My first five hours with Mass Effect: Andromeda weren’t just disappointing, they were flat-out bad. I rarely went ten minutes without encountering a glitch such as floating enemies or huge frame rate drops. The characters were dull and their dialogue cringe-inducing. My mission log filled up with pointless fetch quests, and the user interface seemed designed to fry my brain.
Forty hours later, I can look back on satisfying loyalty missions with my crew and half-decent combat. Unfortunately, the main story never improved, the dialogue remained clunky, and performance issues continued to plague the experience. Andromeda occasionally threatened to reach the giddy heights of mediocre, however, much like the frame rate trying to stay at 30FPS, it never succeeded for more than fleeting moments.
I’m prepared to excuse the slow start to the story due to the sheer quantity of baggage weighing on the game. Andromeda is the fourth game in a series adored for its science-fiction storytelling, romance options, and alien races. Andromeda elects to ignore most of the Mass Effect trilogy by cryogenically freezing its main cast between the events of Mass Effect 2 and 3, and sending them to the Andromeda galaxy with a mission to establish colonies for humans and other races from the Milky Way. After a 600-year voyage, the largely human crew wakes up to find its arc has crashed into a mysterious substance known as the ‘scourge.’
You play as either Sara or Scott Ryder, and quickly end up with the illustrious ‘Pathfinder’ designation, tasked with finding new worlds on which to establish outposts for humans, asari, krogans, turians, and salarians.
This set up has a lot of potential for someone like me who enjoys exploring space in games; however, the execution is woefully lacking and events that should be mysterious and intriguing fall completely flat. Nothing proves this point more than the underwhelming experience of meeting your first new alien species. With five years of development time, the best Bioware Montreal could come up with for an enemy was the kett; a race that looks like leftover concept art from the protheans in the original trilogy. The kett serve as the main cannon fodder that you’ll be firing bullets, lasers, and biotic weapons at for forty or so hours.
In addition to the kett, there’s a race called the angara, who are native to the Andromeda galaxy. The angara are initially a touch hostile to the Milky Way races, who, let’s remember, have appeared out of nowhere with a desire to claim planets for their own. It’s hard to blame the angara for being a touch dubious, given that the kett have been killing and kidnapping them for years.
I’ve always found aliens to be the most interesting crewmates in Mass Effect games and Andromeda continues that pattern, albeit more by default. Cora and Liam, the two human teammates, are largely forgettable, but I liked Peebee (asari), Vetra (turian), Drack (krogan), and Jaal (angaran). Salarians are back too, albeit they get the short end of the stick story wise. Your pilot, Kallo, is the main salarian you’ll interact with. He comes up with a few quips if you flirt with Suvi within his earshot, but other than that he’s largely invisible. I’d have liked a few more new alien races. Even though many of the existing races are represented, the vast majority of the characters you’ll interact with are human or angara. The new galaxy ends up feeling less diverse than the Milky Way, which is quite an achievement.
Ryder’s first mission is to set up an outpost on Eos and make the planet viable for settlers. This involves terraforming the planet by activating a mysterious vault belonging to a synthetic race known as the remnant. Ryder can activate these vaults thanks to an AI known as “SAM” who is so closely connected to her that he can’t be removed without her dying. The remnant vaults are effectively puzzle dungeons, although that may be playing a little fast and loose with the word ‘puzzle.’ You just interact with terminals for the most part. Occasionally you’ll need to interact with them in a certain order. If you can count to four, you won’t have too many problems here. A few Sudoku-style puzzles are thrown in for good measure. At least the frame rate holds up for those.
Once you’ve set up an outpost on Eos, it’s time to do it again on another planet. And again. And again. There’s little driving the plot forward, beyond a vague desire to establish outposts. A noble aim, to be sure, but noble and exciting aren’t always the same thing. Andromeda has a huge problem with its main plot or lack thereof. It’s dull and repetitive from the first mission to the last. About half way through, there’s a vague attempt to flesh out the main nemesis, the Archon, but far too much information is held back on the presumption of a sequel. Maintaining a balance between a satisfying narrative and teasing a sequel or two is always challenging. Andromeda leaves questions unanswered, but the game is so bad I don’t care about the answers to those questions.
Andromeda marks a drastic shift away from role-playing game mechanics in both story and combat. The only way you truly roleplay as Sara or Scott Ryder is deciding their appearance and who they try to have sex with. You’ll only make one choice that impacts the ending in a meaningful way, and it’s one of those annoying fifty-fifty choices where you’ll always upset someone no matter what you do. You aren’t given the option to explain your actions to the offended party, but it doesn’t matter because they’ll forget about it after a short cut-scene. Likewise, near the beginning, a base building narrative of sorts is teased. You have to decide whether to prioritize science or military personnel to be awoken from cryo sleep. It feels like a big deal and your decision results in a minor uprising on the ship. However, after the protest has been quashed, you’ll never have to think about it again. You can choose which pods to wake up next by interacting with a terminal, but it makes no difference to the narrative other than granting you a few free minerals and research points.
Andromeda does away with the paragon/renegade system and now lets you respond in four different ways during conversations. As someone who hates the obvious good vs evil thing, it was refreshing to respond differently depending on the circumstances without worrying about screwing up relationships with my teammates. I responded logically, passionately, casually, and professionally as the situation called for it. However, your responses have nearly zero impact on how the game plays out, so all you’re doing is choosing what line you want to hear come out of Ryder’s badly-animated lips.
The dialogue is dreadful. When you talk to someone for the first time they dump their life story on you immediately. Ryder has zero authority in her voice, so conversations with the Archon are laughable. No wonder he’s confident of victory. Most of the crew are dull, and none of them are funny. Peebee does at least ask interesting questions when you’re out on missions, so I’d recommend mixing her up with Drack or Jaal to get some insight into their lives.
The complete lack of influence over the story is a huge disappointment following the loyalty missions of Mass Effect 2. Loyalty missions return in Andromeda, but they have no impact on the ending, or indeed anything else. Perhaps this is a response to the criticism of Mass Effect 3’s ending. Bioware might be hoping to avoid complaints about a lack of choice over the ending by never presenting the illusion of choice in the first place. Whatever the reason, it’s a disappointing omission and destroys any semblance of replay value.
Andromeda’s not all bad. The combat system can now stand on its own as a fun experience instead of just being ‘acceptable for an RPG.’ The jetpack, customizable weapons, and biotic powers will have you zipping around the battlefield dealing damage like a badass. The jetpack is my favorite introduction by far. You can use it tactically to reach the high ground or just hover in the air and rain fire down from above. The added mobility is essential thanks to the finicky automatic cover system that often leaves you exposed when you least expect it.
As you level up, you get skill points to invest in three categories: combat; biotics; or tech. Combat is mainly guns and health, while the biotics and tech branches teach you skills like shockwave, cryo-freeze, and incinerate. There are plenty of fun skills to choose from, although you can only equip three at a time and I suspect most players will stick with the same ones for most of the game. You’ll want to select a skill that ‘primes’ enemies and one that ‘detonates’ them. I’m mentioning this in my review because the game doesn’t bother explaining this important aspect of combat.
Not all of the changes to the combat are positive. You can no longer direct your teammates beyond basic ‘go here,’ ‘go there’ commands. I never liked micromanaging combat anyway, but removing the option seems like a backward step.
Talking of backward steps… the UI is one of the worst I’ve seen in a decade. Everything is buried under sub-menus, and comparing weapons is cumbersome beyond belief. It’s easier to see the gun’s backstory than it is the rate of fire. If you want to develop new weapons or armor, you’ll need to research them first and hope you have enough of the required minerals to develop them. By the time you’ve found the minerals you need, you might be ready for a higher level gun and then you’ll need different minerals. Planet scanning is back, so that’s one way to up your mineral collection, assuming you’re okay with constant fifteen-second load screens as you ship moves from planet to planet.
The sheer amount of different materials and currencies to collect is overwhelming and would make a mobile game developer blush. In addition to various minerals, there are credits, three types of ‘research points’ to develop new weapons, ‘Andromeda points’ to open up cryo pods, and ‘mission points’ to employ new strike teams to send out on missions that have no impact on the story. It’s exhausting. Fortunately, unless you’re playing on the harder difficulties, you can ignore most of these options. I never spent a single credit in my playthrough on medium difficulty.
The dreadful UI extends to your quest log. When exploring the planets, you’ll quickly get inundated with quests that the game lumps into various categories and sub-categories. You can safely ignore anything labeled as a task. In fact, I insist on it. As an example, one of these tasks had me going to three different hologrammatic machines about fifty feet apart to collect three different emails.
Speaking of email, technology is a real mixed bag in the future. Ryder can communicate from planets via holographic conversations (when the story decides that’s okay), but reading email is complicated. Ryder can only access her own email on the ship which means it often gets forgotten about or ignored. That’s a shame because some of the game’s best writing is found in these emails. The krogan, Drack, made me laugh a couple of times, by sending me pictures of guns to cheer me up, or getting caught out in a “Nigerian Prince” email scam.
If you concentrate on priority ops and ‘allies and acquaintances’ missions you’ll have a better time with the game, although even these could use some tweaking. The typical ally mission has you going to a planet to join in a conversation, then going back to your ship, then going to another planet for another conversation, and then, just as you’re getting invested, the mission will be put ‘on hold’ for an indeterminate amount of time.
At least the loyalty missions have a decent payoff. They are the best quests in the game by a long way, including the main story missions. I formed a bond with a couple of my teammates and ended up liking all of them, even if Liam is the most boring character in a Mass Effect game to date. I can’t say any more to avoid spoilers, so I’ll just say that you should stick with the ally missions even when you see ‘on hold’ for the twenty-seventh time. The ending is usually worth it.
The Mass Effect series is known for its romance options, and Andromeda doesn’t disappoint in that aspect. In my playthrough as a bisexual Sara, I initially flirted with everyone I met, but in the end, I settled down and didn’t want to betray the character I felt most attached to. The writing in these scenes is often cheesy, and yet I found myself laughing with it, instead of at it. Maybe I just have lower standards when it comes to dialogue for intimate scenes in video games. Or maybe it’s just because I’m a sucker for redheads. It wasn’t until I came to write this review that I noticed I never ‘sealed the deal’ with my companion of choice. I don’t care. Not because of apathy. The bond my Ryder formed with her crush was enough for me to feel a connection without the need to go back and see an awkward sex scene.
Even the parts of Andromeda I enjoyed were often ruined by the game’s many niggling problems. For example, there’s an interesting side quest involving lost memories that reveal touching moments from Ryder’s past. It’s powerful stuff, but the process of obtaining those memories is typical open-world nonsense that makes little sense and detracts from the overall experience. Worst of all, you’re not allowed to discuss the big reveal with any of your teammates. It’s never mentioned again. This important side quest was clearly developed in complete isolation from the rest of the game, and it’s yet another example of the lack of care in the story telling.
I had similar issues with the graphics. On the one hand, you have beautiful and varied planets, with all the different environments you’d expect if you played a platform game in the nineties. When you stop to stare, it can often be breathtaking. Unfortunately, you’ll need to stop and stare, because when you move you’ll notice flat textures, dreadful pop in, and regular drops in frame rate, especially during heavy combat or when driving the NOMAD around the planet’s surface. While in the NOMAD, my game would often freeze for an entire second, as if I’d hit some invisible loading zone. Add in floating enemies, dreadful animations, walking through walls, and game breaking bugs, and you’re left with a game that feels at least six months from being finished.
Mass Effect: Andromeda offers the dream of exploration in a distant galaxy, but every time the dream looks like it’s within reach, it’s snapped from your grasp by poor quest design, performance problems, or simply mediocre writing. I never once cared about the kett. The remnant technology littered around Andromeda hinted at an interesting story, but after three planets it quickly became clear that this was only background content. Perhaps a more interesting story has been held back for a sequel, assuming Andromeda sells enough to justify one. If there is a sequel, I doubt I’ll play it.
NOTE: I have not included discussion on the multiplayer in Mass Effect: Andromeda. When I was playing the game for review, the multiplayer barely worked, with regular disconnects, problems finding matches, and lag. This should probably count against the game, but I’ve decided to just leave multiplayer discussion out of this review, which is what many mainstream outlets do anyway when the online functionality isn’t working at release.