A galaxy far, far away…..
Space is the final frontier. In a galaxy of explorers, you have set yourself apart as the one who seeks beyond the seas of the Milky Way, into true uncharted territory. You are a Pathfinder. One of four representatives who are tasked with guiding civilization into its next great step. The Andromeda Galaxy. Mass Effect: Andromeda seems like a bold step at first. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that rather than a daring follow up to the original trilogy, you have a safe first entry, with a mixed bag to offer.
In true Mass Effect fashion, you begin the game by customizing your character and backstory. Andromeda offers plenty of options to craft your own character, which I appreciated, given that the default Scott and Sara Ryder used in the marketing material seemed very bland to me. Choosing your backstory gives you an early game boost into whatever playstyle you choose, but don’t get hung up on it, as you will earn plenty of points to invest in any combat style you can think of.
Once you get customized you are treated to a quick tutorial mission that proves the plan to travel 600 years to another galaxy with no real idea what threats await was a bad idea. First contact with a new alien race leads to a firefight (don’t worry they’re bad guys) and your mission takes on a brand new urgency. Using your new A.I. pal SAM, you have to fight off the Kett bad guys, and access ancient Andromeda alien tech to repair the broken planets so that the Milky Way can establish colonies. You also have to find the lost arks, play Nexus politics, manage your crew’s loyalty, gain angaran support, gain krogan support, manage your strike teams, establish outposts, save outposts and then do any other damn thing that people can think of for you to do.
My point is this, there is a lot to do in Andromeda and not all of it is worth doing. The quests that sound boring (like mapping an underground river) can lead to battling an ancient alien robotic dragon, while the quests that sound interesting (Anti-A.I. hackers are plotting a terrorist attack) lead to traveling to a bunch of planets and scanning stuff and then talking to somebody. This inconsistency can make committing to doing any side quest worrisome, as you have no idea if you are getting one of the good ones or one of the “go here and scan/talk to someone/something then go do that somewhere else then go do it somewhere else and then you’re done”. Andromeda would have been better served without having these missions at all, it would mean less content, but a higher percentage of quality content.
The missions are scattered across five (technically six) planets that you are free to explore as you discover them. There is a desert planet, an ice planet, a mountainy planet, another desert planet and a James Cameron’s Avatar planet. There are also a couple of planets or locations that are available for limited playability, but not full on exploration. The planets are good sized open worlds that require the Nomad to properly traverse. Thankfully the driving in this game is far more serviceable than previous Mass Effect driving attempts. This Dragon Age Inquisition style works, and helps extend the scope of the galaxy. Each planet has its own resources to mine, outposts to found and general stuff to do. My biggest gripe with the planets is that while they vary in terrain, they all have basically the same wildlife. The same kinds of lizard dogs or hulking gorilla things are found on every explorable planet. Same goes for other wildlife, with only a few exceptions. Just as the planets extend the scope of the galaxy, the repeating wildlife certainly limits it, and can cause the planets differences to feel superficial. The lack of wildlife variety extends to your enemies as well.
The main enemies, the Kett, are who you will be dumping most of your bullets into. You’ll also be fighting Remnant, an extinct advanced race who decided to leave their trigger happy technology behind. As well as other factions scattered about. Within the main enemies, there is very little variety to be found. The Kett have their regular guys, two types of shielded enemy and then tamed animals that I mentioned earlier, as well as a few bosses. That is the entirety of the enemy variety I found from them in my 50 hours with the game. Other factions are more the same, regular guys, shielded guys and some animals. It would have been a great service to the game to have a huge variety of enemies to unleash the combat on, considering that combat is one of the games greatest highlights.
The combat in Andromeda is one of the areas where the game truly excels. Combat surpasses all previous Mass Effect entries with one simple addition, the jump pack. This feature allows for major horizontal and vertical movement that adds a dynamic layer to firefights. Right off the bat series vets will notice how much the jump pack improves the overall Mass Effect experience. Combat is further supported with the removal of the class system. Rather than being locked into a certain class from the start, you are free to invest your points in any powers in any of the three skill trees. Combat, which is standard soldier buffs and abilities, Biotic, which is best described as space wizard, and Tech, which uses a utility belt of tools and attacks to shift a fight in your favor. Classes have been cast aside in favor of profiles, which are sort of like character themes you can equip, that boost certain stats that fit certain play styles. Profiles do not offer the kind of moment-to-moment versatility that the opening mission suggests, but they do help you craft your skill trees, and since using re-spec on your character is only a small credit payment away, experimentation is encouraged.
The only place that combat falters is in power assignment. There are plenty of interesting powers to use in the game, and you can only equip three at a time. The only reason I can think for this limitation is that it would make the game too easy. Once my vanguard profile got to Rank 6, I was an unstoppable tank that was mowing down the games toughest enemies like they didn’t exist. Having access to more biotic abilities would only have exasperated that issue. Combat is further improved by a crafting system that allows you to craft your very own weapons and armor and more importantly, name them. It is a tangible reward for acquiring all those precious resources (GET AS MUCH VANADIUM AS POSSIBLE). The system could do with a little more streamlining, and it would have been enjoyable to outfit my squad with crafted gear, but after some practice you’ll be personalizing your very own arsenal. Your squadmates do have their own skill trees and level up right along side you. Technically there is an option to manually spend the points that they earn on their powers, but I was very hands off on that and just allowed the game to do it automatically and my playthrough didn’t seem to suffer for it.
Speaking of squadmates, Andromeda’s crew is a mixed bag of new additions. By the end of the game every character in the crew has been given some depth, but some take far too long to become interesting. The human characters (with the exception of Cora) come across as the most bland. The Krogan, Asari, Turian and Angaran (new race) crew members are all scene stealers, with Jaal being my personal favorite. Character loyalty missions have also changed from previous entries. Rather than being one time missions to earn their loyalty, crew member loyalty is now earned through multi part quest lines. For the romantically inclined, fear not, Mass Effect Andromeda continues the tradition of romances that culminate in scenes you really hope your family members don’t walk in on. The romances aren’t helped by game’s facial animation, or lack thereof.
Yes its time to address the big poorly animated elephant in the room. Since launch, Mass Effect Andromeda has been plagued by a community that refuses to settle for its frankly shoddy facial animations. Characters are stiff mannequins during dialogue and Ryder makes bizarre eye movements that I suppose are supposed to make him look alive but instead make him appear inebriated. Other technical issues include texture pop ins and frame drops while traversing planets in the Nomad. While these are serious issues that should have been fixed in development, I think Andromeda would have cemented its place as a perfect Mass Effect follow up if it had taken risks with its story.
Mass Effect Andromeda’s story is not bad. It just simply does not stand out. This is due in part to Bioware pulling back on giving big, game changing decisions to the player. Decisions like choosing between Ashley and Kaidan in the first Mass Effect, or choosing between the council and civilians at the end of that game are nowhere to be found. Andromeda is absent all of these major decisions and instead peppers in some interesting choices that don’t seem to affect the game in any meaningful way. Sure you might get some salty dialogue from Krogans if you rub them the wrong way, or the Angarans might give you the cold shoulder if you go against their wishes, but the game moves on with or without these people and soon it feels like the decision has been forgotten. The end of the game features a sequence that culminates all your major decisions into one scene, but its difficult to tell exactly how your decisions affected these actions, or how they could have been different. Beyond these decisions, the story is more of a setup for a great story than a great story in and of itself. Fascinating threads are placed in the game that make me think a sequel (or paid story DLC) is going to expand on this story in a gripping way. The villain of the game starts off as classic big bad tyrant who wants to rule the galaxy because reasons, but there are a few interesting political implications with the character that made him and the Kett far more compelling. Story issues aside, the campaign is filled with fantastic set pieces that blend sci-fi and warfare in a way only Mass Effect can.
The warfare spills over into the multiplayer. Yes the totally not horde mode is back in Mass Effect Andromeda. Thankfully there is nothing obligatory for story mode to be found in the online (thanks Mass Effect 3). The multiplayer is played in wave based coop, where you and three other players take your customized characters up against whatever mob of enemies is the flavor of the mission. When I first started the multiplayer, the missions were described in detail, and I tricked myself into thinking that these were actually missions, when in fact they are just horde mode where you pressed Y on some objectives at the end. All that being said, I did not find the multiplayer bad, nor did I find it particularly engaging, so it will not be included in my final score.
Mass Effect Andromeda is a good game, despite all of its problems. Perhaps my biggest complaint about the game is that it comes SO CLOSE to greatness, but holds itself back with one too many dull quests or a story that is just too afraid to make the big decisions. The combat, characters and environments help keep the game from feeling like a disappointment, but fans of the original trilogy are forgiven if they finish the game wishing for more of the past.