Review: Mass Effect Andromeda

Posted by: 5/21/2017

After five years in development, BioWare returned to the Mass Effect universe, but this time in a different galaxy. While there are aspects of a good game; sometimes even a great game; the end product is an awkward game.

During my lengthy playthrough of Mass Effect Andromeda, I kept coming back to the word “awkward.” There are many awkward aspects of the game. The combat can be awkward at times. The movement system can be awkward. The way characters talk to each other can be awkward. The Nomad vehicle you drive on planets can be awkward.

But like any other awkward things, there are redeeming qualities in the game. I found myself wondering why I’m still playing Mass Effect Andromeda. At times it would make me angry that I was still playing. But four hours later, I’m still at my computer, running fetch quests and trying to get laid by blue aliens.

While the end of Mass Effect 3 felt like a good conclusion to the Mass Effect trilogy, BioWare and Electronic Arts decided that it was time to return. I do have to admit, it is nice having a modern Mass Effect game. While I consider Mass Effect 2 one of the better games I’ve played, it can feel a little awkward now that it is over seven years old. Thinking back though, maybe the Mass Effect games have always been a bit awkward.

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The Story

Andromeda is set 600 years after the original trilogy. While the Collectors and Reapers were attacking the Milky Way galaxy, the Andromeda Initiative was started.The Initiative is a multi-species group that asks for volunteers on a one-way trip to the Heleus cluster in the Andromeda galaxy. The goal is to find new worlds for the species of the Milky Way to settle. If the Reapers are just going to destroy the Milky Way, you might as well find somewhere else to settle.

A total of five arks were constructed for the initiative. Each ark has their own specie that inhabits it. So the humans in one, the salarians in another, etc. The krogan ride on the Nexus, which serves as the new hub for these arks to dock with after making the trip to Andromeda. But like any sci-fi story, a lot happens in that 600 years from the Milky Way to Andromeda.

When the game loads, you must choose the sex of the human character you will play as. Instead of Sheppard this time through, your last name is Ryder. You can choose from the default names, or choose your own, along with customizing the look of your character. It is a bummer that the Mass Effect games limit you to just playing a human. As I will touch on later in the review, it is imperative that you play as a human in Mass Effect Andromeda. I hope going forward BioWare gives you the ability to choose a different alien race.

So after choosing the sex of your character, the game opens with Ryder waking out of their cryopod after being asleep for 600 years. A weird electrical current has stopped the Hyperion (the human ark), and you chat with your father, who is the human Pathfinder. A Pathfinder is like a super elite soldier that gets sent into potentially toxic worlds to see if it is viable for the Milky Way species to settle. You go to one of the “golden worlds,” a world that has been identified as a potential planet to settle, and of course, everything goes wrong. Through some unfortunate events, your character becomes the new human pathfinder, and it’s your job to find worlds to settle.

It sounds like it could be a peaceful adventure, but it wouldn’t be a Mass Effect game without having enemies to shoot. I was curious how BioWare would introduce a new enemy to the game, and it isn’t great, but not bad. I was nervous they would just have you show up in a new galaxy and start killing people. But there is a threat to the Heleus cluster called the Kett, and you’re job is to clear the threat and also find worlds to settle.

This setup is one of my biggest gripes with Mass Effect Andromeda. Remember how I mentioned that you play as the human Pathfinder? This means that each alien race that made the trip to Andromeda (salarians, asarians, and turians) all have their own Pathfinders. So why is it that the human Pathfinder is the only one that is able to solve problems in Andromeda? Even after you make contact with all the other Pathfinders, they all sit around and catch up while Ryder is running around finding settlements and taking out the Kett. I was hoping that after all the Pathfinders were reunited, you could go on missions together and just wreck the enemy, but I can’t think of more than two instances that you fight with another Pathfinder.

It’s a bummer that for an RPG, there is little role-playing. It would be cool if I wanted to focus on the exploration and settling aspect of the game while the other Pathfinders could handle the dangerous combat missions, or vice versa. This game is filled to the brim with stuff to do, and it does the game more harm than good.

After the first golden world turns out to be a bust, you learn of seven other planets in the Heleus cluster that has been identified as potential planets to settle, so off you go to the first planet. You find out that the atmosphere here is toxic, but you can reverse that by turning on a Remnant vault. The Remnant are an ancient alien race that built structures to control the climate on planets, and these vaults have been turned off (or on, I’m not positive about this part), and only Ryder can turn these back on because her AI implant can interact with Remnant structures. Even though the other Pathfinders also have AI implants, only Ryder knows how to interact with Remnant technology.

If you’re confused, don’t worry. The story is rather confusing, and after 35 hours, I’m not sure what is happening anymore in the game.

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Exploring New Worlds

After fixing the atmosphere of the first planet by doing something with the vault, you find out that there are a handful of other planets connected to a central vault, and if you mess with the vaults, you’ll be able to fix these other planets. This is the gameplay hooks of these planets: land on the planet, find three pillars that must be activated, which in turn show you where the vault is located. You go to the vault, mess with it, the atmosphere is cleared, and now you can settle on that planet. A settlement allows you to wake more people up from cryosleep, which gives you more abilities and the occasional drop of items. You can get a planet up and running in about 40 minutes, but it is incredibly tedious. After I got two worlds back up and running, I decided to just get through the main quest. It wasn’t fun; it just turned into busy work. And just like with any open world game, each planet is littered with dozens of “side-quests” that are not substantial at all. The quests usually involve you killing Kett, scanning stuff on the ground, or fetching items to bring back to people.

It does help that the game looks really good, especially the open world planets that you get to explore. Each planet is unique in its design, and you can get some fantastic screenshots from the game. It has built in Ansel support in the PC version, so you can take some incredible shots during your playthrough.

One of these planets you discover has the Angara; the one friendly alien species added to Andromeda. Other than the Kett, all the other alien species are returning from the original trilogy.

The Angara are fish looking people, but they are bipedal and have two eyes, and like to have sex with other aliens. So they fit right in with the Mass Effect universe. The Angara have been at war with the Kett for about 70 years now, if I am remembering correctly. This information was given to me about 20 hours ago, so I’m not positive.

The first time you meet the Angara is one of the highlights of the game. You’re an alien in this galaxy, and they make you feel like it. But after a few fetch quests and smooth talking the resistance leader (who is resisting against the Kett), you’re treated like one of their own.

It’s pretty incredible how fast these species either like or dislike you. The Kett leader decided within 20 seconds of meeting humans that they were enemies. With the Angara, it takes winning a few battles against the Kett for them to be on your side. It helps that a lot of the game looks rather fake, because none of it feels natural. Instead of feeling like we’re getting a glimpse into the life of all these species trying to cooperate in the Andromeda galaxy, it is like watching a child play with sci-fi action toys.

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The New Crew

A common thought that kept popping into my head while I played Andromeda was “oh yeah, they had this stuff in the original trilogy, just under a different name.” It is like the development team made a checklist of what “makes” a Mass Effect game, and followed that to a T.

So like the original trilogy, Ryder has a crew of people that have decided to follow her around the Heleus cluster. You have your mix of species, but I don’t remember how a lot of them decided to join my crew. I remember meeting Peebee on the first planet. She turns out to be the most memorable character because of the voice actor. She is one of the few that sounds like she is enjoying her time working on a Mass Effect game. All the other voice actors are just..there. Drex, who is the krogan that joined my crew after the first planet, joined after fighting some kett on the first planet. The promise of fighting kett was enough for him to hop on an Initiative ship after disowning the group.

Cora is the most believable to be on the Tempest with you, outside of the pilots and team doctor. She was the right hand woman of your father while he was the Pathfinder, and since you have taken over, she will follow any Pathfinder with the last name Ryder. The others just kind of show up, and can be easily forgotten, except for maybe Liam, thanks to his loyalty quest.

Like the previous trilogy, your crew members have quests that you can go on with your crew to increase their loyalty, and if you feel like it, you can bump uglies while admiring what view the Heleus cluster has to offer. Liam has arguably the best loyalty mission that plays out like a buddy cop film. There is humor, and what felt like actual acting! I finally got to this mission after about 20 hours, but it should have been 15 hours earlier.

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Flying Through Heleus

 

As I said earlier, it is nice to have a modern Mass Effect game. Everything is shiny, and if you can bump the graphics up on a PC, it does look fantastic. I especially loved running around the Tempest, which is the equivalent to the Normandy. Ryder is the captain of the Tempest, so you get your captain’s quarters that has a massive window opening up towards space. Each time you travel to a planet in the galaxy map, that planet is rendered outside of your ship. It is a neat touch that makes it feel like you’re flying around this galaxy.

But the new galaxy map is dreadful. It isn’t a quick and responsive as the previous trilogy. You have to select the planet you want to fly to with a cursor, and what comes next is 15 seconds of your ship flying to that planet. The first few times it was cool, but after a while it is just an inconvenience. Thankfully, BioWare has added a skip option, which wasn’t there at launch. It made scanning all the planets in a system worthless, considering the rewards.

Yes, for some reason BioWare brought back the scanning feature, and it’s even more infuriating than before! The actual controls of scanning is relatively easy, and if you’re on PC, you can scan plants super fast. But what you get from scanning planets include materials, and character XP. That is it. I miss the days of scanning a planet and a small little side quest becomes available. Now you find a river on a planet and get 270 XP.

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Crafting and Researching

The materials you find from scanning planets, or from mining the planets you drive around on allow you to craft new armor and weapons, and they somehow found a way to make crafting even less interesting as a mechanic.

To begin, you can find blueprints of items you want to craft, or you can research blueprints by spending research points you get from scanning things in the world. No, this isn’t the scanner on your ship, but a handheld scanner that you can use to scan plant life, rocks, etc.

Once you research a blueprint, you can go ahead and craft an item with your materials. The UI is so clunky and hard to use that I just found one set of armor and decided to upgrade that to the max. But it didn’t feel rewarding, just awkward.

It’s incredible how many duties you have has a Pathfinder. It makes you wonder what the other 100,000 people that traveled on the human ark to Andromeda are actually doing. A way better system would have the ability to set up research and development buildings on your planet outposts. Then periodically you’d get a message from these centers that tell you they’ve developed some new weapons and armor, and come pick them up!

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Fighting for Survival

It wouldn’t be a Mass Effect game without some third-person combat, and oh my god does Andromeda have combat everywhere. The kett are everywhere trying to enact their master plan of taking over the Heleus cluster, so it is impossible to make it anywhere around the galaxy without getting into some sort of gunfight.

Combat is the least of my problems with Andromeda. Actually, it is one of the high points of the game. I wasn’t a huge fan of combat in the previous games, and while it did become tedious fighting wave after wave of kett, combat is actually kind of fun in Andromeda. Since movement now consists of jumping and evading, it makes it easy to hop around the battlefield and take your enemies out. There is also an auto-cover mechanic, which is so much better than the previous cover mechanics. Now you just pop close to something, and Ryder automatically sticks to cover. There were some instances where enemies were able to shoot me while I was behind cover, which was frustrating, but since it is so easy to move around now, it wasn’t a problem.

You have access to an incredible number of weapons, and they are broken into three categories. There are the weapons from the Milky Way, the weapons the kett use, and the weapons the Remnant robots use. Oh yeah, sometimes Remnant sites have robots that protect the tech, and you have to take them out.

There are a few head scratching decisions surrounding combat that I still don’t understand. The main issue is the lack of medpacks. The previous games allowed you to carry medpacks into combat, and use them on yourself or teammates that needed healing. This kept you in combat and didn’t interrupt the flow.

Now when you’re low on health, you have to find health containers that are spread around the area you’re fighting in, and if you’re low on health, you need to run to one and refill your health. This pulls you out of cover, and the enemy AI has the best shot in the Heleus cluster, so you find yourself dying quite a bit. I still don’t understand this game design, and makes combat that is already fun kind of frustrating.

Your teammate AIs are pretty worthless. On multiple occasions I would find them standing out in the open getting shot. Programming AI is still incredibly hard, but some sort of tactics would be nice, like flanking or covering fire. You can move them around the battlefield, but it feels more like a pain. Sometimes the enemy AI will glitch out and not return fire, which is kind of funny. Sometimes you have to aggro the enemies for them to react. I won’t sugarcoat it, sometimes this game feels broken.

Oh, also the character design for carrying more than two weapons is dreadful. The first two compact down nicely to fit on your back, while the other two hang off your hips and clip through your character model. It couldn’t believe it the first time I saw it, so for a more aesthetically pleasing experience, I only ever carried two weapons.

I’ve written about 3000 words already, and I feel like I’m missing so much from Andromeda in this review. The game feels like every single mechanic or design idea that was pitched by the team was somehow shoved into the game without hesitation. It feels like nobody on the team had the ability to stand up and say “are we putting too much into this game?” It doesn’t feel focused.

But I found myself coming back to this game over and over. There are aspects I like about the game. I like the art, the combat, some of the character interactions, and exploring the new worlds. I feel like if this game had a more interesting story, a more interesting enemy, and a little more refinement around mechanics and game design, it would easily be a fantastic game. But it failed at those points, and at the end of the day comes off as a game that lacked focused during development.

BioWare and EA have stated that this is the first chapter in a new Mass Effect trilogy, and I will be looking forward to what comes next. Unfortunately, Mass Effect Andromeda is an awkward first impression for this new trilogy.

Score: 6/10

Mass Effect Andromeda was developed by BioWare and published by EA for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on March 21, 2017. A retail copy of the PC version was purchased by the reviewer.

UPDATE: Since writing this review, news has surfaced that the Mass Effect series may be on hiatus after disappointing sales and reviews from Andromeda, so it may be a while until we have another Mass Effect game.

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