Late to the Game: Mass Effect Andromeda - Reviewed

Early on in the press cycle of Mass Effect Andromeda it was conveyed to me by another pundit that the game felt very much like a direct-to-video sequel to the hit franchise of the last generation. For better or worse, this idea stuck with me the whole time I was playing. The whole space opera framework is there: exploration, mystery, intergalactic politics, ancient technology, finding ‘humanity’ in a galaxy of aliens, and even romance. All the boxes were checked, but when it was all put together what we were left with is just a buggy, low-rent, and uninspired husk of a well-loved franchise.

That is not to say the game makes no improvements over its predecessors. The Mass Effect series is far from flawless. The first entry has its fans (myself included), but has some pacing issues and flawed combat. Mass Effect 3 still to this day incites heated discussion on its endings and story choices. It can be said that the ending of Mass Effect 3 put BioWare in a bad position to try to continue the narrative thread, but I think that is an excuse. Creative teams can do great things, I will continue to expect more from my games, doubly so from a massive studio and a beloved franchise. Andromeda was not created by the same studio as the original trilogy, its development was shifted primarily to BioWare Montreal. It would be unfair to shift all the blame to that, and there is clearly a lot going on in a development of a game of this scale, but I think it is noticeable that some of the minds behind the past titles were absent here. Especially in its characters and storyline.

Mass Effect Andromeda is a story of the intelligent life of the Milky Way coming together to explore and colonize the Andromeda Galaxy. There is a rich entrepreneur, and thousands of individuals all with their own reasons for leaving. Some wish for an escape to have a fresh start, others to explore and blaze a trail, and even some folks turning to the stars for the noble cause of understanding. These are classic sci-fi concepts, but leaned heavily in the direction of space pioneering and exploration. This type of story, the story of space being the ‘final frontier’ is well-worn territory. That doesn’t mean this idea isn’t deserving of a fresh perspective, but it makes it all the more of a minefield during attempted re-imaginings.

This cast of characters feels a little familiar, doesn't it?

In Andromeda the player can establish outposts for the new colonists, and early in the game this is made out to be the solitary goal of your mission into deep space. There is something satisfying and real to doing this the first time in Andromeda. There is an endearing grit to the colonists who are just trying to start a new life. Talk from the outposts show citizens willing to work through the harsh environment. It was something that I wanted to like, but couldn’t get away from how forced it felt. The story of Andromeda is one of people settling in far away places from the very beginning, after after a dozen or so hours in I had all but forgotten about it. You spend so little time on the Nexus and thinking about the colonists as you are pursuing the ‘ancient technology and evil aliens’ it's easy to forget why you are there. There was so much room for this story to be personal, but it feels all for naught when you can beat the entirety of the game without establishing any additional colonies. This is on purpose to try and streamline the game and combat the problems typically faced by open world games, but what it did more so than that was just make everything appear meaningless and flawed, something somewhat indicative of my entire experience with Andromeda.

Outside of one tragic flaw, the combat has made serious strides since its entries in the last generation. I appreciate efforts to streamline combat and take lessons from modern action games with a squad component, but I cannot agree with making this ‘improvement’ at the cost of squadmate power control. Even going back to BioWare and the series’ roots to Knights of the Old Republic, a game more than a decade old, the ability pause the game and activate abilities of your squadmates has been available. Taking it away from the player after three games was a disappointment. The movement and gun-play are at their best in the series, and the expanded powers and combo system is intuitive and satisfying. Where it broke for me was having to change up the build of my character because I could not reliably get my squadmates to use their abilities in combination with mine. The different armor and shield typed enemies return, but my hopes to role-play a psychic space-wizard were quickly dashed when I realized I was almost completely incapable of damaging heavily armored enemies. On the other hand, this allowed me to use the skill reset system to experiment with builds that ultimately landed me with one that was a ton of fun, but I still think I have a problem with the system in principle. I was made to change my character’s abilities and personal narrative because of the removal of a system that was not problematic for the series. That is something that I cannot easily write off for the sake of streamlined systems.

Get used to this space truck, you'll spend far more time with it than you care to

The streamlines don't just stop with RPG and combat systems. The character interactions and the side content feels ‘streamlined’ as well.  You’re free to explore your ship and get to know your crew, and can do the same planet-side. Conversations choices still exist and you are able to get to know more about the Ryder and the crew as you please. The binary Paragon vs. Renegade system has been removed in favor of more options, but when the different options have little change to the outcome they are just are mostly as meaningless as the most of the sidequests themselves. As it turns out, even in Andromeda people have the same stereotypical sidequest problems. I lost my macguffin, my child needs help, my loved one is being framed, it’s all there. I know that this is par for the course but in 2017 i expected more than what is was offered in a late 2000’s MMO. The teammate ‘loyalty’ missions can be a high point in a sea of rote side content, but even they can be poorly paced, and sometimes whole major narrative threads complete with almost no pomp and circumstance. Imagine finding damning evidence of a racist dealing in subtle machinations affecting the future of alien life in your new galaxy. Your riding high on your sense of justice as you hand the evidence, and then you are ‘rewarded’ with your quest being put on hold and your crew member of whom you were working with saying absolutely nothing about it.

I felt similarly about the romance options. I enjoyed the novelty of the romance in the early Mass Effect games, but as the series went on the systems got more robust and the characters more interesting. I felt like I had a real connection to some of them, even when some of them only made an appearance in one game. I am a firm believer in the idea that if I can romance a sexy alien, I will. People are boring, and I can romance them in real life. I was able to successfully do so in Andromeda, and I was pleased with the fact that I was able to ‘flirt’ with other people that have incompatible orientations. It was nice to see new dialog, even if that dialog was associated with yet another disappointing put down from a sexy alien. The unfortunate part was that it was all underlined with the flirt system taking out the mystery out of it. As someone who is terrible at flirting in real life, I would appreciate it if a heart appeared over a thought of what to say. In a game I would like to have to put in a little more effort that doesn't just boil down to ‘click the option what got the heart on it.’

I could go on and on about the technical issues, immersion breaking bugs, leaden dialog, unlikable characters, but it’s all already been said. At every turn, Mass Effect Andromeda takes away choices from the player in favor of options. Coming from a series where your actions have serious repercussions in multiple areas down the line, meaningless dialog choices make the game feel dull. If you love Mass Effect as a series, you might find some redeeming value, but even after 60 hours I found it hard to make too many good arguments about the game. If you enjoy the combat, check out the multiplayer. As much as it pains me to do so, I would have to say unless you are amongst the most die-hard of fans or someone who has played literally every other game that came out in 2017, I would pass on this one.

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-Justin Wicker