields is done almost exclusively by driving around, I mean you could walk if you wanted to but why would you, and if you know anything about the original Mass Effect trilogy you will know that any time you drove around, no matter what vehicle they tried, it was always a mess. But I’m, happy to say in Mass Effect Andromeda they finally got a vehicle to drive like an actual vehicle rather than a roller-coaster that came off its tracks, though I would recommend getting the boost and 6WD upgrades as soon as you can. Another big change to movement in the series is the ability to jump, you can finally jump in Mass Effect through the addition of jump jets, and it works really well. This allowed for some much-needed verticality to the maps and locations, as well as this, it makes getting around both the vaults and the greater environment significantly easier. This flows into the combat mechanics which on the whole are still quite fluid, everything works as you expect it too, the guns handle ok, things lock on when they should, and the combo bonuses are quite good. One thing that really didn’t work is the cover mechanic, you go into cover if you move against cover with your gun drawn, this is a really inefficient way of implementing it and it feels like a real step back for the series, that and it didn’t work a lot of the time and when it did it would not let you move around to get into better positions. Also, whoever thought Control was a good button to vault over things has obviously never used a keyboard before, and you should just click E (or X etc.) to interact with a door not hold it down, that’s just clumsy interactions. But other than that, and those Architects which can just go jump off a cliff and stay there, grenade throwing, shield destroying, pieces of … wait ok let’s come back, where was I, oh yes, everything with combat works well and looks good bar those could of issues.
Now there are two areas where I really think they need to work on for the sequel, or indeed in any upcoming patches, they are not deal breakers but they are frustrating. The first of these is the User Interface, a lot of the UI’s are really not optimised well which makes things like accessing your inventory, or undertaking research, or putting together your loadout more difficult than they should be. For example, it took a good third of the game before I worked out how to get the Research and Development menus to work as it is meant to be used. Like Civilization 6, once you work out Mass Effect’s UI curiosities it becomes manageable but it is really not optimised for PC well at all. The next issue is the loading, there is so much loading in this game, like I believe I sat through hours of loading during my play through. Now Mass Effect has always used elevators, or slowly opening doors to hide loading so you kind of expect it, but nothing ever on this level before. When you move from planet to planet in a solar system there is this 10 second mini-cinematic that plays every time you click on a new planet that zooms you around the solar system, and sure it looks nice the first time you have to see it, but it gets old quickly, to the point that it slightly took away from the joy of exploring new systems because it start to be a chore. Where the loading really becomes painful is from moving from one planet location to another. For example, let’s look at say the worst case example of getting a mission in the ops of Nexus to go to the land outside of Kadara Port. Ok you start in Nexus Ops, you have to go to the tram, you then have to take the tram to the docking bay (Loading), run through the docking bay to get to your ship, take off from the Nexus (loading), go through the several layers of the galactic map till you get to the Govorkam system, warp to the Govorkam system (loading), arrive outside the system, then warp to the planet Kadara (loading), spin the word around till you click on the landing zone, land on the surface (loading), take an elevator from the port to the slums (loading), run through the slums, and when you are outside you can finally fast travel to a forward station near your target. This trip takes four minutes (well 3 min and 55sec) of loading and faffing around to get anywhere, and yes this is the extreme example, but travelling between other planets is not that much better. It was really quite annoying especially towards the end when you get missions that take you from planet to planet I started alt-tabbing during every loading scene to go do something else, but on the plus side at least Mass Effect Andromeda alt-tabs very well.
Now I’ll be honest for me personally I am here for the story, characters, civilizations, cultures, missions, and the general setting, so I’m more than happy to overlook some technical quirks if that side of things works out, and for the most part I would say that yes, yes they did. Now more than ever in the review because we are touching on the story there may be some slight spoilers here so please be careful if you don’t want to know anything about the story. So to start Mass Effect Andromeda wisely sets itself in a whole new galaxy, this was probably the better option than trying to untangle the divergent ends of ME3 into a single narrative that could work going forward (indeed you would need a big retcon or reset button if you wanted to continue in the Milky Way). While as I said this was probably the best course of action it does come with a cost, and that is that none of your previous decisions from the Mass Effect Trilogy flow on to Andromeda, it was a painful moment when setting up a new character when I clicked on the history option and the only option was ‘Was Shepard male or female’? But once you get over that loss you are ready to get trust into this new story and galaxy.
So to set the scene of Mass Effect Andromeda, it is 2185 (a year before the Reapers arrive) and four Arks – the Human Hyperion, the Turian Natanus, the Asari Leusinia, and the Salarian Paarchero are launched across the deep space gap toward the Andromeda Galaxy. Even with the Faster Than Light drives, it will take over 600 hundred years, so the 100,000 colonists were put into status for the trip. Ahead of the Arks was sent The Nexus a large space station meant to be the heart of the new government which also had a large contingent of colonists, as well as the expeditions Krogan population. Another Ark Keelah Si’yah with the Quarians, Drel, Hanar, Elcor, and Volus was meant to launch later, but it is not clear if they waited too late, insert reaper sound effect. Each Ark has a Pathfinder, an expert that was meant to be the focus point for exploring and finding a new home to colonise. All of this was meant to work in theory, all the arks were pointed at planets that had the right atmosphere for life, new worlds to explore, new races to meet, a chance for a new future even if it is was a one-way trip. But the when the Human Ark arrives in Andromeda, the Golden Worlds are a bust, the other Arks are missing, The Nexus has fallen apart, and the Scourge is destroying anything it touches, oh and the Heleus Cluster. As a setup for a story this works really well because you were already at a disadvantage heading off into the unknown, with no chance of help from home, and then the writers go and make everything worse.
Now that I have finished it I think they crafted a really good overarching story for this first entry into a new series. There are interesting new alien species, some fascinating new characters to get to know, there are some plot points that will clearly be important going forward, yet others still that get closure in this first outing. The two new races introduced the Kett and the Angara both have interesting cultures and histories that you want to explore more. I quite liked a lot of the new characters they introduced in Andromeda, with my team usually consisting of Vetra (Danielle Rayne) and Drack (Stanley Townsend) because they enjoyed me taking the peak sass route in every conversation option. As well as this, it was a really great idea to have Ryder be a twin, that way you get to hear the great voice acting of Sarah Ryder (Fryda Wolff) even if you picked the male Ryder and vice-versa. While Andromeda ditches an overt Paragon/Renegade system there are still choices that you have to make of a moral nature, but what makes them more interesting is that many of them don’t have a clear answer as to which is the better option, like converting or destroying the Geth Heretics in ME2. There were more than a few occasion when I had to stop and think about which was the best option, and there were more than a few occasion where I think I made the wrong choice but for the right reasons. While this is a good change there are still issue where the game goes for a less nuanced approach with its conversation options, no I didn’t pick the Krogans over the Salarians, I picked a Salarian general over Krogan scouts, and I would have gone the other way if the roles were reversed, but the game does not give you that kind of conversation choice.
All this aside I do think Andromeda has some of the strongest writing of the series, in places, sure there are some odd dialogue exchanges but there are also some really fascinating ones. I think adding the Crew Info Board was a great decision, like having Cora (Jules de Jongh) getting snarky at PeeBee (Christine Lakin) for being late to the evac point during an evacuation drill only for her to reply ‘I live in an escape pod’ or Jaal (Nyasha Hatendi) giving a lesson on Angaran slag words. I just wish there was more of them, indeed, a lot of the emails were really well written, even better written than a lot of the dialogue. I did find myself liking some characters over others, but I think is more to do with how I like to play, and how I role played my character than the writing itself. When it comes to the missions I think the crew loyalty missions are the high point, with each having an interesting scenario to complete. I think for me Liam’s (Gary Carr) was my favourite, if only for the conversation option you were able to pick. Though a lot of the loyalty missions needed multiple components which had a wait between them, so it is a good idea to start them as soon as you can. All throughout Andromeda, there were some interesting discussions on issues like faith, science, morality, anger, racism, community, and more, thematically some really interesting territory to take the series.
One area that I wish they had worked on a bit more is differentiating itself from the original trilogy a bit more. For example there is a long lost race that has left ruins around the place with advanced technology that could change the course of the game, it sounds a bit familiar, also [MAJOR SPOILERS WARNING] an alien race converting humans/krogans etc into monsters that attack you is just a rehash on indoctrination [END SPOILERS]. Also from a design perspective I understand why you cut down on the number of Milky Way civilizations that ended up in Andromeda, it is a new entry in the series which is probably going to have a bunch of people that never played the original trilogy giving Mass Effect a go, and since you are introducing new Andromeda Civilizations you didn’t want there to be too many new races for players to learn. I get that, but the Quarians, Drel, Hanar, Elcor, and Volus provided a lot of the wonderful texture to the universe, and you feel their absence here.
So, in the end, I have to say I really enjoyed my time in Andromeda, it had a good plot, interesting characters, and propelled the story forward in a creative way. As well as this, BioWare, you know that tease at the end, I am all aboard that if you turned it into DLC. Now were their technical issues, yes, but they did not get in the way of me enjoying Andromeda but I do hope they are things that the development team work on going forward. Now I’m in it for the story so I hope we get more of that going forward and we don’t get a GTA scenario where it is just multiplayer additions, but I would be more than happy to explore everything the Andromeda Galaxy has to offer.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Project Leads – Aaryn Flynn & Yanick Roy
Lead Designer – Ian S. Frazier
Creative Director – Mac Walters
Art Director – Joel MacMillian
Technical Director – Harold Chaput
Lead Programmer – Julien Adriano
Musical Score – John Paesano
Developer – BioWare Montreal
Publisher – Electronic Arts
Voice Actors – Fryda Wolff, Tom Taylorson, Jules de Jongh, Gary Carr, Christine Lakin, Stanley Townsend, Danielle Rayne, Nyasha Hatendi, Garett Ross, Gethin Anthony, Natalie Dormer, Alexia Traverse-Healy, Robert Kazinsky, Nick Boulton & Indira Varma