Mass Effect: Andromeda
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Andromeda demonstrates the way the studio’s craft has matured; it just buries the lede a few dozen hours into the game
Developer BioWare Publisher EA Format PC (tested), PS4, Xbox One Release Out now
Every Mass Effect game is the product of experimentation and compromise. The central proposition of these games – a space opera that you control – has held steady. Yet BioWare has never settled on the type of game that should be built around that ambition. Is it an RPG? A linear thirdperson shooter? An open-world game? With each new entry, these parameters have shifted. Andromeda represents another attempt to answer those questions – and again BioWare has some, but not all, of the answers.
The latest entry uproots the series and transplants it to a new galaxy, 600 years after Shepard’s campaign to defeat the Reapers. You play as Ryder, a young explorer who’s thrust into the role of Pathfinder – a combination of soldier, scout, diplomat and researcher – for the Andromeda Initiative, an effort to find a new home for the races of the Milky Way in Andromeda’s Heleus Cluster. All is not well in Heleus, as ark ships full of cryo-frozen colonists find themselves contending with ancient alien relics and a hostile race called the Kett.
Despite this new galactic frontier, much about Andromeda is familiar. The Milky Way races bring home with them, assembling a new space station called the Nexus that stands in for the Citadel. Colonists include the Asari, Turian, Salarian and Krogan, some of who serve as companions and crew on Ryder’s ship, the Tempest – a smaller, slicker, exploration-tuned version of Shepard’s Normandy. Even Andromeda mirrors the Milky Way in several respects. Ancient Remnant tech recalls the original trilogy’s Protheans, and the locals adhere to the Star Trek-honouring tradition of being essentially just weird-looking people.
This puts Andromeda’s opening hours in the awkward position of reintroducing the familiar while also introducing the supposedly-but-not-really unfamiliar. Both pace and plot struggle to overcome these early hurdles, requiring the player to meet the game more than halfway. BioWare’s love for ever-larger open worlds packed with fetch quests doesn’t help, throwing scattered objectives at an already-cluttered UI as Ryder makes landfall on his or her first alien world.
It gets better, however – a lot better. You’ll play through a substantial amount of story, and potentially invest even more time exploring each planet, before you really hit the meat of what traditionally comprises a Mass Effect game. There are loyalty missions for your crew, vital side plots, and marvellous set-pieces to be discovered, but it could easily take 40 hours or more before you see any of them. The upside is that the things you expect from a Mass Effect game are here, incorporated into a game of greater scope than any previous entry in the series. The downside is that they’re gated off by mid-campaign plot developments that easily distracted, or completionist, players may take many hours to reach.
This is a trade-off that positions Andromeda in opposition to Mass Effect 2, which provided exciting moments and character development at a steadier clip. Given that ME2 was the point at which the original series came alive for most, this is a questionable change of direction. It’s a shame because Andromeda’s character writing is among the most accomplished in the series, and in Ryder it finds a more nuanced protagonist than Shepard. In true BioWare tradition these moments are contrasted against some truly dire dialogue, and the main plot lacks the impetus of Shepard’s against-all-odds crusade. Even so, Andromeda demonstrates the way the studio’s craft has matured; it just buries the lede a few dozen hours into the game.
Combat is much improved, too, marking the most successful reconciliation of the series’ RPG and shooter roots. Extensive character and gear upgrade options change the way you and your guns operate, allowing you to construct your own playstyle as you progress. Your choices also unlock profiles, which are top-level bonuses tied to specific approaches to fighting. Despite being limited to three powers at a time, load-outs and profiles can be saved as favourites and switched out on the fly during combat. It’s a liberating alternative to the restrictive, class-based system of previous Mass Effects.
Ryder has a rocket-powered jump and dodge, which encourages you to get out from behind cover and engage with enemies in a more dynamic way. Biotic charges can be chained into shotgun blasts, leaps into powerful melee strikes, and sideways boosts into aerial sniper takedowns. When you’re being asked to invest upwards of 50 hours into a game with ME’s repetitive underlying structure, improvements like these are vital.
However, there are, in the series tradition, caveats aplenty. Stiff and sometimes glitchy animation mars a succession of what should be important dramatic moments, and inconsistent performance and texture pop-in can spoil a frequently spectacular open world. Small quality-of-life issues add up over the course of a long campaign, from voice lines being cut off by invisible triggers to a fussy UI that can never seem to rid itself of its ‘unread message’ notifications. Though many of Andromeda’s weaknesses are the result of its experimental approach to the series’ fundamentals, these issues suggest that BioWare needed more time to smooth out the sharp distinction between Andromeda’s peaks and troughs. Its premature launch, a convenient fortnight before the close of EA’s financial year, has resulted in an inconsistent piece of work that has little chance of reaching the heights of its predecessors at their best. An earnest attempt has been made to create a new identity for a series here, but the question of how to best frame Mass Effect’s narrative strengths is, once again, left open.