Mass Effect: Andromeda is a huge game, filled with sidequests to complete, gear to unlock, and relationships to build. Its aspirations are lofty, but the quality of these elements spike too often, creating peaks-and-valleys of enjoyment. There is fun to be had in BioWare’s latest sci-fi action RPG, but you’ll have to search the stars for it.
Taking place some six-hundred years after the original series, Mass Effect: Andromeda puts players in the space-boots of Pathfinder Ryder. After leaving the Milky Way behind, humans and other aliens are trying to colonise a section of the Andromeda galaxy. First contact stories play a major part, but the writers dedicate a lot more time in trying to expound on mankind’s need to explore and learn.
That philosophy of self-improvement, and bettering ourselves by expanding our horizons, works in something like Star Trek because it’s episodic; forty minutes can be used to explore the issues that such a broad concept introduces – identity, culture, colonialism. In Andromeda you’re kicking down doors while brandishing a gun, yelling “boy I sure do love exploring!” It’s all very surface level, and pie-in-the-sky.
Running parallel to this is a more conventional Hollywood blockbuster story, dealing with a race of evil aliens and their tyrannical overlord. There are some predictable twists and turns along the way, but they help keep the momentum up, and add some stakes to humanity’s colonisation efforts.
In-between both these extremes are countless sidequests. While some are particularly engaging and tell little stories all their own, the majority all follow a similar structure: scan some objects, talk to a person, repeat. They’re dull, and in a world where The Witcher 3 exists, more than a little disappointing.
The quality of writing and performance stitching this all together varies wildly. Conversations in some pivotal moments are dull due to a lack of emotion in line readings, and the flow of dialogue is incredibly stilted. Your squadmates bring some interesting stories to the table, but you’ll have to invest upwards of 20 hours before you even get a peek at the emotional currents underneath.
When you aren’t trying to befriend (or smooch) your squadmates, combat makes up the bulk of what you’ll be doing. Encounters are based heavily around verticality, with the ability to jump-jet and dash around the environment. Battles early on are your standard third-person shooter fare, but as you grow and expand your moveset, they adopt a more frenetic personality. You can also mix-and-match any ability and weapon freely, and finding a build that suits your playstyle is immensely satisfying.
Progress down skill trees is gated by experience points, but weapon and armour crafting also play a major part in Andromeda – almost to the point of exhaustion. You’re constantly using your scanner to gather research points, which are then funnelled into blue-prints. From there, you’re gathering a bunch of different resources to pour into potential projects. It’s all busy-work for very little tangible feedback.
Managing your gear – both crafted, and discovered – is made all the more overwhelming by a lacklustre UI. Weapons and armour are placed into long and messy lists, which themselves are split into tiers, which are then stratified even further by a rarity rating. Comparing stats is tedious, and tasks you with remembering not only the nature of your current item, but its completely forgettable sci-fi name too. Is the Isharav I’m replacing with my Naladen a three-round burst rifle, or was it the laser pistol that overheats? You can rename weapons during the crafting process, and I defaulted to the rather inventive “Pistol” and “Assault Rifle” to sidestep this issue.
Progression doesn’t stop there though. To mirror your colonisation efforts, an overarching metagame is also present. Andromeda Viability Points (AVP) are earned by completing missions, and making worlds habitable. Cashing these in provide rewards that routinely roll in, like packages of crafting materials or bundles of cash. At no point did they ever feel essential, but checking for them every time I boarded my ship added a comforting routine.
The quickest way of gaining AVP is by establishing outposts on planets, which require you to visit monoliths – ancient alien ruins, which act as waypoints to bigger dungeons. Activating them requires you to complete a lame version of Sudoku. It’s not difficult, just completely boring.
The previously mentioned dungeons all carry their own flavour – be it platforming, simple puzzles, or combat. Completing them not only rewards you with items or gear, but also reconfigures a planet’s environment, making it fit for habitation. Seeing the planet you’ve been rolling around on for hours change in such a sweeping way is rewarding.
On a technical level, the PC version of Andromeda is sharp. The different planets you’ll visit each present a beautiful landscape – some teeming with strange plant life, others with howling squalls and frozen planes. BioWare Montreal have created both organic and constructed environments that feel suitably alien, giving the franchise an air of mystery it hasn’t had since its first instalment.
Exploring the game’s larger planets means you’ll be driving in the Nomad – a six-wheel vehicle, inspired by Mass Effect 1’s Mako. As someone who thought the Mako controlled like a shopping cart on ice, I was hesitant at first – but my fears were unfounded. The Nomad is responsive, while also requiring a degree of skill to master; high and low suspension modes allow you to move faster or tackle tougher terrain, and knowing when to toggle between them takes practice.
While traversal on the ground is snappy, the opposite is true when flying around space. The Heleus cluster of Andromeda is rendered beautifully, but moving between planets and solar systems requires you to sit through 10-15 second animations. Zooming through clouds of space-dust to get a close-up view of a planet’s neon-filled atmosphere is cool once, but having to view it multiple times just because you want to bang out some sidequests is asking a lot.
But more than that, Mass Effect: Andromeda is let down by pervasive bugs. Characters in cut-scenes get locked into animations, or lean on invisible objects. Occasionally they’ll be talking about heady philosophical issues while being embedded in a nearby wall. One very strange bug multiplied the crew members on my ship when I talked to them. While having two identical Dracks fussing around a kitchen is hilarious in its absurdity, it does dampen the more serious tone that the game often aims for. None of these are game-breaking, but they’re constant.
Facial animations are another concern. While every alien you encounter looks totally fine, the occasional human interaction has you staring at a wide-eyed monster. This is strange, as occasionally they’ll snap into more casual postures, having their eye-lids lower and stance relax. It’s easy to wave away these types of bugs in something as goofy as Fallout, but when social interaction is a cornerstone of your franchise, it’s a real problem.
BioWare Montreal’s latest sci-fi RPG is massive, but the quality of its writing and sidequests varies too much for the combat alone to make up for it. Its size and scope delivers on the limitless possibility that a new galaxy should represent, but that complexity has paved the way for bugs that remove you from the experience. Mass Effect: Andromeda occasionally makes good on the legacy of its predecessors, but it never eclipses them.
Keith received a digital copy of Mass Effect: Andromeda from EA for review.