Mass Effect: Andromeda Review
Mass Effect: Andromeda is the next game in the Mass Effect franchise. We've known for years that another Mass Effect game was coming, but it seemed rather difficult to continue after the ending of Mass Effect 3, so there were a lot of speculations about the direction of the next Mass Effect. Would be a sequel? Prequel? Would it take place alongside Mass Effect 1 and 2, prior to the events of Mass Effect 3?
The answer is: All of the above. The Andromeda Initiative was founded before the events of the original Mass Effect, with the intention of colonizing the Andromeda galaxy. In order to achieve this, they have constructed five massive arks and a small version of the Citadel called the Nexus. Four of the arks (human, Asari, Turian and Salarian) set off along with the Nexus not long after Shepard became famous for stopping Saren. The fifth ark (Quarian, Hanar, Elcor etc) was delayed because the scientists needed some extra time to adjust their cryo chambers (to the Hanar in particular).
The Nexus is the new Citadel.
The game starts well over 600 years later, as the human ark arrives in the Andromeda galaxy. You play one of two twins: The male or female daughter of Alec Ryder, the human Pathfinder. Both twins are part of his team. The Pathfinders, and their teams, are responsible for making sure planets are hospitable before new colonies are founded there.
The general idea, and overall concept, is mouth watering to science fiction fans, especially fans of series like Star Trek. However, most Mass Effect fans were still quite careful with getting their hopes up. It's been five years since the release of Mass Effect 3, a game that, despite having quite a few great moments, ultimately had its reputation marred by the terrible ending. Mass Effect: Andromeda is actually the opposite: Its problems begin at the start, or even before the start, as a lot of negative attention was drawn towards certain animation issues and cringe-worthy, "teen movie" style dialogues seen in the intro.
The criticism is valid, as the first few hours, the ones typically seen during the trial, really could have used some work. The first step to any Mass Effect game is to create a character, and that's where the first problem pops up: It's terrible. There are no two ways about it. It is possible to create something resembling a decent looking human being, but it's hard. It probably took me 20 minutes to finally create a character I found acceptable. Normally, I'd consider that sort of thing nit-picking, but in Mass Effect we all know that we'll spend a lot of time in cinematic dialogues, during which you get a close up of the main character whenever he or she speaks, making the appearance quite important.
It is possible to make decent looking faces, but it's not easy.
There are rumors going around that the facial animation or faces in general was outsourced. I'm inclined to believe that is the case. Not only because of the character creator or some of the strange animations, but also because a lot of characters feel wrong. For example, there are now Krogans in all sorts of colors, and the Asari all look like they're based on the template of the same, young Asari. Most of them look almost identical. In previous Mass Effect games, there was a clear distinction between younger Asari like Liara, and her mother Benezia. Most Asari were somewhere inbetween, which was also visible.
Another issue with the first few hours, is that it lacks saving options. It seemingly uses a "check point" system, though this is inaccurate (auto saving is triggered by conversations, profile changes, combat and so on). It's very rare for each auto save to be more than a few minutes apart, which makes it hard to understand why regular saving is disabled. For example, the current system doesn't prevent you from reloading an auto save prior to a conversation to make a different choice, nor does it prevent you from changing the outcome of a certain fight. There will be auto saves for all of that. Regular saving is available for the vast majority of the game, so why give the impression that the game uses check points, especially in the start? It seems like an odd decision, as is the decision to not have a quick save option. It's not that any of this greatly affects the game, but it adds to an already poor first impression.
The new enemy. These guys won't live long, however.
The final criticism of the trial was that a game supposedly focusing on exploring a new galaxy, ends up in a gun fight with an unkown enemy right from the start. While there are attempts at peaceful solutions, they're not exactly whole hearted, and the unknown enemy is quickly considered "evil" by just about everyone, despite knowing nothing about them. It all seems a bit xenophobic, which is strange for a group of people that are supposed to explore new planets and civilizations. Look on the bright side: At least it's better than being killed, brought back from the dead and forced to work for a terrorist organization.
Most issues present in the trial are also present in the actual game, but that doesn't tell the whole story. In terms of overall gameplay, Mass Effect: Andromeda is by far the best in the series, offering greater variety than the others in terms of character progression, crafting, research and loot.
Combo going on after a Biotic Charge. Works rather well.
Let's start with character progression: As most people are aware of by now, the new system basically allows players to mix and match most abilities found in the previous games. Only three abilities can be equipped at any given time, but you can set up four sets of abilities, making it 12 in total. On top of that, each setup can have a profile, which is basically just a passive set of bonuses, unlocked by investing in certain ability trees (biotics + combat = Vanguard profile, for example). It all works rather well, and can lead to some interesting combinations, such as Incinerate (primer, tech) -> Biotic charge (detonator, biotic) = massive explosion because primers are detonated by detonators.
My second character is currently in the process of cherry picking.
The only problem with this approach is that you can essentially cherry pick the best active abilities, and then dump everything else into passive abilities, as they are active at all times. This could lead to less diversity over time, as certain character builds are simply much stronger than others, but this is primarily a problem for players who replay games many times. Overall, it's still a system that offers a lot of experimentation, and it's genuinely fun to find combinations that work well.
Loot is also more dynamic than it was in previous games. For most people playing on normal or below, all you really need in terms of loot can be found across the various worlds you explore. There's lots of loot to find, it scales depending on level (starts at rank 1), and you can experiment with various load outs to find one that suits you. Like in Mass Effect 3, you can equip any weapon, regardless of specialization, but weight is something of an issue (the more weight, the longer your ability cooldowns become). As such, it's generally recommended to stick to 1-2 heavier weapons, at least until later on (certain passive abilities increase weight capacity).
Crafting may not be mandatory, but it yields the best items.
At higher difficulties, however, you should probably take some time to familiarize yourself with the research and crafting system, as that's where the best items are found. There are three research categories (Milky Way, Heleus and Remnant), each offering a unique set of weapons, armor and augments. Research points are typically found while exploring, and they are somewhat limited, so you can't get everything, especially since higher ranks of a given weapon or armor are rather expensive. The difference between a crafted item and a looted one, is that the crafted ones can be boosted by various augments (which, unlike mods, can only be applied during the crafting process). These augments range from minor buffs (3% damage increase) to augments that more or less change the weapon (remove the need for ammo, change the projective type, increase the number of mod slots and so on).
It's easy to reach roof tops and pretty much everything else using jet packs.
To make matters even more dynamic, everyone now has jet packs. That's right, it's not just the main character and his or her team: Every enemy you meet also has the ability to jump around all over the place. Long gone are the days of sitting safely behind a crate the entire fight. I found this increase in pace very welcome, but it's also something I would imagine not everyone is going to enjoy, as fighting is quite hectic now.
To maintain a high pace during fights, the old "pause and give instructions" system is gone. You can pause to change weapons or profiles, and you can still tell your companions to stay in a certain location or attack a certain target, but it is no longer possible to order them to use specific abilities on specific targets or at specific times. The AI is more than good enough to handle things on normal or below, but it does become an issue at hardcore and above. Basically, companion stats do not scale, so they go from being "fairly tough" to "road kill" as you increase the difficulty. This was also the case in Mass Effect 2 and 3, but at least in both of those games you could tell them to hide in some corner, while still using them as ability batteries in order to prime or detonate combos. A few of the companions have skills that increase their survival quite a bit, but that means being forced to use said companions over the softer ones.
Another new gameplay aspect is the utterly pointless "APEX" system, where you can get loot crates from either telling squads to do timed missions or do them yourself in multiplayer. It seems somewhat inspired by garrisons (and later order halls) in World of Warcraft, but that's a game invented to bring players back for as long as possible. Mass Effect: Andromeda is a huge game, but it still ends after a while, meaning it's rather pointless to invest heavily in the APEX mini-game. They do carry over though, so they can be used to quickly gear up new characters and such, but it still feels like a rather pointless feature. Someone needs to tell EA that people who prefer multiplayer games will stick to games that have been specifically designed for multiplayer; they won't switch to Mass Effect or similar just because there's some tacked on multiplayer part.
Overall, the gameplay experience is enjoyable, and it's not even held back by console-itis. Sure, the menus are rubbish, but that's to be expected these days. At least we now have hotkeys for most actions, including menu navigation. I strongly recommend getting used to these hotkeys, as they do speed up whatever you're doing (tab, esc, space, enter and arrows for menu navigation, and space for jumping, shift for sprinting, e for using something and tab for combat pause/selections while navigating the world). There is no specific key for crouching or taking cover, simply because it's an automatic thing whenever you're near objects. I wouldn't call it brilliant, but there is a shield icon to indicate whenever you're in cover, so it's hardly a big issue.
Scanning isn't too bad in the start, but the Heleus cluster is massive..
The only part of the gameplay I simply did not enjoy was the infamous planet scanning. It's hopeless. It doesn't start out too bad, as there aren't too many planets available in the start, but it gets worse. A 20 second cutscene for every scan is simply not good enough, despite being able to look at the planet from the space ship. Initally, the cutscene was not even something the players could skip, which has been fixed in the first patch, but I still think a better solution would be to only zoom in on the planets or objects worth scanning. A simple probe could detect anomolies from afar, even on planets, in the same way that it does for objects.
I understand why they keep insisting on having such systems: It adds to the scope of the galaxy, and tries to give the player a feeling of actually exploring said galaxy. Exploring is a vital part of Mass Effect: Andromeda, but this just isn't the right way of doing it.
Other than the rather tedious scanning, exploration is a lot of fun. It's definitely the best open world exploration BioWare has done, and it's vastly superior to that of Dragon Age: Inquisition. Simply calling it "DAI in space" doesn't do it justice. Zones in DAI often felt like they were part of an MMO, but I never got the same feeling here. There are several reasons for that:
- There are very few "MMO style" quests. A few are present, typically in the "task" folder of the journal, and they can easily be ignored. To be perfectly honest, they probably should have removed that entire category and most of their quests, and moved the few interesting ones into the regular journal.
- There are actually several interesting settlements, enclaves or similar to visit. In DAI, and in MMOs, they are typically just quest hubs. Here, you get to talk to a lot of people, most of whom have some interesting stories to tell or can provide background information on certain topics.
- The new "main" species of the Heleus cluster is called Angara, and their culture is well worth exploring. They have a rather interesting background, one that you learn quite a lot about in the later stages of the game. They're a fine edition to an already solid setting. Also, yes, it's true that Quarian, Hanar and so on are not present, but it's made very clear that they're on they're their way, so they will no doubt arrive in future installments.
- There is a certain level of respawn, but they come flying into combat areas in a way that both makes sense, and is easy to avoid if you feel like it.
Planets are distinct and varied.
The original Mass Effect made an attempt at planet exploration. It wasn't all that, but the general consensus was always that the Mako and the planet exploration experience should have been improved, not removed. That is more or less what Mass Effect: Andromeda has tried to do, and they've largely succeeded.
The Mako could climb and climb for days! The Nomad never has to. Thankfully.
The new Mako, now called Nomad, is not a rubber ball like its original. It feels almost like driving in GTA; it may not be a racing simulator, but it certainly gets the job done. The planets are, unlike the majority of the planets in the original Mass Effect, hand crafted and well planned. They are also varied, including deserts, jungles and icy wastelands. In fact, there is a high number of beautiful locations, and I can't think of any RPG that has this level of variation while still having such excellent scenery. The Witcher 3 certainly looks better overall, and is a superior product in terms of graphics, but it doesn't have this kind of variation.
Speaking of which, BioWare seems to have been inspired by "witcher senses" while creating Mass Effect: Andromeda. In The Witcher 3, the player could explore certain scenes and quests using heightened senses, while hearing something of an inner dialogue by Geralt about what he's currently seeing. The same system is more or less in place here, but using a scanner instead of senses, and an AI called SAM instead of an inner dialogue. It works about as well as it did in The Witcher 3; it can get a bit tedious occasionally, but it feels natural, and important, as a space explorer (or Witcher) to get information that is unavailable to most people. Using an AI (or very advanced VI) to help identify languages, locations, minerals and whatever else, seems almost mandatory to me when exploring completely unknown regions. It really makes a lot of sense.
It is nice to have an AI around while exploring the unknown.
This plays a rather large part in exploring the numerous ancient ruins found in the game, during which the scanner and the AI helps with puzzles, ancient technology and general observations. The puzzles aren't overly challenging, but some of them might take a bit of time. I even came across a few puzzles that various forums were convinced were broken, but it was simply a case of not having figured it out.
Seeing as it is the duty of the main character to find hospitable planets, colonization is also important while exploring. Essentially, the goal is to increase a planets viability to the point where they can be colonized, and then set up a colony. Most of this is fairly automatic, and happens as a result of doing various quests, but the colonies do offer a few interesting quests and dialogues once they're available. Also, they add a strong sense of progression, and it's a feature I would have wanted them to expand upon, though not to the point where it got annoying (I'm looking at you, Fallout 4). Getting every planet to 100% viability is completely optional, but fairly easy for thorough gamers, and it is actually acknowledged late in the game, though not as much as I would have liked. This is definitely the kind of feature that could be improved upon with great success, and it works out fairly well already in its current form.
A successful colony.
In terms of exploration, Mass Effect: Andromeda might not be on par with the early Gothics, Morrowind or Skyrim, but it certainly gets the job done. The music could use a slight improvement to create a stronger atmosphere, the loot could be better and the colonization has a lot of unrealized potential, but it's still one of the best open world experiences in recent years. In many ways, it is Mass Effect 1 done right, though not in every way..
The original Mass Effect used hard science fiction to establish a setting that many are still very fond of today. The exposition was heavy, and codex reading was pretty much mandatory, but it contained a lot of history and culture. It was also the start of a dark and mysterious plot that would soon evaporate, in favor of a stronger focus on drama and interesting characters.
Angaran culture can be fascinating to explore.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is somewhere in the middle. Like the original, it is rather heavy on the exposition, and it is clear that the writers have actually thought things through, but it never quite reaches the heights of Saren and the Reapers. Still, the main story is vastly superior to the one in both Mass Effect 2 and 3.
At any rate, Mass Effect 2 and 3 focused more on characters and drama, where I do find them stronger than Mass Effect: Andromeda. The characters in Mass Effect: Andromeda often come off as bland, especially the main character. I'm not talking about the intended uncertainty; they made it perfectly clear that Ryder is inexperienced compared to Shepard, and as such will be somewhat insecure in many situations. This actually makes perfect sense. What I'm referring to is more that the main character feels like the sort of "blank slate" that older RPGs had, but with voice acting and a specific background, one for each twin (male or female). So they clearly have intended backgrounds, qualities and personalities, but it rarely shows. Either that or their intended personality is that of a boring person, which I suppose makes roleplaying rather easy for quite a few of us..
The Tempest offers freedom similar to that of the Normandy SR1 in the original Mass Effect.
In terms of side quests, background stories and such, it's definitely closer to the original than the sequels. A lot of effort has been put into actually explaining the situation on each world, who's who and what's what. I know quite a few players who find this sort of thing tedious, and prefer the style of Mass Effect 2 and 3 where you're basically just given a reason to shoot stuff, but I personally prefer this approach. I like knowing why an ancient AI is stuck under the ice, I find it interesting to go through old data logs to see if there's any mention of what happened in the Milky Way after the arks left for Andromeda, and I like to listen to theories on why so many of the people who came to Andromeda are suddenly violent.
One of the most beautiful locations in the game. Also has a lot of NPCs to talk to.
What I find fascinating is this supposed "decline" of BioWare in terms of writing. Compared to what, exactly? I agree that the characters, something of a trade mark, are not up to par, but that's about it. It's not as if Dragon Age 2, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 were filled with brilliant writing. For the most part, they're carried by interesting settings and concepts from the originals, which are still present in Mass Effect: Andromeda. BioWare games usually have rather uneven writing, so very little has actually changed.
Let's go through a few examples of the uneven writing:
- Companions go from feeling like the cast of Saved by the Bell to proper team mates, in particular during the later stages of certain companion specific quests. Certain companion quests, which are all optional, even seem like they are part of the main quest. Some of the best writing and most important events occur during these quests.
- Too many characters have "daddy issues". Seems like fathers in the Milky Way simply aren't present, regardless of species. Then again, a few of those scenarios lead to really cool revelations regarding certain events in the Milky Way, both prior to and after the arks leaving for Andromeda.
- There are a lot of cases where C&C is just an illusion. However, there are also cases where the world is very reactive; where the player can do certain things in different orders, and the NPCs you meet after that will react differently depending on what you did and how you did it. There are even different quests on offer from time to time, depending on previous choices.
- The new, main enemy may not be the most original thing ever seen in a game, but they're still way beyond Cerberus.
- Side quests vary from rubbish to great. Going all the way to some planet halfway across the cluster just to pick up snacks? Give me a break. Finally seeing some Salarian intrigues, involving STG agents and so on? Yes, please, more of that!
- It seems a bit odd that a bunch of explorers, in an exploration heavy game, end up in a fight early on. Beyond that, however, it's fairly obvious that they have given exploration a lot of thought; not just in terms of gameplay, but also writing. For example, there's a "cultural center" that new, alien species can visit to learn more about the species from the Milky Way, and it's presented exactly the way I imagine it would: Very flowery, as if designed by a committee, such as descring how the "Salarians guided the Krogan towards more worthy pursuits" or something similar.
- Bringing the Krogan is a bit of an issue and, given that the Krogan are gradually overcoming the genophage, it is fairly obvious that they'll basically dominate Andromeda in a few generations. At first, I thought this was simply an oversight by the writers, but it is mentioned as a potential problem later on.
The culture center: A place aliens can come to learn of the Milky Way.
In addition to all that, the pacing is a bit off. After the mediocre start, the game settles into a decent rhythm that works well for a while, but then they try to tie up way too many threads at the same time. And then, when things feel somewhat chaotic, it settles into a good pace again, and both the ending and even the post-ending is very good, setting up the next installments in a good way. It seems to me as if the writers were a bit too ambitious as to what they could actually pull off, and should probably have cut down the scope a bit. Either that, or they should have had more development time.
For some reason, Mass Effect: Andromeda is scoring significantly below both Mass Effect 2 and 3 on most major gaming sites. Even Dragon Age 2 got higher scores. I honestly don't understsand that. Perhaps the animation memes and what not leading up to the release made it more acceptable to bash it, despite it being an AAA title. It's certainly not because the animations in question are bad enough to warrant a huge drop in ratings.
Is that Krogan.. blue?
For example, the running animation meme: Running actually looks very good both for male and female Ryder, except when you do the weird zig-zag thing that BioWare fixed in the first patch. The character creator, some of the faces (a few humans, Asari and Krogan) look a bit off, as do their animations.
I actually thought the weirdest animations were something nobody has mentioned: So many characters look like they're slouching. I know that Salarian legs bend the other way, but they weren't slouching in the previous games.
However, we're talking about a huge game here. I completed 97% according to the in-game tracker, and that took well over 80 hours. That's bigger than Mass Effect 2 and 3 combined, and it's not as if they had stellar animations all over the place (play through the intro of Mass Effect 3, and pay attention to Admiral Anderson if you don't believe me).
The combat system continues to build upon the one used in Mass Effect 3, and generally works well.
For the most part, I find both the exploration and gameplay superior to that of Mass Effect 2 and 3. The writing is somewhere between Mass Effect 1 and 2 in terms of focus and quality, but it's certainly not the massive step down that some people seem to imply.
One difference I have noticed, however, is that it requires more of an investment from the player than any other Mass Effect, just like The Witcher 3. There's something about the sheer scope, number of quests and NPCs, that makes it extremely confusing and demotivating if you're playing it on and off. It just doesn't work, at least for me.
The developers and writers kept referring to the original Mass Effect in the build up to the release, which makes a lot of sense: It's certainly not "Mass Effect done right", but it is more along the same line of thought. Like the original, it's also something of a rough gem that could use some polish, and I don't just mean in the immediate future.
A giant, tech-based worm. Thing. Sort of.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is clearly the start of something new, and I hope they do what the original developers didn't do: Improve upon the current foundation, instead of scrapping huge parts, such as replacing the Mako and exploration with planet scanning. Risen had the same issues; it got some bad feedback and Piranha Bytes decided to start from scratch in the 2nd one. I consider that a big mistake, and I really don't want to see that happen here.
Reaching an overall verdict is rather challenging, as it's quite a polarizing game. It covers the entire spectrum, from rubbish to excellent, depending on point of view. Personally, I really enjoyed it, and I actually consider it the best BioWare game since Dragon Age: Origins. At least once they fix a few more bugs and issues, as it's still a bit rough around the edges, even after the first patch.
They certainly didn't do everything right, but the worlds are very well crafted.
All in all, it's a good game for players who enjoy exploring a science fiction setting, as the setting is still very good, and the exploration and combat has never been better in the Mass Effect series. Players looking for either "Mass Effect done right" or simply a continuation of Mass Effect 3, are likely to be disappointed, as it's neither. It's somewhere in the middle.
Unless this sounds very interesting, however, I would probably wait for a few more updates, as there do seem to be quite a few updates on the way. The updates won't change a whole lot for anyone currently playing it, but they might just improve the first impression, which is actually the main problem the game currently has. In fact, BioWare/EA should probably stop doing trials or demos, as they haven't created a good intro since Dragon Age: Origins.
- Good exploration
- Entertaining combat
- Massive, loads of content
- Setting is still great
- Writing (uneven, good parts)
- Bland characters
- Planet scanning is no longer horrible, but still tedious
- Some of the faces and their animations are off
- Interface, as usual
- Writing (uneven, bad parts)