Developer: Bioware Montreal
Release date: 21st March 2017
Platform: Xbox / PS4 / PC
Bioware’s return to the Mass Effect universe soars more than it stumbles in compelling space opera.
History and Setting
I was late to the Mass Effect series, I only got around to playing it when Mark told me it was one of the best series he’d ever played. I picked up the series at Mass Effect 2 and loved it. I played it from start to finish within a few days. That first moment when your ship is destroyed and Shepherd dies in the vacuum of space… talk about a hook! The intrigue was immense and the set pieces were nothing short of spectacular. Mass Effect 3 I enjoyed a lot too. It wasn’t that I disliked the original ending’s outcome but rather the long conversation that led to that outcome. It was still a game I loved so I have been looking forward to Andromeda for a long while.
Andromeda leaves the old Mass Effect behind in the Milky Way galaxy for reasons you will discover during the course of the adventure. This game is set after a 600 year journey to the Andromeda galaxy. The Andromeda Initiative is a planned migration to the Andromeda galaxy by a number of arks featuring some of the main species in the original series. The player takes control of either Scott or Sarah Ryder, the son or daughter of the human Pathfinder on this epic journey, Alec Ryder. You wake from your cryo-sleep to find that the worlds identified as golden habitats, aren’t what were expected while a strange astronomical effect has caused all kinds of chaos to the planned migration. With no sign of a viable world to live on, the human ark must link up with the other arks at the Nexus (an arranged meeting point and a hub much like a streamlined version of the Citadel in the original series).
I started playing the game through the EA Access trial on Xbox. I chose to play as the standard Scott Ryder character rather than go through the character creation screen, mainly as I had a limited time to play through the trial. As the game began, following the explanatory cutscene, the first impressions weren’t great. The much publicised poor facial animations and textures were immediately apparent. While Scott’s skin and facial hair looked fine, his eyes and the lip synching were pretty jarring. While it is disappointing and a noticeable issue, it’s restricted to human characters. The aliens in the game look much better and it became less of an issue as I went.
The other issue while flying towards the first planet was the texture of the Scourge (the weird space phenomenon) and the planets. At least on the Xbox, these textures looked pretty poor and I was a bit worried that this would be the standard throughout but then the shuttle breaks apart in an electrical storm after entering the atmosphere and you’re free-falling into a beautifully rendered world. Down on the planet surface, the game comes alive.
Movement and Combat
As well as the beautiful worlds, the character movement and animations in the open world are superb. You can boost jump, dash, run, take cover, shoot and melee with real smoothness and fluidity. While a lot of games use a sticky cover system, Andromeda uses a very fluid automatic cover system. When you move Ryder behind an object with his weapon drawn, he takes cover behind said object. He can switch his aiming shoulder with a quick push of the right stick. While it’s a departure from the sticky cover from the previous iterations, it works really well. The fluid nature of system makes it much easier to reposition and avoid flanking enemies and trust me, you will need this flexibility. While the AI isn’t anything special, they are far more aggressive than in the earlier games, they regularly force you to move around so it’s a lot harder to sit back and snipe your way through the game (although I still did this a fair bit in the more open areas). The combat may have changed somewhat but it retains the satisfying feel and the variety of weapons and special abilities means that there’s something for every play style.
The game allows for even greater flexibility by allowing players to switch between different profiles during the course of gameplay. This allows the player to switch out skills on the fly and take on different approaches to different enemies. You don’t have to do this, but the fact you can means that it is much easier to adapt to the changing battlefield. Sadly, there’s no such flexibility for the weapon loadouts and teammates. You are stuck with the weapons and personnel you choose when you disembark your ship unless you find a forward station nearby. Forward stations are dotted around each map, acting as fast travel locations and allow you to alter your loadout. This gives you some flexibility but it is a bit weird that you can’t just switch weapons from your inventory as you carry everything with you at all times. It’s a hangover from the earlier games that feels a bit of a forced handicap when there is so much flexibility to other aspects of the game. That being said, it’s possible to carry up to four weapons and a melee weapon with you at any time (after unlocking additional holster slots) meaning that you can be prepared for most situations.
For me, the combat is some of the best third person shooter action I’ve played. It’s fast, furious, there’s a decent amount of variety in the enemies and there’s a good mix between more open outdoor areas and cramped corridors filled with cover. Getting headshots feels suitably satisfying, as does getting grenade kills; chaining combos and slicing through enemies with melee weapons. Perhaps my only negative with the combat stakes is the Kett bosses all feel similar. I’d have liked to have seen a bit more variety there.
The other major criticism of the game has been the writing. Let’s not kid ourselves here, Bioware may be famed for great writing in their Mass Effect and Dragon Age series but every game has been guilty of clunky dialogue at times. It’s fair to say you’ll have seen the scene that features the awful line, “My face is tired.” This comes very early in the game and unfortunately is delivered by one of the most poorly voiced characters in the game. There’s certainly some, “did they really just say that?” moments but they’re not as frequent or as problematic as many critics are making out. There is some really great writing in there too and I feel this has been lost in all the noise and criticism of poorly delivered dialogue. The crew loyalty missions are generally superbly written with genuine emotional, tragic, comedic and dramatic set pieces. Although the crew are perhaps not immediately as memorable as the Mass Effect 2 and 3 crews, I did feel a genuine connection to them before the end. I particularly enjoyed having Drack in my company. The ancient Krogan is not only a great warrior to take with you into battle; he’s also got a wonderfully dark, dry sense of humour. His loyalty mission is a great set piece where the decision making took an interesting twist in my play through. The Liam loyalty mission was funny and, if played the same way I did, contains a massive nod to Star Wars. I won’t go into spoilers for the others but I really did enjoy these parts.
The story as a whole has a number of issues but is by no means awful. The beginning is supposed to be chaotic and messy as the Initiative’s plans go horribly awry but it makes for a messy and chaotic experience for the player setting off on their epic journey. It’s not an ideal way to start the game. It’s not helped that some of the first side quests you get are very mundane. The future of the whole galaxy is at risk but could you take a moment to see if this Turian really murdered his friend or not? The game eventually opens up as you gain more of a foothold on Eos, the second planet you land on. While some of the initial tasks are mundane, your actions are linked to the viability of the outposts you place on the planet surfaces. These tasks often revolve around you making life easier for the settlers, allaying fears and winning hearts and minds. As such, while the tasks you’re set might seem small and insignificant, they have a big impact on the morale of your people and this fits well with the overall story of finding a new home for your people and making them want to stay at the outposts.
There are some plot holes – like why did they put all their eggs into one basket with the arks? Surely it would’ve made more sense to have a variety of species on each ark in case something went wrong? Oh look, something goes wrong! Alright, we’ll give them this one for plot convenience but the story could’ve worked with mixed arks. There are a few moments during the course of the game where you’re left thinking, “Really?” That said, the overall tone of the game is well handled. There’s understandable conflict when the plans go off course and this has led to a series of events the player catches up with as the game unfolds. It’s perhaps not as political as the original trilogy but the old politics is still there, particularly between the Krogans and Salarians. There’s still plenty of intrigue, back-stabbing and delicate alliances that the series is famed for. Holding together the various strands of your alliance feels like a balancing act, especially with each faction looking for any excuse to break from the rest. In this environment, you’re handed more and more responsibility for decisions meaning you’re asked for your opinion on everything. It’s nice therefore, that many of the crew loyalty missions subvert this formula and allow you to leave decisions to your crew mates.
The whole point of this adventure is to try to find habitable worlds. The planets themselves all vary in size but there’s a sizable space to explore almost everywhere you can land the Tempest (your new Normandy). The majority of planets are so large and inhospitable that you need to utilise the Nomad rover to get you and your team from A to B and back again. Again, the vehicle controls superbly well and with upgrades can traverse all but the most vertical of obstacles. It’s quick, responsive and I spent ages just messing about trying to find jumps to throw myself from, especially fun when you find a landing zone that has low gravity… One thing I really loved about the fluidity of the system is that you can actually use you Nomad as cover if you encounter enemies out in the open world. Your character can take cover behind the huge wheels meaning you can defend yourself in even the most open areas. Be careful though, the Nomad is not indestructible (at least while you’re in it).
The worlds are stunning to look at and explore. The first world, Habitat 7, is a little bit underwhelming in comparison to the rest. It’s basically a world designed to help you familiarise yourself with the controls and advance the story. The other planets look absolutely stunning and as a result they are a pleasure to explore. I had spent hours on Eos and numerous trips back and forth before I realised there is a sizeable Kett base on the planet. I just hadn’t explored that way as I was focusing on the main story missions. This, at least for me was a wonderful discovery and shutting it down became a fun distraction.
I have discussed the game with a few of my friends and it seems like we were all playing the game a bit differently. While I focused on the main story and crew side missions, some of my friends have decided to try to do every side mission on each planet’s surface. While I played almost exclusively as a soldier, others have been playing as biotics, technicians or combinations of the three. We’ve all had different experiences. Playing the game my way, there was a lot of back and forth between planets but the story felt as though it was being moved forward the whole time I was playing. Friends who have tried to clear all the activities on a planet have struggled to get into the game as much and are finding it a grind. The only grind I found was from the constant back and forth between planets with the unskippable cutscenes. While I found the cover mechanics really great based on my play style, other friends have found it frustrating and much more difficult than previous Mass Effects. My guess is that this must be related to the choice of character attributes. I played through on normal and although it is by no means easy, it also wasn’t that difficult. Yes, there were a few points where I got killed really quickly but these were generally down to me not realising a drop ship had dropped enemies behind me or I’d over-reached into a room and allowed myself to be surrounded (or I stood in the really toxic liquid!). The point being, if you’re finding the game to be too much of a grind, my advice would be to move on to another area or try changing your play style. You will inevitably be visiting each world on multiple occasions anyway so there’s no point worrying about doing everything in one go.
There were a few bugs evident; again these seemed to confine themselves to the dialogue interactions with NPCs. There were a few times the scenes didn’t display correctly with camera angles being stuck, scenes not displaying properly at all and multiples of the same NPC in the same scene. This is all symptomatic of issues with the animation processes, not necessarily a failing of the animators themselves.
Another bug has been that I’ve had my Nomad disappear from under me while driving on Eos. Funnily enough, this bug has also struck in another EA title, Battlefield 1 which also uses the Frostbite game engine. Driving along, minding my own business when the vehicle suddenly vanishes leaving me stood out in the middle of nowhere. Luckily it has only occurred once and not in a location where it cost my character his life.
Although it might be too much work to completely fix the facial animations, the rest of these bugs should be ironed out in future patches and Bioware have today released a statement to advise that they will be announcing details of their patch process on April 14th. If you want to wait until after this to buy the game, that’s understandable but I’d say I didn’t experience anything truly game breaking.
The game certainly has issues but it is by no means the disaster that other reviews would have you believe. The beginning of the game does not do it any favours but there are some superb set pieces, some great characters, some fantastic combat, some absolutely stunning worlds, some tough choices and some great concepts in here that it would be a crying shame for players to miss out on because of shitty, overly critical reviews.
There’s a ton of stuff in the game and it can feel a bit overwhelming at times. It’s not always made clear how things work. There were a few things I hadn’t worked out until I was 30+ hours into the game. Maybe they’ve tried to cram too many systems into the game from the beginning and could perhaps have left things out so that they could concentrate on the major components of the game. The Strike Teams and the Andromeda Viability Points, for example, feel a bit tacked on to me. Even if I can see how they fit into the overall narrative, I’m sure there are better, more fun ways of handling these activities.
The issues aside, there’s plenty to love about this game. I put around 60 hours into the single player campaign. There’s still a ton of side missions left for me to do and secrets to uncover. The memory triggers was one that I finished up today and without giving spoilers is well worth checking into for all the Mass Effect fans for how the stories tie together. The story has a satisfactory conclusion but there are a ton of threads left dangling that could tie into a sequel or, more likely, planned DLC. I was left satisfied but also wanting more and that, to me, feels like typical Mass Effect.