Mass Effect Andromeda review: Star Trek, The Last Generation
Sadly, Andromeda doesn't live up to 2017's already stellar lineup of exceptional RPGs.
For a game that asks you to slip on some space boots and reach for the stars, the Mass Effect series sure hasn't been stellar for a long time. The last game, Mass Effect 3 (2012), set our faces to stunned when it managed to crash-course a trilogy that was rocketing to greatness. It was the Terminator 3 of gaming. An X-Men: The Last Stand. Matrix Revolutions. It should not have happened.
Mass Effect Andromeda for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC represents a fresh start that's a full five years in the making. It centres on an entirely new cast of characters opting out of a galaxy that's in all sorts of strife. Separated from everything they know by 600 years of hypersleep, this massive ark of pilgrims must fight to secure a foothold from which to effectively start their universe afresh. It's the perfect metaphor for where developer BioWare stands right now.
Unfortunately, this foothold they've secured is more like a toehold.
You've seen the memes and news reports by now. Andromeda is ugly. It features facial animations from the last generation of gaming, and the default protagonists look so comical you'll be reaching for the “always keep helmet on” option in no time. Do not use the create-a-character editor to do a slight makeover of the brother and sister team that is [insert first name] Ryder and [insert first name] Ryder; this gruesome twosome need page-one rewrites. We also recommend you call the twins “Lowe Ryder” and “Flo Ryder”, respectively.
Savvy Internet folk will have also seen videos of a few questionable lines delivered to the Ryders. We can't deny these flavourless deliveries exist, however, we can confirm that they seem to be relegated to the opening act centred on the Nexus (think: a secondary hub not unlike the original trilogy's Citadel area). Aside from a few missteps on later planets, we honestly found that the script and voice talent markedly improved outside of this starter area which is...well, basically a blackhole of quality. Choosing to showcase this area to pre-launch early-access players was madness on EA's part.
How does it improve to acceptable levels? When you're out exploring a new universe, it's wall-to-wall aliens. Almost no NPCs you meet are awkward-looking approximations of humans, 95% of everybody you talk to out on the frontier is sort of expected to have strange dialect and be odd to look at. The only time we found ourselves rolling our eyes was when we met a race of aliens who spoke in ocker accents, had local lizards called Echidnas, and lived in a major city called “Estraaja”. Really, BioWare? That was the best you could come up with?
Andromeda is a slow-burn to begin with, but we found our groove after a few hours. As a Pathfinder, it's your job to land on very hostile worlds, roll about in a Nomad (a much better ATV vehicle than the old Mako) and increase a viability percentage in order to establish a settler outpost. Everything you achieve drips into this percentage: doing errand sidequests, locating mining deposits, clearing out enclaves of evil Kett aliens, or just dropping forward bases which serve as resupply and fast-travel points.
The maps are impressively wide, and the “to-do” icons are thrown at you in fistfuls. That said, your end game on any planet is usually winning the trust of the locals by switching on an ancient terraformer. Yes, “The Remnant” are the new Protheans on the block this time around. Becoming a xeno-archaeologist to solve their puzzle-filled dungeons is a high point in the proceedings, as is watching the seven main “habitat” worlds visually change from Tatooine husks into something more tourist-friendly. Great exploration and watching your meaningful changes ripple across a world is the hallmark of any good RPG. Andromeda nails this.
On the topic of nailing things, bonding with ones crew members (and possibly sleeping with them) is a big part of the ME pie, too. Historically speaking, the initial two human squaddies you get lumped with in any Mass Effect game are rubbish (exception: Miranda Lawson). That tradition continues with Liam and Cora; two adequately-voiced, but kinda boring military types. Once again, it's the aliens that save the day. Personally, we became quite attached to Drack, the grizzled Krogan grandfather; Peebee, the hyper-talking Asari flirter; and Jaal, a curious and contemplative representative of the new Angara species.
As much as we loved watching these team members grow and interact on the Tempest (your Normandy and / or Millenium Falcon) we could take them or leave them in combat. We found their AI to be aggressive and effective, but also a bit unpredictable and flighty. Speaking of, you can hover in mid-air now to deliver aerial assaults, and your evasion skills are much swifter thanks to a jetpack lateral dodge. We love the strategies these two additions open, but that gain is tempered by a loss: EA ditched the old cover system for an automatic version. It works as well as you'd expect in small to mid engagements, but when the chips are down and you need cover instantly, the surety it lacks can sometimes be your undoing.
After an extended period of adjustment, the co-op multiplayer in Andromeda feels pretty mustard. It's a wave-based survival affair that's fun with four mates, and it can also keep the loners happy with daily challenges and a fairly deep unlock system. On the whole, the combat in Andromeda felt enjoyable for us because it gave us the opportunity to craft truly beastly shotguns and sniper rifles, and then use them while we were invisible. We also liked the ditching of the rigid old class system; now you have access to the full smorgasboard of abilities, which allows you to mix and match the best traits from tech, soldier or biotics. You can also specialise in certain fields to unlock profiles to gain extra buffs, and if a profile isn't working you can hot-swap it out in a cinch. Being able to constantly play to your own style feels pretty satisfying.
The way we look at it, Mass Effect Andromeda has skin deep issues that come from a few woozy first steps out of the gate. BioWare absolutely have to be taken to task for delivering a graphical engine this behind with the times (though it still looks fine in the macro sense, some of those planetscapes are gorgeous). That uneven presentation is also haunted by slight, fairly infrequent framerate chugs and loading hitches. It's nothing game-breaking that will ruin the flow of your action in the heat of the moment; they're just peccadilloes which occur in transitory moments which needlessly jolt you out of the space opera and back to reality.
Be that as it may, if you play something for as many hours as this, you acclimate a little and accept the rougher edges. Mass Effect Andromeda still represents primo sci-fi adventuring. We boldly went and lost ourselves in those new stars, thanks to some well-woven political intrigue, ancient mysteries, and the choice and consequence that comes from being a major instrument of change in a galaxy and the leader of a tight knit team.
Those stories, and a bunch of other great ones, are why we kept coming back to Andromeda. This is why we think you should still give it a red hot go, irrespective of its lack of polish. But probably only as a budget buy. There'll be a price drop coming in toward it at light speed right now. Surely.
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