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Mass Effect: Andromeda Review and Discussion


Sorzo
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Please note that this review contains minor spoilers.

 

Prior to its release, I was eagerly anticipating Mass Effect: Andromeda. BioWare has been my favorite developer for years, and, despite a rocky start, the original Mass Effect trilogy is a phenomenal achievement overall, one that provided both my favorite game of the last console generation and some of the most engaging moments I’ve experienced in gaming overall. Unfortunately, Andromeda proved to be a colossal disappointment, one that failed to be a satisfying work in its own right, much less live up to the high standards of its predecessors.

As is the norm for BioWare games, Mass Effect is a series most known for its narrative elements, from sweeping interstellar plotlines to complex characters that often come to feel like friends to agonizing moral dilemmas with no clear right answer. On this front, Andromeda begins promisingly enough. Set some six hundred years after the original trilogy, the game depicts the efforts of the Andromeda Initiative, a group of a hundred thousand pioneers hailing from several Milky Way species, to colonize the titular foreign galaxy. Departing in cryogenic stasis during the events of Mass Effect 2, these brave individuals awake on the edge of a new frontier, one far removed in both space and time from the people and events surrounding Commander Shepard. Rather than once again assuming the role of the legendary Spectre, players step into the shoes of Ryder, an unproven young man or woman who is quickly thrust into the role of Pathfinder, a senior explorer tasked with leading the charge of discovering new worlds to settle. The story thus presents itself as a tale of exploration and discovery, focused on wonder and possibility rather than simply depicting yet another galactic war in a genre saturated with them.

Unfortunately, this promise quickly proves to be little more than an illusion, as the game both handles exploration and discovery very poorly and spends most of its main plotline depicting…well, yet another galactic war, one that fails to muster even a fraction of the drama and emotional weight that Mass Effect 3’s apocalyptic conflict so masterfully commanded. As a setting, the Helius Cluster, the area of the Andromeda galaxy in which the game takes place, feels woefully barren and underdeveloped. Where the first Mass Effect depicted no fewer than eleven alien races living in the Milky Way, with more added throughout the rest of the trilogy, Helius features a paltry two, the Kett and Angara, only one of which is even native to the Cluster. Of the two species, the Kett exist solely for the sake of the game having villains; they’re a group of universally evil cardboard cutouts with not a single interesting character among them, their only noteworthy trait a knockoff of a major element from prior games in the series. The Angara, to their credit, are far more complex and fleshed out, ranking among the most developed species in the franchise. Yet their lore often still proves surprisingly uninteresting, in part because it is so enmeshed with their one-dimensional counterparts, and it certainly doesn’t offset the fact that most of the series’ established species aren’t in Andromeda, making the game offer the least variety of aliens out of any entry in the franchise. Frustratingly, the game hints at including species such as Quarians and Hanar in an upcoming DLC or sequel, giving the impression that BioWare stripped out certain staples of the franchise in order to sell them back later, knowing their popularity would drive demand. To the game’s credit, however, Andromeda is the first entry in the series to offer a believable gender balance for all of its alien species. Salarian, Krogan, and Turian women were completely absent in the first two games and still very rare in Mass Effect 3, yet in Andromeda they are fairly commonplace, one of the few improvements the game has to offer over its predecessors.

In addition to the Kett and Angara, Helius features the Remnant, a group of machine guardians left behind by a mysterious lost civilization. Unfortunately, they are not a race in the way that the Geth of past games were. They feature no meaningful backstory, culture, or individual characters, and are just mindless drones that exist to pad out the enemy roster. In fact, they come across as nothing more than blatant ripoffs of Sentinels from the Halo series in both purpose and, in the case of one enemy type, even design. The mystery of the Remnant’s creators is meant to be one of the major forces driving the plot, but very little is ever revealed about them, and they ultimately come across as just another generic lost civilization that has been done to death in science-fiction, from the Forerunners of Halo to Mass Effect’s own Protheans. There is a single plot twist involving them that is revealed late in the game with fascinating thematic potential, but while this concept is given some degree of exploration, it ultimately feels superficial and awkwardly tacked onto the storyline. Otherwise, the Remnant’s creators serve no real purpose beyond leaving behind conveniently functional devices that conveniently serve as Deus Ex Machinas that instantly fix most of the Andromeda Initiative’s problems and can conveniently only be activated by the player character.

Rounding out the enemy factions are the Outlaws, a group of dissidents who were exiled from the Andromeda Initiative prior to the start of the game as a result of conflict over resource shortages. Such struggles are a believable concept, but the end results actually seen in the game are anything but. We’re supposed to believe that, within a single year, thousands of eager colonists, all of whom had undergone psychological screening and were acutely aware of the risks in leaving the Milky Way, became pirates and raiders, creating wretched hives of scum and villainy that would make the residents of Mos Eisley blush. Andromeda devotes a significant portion of its length to such individuals, both in and out of combat, and by the end of the game I was convinced that the Initiative must have had one of the most inept vetting processes in all of fiction. The game attempts to defend this with a few brief references to possible mental degradation as a result of cryogenic stasis, but it felt like a flimsy excuse whipped up at the last moment.  What could have been an intriguing study of the limits of human morality and civility in times of scarcity and psychological pressure instead feels cartoonishly exaggerated in order to make certain locations evoke the Wild West and to, once again, pad out the enemy count.

Andromeda boasts an impressive amount of content; my playthrough clocked in at around 100 hours, far more than my longest run of any game in the trilogy, even with DLC. Unfortunately, very little of that content actually feels meaningful or memorable. The main plotline takes place over only a handful of missions, and while these individual missions are generally enjoyable and designed well, the larger story they tell is very lacking. Themes of discovery and exploration quickly give way to a dull struggle against a paper-thin villain and a race to see who can claim the secrets of ancient plot devices first. This culminates in a last mission that stands out as one of the worst finales I’ve ever seen in a game, a massive sequence of things happening without rhyme or reason. I had a difficult time following what was going on, one exacerbated by the decision of the developers to rapidly reintroduce over a dozen NPCs of varying significance from earlier in the game all at once via the radio during gameplay, resulting in my being bombarded with voices that were largely hard to place due to most members of any given alien race using the same voice filter. The joining of these characters in the finale was meant to be payoff for various subplots and player decisions throughout the game, but their inclusion was handled so haphazardly that it proved detrimental rather than rewarding. Player mileage here will vary, of course, and subtitles will likely alleviate this issue. The game’s final battle doesn’t even offer an actual boss fight, just waves of the same enemies that I’d fought over and over again for dozens of hours. As I waded through the hordes in order to press buttons as directed by waypoint markers, I was treated to the ramblings of the antagonist, who continued to spout some of the most generic villain tripe imaginable. Rather than coming across as remotely interesting or even intimidating, he gave the impression of someone out of a middle school student’s edgy fanfiction. This comparison occurred to me while I was playing the final battle, and it speaks volumes as to how much the narrative had failed to engage me by its conclusion.

Hypothetically, I suppose it would be possible for a game to have such a weak main plot but still deliver a strong narrative overall. After all, Mass Effect 2 featured a very brief main plot that few will argue was of standout quality, save for a fantastic final mission that’s orders of magnitude better than the disaster described above. But Mass Effect 2 made up for the shortcomings of its central story by devoting most of its content to side missions, which expertly fleshed out both its characters and the setting they lived in. Andromeda features an enormous amount of side content, but the overwhelming majority of it is forgettable fluff with no real substance, an abundance of fetch quests and the like that, despite being given flimsy narrative pretenses, feel like they exist solely for the sake of giving the player things to do. The developers insisted on adopting a pseudo-open world approach, with most of the game taking place on four large planets and the Nexus, Andromeda’s substitute for the Citadel. While the sales and accolades of open world games such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt were no doubt alluring to the developers at BioWare, Andromeda proves that the Mass Effect team has no better clue how to populate large spaces with meaningful content than their peers who created Dragon Age: Inquisition do. If anything, they’re worse at it. The spaces are much larger, and consequently more empty, thanks to the awful, awful inclusion of the Nomad, a rover similar to the Mako from the first game. While I wasn’t a fan of most of the open world Mako segments in the original Mass Effect, I never felt that their issues were with the vehicle itself; it controlled much better than people gave it credit for, and it handled fairly well in combat. Rather, the open world Mako segments failed because they were open world, with environments largely devoid of interesting content yet filled to the brim with infuriating mountains and debris that often made traversing them a miserable experience. With the Nomad, BioWare has kept the vexing topography and lack of interesting content while throwing in worse controls and a complete lack of armament. The Nomad generally can’t even kill enemies by running them over, so encounters while driving boil down to either driving past foes or awkwardly getting out to fight them on foot.

Another advantage Dragon Age: Inquisition’s open environments have over Andromeda’s is their art direction. Gameplay while wandering across the newest incarnation of Thedas was often less than exciting, but the world was always at least breathtakingly beautiful, from its snowy forests and ruins to its storm-battered marshes. Andromeda features comparable graphical fidelity, but its main worlds are distressingly uninspired. Of the main four open world areas, there’s a generic ice planet, two flavors of desert, and some badlands. Outside of their skyboxes and the occasional alien structure or ship, these worlds all look like they could be parts of Earth. The whole premise of the game is to explore a new galaxy, yet Andromeda sends players to places that are as mundane and uncreative as they come. There’s nothing alien or fantastical about the spitting image of remote Arizona. Underground Remnant structures are more aesthetically engaging at first, but they all look extremely similar and quickly become every bit as monotonous, a sense made worse by the fact that dialogue and gameplay mechanics tend to be recycled between them. These open environments are thus uninteresting to explore visually, and gameplay itself involves no real sense of exploration, with map markers pointing out almost everything of note in even completely untouched areas and quest design mostly boiling down to following waypoint markers. Across dozens of hours of playtime, I encountered only two or three locations of note that weren’t marked on the map; these instances were thrilling, offering a genuine sense of discovery, but they were akin to drops of water in the midst of a vast desert.

Thankfully, the game’s smaller areas tend to be much better designed in almost every respect. These include a jungle world filled with bioluminescent mushrooms, an asteroid featuring low gravity physics that actually made the Nomad somewhat enjoyable to mess around in, and various linear zones used for giving each of the game’s six squad members a loyalty mission. These loyalty missions aren’t as memorable as most of their counterparts in Mass Effect 2, but they’re still some of the best content Andromeda has to offer, a reminder that BioWare’s strengths lie not in open worlds, but small, fairly linear spaces packed with detail that allow for developers to convey specific narrative experiences. The developers of the original Mass Effect trilogy wisely shifted almost exclusively to this type of gameplay area for the second and third games, and I sincerely hope that BioWare Montreal will follow suit with any sequels Andromeda might have.

A well-designed loyalty mission is still only as good as the character it stars, and Andromeda’s party is thankfully fairly solid. At only six members, it is tied with the original game as one of the smallest in a BioWare title, and while it’s a far cry from the best ensemble in the series, it at least surpasses the party characterization of the first game. Team members interact with one another frequently, both in the Nomad and aboard the Tempest, Andromeda’s equivalent of the Normandy, and no one is burdened by huge amounts of exposition about his or her species. In fact, the two human characters are the weakest links here. Cora feels like a much weaker replacement for Ashley, displaying her outward abrasiveness yet offering very little of her private thoughtfulness and heart. With a grating voice, tendency to awkwardly obsess over a handful of topics, and character model plagued by both a bad haircut and bizarre semi-permanent smirk, she’s one of my least favorite party members in the series. Liam, a generally easy-going fellow with a fondness for humor, is certainly more likable, but I had a very difficult time understand his voice actor more often than not, and his various scenes never effectively gelled into what felt like a coherent character. The aliens fare better, thankfully. As what’s essentially Grumpy Old Krogan: The Character, Drack isn’t the most intriguing or complex squad member out there, but he’s fun to have around and has a surprisingly heartwarming bond with one of the game’s very few memorable NPCs who don’t reside on the Tempest. I found PeeBee, an energetic yet reclusive Asari scientist, to be more likable than the original trilogy’s Liara, while Vetra, despite initially feeling very poorly shoe-horned into the party, made for a compelling combination of roguish scoundrel and protective mother figure.

 Surprisingly, the best character in the game by far proved to be the game’s Angaran party member, Jaal. Rather than feeling like an expository mouthpiece for his people, Jaal serves as a fish out of water among the crew, someone struggling to learn the ways of others as much as he is attempting to educate them in his own culture’s ways. Conversations with him explore a wide range of topics, from spirituality to family to personal hopes and dreams, and he feels far more tied into the main plot than anyone else. When the plot twist behind the Kett was revealed midway through the game, I found it hard to care about it for its own sake; it was little more than a knockoff of a concept found throughout earlier Mass Effect games and many other works of science-fiction. Yet the revelation deeply affected Jaal, and I wound up caring about it for a short time because I cared about him. Similarly, a plot twist near the end of the game, though conceptually intriguing, has little narrative weight except for how it affects Jaal. His relationship with Ryder feels refreshingly genuine, beginning with an uneasy alliance out of necessity and gradually developing into friendship and ultimately a sense of brotherhood. After only a single game, I personally rank Jaal higher than all but a few of the original trilogy’s squad members, each of whom had two or even three games to solidify a place in my heart. If he features prominently in future installments, Jaal could easily become the next Garrus Vakarian, something I don’t say lightly. As it is, he’s without question the brightest spot in a largely lackluster experience.

The four additional crew members aboard the Tempest are more of a mixed bag. I was tepid at best toward Gil, the engineer, and Lexi, the doctor. Despite having several conversations, they rarely had anything interesting to say, with Gil in particular droning on about the same few topics ad nauseum. Kallo, the helmsman, was more likable; he’s certainly no Joker, but I enjoyed our mutual dislike of Gil and his neurotic loyalty to his ship. I found the best of the four to be Suvi, a science officer who also believes in Intelligent Design and is fiercely defensive about the matter in response to ridicule from a largely secular field. As a Christian, I found this juxtaposition to be very engaging and was disappointed that it was only explored in one or two brief conversations.

As for the protagonist, I found Ryder to be serviceable but unremarkable overall. While only one Commander Shepard existed, with the player determining gender, male and female Ryder coexist as siblings who opted to accompany their father to Andromeda; whichever sibling the player does not select exists as an NPC. I chose the brother, Scott, and for the most part he came across as a competent but generic action hero, an impression likely caused in part by how similar his voice actor sounds to the ubiquitous Nolan North. There were no options available for selecting Scott’s background, and the dialogue wheel simultaneously felt more nuanced and more limited than in past games. The Paragon/Renegade system has been entirely removed, and normal conversation responses allow players to choose between answers categorized by labeled tones: Emotional or Logical, Casual or Professional, or any one of the four. In practice, this generally felt like three variations of Paragon and a watered down, less amusing version of the Sarcastic option in Dragon Age II. While I appreciated this change somewhat as a player who generally prefers upstanding, Paragon-style characters, fans of any other approach, particularly Renegade players, will find their options sorely limited.

Moral choices, one of the series’ defining staples, are relatively commonplace in Andromeda, but almost none of them are memorable or carry any sense of dramatic weight or moral complexity. If anything, they largely feel tacked on, additions made for checking off another item on the developer’s list of what makes a Mass Effect game. For example, a main story mission late in the game has you fighting alongside an allied character. Near the end of the mission, the game suddenly threw in a group of prisoners with little introduction who had nothing to do with the story and forced me to choose between them and my ally. My party members commented on these prisoners as if I should know them, but I’d never seen them mentioned anywhere except on part of the game’s website related to the multiplayer. The scene tried to present itself as a Virmire-style choice, but it rang hollow, largely devoid of buildup and emotional stakes. Ultimately, across the entire game, only one decision stands out as having a strong combination of buildup, moral ambiguity, and sense of importance.

Prior to the release of Andromeda, I was excited by the announcement that Ryder’s family members would play a part of the story. BioWare did a commendable job of using familial bonds to make Hawke a more compelling, relatable protagonist in Dragon Age II, and I hoped to see the concept expanded in a game with much more development time. Unfortunately, its inclusion in Andromeda is so half-baked that it feels nonexistent more often than not. Ryder’s sibling and father were absent from the overwhelming majority of the game, and what little screentime they had was not enough to leave much of an impression or make me care about them. In fact, their most memorable scenes aren’t even interactions with the player, but recorded moments from the past that are unlocked over the course of the game. These scenes are among the stronger narrative moments of the game, but they are unfortunately few in number and tied to an absolutely baffling unlocking system: they can only be obtained by picking up glowing orbs scattered throughout the open worlds, many of which are placed on top of mountains and other areas that are frustrating yet still unchallenging to reach. This system does not line up at all with the thin narrative justification for it, and clearly only exists to give the player pointless busywork.

Wasting the player’s time is, incidentally, something that Andromeda excels at. Many sidequests feel padded out for its own sake, often requiring the player to repeat the same task multiple times or travel across large stretches of the map or even to other planets for no real reason. The most egregious example of this was a minor quest stretched so thin that I was left enraged and speechless. It began innocuously enough on the Nexus, with a conversation that revealed one of the colonists, a kindly old woman, was carrying a fatal disease on the verge of progressing into a contagious state. The premise intrigued me, as it offered an obvious choice-based moral dilemma that felt realistic. In pursuit of my goal, I was tasked with traveling to another part of the Nexus. And then another. And then another. And then another. And then another. After this, I had to board the Tempest and perform a scan of a star system. And then another. And then another. And then another. And then another. Finally, I had to land on an open world, travel to one of its most remote locations, and scan an object. In all this time, the plot had not progressed meaningfully; I was just looking for the individual in question. At this point, however, the quest jumped the shark, throwing in a sinister conspiracy involving using the woman for biological warfare that had apparently formed and progressed heavily within the past few minutes. After this, I had to follow a scanned trail down to a structure, where I killed a group of generic enemies and finally reached my goal. I was then treated to a 30 second conversation and a moral ‘dilemma’ that had spiraled out of recognition of what the quest was originally about for the sake of drama, and by that point I’d stopped caring. In one of the worst examples of quest design I have ever seen, someone took a compelling 5 minute quest and added 15 or so minutes of pure filler, in doing so breaking the internal logic of the narrative and cheapening what could have been one of the game’s most poignant moments.

Scanning is one of the more common methods used to pad the game’s running time. As in past games, planets and certain anomalies can be scanned in space from aboard the player’s ship. While this is sometimes tied to quests, as in the above debacle, the process is generally optional, incentivized by new knowledge of the setting and occasional rewards of minerals, experience, and the like. Unfortunately, the tangible rewards are in very small quantities, while this knowledge is almost uniformly very dry and uninteresting. Planet descriptions in the series have always been a mixed bag, but in the past terrestrial worlds have generally had at least something noteworthy about them, with a few cases even proving fascinating. The first Mass Effect had an entry about the mysterious Leviathan of Dis, which foreshadowed the Reapers and was relevant to multiple questlines in the third game. Mass Effect 3’s galaxy map featured an abundance of colonies, and it was rewarding to read about how each was faring in the war. The worlds of Andromeda, on the other hand, apparently have nothing interesting about them beyond atmospheric compositions and similarly riveting details. At one point near the end of the game, seven systems opened up on the galaxy map. I scanned them all for the sake of completion, but not one of them offered a quest or even an entertaining bit of insight into the setting. Thankfully, exploring the galaxy map still has some merit, courtesy of the absolutely breathtaking visuals it offers. These fully rotatable first-person panoramas of space are simply gorgeous and filled with detail, such as planets having light and dark sides relative to their star and light warping when one looks at a black hole. Though it eventually starts to lose its luster as one explores one system after another, there’s a genuine sense of beauty here that the open worlds sorely lack.

Far more pervasive and problematic than orbital scanning is its equivalent while on foot. Ryder’s equipment includes a wrist-mounted scanner, and Andromeda forces players to use it constantly. Whether as a means of acquiring certain resources, solving various “puzzles” that require no thought beyond the mental prowess needed to follow a line, or advancing quest objectives, scanning plays a role in almost every aspect of the game’s single-player. And in virtually every case, it’s dull and unrewarding. The process of scanning environmental objects was more or less perfected in Metroid Prime, the very game that popularized the concept to begin with, fifteen years ago. In Prime, scanning was almost entirely optional, required only to operate the occasional piece of machinery; otherwise, it served to flesh out the game’s narrative and offer insight into dealing with enemies and certain puzzles. The process of scanning felt fluid, and items were highlighted in different colors based on their significance, letting players focus on those that contained clues and meaty bits of lore while ignoring those with more mundane text. Andromeda successfully emulates none of these traits. Scanning is required at every turn, feels decidedly clunky in combat, and offers up reams and reams of nothing but dry technobabble that I almost never found interesting. Overall, its existence serves as nothing more than an annoyance.

Scanning on foot wouldn’t be possible without SAM, an artificial intelligence implanted in Ryder’s head for most of the game, ala Cortana from the Halo series. Like Cortana, he is a constant companion that plays a key role in advancing the plot at many turns.

Unlike Cortana, who was a great character and in many ways the heart and soul of the stories she featured in, SAM is an abomination that ranks as one of my most disliked characters in all of gaming.

To his credit, SAM is not completely without redeeming qualities. In the handful of private discussions he has with Ryder, the two tend to discuss the natures of artificial and organic life; these conversations are reasonably interesting, though they’re fairly boilerplate material for the series and nowhere near as compelling as Shepard’s talks with EDI and Legion in past games. Everywhere else, however, SAM is a cancer plaguing Andromeda’s already troubled structure. For starters, he is a broken plot device capable of solving anything and everything, in both gameplay and cutscenes. Quest design in Andromeda virtually always boils down to doing what SAM says, robbing the player of any sense of agency in a game purportedly about exploration. I didn’t feel like I was discovering things; I was just there to transport SAM around from one location to the next while he figured everything out. Narratively, he serves as a one-size-fits-all solution for any situation. Need to interface with ancient alien technology? SAM can do it. Captured by the enemy? Don’t worry, SAM’s there to save the day. The game frequently likens the relationship between SAM and Ryder to a form of symbiosis; the two are purportedly equals who complement one another. In practice, I found Ryder to feel like a meat puppet for SAM whose only contributions were shooting enemies that generally only happened to be there because this is a video game, and it quickly became clear that he was the real hero of the story, the reason why the role of Pathfinder was so important.

This in itself would be problematic but not completely damning if it was handled more deftly. After all, Cortana served a similar purpose in Halo, essentially functioning as the brain of a largely silent shell of a player character. But the developers at Bungie understood this dynamic far better than their BioWare counterparts. The Master Chief was deliberately a minimalist character, one that complemented the far livelier Cortana and encouraged players to see her as the more important of the two, the one more worthy of emotional investment. Yet the Chief was still allowed to shine over her from time to time, keeping Cortana from feeling like a perfect plot device and making the Chief more than a walking gun with the occasional one-liner. These moments helped sell the idea of the two as a genuine team, as equals, and Andromeda is sorely lacking in them.

Worsening the matter considerably is that SAM has no character to speak of. His personality consists of being “helpful” and “vaguely curious” and nothing else. He’s an incredibly bland character that delivers almost nothing but dull, expository dialogue in the same emotionless monotone for dozens of hours on end. It grows stale very, very quickly, yet there’s no escaping it. SAM is everywhere in Andromeda, whether you like it or not. With other team members in BioWare games, you can at least mostly leave them out of your party if you dislike them, barring the occasional loyalty mission and the like; in some cases, you can even avoid recruiting them or kick them out. But SAM is as integral a part of Andromeda as Ryder, with what feels like as much dialogue and none of the player input.

Even worse is the nature of SAM’s dialogue triggers. For whatever reason, the developers at BioWare decided to have SAM repeat the same line every time certain actions occur in open world environments. Want to mine for minerals in the Nomad? SAM has a single line that he’ll say every time you try to do so, something that got so annoying that I soon gave up on the already tedious process. Yet that’s nothing, nothing, compared to his insistence on commenting on temperatures. On each world, various environmental hazards exist; when exposed to them, a bar on Ryder’s suit begins to drain, followed by the player’s shields and health upon its depletion. SAM comments every time a hazard is entered or left, something already unnecessary thanks to ample visual warning in the user interface and auditory warning via sound effects. Still, these comments would be bearable if hazards were limited to pools of acid and the like, things completely avoidable. Tragically, half of the game’s open worlds feature environments mostly comprised of hazards in the form of extreme heat and cold, with players having to frequently traverse between them and safe zones. And SAM comments on these transitions. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Heaven help you if you’re in a prolonged combat engagement that forces you to keep darting in and out of safe areas for the sake of tactical positioning, as you’ll be treated to a ceaseless chorus of SAM’s monotone drivel that does its best to grind your sanity into dust.  Even on the Tempest, the player isn’t safe, as SAM frequently feels the need to tell Ryder that he has unread email, regardless of whether or not said messages even exist. Ocarina of Time’s Navi has long been mocked as one of the most annoying characters in gaming, a helper who never shuts up. SAM is this concept embodied, the annoyance of Navi cranked up by several orders of magnitude.  By the end of the game, I found SAM a greater argument in favor of the “Red” ending to Mass Effect 3 than the Reapers ever were.

While Andromeda literally distances itself from earlier games in the series in terms of narrative, its combat clearly uses Mass Effect 3 as its foundation, sometimes too much so. Skill trees are identical in structure, while the weight system returns in a slightly tweaked fashion. Many of Andromeda’s weapons hail from the last game, as do most of its powers. Even many of the enemies are clearly derived from past foes; Atlases, Nemeses, Cerberus Troopers, Geth Hunters, Ravagers, Brutes, and Banshees from Mass Effect 3 all have clear spiritual successors, as do Varren and Krogan enemies from Mass Effect 2. There are a few new opponent types, of course, but they fail to leave much of an impression; the only exception is an optional world boss, which has decent mechanics and makes for a thrilling encounter, but even it becomes repetitive, repeating the same pattern three times, and is recycled for each of the open worlds in lieu of them receiving unique bosses, a move that, once again, makes a game built on the promise of discovery feel frustratingly predictable and formulaic.

While combat encounters are handled fairly well in small, carefully designed spaces, such as loyalty mission areas or multiplayer maps, encounter design suffers greatly in the open world areas. Enemy groups are littered at random, feeling almost procedurally generated, and are not nearly as fun to fight as their handplaced counterparts. Worse are the various creatures that populate these worlds, mindless bullet sponges that respawn frequently, often out of thin air, and contribute nothing but a sense of tedium to the game.

Though the foes you’ll be facing and what you’ll be attacking them with offer little in the way of innovation for the series, Andromeda is nonetheless distinct from Mass Effect 3 in terms of combat in several key ways, though only some are for the better. By far the best thing that it brings to the table is the jetpack used by player characters; fast and fluid, it greatly boosts mobility and opens up a level of verticality to encounters, increasing the ways one might approach battles in large environments while upping the intensity of smaller ones. A more mundane but still very welcome addition is the ability to blindfire, which has long been a staple of the TPS genre and was conspicuously absent in past games. Unfortunately, heavy melee attacks have been removed for some baffling reason, while regular melee attacks are now clunky and unsatisfying to use, despite their solid damage. Cover grabs were also taken out, an exclusion made all the more frustrating by how well the jetpack’s mobility would have complemented them. The process of taking cover is now automated, a decision I’m ambivalent toward; it’s convenient and usually works, but the times when it doesn’t are frustrating, and being “snapped in” to a piece of cover gave the player a greater sense of control. Finally, power cooldowns are now separate, ala the first Mass Effect, rather than universal. While this ostensibly adds complexity and encourages strategy, in practice it just makes powers feel far less useful than they should, as they can be used far less often overall and aren’t as flexible. The weaknesses of such a system are most pronounced when trying to build a character that relies primarily on power damage. In Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, one of my favorite characters was the Human Adept; with the right build, I could demolish hordes of enemies using just biotics on Gold difficulty, barely needing to use my gun. When playing that character’s equivalent in Andromeda, even on Bronze I had to rely on my gun the vast majority of the time, with my powers feeling like little more than novelties.

Andromeda has considerably overhauled the series’ class system in the sense that traditional classes no longer exist. Ryder can choose from most of the game’s abilities out of the gate, with the player free to focus on combat, biotic, or tech abilities or mix them as he or she sees fit. The traditional class labels of Soldier, Adept, Vanguard, etc. now apply to profiles that are unlocked based on the allocation of skill points; they award stat bonuses and can be switched at any given time, even in the middle of combat. While this system perhaps limits replay value, it’s a solid alteration, encouraging experimentation and preventing players from getting stuck with a class they find they don’t like. Unfortunately, the potential of this system is handicapped considerably by the fact that players can only have three abilities at any given time; the power wheel has been completely removed. It’s a very frustrating design decision that ultimately made the game feel needlessly monotonous. While players can choose between four sets of three, the fact that switching is buried underneath two menus and resets all of your cooldowns keeps the process from feeling enticing.

The exclusion of the power wheel also means that the player cannot order squad members to use their abilities, leaving their effectiveness to the game’s lackluster AI. In addition, party members do not have customizable armor, even in the form of alternate outfits, or weapons, and have a meager three abilities each. The result is an unprecedented lack of party control and customization for a BioWare game, one that results in squad members feeling almost completely pointless and forgettable in combat.

The lack of armor and weapon customization options for party members is made all the more baffling by the substantial options available to Ryder. Andromeda features a solid crafting system that allows player-created weapons and armor pieces to be fitted with augments that add stats or special properties, from bonus power damage and extra mod slots to regenerating ammo and shield boosts upon killing foes. While this level of customization is one of the game’s best features, its implementation has several major shortcomings. Any given augment can only be crafted once; while the augment is returned if the crafted item is disassembled, additional copies can only be found as part of random loot, meaning players are left to the mercy of a random number generator more often than not. In addition, augments are so useful that only crafted weapons and items feel worthwhile, making those found as loot or in stores seem worthless outside of the handful of materials they provide when disassembled. This, combined with the relative scarcity of research data required to unlock crafting blueprints, discourages players from trying out different weapons and armor pieces. Players are instead incentivized to merely pick a handful of item types and spend their resources on upgrading them throughout the game. Finally, the descriptions of augments that modify weapon projectiles are needlessly vague, providing no indication of how they affect statistics.

Multiplayer in Andromeda is almost identical to that of Mass Effect 3, at least on paper. Groups of up to four players cooperatively fight waves of enemies based on one of the game’s three opposing factions, with timed objectives occurring every few waves. Completion of matches rewards credits that can be used to purchase boxes containing random characters, weapons, and gear. It’s fairly enjoyable thanks to inheriting such a strong foundation, but after spending nearly two hundred hours in Mass Effect 3’s co-op, I was hoping for something more fresh. As it stands, it’s hard not to see the suite as a watered down version of the last game’s; the selection of characters, gear, and weapons is far smaller than that of Mass Effect 3’s final roster, while the enemy types are largely derivative yet not quite as fun to fight, failing to “click” in the way that their predecessors did. Frustratingly, the process of levelling in multiplayer, one of the few issues I had with the last game, has become much, much more tedious in Andromeda. Characters take far longer to reach the level cap, and leveling a character levels only that character, rather than an entire class. Finally, many of a character’s possible skill points can only be obtained by acquiring additional unlocks of that character, a decision that absolutely cripples the potential of rarer characters. Unlocking an ultra-rare character is hard enough; I shouldn’t have to get that same character nine more times in order to have a proper allotment of skill points. It’s ridiculous. Variety was the lifeblood of Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, with the sheer diversity of possible playstyles making up for content that was otherwise extremely repetitive. In Andromeda, the amount of effort required to achieve even a moderate level of variety is absurd. Still, despite these issues, the multiplayer here has potential, provided BioWare reduces the grind and delivers the quality of free DLC that made Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer go from very good to amazing.

In the meantime, patches are desperately needed to improve the game’s balance, which is incredibly poor in both single-player and multiplayer. As of this writing, almost everything besides certain sniper rifles and melee feels pitifully weak. In my own experience, fully upgraded biotic explosions fail to kill basic enemies on Bronze, while using even a level 10 Avenger on a basic Silver enemy is roughly the equivalent of shooting spitwads at it. I’ve seen similar complaints echoed on numerous forums, and in-game it’s obvious that most players gravitate toward the Vanquisher, one of the only weapons that actually feels worth a darn. I myself was fortunate enough to unlock this weapon and thus have been able to perform well in matches, but the imbalance is still obvious, and relying on a single weapon gets old quickly. Again, variety is key to making this style of multiplayer work.

Balance is far from the only aspect of the game that requires patching. Andromeda is an absolute trainwreck in terms of polish, a mess that feels like it launched at least six months too early and has enough bugs to make the 2006 incarnation of Sonic the Hedgehog blush. The game’s facial animations are already the stuff of infamy and memes, and most of the character models, especially for humans and Asari, are little better. Documenting all of the bugs that I experienced during my single playthrough and time with multiplayer would be an almost impossible undertaking, given both their quantity and my failure to write them down as they occurred. From what I can recall, however, these include:

-Multiple freezes and crashes, one of which required me to do a hard restart of my computer.

-Music failing to load, both in-game and in the main menu.

-Ryder’s head and neck deforming horribly during certain conversations.

-Ryder’s voice having a helmet filter, even while he was in normal clothes on the Tempest and Nexus.

-A major companion quest becoming impossible to advance without a reload, due to a script error.

-Load times massively increasing at random after the 1.05 patch.

-Multiple copies of the same character appearing at once, often on top of one another.

-Enemies randomly turning invisible (as in completely vanishing, not just being affected by a cloaking field).

-Enemies and party members spawning in midair, where they remained for several seconds.

-Many areas, even in small environments such as the Tempest, briefly appearing as pitch black before they loaded in.

-Party members being completely “killed” by an enemy’s sync-kill, with no possibility to revive them without reloading.  

-Reviving a party member defeated by a sync-kill resulted in a clone of that character appearing, while the body remained on the ground.

-A quest would not properly update in my journal, thus becoming forever stuck there.

-A quest-based conversation triggering every time I went to a certain fast travel location, even long after that quest was finished.

-Enormous lag in certain multiplayer matches.

-Certain multiplayer matches not offering experience or credit rewards upon completion.

-Receiving emails that referenced events that had not yet occurred.

-Numerous cases of dialogue not reflecting events that had already happened.

-Party banter starting midway through after fast travelling.

-Uneven volume levels in certain conversations; some characters were much louder than normal, and vice versa.

-Dialogue during gameplay is frequently cut off if the player keeps moving, often as a result of another character speaking over it.

-At one point, I was killed by a nearby enemy during a conversation. This had nothing to do with the story, mind you. I was just talking with someone, and a monster spawned nearby, wandered close enough to see me, and gradually mauled me to death while I was talking.

-Certain parts of the Strike Team menu became glitched and would not respond.

Andromeda had nearly five years of development time, and it’s shocking that the end result is so flawed, riddled through and through with both technical issues and core design problems that no patch can fix. Though it offers brief glimpses of greatness, most notably Jaal and the jetpack, the overall product is disappointing on almost every level, a shockingly mediocre follow-up to some of the best games ever made. I cannot stress enough how much I wanted to love Andromeda. It was my first day one game purchase since Mass Effect 3, and even as the negative reviews and scathing Early Access reactions began to fill the Internet, I went into the game excited and determined to have a great time. Yet as the hours rolled on, my enthusiasm withered away into nothingness, and it eventually got to the point that I didn’t even want to keep playing, doing so only out of obligation. Loathe as I was to do so, I was forced to admit to myself that Andromeda was in no way what I’d been waiting so long for. It’s not even a good game in its own right, especially in its current state.

Perhaps the worst thing about the game is how soulless it feels, how uninspired and lifeless it is outside of a tiny handful of characters. In many ways it goes through the motions of being a Mass Effect game, but it lacks the heart of one, the sense of driving passion and ambition, the artfulness and care. These qualities are intangible, yes, but they are crucial nonetheless, and if they cannot be recaptured, the future of the series looks bleak indeed.

At least we’ll always have the original trilogy.

Overall Rating: 6/10

 

Final Recommendation: For all its content, I don’t feel this game is worth full price. For diehard fans of the series and those interested in the multiplayer, it might be worth checking out at around $15 or less, though even then I strongly recommend waiting several months for patches and balance changes. Otherwise, I suggest avoiding this title altogether, unless a direct sequel to it somehow proves to be amazing. Even ignoring the game’s price, what few bits of excellence Andromeda has to offer simply aren’t worth the dozens of hours of slogging through mediocrity needed to find them.

 

Quick Summary:

+ Tons of content

+ Environments are technically solid and sometimes beautiful

+ Solid party with a standout character in Jaal

+ Plenty of customization options for Ryder

+/- Combat is fun but largely feels like a watered down version of what was in the last game

- Very little party customization

- Uninspired, lackluster storytelling, both in the main plotline and sidequests

- Few interesting moral choices

- Bland art direction in open environments

- Poor sidequest design

- Scanning is a chore

- SAM

- The Nomad isn’t fun to drive

- Ugly character models

- Extremely buggy and unpolished

- Major balance issues with combat

- A soundtrack so forgettable I forgot to mention it in the review

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On 4/30/2017 at 10:38 AM, WarTraveller said:

A six?! This...virtual abomination deserves no less than a negative number so low it can be only expressed as an equation. 

When you look at things beyond buzzwords and hype you will salvage value. The price of objectivity is dissonance with the average emotional atmosphere.

 

I am not going to talk the animation issue to death. But I do want to call out the general lack of creativity when it comes to the planets. We live in a universe with all this stuff:

 Why not show planets that rain rocks and glass sideways? Why not show crazy things we once thought impossible instead of reliving old tropes about "ice planets" and "lava planets" and such? Let's make Aromeda very, well, alien. And it show in the mechanics as well. Why not mess with gravity? Why not have people platforming on a Dysonsphere? Why not have to deal with a micro-black hole? There is so much more creative things can be done. 

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  • 4 years later...

I recently finished a second playthrough of the game all these years later, having hoped that a combination of patches and mods would improve it. And they did...but only to an extent. Much of the core game is fundamentally poorly designed and beyond saving, often frustratingly so, while playing on a weaker rig than last time meant I had to deal with major framerate issues despite being able to run Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game on the same engine with frequently better visuals, without any problems. Despite that, bugs, though certainly still present, were vastly reduced in quantity and severity, while mods were able to trim off some of the bloat in the crafting system while rebalancing combat and getting rid of SAM's infuriating ambient dialogue. Mods also gave Cora and Liam some much-needed visual overhauls, and I ended up with a greater appreciation of both characters, particularly the former, who jumped up from last in the squad rankings to second or third. Peebee dropped a fair bit in my estimation, but otherwise I enjoy spending time with the Ryder siblings and Tempest crew and would like to see them return in a vastly improved sequel that drops the open-world nonsense. Whether they'll ever see the light of day again is up in the air, particularly with BioWare Montreal long dead and the rest of the developer feeling like it's on life support these days, but the upcoming Mass Effect is rumored to somehow tie into both the trilogy and Andromeda, so I wouldn't completely rule out the possibility...

Overall game ranking bumped up to a 6.5/10 if playing with patches and 7/10 with mods.

Here's to a better future for the series...

 

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