‘For a game set centuries into the future, it’s firmly stuck in the past’ – Bee Bonthuys on Mass Effect: Andromeda
Where other game franchises pride themselves on the realism of their bounce physics and eyeball-searing effects, the Mass Effect series has always tried to emphasise the journey. So it’s pretty disappointing that the newest entry, Mass Effect: Andromeda, unfolds like the highlight reel from the previous instalments. For a game set centuries into the future, it’s firmly stuck in the past.
After Commander Shepard came to an infamously anti-climatic end in the previous trilogy – creating all kinds of sticky plot impediments to continuing the series – EA and BioWare Montreal sidestepped any potential paradoxes by bidding the Milky Way a hasty farewell. This time around, Mass Effect’s arguably more popular races are on a 600-year mission to colonise Andromeda. But the whole plan gets blown to smithereens, quite literally, when their destination turns out to be filled with manga death tentacles, baddie aliens freakishly similar to the Protheans, and a whole lot of very dull side quests.
The setup is pretty standard Mass Effect fare: humanity discovers ancient tech from a mysterious advanced alien civilisation, but evil is afoot and it’s up to a plucky human to assemble a space posse of eccentric characters, open some vaults and sort it all out. It was unlikely that BioWare would ditch the successful Mass Effect formula completely, but trudging through such well-worn ground substantially limits the game’s scope, and players are bound to experience serious déjà vu.
Not helping matters is the series’ new protagonist Ryder, the greatest benefactor of nepotism in gaming history. On arrival in the new galaxy, dear ol’ dad, the previous Pathfinder, shuffles off his mortal coil playing hero, and baby Ryder ‘inherits’ the title (as well as a helpful AI named SAM) and the responsibility for guiding humanity through the minefield that is Andromeda.
Ryder’s inadequacy for the Pathfinder role would be forgivable with some personality to back it up, but the strangely worded script and wooden voice acting makes our hero barely stand out from the background. Luckily, Ryder’s wishy-washy personality and wonky facial animations are no turnoff to the denizens of Andromeda, as NPCs will go out of their way to lavish praise on our hero for just picking up their laundry. The upgraded paragon/renegade morality system does little to spice things up and Ryder’s responses seem to hover between cosy, and slightly miffed. Gone are the days of feeling like a true badass, bitching and sassing your way through the galaxy.
At least Ryder isn’t locked into a specific class at character creation, and their abilities can be customised to a far greater extent than Shepard’s. The new skills, profiles and combos add bucketloads of stuff to try out in combat, though switching between different profiles could have been a bit more convenient.
Ryder’s companions, meanwhile, are entertaining but mere rehashes of archetypes we’ve met before. Liam is the young reckless hothead; Drack is the tough old Krogan who’s a day away from retirement; Cora is a serious GI Jane with Asari separation syndrome; and the turian Vetra is the female smuggler version of Garrus. Kudos has to go to actress Christine Lakin who voices Peebee: she adds just the right amount of free-spirited spark to the Asari’s lines.
The final teammate is Jaal Ama Darav – of the new ally race, the Angara – who continuously informs you that his people are emotionally uninhabited, but delivers his lines with as much passion as mouldy toast. Suffice it to say I never warmed up to him even after an admittedly heartfelt moment meeting his family. Maybe it has something to do with the Angara’s uninspired design, which answers that age-old question of what the lovechild of a Twi’lek and a Na’vi from Avatar would look like.
As with previous Mass Effect games, you have the option to engage in some horizontal fraternisation, but the cringeworthy sappy dialogue is forced, and players who decide to romance one of the male characters might feel snubbed as the female matchups are far more appealing. In all fairness, there are plenty of opportunities to find out what makes everyone tick, which is a definite improvement on the previous installments. Liam’s loyalty quest, in particular, is a neat twist on the usual format of paint-by-numbers side quests, and taking Drack along livens up most missions.
A good designer knows that even if their game’s world and main quest line aren’t stellar, things can still be boosted with some creative side quests. Unfortunately, the side quest design in Mass Effect: Andromeda is atrocious, and can be summed up in one word: scanning. If you hated the tedium that was planet scanning in the previous games, one can predict your reaction to the upgraded omni-tool/scanner combo you will be using a lot. Missions mostly follow the same pattern: pick up quest at point A, go to point B, fight something, scan something, return to A. These missions solely exist to pad game hours, and the few interesting ones will get lost in your overstuffed journal.
If EA wants to keep using the phrase ‘open world’ in their marketing, they need to invest effort into making their worlds feel alive. This requires more than just absent-mindedly dropping a loot crate behind every bush and creating wide empty spaces, or assuming every player wants to moonlight as Roger Wilco mopping up minor space spills, and instead give the player a reason to explore and something of value to find at the end.
On side outings you’ll mostly be fighting the Kett, Andromeda’s main faction of stock baddies and leading Prothean impersonators. Their motivations aren’t all that interesting or particularly inventive, and you’ll be forgiven for humming Star Trek: The Next Generation’s theme as their dastardly plan is revealed. The only other real impediments to getting anywhere are some rebels, the local wildlife and the tech race known as the Remnant (aka Geth 2.0); these add some variance in design, but they’re just mostly fodder. Boss battles aren’t really anything to crow about either as the developers just recycle the same mechanics at nauseam and once you’ve figured out how to effectively deal with these threats early on, there’s nothing to fear in later showdowns.
BioWare has extolled the virtues of the game’s AI in outthinking players through maneuvers such as flanking, but I never really felt like the there was a war of strategic wits underway; the AI doesn’t feel like it’s taken a gigantic leap forward. The tried and tested method of ducking behind the first convenient piece of cover still works fine, and once you have a few pips in the sniper rifle skill bar, the only threats left are the few enemy types who shoot through cover.
Admittedly, the AI feels more responsive in multiplayer mode, and there’s a real rush of adrenaline fighting off wave after wave of enemies alongside other players. Whether the multiplayer option can keep the diehards entertained for months to come remains to be seen.
While it’s not really necessary for survival, except for a few platforming sections, Ryder’s new jump jet is a fun way to dodge fire and gain a better position in combat by scaling whole buildings. It’s fast and smooth and who doesn’t like the idea of being the Rocketeer for a day.
Gameplay aside, Mass Effect: Andromeda is a pretty game, in a girl-next-door kinda way. It’s not as visually stunning as other recent releases, yet there are some gorgeous minor cut scenes reminiscent of pulp sci-fi novel covers. With more patches on the way to improve the freaky facial and character animations, the other graphical bug-bear is the overuse of lens flare. A visual effect should enhance an environment and not be a distraction, but in some scenes the flare is so bright it obscures characters.
Hopefully future patches will also address the gobsmackingly long list of bugs and glitches that are still in the game. They range from minor annoyances, such as enemies slipping through the terrain and Ryder randomly reciting lines of dialogue from quests you’ve completed hours ago, to more serious bugs such as combat not resolving correctly, not being able to complete quests, and save files getting corrupted. It’s sad, but not all that surprising that EA and BioWare let one of their flagship titles ship in such a sorry state.
In the end, Andromeda feels less like a brand new chapter in the Mass Effect story than a superficial set-up for a new franchise. There are choices to be made and secrets revealed, but we never get to experience the consequences of any of these. The game has an air of ‘we saved all the good stuff for the sequels’ about it.
With better pacing and quality control, Mass Effect: Andromeda’s failings could have been bearable, but most of the sit-up-and-take-notice moments are stuffed into the last few hours of the story. The problem is, once you get this far in and finally get to experience what the world has to offer, you’ve battled through so much pointlessness and so many frustrating bugs that that the whole experience is tainted beyond repair.