Mass Effect: Andromeda
The Good: Sprawling space opera. Massive opportunities to customize character.
The Bad: Human faces and actions look really disturbing. Early conversations are inane. New cover system only kind of works. Uneven action/story balance.
The Ugly: Driving element very cartoony. Multiplayer is an unredeemable mess. Mining and planet scanning: we’re still doing this?
Following up a trilogy as seminal, as genre-defining as Mass Effect has to be a daunting task. What do you keep; what do you change? I don’t know the answer to that – that’s why I’m a game reviewer and not a game designer – but I’m sure that Bioware spent the last five years considering those questions carefully. The result, well, let me put it this way: if you had sat me down in front of a computer with the game already in progress, I would have almost instantly guessed that it was Mass Effect. Part of that is the artwork – though set on a number of different planets with different environments, the Mass Effect style is clear in buildings, weapons, clothing, and the races are familiar to the ME universe – but it’s a lot more than that. The third person combat style on a battlefield littered with half-height barriers to crouch behind, the conversation radial menuing system, the biotic combat enhancements – they’re all very familiar if not exactly the same. So it wouldn’t be an understatement to say that despite a lot of talk about re-envisioning Mass Effect, the designers kept more than they tossed, and some of the stuff they kept is truly head-scratching. Let’s look a little closer, shall we?
Mass Effect: Andromeda (ME:A) is set somewhere in the ME timeframe; I’m not exactly certain where. I’m not sure it’s particularly germane as I haven’t run across any characters from that storyline. All the major races have cooperatively launched a massive effort to colonize planets in Andromeda, which long-range sensors have revealed to be perfect to support life. However, in the 600 years it took the colony ships to reach them, the planets have suffered some environmental cataclysm rendering them uninhabitable. To make matters worse, all but one of the colony ships vanished before reaching their destination. Life’s not good in the early days of colonialism – there are outpost failures and an uprising, enemies and unfriendly fauna. That’s when you, riding in the sole surviving colony ship, arrive. You play as either Scott or Sara Ryder (I tried both, and found the differences largely cosmetic) the son or daughter of your colony ship Pathfinder, which is a mashup role combining the skills of leader, adventurer, and maverick. He dies, you become the new Pathfinder, and drama ensues between those who support you, those who think you are too young to be a Pathfinder, plots, schemes, saboteurs. It’s a pretty solid mix upon which to base the story.
In what could be the single greatest change to the series, gameplay for this Mass Effect is sandbox style. There are 7 planets in Andromeda (as of this writing, I have seen 3 of them), and at your freedom (with some plot restrictions) you can travel between them and the Nexus (your space HQ) either following the primary plotline – Why did all of these planets go to hell? Who are the hostile aliens and what do they want? What does it have to do with the strange other-alien structures that litter these planets? Where are the other colony ships? – or taking on a really huge number of side quests: catch a murderer, investigate sabotage, find a missing survey team, on and on. While the missions are a good mix of activities, they tend to cluster into talking and combat kind of severely. What I mean is that following two or three plotlines aboard the Nexus, I played yesterday for 3 hours without ever firing a gun. The day before I played for 3 hours, on one of the planets, and it was almost nonstop combat. Without awkwardly traveling from the Nexus to the planet surface (and sitting through the associated traveling cutscenes, so many cutscenes – riding a subway, taking off from a hanger, landing on a planet, entering warp drive or whatever ME calls it) and back again, there was no way to break up the action or the talky bits.
Speaking of talky bits, the game starts with a quick action scene, a cold open prior to the credits, but then gets down to one of the most excruciating plotline ramp ups I have ever experienced. You spend like 2 hours wandering around the Nexus, and the conversations available to you through the radial conversation menu are more annoying than a high school newspaper interview. Who are you? What is your job here? Why did you come to Andromeda? What do you think of this person? How do you feel about how the colonization is going? Painful. Redundant. Sooo boring. Once you hit your first planet, things get better, though driving from place to place on the planet surface, eek. The car you drive in, the Nomad, is like a bumper car on superball tires. I hesitate to call it cartoon physics, because that would imply physics still plays some kind of role, and I’m not sure that’s the case. I don’t think it is possible to roll it over and it can fall incomprehensible distances without damage, but don’t try driving into the water – that’s immediately fatal, and by fatal I mean the screen goes black for a moment, and then the vehicle appears back on the shoreline near the water.
Combat, well, that’s still all Mass Effect: third person perspective on a battlefield covered with waist-high barriers. In previous ME games I seem to recall approaching a barrier and hitting a key to take cover behind it. This would “weld” you do the barrier, allowing you to peak around the edges or pop up to return fire, but you needed to hit another key to break free of the barrier. Here they have tried to make that more organic, which I applaud, but it still has some bugs in it. In theory when you approach a barrier you automatically take cover behind it. In practice, it takes a moment to find that sweet “take cover” spot and you can get shot in the head quite a few times waiting for your character to crouch. There is also some lack of clarity as to what qualifies as cover under this system. Sure, that awkward waist-high synthetic-looking barrier is valid cover as far as the computer is concerned, but what about that row of boxes – hmm, sometimes yes, sometime no – and that machinery – probably not – and those rocks – maybe. In attempting to move from cover to cover, I’ve spent a lot of time getting shot while trying to hide behind this or that object the program didn’t like. You travel with a couple of companions (at this point I have discovered five that I can choose from, but I suspect the game will add more as I progress), and you can give them simple positioning commands during combat: move over here, take cover over there kind of things.
The game features a wide range of weapons, something in every category of handgun, automatic weapon, sniper rifle, shotgun, and melee weapon, and a truly massive number of skill attacks featuring special moves, energy blasts, combo attacks, and all manner of things that you select using skill points when you level up. It gives you just about infinite possibilities when creating your character loadout, and as you pump more skill points into these special attacks, they become devastating with some great special effects. You can also research new weapons and armor.
To put it bluntly, multiplayer is terrible. Accessed through a console on your ship and other sites, I had hopes that they would be akin to multiplayer heists in GTA. They certainly are described as such: rescues, infiltrations, disrupting enemy supply lines, recovering artifacts; what sound like fascinating, complex missions. The reality is that they are little more than a cooperative group of four players defeating waves of enemies on a very small map, sometimes doing the Mass Effect equivalent of flipping switches while defeating waves of enemies, and sometimes trying to shoot one particular enemy in waves of enemies. Disappointing in the extreme. And speaking of disappointing, for those of you who were disappointed with the planet scanning and mining “minigames” of the previous entries into the series (and there are a lot of you judging by the huge number of Youtube videos with names like “$%*@&!! Mass Effect planet scanning”), you’ll be happy to know they’re both in here completely unchanged.
Finally, I should say something about how the people look, because it really is peculiar. Clearly a lot of work has been done on skin texture and features. People have moles and freckles and they look great. They also move pretty smoothly when they walk, though sometimes get jerky climbing stairs or traversing other obstacles. The real freakiness comes when you enter a conversation with them. Their eyes roll all over the place, and their facial expression often has no relationship to what they’re talking about. They speak with eyes wide open and shining, a small smile on their lips, as they recount a brutal and deadly attack that took place at one of the failed outposts. Given the very realistic texture of their skin with the weird facial expression and mismatched dialog, they reside well within the uncanny valley (look it up, Wikipedia generation). Plus their hands, they seem to have no idea what to do with their hands while they talk. Everyone has some version of glowing wrist hologram, a futuristic computer interface, and the whole time they’re talking their fingers tap and swipe at it like agitated spiders. I’m sure a lot of work was gone into creating all these facial and body animations, and frankly the result is worse than if they had just given me a still image with dialog balloons.
I think my largest criticism of Mass Effect: Andromeda is how safe Bioware played it. They wrote a new, sprawling plotline with a vast number of side quests and in doing so discarded Shepard as the main character, and added an open world sandbox element, but left so many of the core game mechanics, even some of the truly awful ones, unchanged that Andromeda feels more like a gigantic DLC than anything else. Note that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s been five years since the last Mass Effect, and I do for the most part like the gameplay, and I’m not particularly adverse to more of the same (a quote so good, it should definitely be on the game box somewhere), but a part of me was hoping for something less familiar, something less Mass Effect 4. I can’t help but feel that I didn’t get it.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
Publisher: Electronic Arts
This review is based on a digital copy of Mass Effect: Andromeda for the PC provided by Electronic Arts.