The biggest challenge BioWare faces is its own legacy. It has delivered a tremendous number of quality RPG experiences over the last two decades, many of which could justifiably stand among the greatest games of all time. With such a prestigious back catalogue, it’s only natural that any new release would come under far more scrutiny than would be reasonably expected for a title. Gamers have expectations from the BioWare brand, and they have - barring one or two anomalies - been consistently met.
A Whole New World
Under this weight of expectation, Mass Effect: Andromeda bravely tries to forge a path away from the Shepard trilogy, introducing a brand new cast, protagonist, enemy and setting. Though it begins in the year 2185, the six-hundred year long journey that follows the Ryder twins to the Andromeda galaxy mean that the events of the previous games have long since lost any significance. Their goal: discover habitable planets to settle upon. It’s a clean slate and a new beginning, and whether you play as Scott or Sara Ryder you’ll be given the mantle of Pathfinder from your father along with the unenviable task of establishing colonies on “golden” worlds. These elusive planets host just the right amount of resources for humans to survive, and are therefore rare finds indeed. The problem is, many are also infested with three species - the Kett, Roekaar and Remnant - who have nothing but hostile intentions.
So far, so good, and Mass Effect veterans may feel a sense of comforting familiarity as they take their first steps onto the Tempest, Ryder’s exploration craft and the successor - at least, game-wise - to the beloved Normandy. Ryder’s crew are the usual eclectic bunch gathered from the main quest line, including a Turian, Krogan, Asari, a couple of humans, and an addition from a new race - the Angaran. As was the case with the previous games, the Krogan is the stand-out here, but newcomer Jaal’s back story and journey through the game is filled with pathos and rivals that of Thane Krios from the third instalment.
If you’ve played Dragon Age: Inquisition, you will be right at home in Andromeda’s sprawling mass of planets and landscapes. BioWare has taken the template from the third outing on Thedas and applied a sci-fi skin, at times so unsubtly that it threatens to undermine any sense of originality the game offers. While ostensibly your aim is to find worlds and improve them to a liveable standard, this isn’t a world-building game. Success is achieved by interacting with the locals, and taking on more side quests and tasks than you can possibly keep track of. Whether you’re searching for plants, rocks, ship parts or outposts, Ryder will be sent darting back and forth across a planet’s surface for what amounts to little more than busywork. Like Inquisition though, there’s something oddly compelling about completing each task and fulfilling each order. You can easily ignore them and follow the main story line in order to wrap things up in less than forty hours, but those map markers may prove difficult to resist.
"Do You Have a Moment?"
Part of the allure comes from the stories that accompany these tasks, which often spice up banal fetch quests, and more frequently provide interesting asides such as investigating murders, and tracking down inside sabotage. More often than not, you’ll be reliant on SAM, an artificial intelligence which interfaces with a scanner (think Inquisition’s search pulse, made clunkier). You will scan an awful lot of things in the galaxy, but sadly ninety percent of them are window dressing - it only alerts you when there’s anything interesting nearby to look at, removing almost all sense of exploration of the otherwise interesting objects you’ll come across in the bases spread across the planets. Furthermore, the scanning process is far too slow and kills any momentum you may have gathered up to the point where you’re scouring the map for one of sixteen tiny flowers, just to tick off another quest.
Like much of Andromeda, there’s plenty of detail but little reason to invest in much of it. The tech you scan to gain research points for crafting your own gear may well be interesting, but the interface and the tiny writing makes it very difficult to read what you’re looking at - it might be better for PC gamers, but if you’re sat six foot away from a TV, it’s an entirely different story. Scanning lacks a purpose other than highlighting things to complete a mission; other games such as Bioshock and Beyond Good and Evil did a far better job of integrating photo modes into the gameplay in a way that genuinely engaged. Here, scanning is a means to an end, and not a particularly fun one.
As with previous games, there are hundreds of planets to scan but since the anomalies which indicate interesting resources are pointed out to you by SAM, you’ll tire of reading yet another planetary description after the third one, and instead blast through the galaxy in a hit-and-run blitz of resource gathering. Except, it’s far slower than that due to unskippable animation showing you arriving at every single planet and turning what should be a minute-long task of sweeping through a system into a five-minute chore, at least.
Weapon Upgrades In Eighteen Easy Steps
The UI in general is a sore point throughout the game. Menu after menu has been layered atop one another, making navigating through your inventory a genuine chore. Comparing weapon stats is equally frustrating, and though there are some interesting ideas such as saving favourite loadouts, they’re buried beneath so much clutter that you’ll be hard-pressed to find them on first try. Very little assistance is given, which would be fine if the layout was intuitive, but it simply isn’t. When collecting a new weapon fills you with dread about the administration you’ll need to go through to apply mods and ammo, rather than excitement about using it, something has gone seriously wrong. Want to equip that new gun immediately? Tough, you can’t. You’ll have to wait until you reach a forward station (read: fast travel checkpoint) or get back to a hub. It’s a mind-bogglingly dumb decision.
Not that you’ll need to change your weapons that often, because combat has been dumbed down to a level that will fail to tax many gamers, and certainly none that have played the previous games, or any cover-based shooter. The premise is almost always the same. You’ll enter a base, spot a Remnant enemy, pick it off from a distance and occasionally use melee if one decides to get personal. Or you’ll encounter Roekaar or Kett in a roadside base and do the same thing. Rarely does the AI think smartly enough to close in with numbers, and your teammates are competent enough to help you sail through almost every encounter. Biotic powers make a return, but they rarely feel as powerful as simply weaponry. Different profiles provide starting powers and skills as well as bonuses to damage and health, and more can be unlocked depending on how you spend accumulated skill points. Again though, they feel superfluous; while five difficulty levels offer the option of a more (or less) challenging game, it’s the limited enjoyment of the combat itself, rather than its difficulty, which poses the biggest problem to the game’s systems.
A Departure From The Norm
There are areas where BioWare has attempted to depart from previous instalments - not least within the dialogue trees. The Paragon and Renegade choices have been jettisoned in favour of responses based on four different tones: logical, emotional, passionate and professional. While this stops you from picking the answers you wanted in order to unlock rewards, regardless of whether you were roleplaying or not, it also results in responses that don’t really feel all that different. A browse at the Codex will tell you how you’re getting on with your crewmates, but the actual impact of your choices feels lessened - it’s a system that the studio still haven’t managed to properly nail down, but it at least feels like you’re no longer gaming it just to hit specific outcomes.
The linear paths of the trilogy have also been replaced by an open-world approach mirroring, yes, Inquisition. You can jump and boost your way around the mountains and lush vegetation on foot to a point, but ultimately you’ll need the travel power of the Mako replacement vehicle, the Nomad. It handles far better than the infamous buggy in the original, but is still not without its frustrations. The best moments come when the landscape only minimally impedes it, such as on a dark toxic planet with low gravity, which sees you soaring over ridges with glorious wonder against a background of twinkling stars. Otherwise, it’s a perfunctory A to B vehicle with adequate handling.
Multiplayer is also catered for via strike missions, a series of encounters that you can either send AI off to complete on your behalf or attempt yourself with friends or strangers on the internet. These are updated daily, and offer positive and negative traits to your strike team depending on whether you complete missions successfully. Five maps and three mission types offer variety, but again the combat itself is the impediment - though thankfully these are the definition of side content, and the majority of players will be more focused on the game for its single-player campaign.
Andromeda is also buggy. Not relentlessly game-breaking (although there were two occasions where a previous save needed to be reverted to mid-mission, because the autosave didn’t trigger an event), but more indicative of a lack of polish. Dialogue tracks looping over each other, character models embedding themselves in one another, slowdown in certain areas - it’s irritating but occasional, and certainly not as bad as early reports may have led us to believe. In a studio as prestigious as BioWare though, we’d have expected things to be a little tighter in the testing department.
A Reason For Living
But for every contentious or clumsy step, there’s one of contrasting brilliance. Companion missions return and are always great fun. They develop organically, and uniformly end in you learning far more about your crew than you do from personal interactions on the Tempest. In fact, the development of the relationship with your companions is a highlight and shines through to the overall tone of the game. This isn’t the ominous atmosphere perpetuated by the original trilogy. Here, the focus is on building, developing, welcoming and collaborating. You can still make tough calls, and people will live or die because of them. But the theme is of hope, new beginnings and settling on hostile worlds with an aim to improve them. The differences you make to the locals, and the tasks you undertake to win them around all form part of an uplifting story, far different to one you may expect from a Mass Effect title. This is all set to a lovely soundtrack, which flits between bombast and menace at the appropriate times, and whilst it isn’t as memorable as the work of Jack Wall, it’s fitting nevertheless. Voice acting, too, is excellent on the whole, and female Ryder - while not on Jennifer Hale’s level - is represented with bright-eyed enthusiasm by Fryda Wolff.
Many will consider Mass Effect: Andromeda a disappointment. Not because it’s a bad game, as that’s far from being the case, but because it’s simply not a great one. It flirts with some wonderful ideas, but hampers them with ill-thought-out mechanics, substandard combat and occasionally awful dialogue at times. But if you look past the often ropey character models, you’ll pry out an interesting story, filled with elements of BioWare’s vast narrative experience which come together to create a promising first chapter. If you can adapt to the changes and cope with its systems past the first five hours, you’ll come away from Andromeda feeling happy, if not exactly overjoyed.
Note: Since this review was published, BioWare added the option of skipping the animation between planets (but not systems).