Here’s the situation – a beloved, epic sci-fi series, though not without controversies and detractors, has its first new release in years. It’s set after the original trilogy so many of us love, and has a new man at the helm of the project. It promises some new faces, settings, and situations, yet borrows some core themes from the original trilogy, and doesn’t necessarily blaze any exciting new paths. The end result is an excellent, albeit conservative, entry. It ticks all the boxes of its predecessors so that it feels familiar, yet offers enough new content that it still manages to feel fresh. This is Mass Effect: Andromeda.
Andromeda is set some 600 years after the original Mass Effect trilogy. You play as one of the Ryder twins, fresh out of cryostasis aboard the ark ship Hyperion, of which your father is the “Pathfinder”. You are part of the Andromeda Initiative, the name for the mission of races from the Milky Way attempting to inhabit the Andromeda galaxy. It’s a bold and fascinating concept, though I would argue its realization in the game is at least a bit tame. Very early on in its time in Andromeda, the ship runs into a celestial phenomenon and events begin unfolding quickly.
Throughout the game, I noticed a trend of streamlined elements, inconsistent experiences, and conservative approaches. There are some additions and changes to the series, but they’re not major. Thankfully, I would say that nor are they missteps.
Within moments, you’re conveniently introduced to your new scanner ability, something you will have to utilize heavily throughout. With a simple press of down on the d-pad, it will present a new view on things, often unveiling new discoveries or options that are imperative to your progress. It works a lot like ‘detective mode’ in the Batman: Arkham games. Although it felt a bit forced at first, particularly because of how quickly you have to use it, it came to feel natural. Sometimes, I actually wished it did a little more.
It’s a subtle addition, but it works well. And that describes most of the other new and modified elements in Andromeda. The glyph decryption, a Sudoku inspired puzzle you’ll have to solve a number of, provides both challenge and entertainment. This is the closest thing this entry has to any of the hacking aspects from past games, and in my opinion, it’s superior.
There’s now a jump-jet, which I found I used as much in traversing as I did in combat. With light-platforming elements now in the series, this jump-jet is essential, but it is also useful for the occasional shortcut. If you aim while in the air from a jump, the jets will allow you to hover while you take a few choice shots. It’s a sleek feature, but it is often a very practical and effective way to land shots on enemies ducking behind cover. On that note, I found the enemy AI to be pleasing in the tactics they used and the challenge they presented.
Combat would fall under the streamlined category. In general, it is fast paced and satisfying. Compared to past Mass Effect games, it has been simplified and sped up. No longer can you pause the action to issue commands to your squad, although you can specify targets for at least a couple of your tech abilities, such as the turret. I did have trouble landing melee attacks, but I’m not sure if that’s on the game or an operator error. I wasn’t crazy about the cover mechanic being automatic, rather than mapped to a button, but, to its credit, it worked well. Ultimately, combat in Andromeda has moved even further from feeling RPG-like, and more like a good third-person shooter.
Seemingly all of the weapons, armor, and skills/abilities from previous games are here, and feel great in the tweaked combat system. You can discover and level up a few new biotic (Force-like) and tech (grenades, mines, etc.) powers, in addition to leveling up a wide range of combat abilities. What’s interesting, is that your options in this regard are not at all limited by a class selection. SAM, The AI “partner” you have gives you the option to equip various class “profiles” that are unlocked based on how you invest your skill points. But rather than limit your options, these profiles augment certain ones. Leveling up in this game is different from others, but I liked it, even if I didn’t take advantage of its flexibility much.
So, as alluded to, a lot of the differences are subtle changes, such as abbreviating how you mine planets from you ship (it’s now a one and done probe if you locate an anomaly, and there is seemingly only ever one on a planet). There is an unobtrusive mining ability, with a radar, much like the one used to mine from space in past games, available when traversing worlds in the Nomad, a six-wheeled land vehicle that comes in handy while exploring large, often harsh, planets.
Similarly, other aspects feel like natural combinations or evolutions of past entries in the series as well. A good example of this is the multiplayer, which is still essentially just “horde mode” with occasional small twists. It can also still help you some with your single player campaign, but now it is more tightly woven into it, allowing you to dispatch strike teams on missions, or play some yourself right from the campaign. It doesn’t have much impact on your campaign experience or ending, as it did in Mass Effect 3, but you can gain items and credits that are useful.
I would have liked to have seen more done with the multiplayer premise. It’s by no means bad, but aside from the better integration into the campaign itself, it’s eerily similar to the one found in Mass Effect 3. It can help round out your experience and extend your time with the game, but it feels limited. Some may come to love to grind in it, but I just see a lot of untapped potential. This is an example of where the development team's conservative approach does the most damage. It seems like it could and should be so much more than just the combat from the single player campaign shoehorned into a handful of relatively small levels.
A notable improvement is that the campaign is more immersive overall. There is no sign of the “level complete” screen that was introduced in Mass Effect 2, which felt more appropriate for the end of a level of Sonic than it did in this series. Instead, it seems to borrow more from the original Mass Effect, with few blatant load screens. Loading is often concealed behind (sometimes frustratingly) slow-opening doors, or prerendered sequences. The first-person animations when traveling across the Helius Cluster in Andromeda also lend themselves well to the immersive experience, in addition to helping add weight to the size of, and distances in the cluster. Another nice touch is the ability to view out of your ship when in space and see your surroundings.
The worlds are better in this game than in the past, but not necessarily by much. Some of them feature large open areas - larger than anything I recall in other Mass Effect games - but individually, they don’t necessarily push any boundaries. Together, they might form a pretty big playable area that would rival other large open world games (ones that usually only feature one planet).
Like many other open-world type games, the large areas can often feel devoid of life and activity, but it makes a lot of sense in the context of this particular game. Even the different cities and outposts having modest activity makes sense now. In past entries, I chalked this up to technological constraints, and while I’m sure that is still a factor here, it at least fits better. Additionally, as more areas of the planets became accessible to me, the greater scale helped pull me deeper into the experience (though in the end, I utilized the fast-travel as much as possible in areas I had already explored).
The graphics are essentially standard-fare for this gen. They’re mostly beautiful, and clearly an improvement for the series. However, the graphics and performance may be where some of those inconsistencies are most evident. Impressive as the graphics are in general, it was not uncommon for me to see details pop in, sometime as close as ten feet away. Sometimes the textures didn’t appear properly, from flickering in the distance to the textures on faces never appearing, leaving them unbelievably smooth, sometimes fuzzy, for a period. Similarly, I recall looking out to a beautiful scene of celestial lights and gases, but the nearby planet and especially the moons were flat and fuzzy.
Some of the animations do a disservice to the game as well. From choppy, Claymation like movement (usually only seen in things at a distance), to several enemies that simply didn’t move at all when I encountered them. Some of the facial expressions, maybe even the faces themselves, can be off-putting, or inappropriate given the emotion of the situation. Yet, a few times I was really impressed by the nuanced and realistic emotions and animations being conveyed.
Likely due at least in part to the graphics, performance issues occur far too often. It can be anything from the framerate bogging down to complete hang-ups lasting for a few seconds. So, while the combat and game in general are fast and fun, you’d be hard pressed to not notice these problems when they arise. They genuinely didn’t affect my enjoyment much, but I could understand if they do for others, especially on a harder difficulty setting.
On the sound side, things are generally great. There’s the occasional bad line, or perhaps delivery, but for the most part, everything audio related is fine. The score is excellent. It does a great job of conveying emotions, and really adds to the experience. If I had a gripe with it, it’d be that it is underutilized. But when it does show up, it is impactful, and that’s exactly what you want from music in a game.
The most notable sound issue I encountered, and remained even after adjusting some audio settings, was that if the camera is not facing a character when they’re speaking, hearing them can be difficult to impossible. Subtitles are on by default, and needed because of this. There were times when I was locked in a conversation with a group of people and was literally unable to hear some members talking because I couldn’t pan the camera to them. Another technical hiccup with sound is that of delayed delivery (or repeat) of information, which more than once left me looking for data or an anomaly that I had already acquired.
Not to downplay the aforementioned elements (or any of their respective issues), but for me, the paramount component for a game like Mass Effect is how engrossing it is overall. This is where Andromeda is somewhat conservative, but at the same time, very strong and consistent. I consider it conservative because of the modest amount of new races, technology, and character types introduced. In addition, there are some eerily familiar themes between this and the original trilogy. I’m not sure if that’s deliberate to play into a bigger plan, recycling, or simply a coincidence. It’s not awful, but when you stop and think about it, you’ll likely notice them.
Aside from that, as mentioned before, some of the way the game and its worlds are presented help immerse you. That immersion is bolstered by a compelling premise, with interesting characters, worlds and situations. A noteworthy streamline here is the removal of the paragon/renegade system, or any overt gauge or tracking for your standing with others. I found this disconcerting at first, but having to actually look and listen to responses felt more organic and engaging.
Of course, some of the missions are a little repetitive, some plots predictable, and as mentioned before, some dialogue a little weak. All the same, so much of what you see, do, and experience, is captivating. When exploring viable planets, you can reach locations that will deploy a forward station, essentially a small pod that serves as a fast travel location, and from which you can receive safety, supplies, adjust your loadout, or deploy your Nomad vehicle.
That’s a pretty small aspect of what you can do. Your job is establishing outposts for your fellow Milky Way inhabitants, making way for more to come out of cryostasis and begin their new lives in Andromeda. Some of the change and progress you can bring about is really satisfying, some of the decisions you’re forced to make are daunting.
The relationships and exchanges you can experience with your squad members, as well as a number of additional characters in Andromeda are fulfilling and feel genuine. There are a number of intriguing characters and story threads to follow. It seems some of the questions and mysteries you can uncover here cannot completely be answered or solved within the game, and I love that! Outside of all of that, there’s exploring, leveling, crafting, and a slew of small quests to ensure you get even further enthralled.
This month, we’ve seen two games from established series bravely push themselves into new territory, and I’ve found the end result of those very satisfying. This game definitely lacks that kind of courage. However, it is 'Mass Effect' through and through, and it’s hard for me to complain about that. What those games achieved is not easy. I’ve seen a number of entries in beloved series try to change and lose the identity that made them great to begin with. Having witnessed that, I know it can be a lot worse than playing safe in a sequel. Really, the idea that so many possibilities for Mass Effect: Andromeda remain, from introducing new gameplay mechanics, to, more importantly, further exploring Andromeda, discovering new worlds, races, stories and mysteries, combined with clear hints that there is more ahead for us in (watch the credits for a Marvel-esque bonus scene), is thrilling to me.
Perhaps that says it best. I could pick apart real or perceived problems in this or any other title, but the bottom line is that I absolutely loved this game. My biggest disappointment after the exhilarating climax was that it was essentially over. My time in this new galaxy, with these new characters and situations, was so enjoyable that I was genuinely saddened by the realization that the credits rolling indicated that the bulk of the experience was over. For me, Mass Effect: Andromeda is like a good book that you don’t want to put down, nor do you want it to end. The litany of complaints and problems are little typos or creases in the pages. You’d be hard pressed to miss them, but you gladly look past them to continue the stellar experience.