Unlike many others who’ve played Mass Effect Andromeda, I was able to approach it from the unique perspective of never having completed a previous Mass Effect game. Blasphemy, I know, and something I’ll definitely rectify this summer, but being able to judge the game for what it is, rather than what players expect from it surely puts me at an advantage in that regard. Unfortunately, without the emotive investment fans of the series may have for the game, the appeal may not be enough to keep the attention of those new to the series and pull them back in night after night.
Mass Effect’s largest appeal has always been its grandiose story and lore background. Technically canon, Mass Effect Andromeda takes place hundreds of years after the original series and begins with your character, either male Ryder or female Ryder, waking up 600 years later on an ‘Ark’. These mega-ships carrying 20,000 citizens each have arrived deep in the Andromeda galaxy and are approaching what had been predicted as their new home, when problems obviously arise. The opening mission, headed by your father, the ‘Pathfinder’, is a satisfying introduction that shows off their reworked, real-time-focused gameplay, stunning graphics and a plot that, although somewhat predictable, starts off full of promise.
Unfortunately, after the opening sequences the clichéd plot of the main mission is only second in cringiness to the dialogue, which, especially when ‘romancing’ your crewmates, can be toe-curlingly awkward. This is not to say that all plotlines and characters follow this trend – the quality of voice acting and arc of many characters are on par with other AAA games in the role-playing genre and the various options on the dialogue wheel result in satisfying reactions from whoever you’re conversing with. That said, when two people talk about ‘the L word’ like a hormonal teenager does after popping his cherry for the first time and Gil the mechanic asks if you’re his man or his man, you do question whether the writer has ever taken the hot dog bus to Taco Town.
As you progress the number of people in your crew grows and enables you to undertake various side missions, developing your relationship (platonic or sexual) with each of them. One of these characters that did stand out for their brilliance is Drack, a shoot-now-ask-questions-later, war-hardened veteran whose trust you’ll desperately want to earn as you play through the opening missions. In contrast, there’s the jokey, free-spirited Liam, whose interactions are always worth pursuing, and Jaal, a member of the open-hearted Angara race, one of only two new races to the franchise.
Though declaring this a brand new instalment with very little reference to the preceding trilogy, BioWare’s addition of only two new alien races and a campaign revolving entirely around them makes Andromeda come across as a fleshed-out expansion, in much the same vein as Blood and Wine did for The Witcher 3 and The Taken King for Destiny. There’s a lot of meat if you want to complete all the side quests and establish a base on each planet you visit but the campaign can easily be completed in less than 12 hours, making it less of a ‘Space Opera’ and more of a ‘Space TV Episode’.
Despite the plot lacking depth and longevity, each of the five planets you’re able to explore is incredibly well designed, with cultural and environmental heterogeneity across its vast, sweeping landscapes and a flawless score to accompany your journey. Though initially disappointed by how deceptively large the galaxy map was – you are seemingly able to visit dozens of planets before realising most are either space junk to gather experience points from or non-explorable planets to scan and obtain a minor amount of minerals, each area that I could land on was a joy to explore. I must have spent hours roaming around various planets killing local wildlife and looting badly hidden containers, completely sidetracked from the intended purpose I had when landing there.
From the Hoth-like ice planet of Voeld to the jungles of Havarl and the desert of Elaaden, each planet’s map size and the huge number of side quests that come with it (often of the fetch variety) will fully acquaint you with your potential new home and incentivise you to increase the viability of each planet so that more and more citizens can be awoken from the Ark and relocated en masse to terra firma.
Combat in Mass Effect Andromeda is not groundbreaking, yet it does its job. The need for pausing while selecting skills has gone and been replaced by real-time shooting, using pre-mapped buttons for skills, which you purchase and customise using points gained when levelling up. The variety of skills available is wide, but with only three being at your disposal at any one time, it’s unlikely that people will invest their skill points into anything other than upgrading their favourite three and channelling future points into overall stat boosts.
Mass Effect Andromeda certainly lives up to the information-overloaded RPG cliché, with an endless amount of quests annoyingly split into various subsections and a codex that rephrases pretty much everything you hear in conversations into hundreds of separate entries. In spite of this, the plot is relatively easy to follow and points are laboured to such an extent that anything in the codex worth remembering has been hammered into your head so often that extra reading is rendered unnecessary.
While much of your time will be spent blasting robots and hostile creatures to smithereens, you’ll want to craft much stronger gear for use in latter stages of the game. This is done by scanning alien technology on planets you explore and being rewarded with ‘data points’, which are then exchanged for blueprints and used to craft weapons, armour and other modifications. Minerals and materials used for crafting can be found in abundance throughout the galaxy and are either obtained by stumbling across them while exploring planets or sending a probe to investigate highlighted areas in a solar system. How a smashed up satellite and piece of rock sticking out of the floor can retrieve a similar quantity of material may boggle the mind, but you’ve got to go along with it.
Much has been said about the bizarre facial animations and various bugs people have run into, yet this seems to have been vastly exaggerated. After playing over 20 hours I ran into two glitches – an alien doctor who moonwalked across the ward (more of a feature than a bug) and some server lagging when taking part in a multiplayer APEX mission. I’ve tried to replicate this various times but it only happened once, possibly a result of their money-saving peer-to-peer multiplayer servers or a connection issue on my side. Despite the facial features being of fairly lower quality than other comparable games, I never found them distracting or pulling me out of the game’s immersive hold. This may be due to the fact I played using the default character model, or, as is often the case, the internet could have blown the issue out of all proportion.
You unlock the multiplayer APEX missions fairly early on in the main campaign (they’re instantly available if selecting from the main menu) and these 15-30 minute wave-based operations give you the chance to earn extra experience points and other useful rewards to use in the main story. APEX missions are playable as multiplayer co-op missions or by sending a strike team to fight on your behalf and the multiplayer experience is as solid as you’d expect from a Mass Effect game. The rewards for completing APEX missions are far greater if you undertake them in person, though choosing to deploy a team through the official APEX phone app while you’re busy at work is immensely satisfying.
With expectations as high as they were pre-release, Mass Effect Andromeda was always going to be set a very high bar, which in many areas it meets. The relationships you develop with your crew, the stunning and uniquely varied planets and the robustness of combat are standout features which keep drawing me back in. Unfortunately, its clichéd and agonisingly short plot has let it down far more than dodgy facial animations and occasional glitches, which for a series that prides itself on epic and engrossing storylines, ultimately results in a mediocre entry to the franchise.