The latest entry in the Mass Effect series has released amidst a maelstrom of controversy, to say the least. Between the passion for the original trilogy, the toxicity bred from its disaster of a conclusion and the poor early impressions from EA Access trials: Mass Effect: Andromeda didn’t quite start on the right foot. But is it really that bad?
Mass Effect: Andromeda
Platform: [PC], Xbox One, Playstation 4
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: March 21, 2017
Mass Effect has come a long way since its clunky disaster of a combat system in the series’ original title. Mass Effect is a cover-based, third person shooter and Andromeda continued to build on the improvements we saw to the gameplay in Mass Effect 3. The combat is generally smooth and fluid, without too much clunk.
Andromeda has completely changed the way that you build your character. In the original trilogy, you were given the option to select a class for Commander Shepard and you were confined to the abilities of that class for the duration of the playthrough. This system was thrown out the window for a brand new system; combat profiles. Combat profiles allow you to shuffle the class of your character any time you want and you have the freedom to use whichever weapons or skills you want. No longer will you be forced into a specific type of weapon or a specific set of skills because of the class you chose at the beginning.
This is a perfect change to the gameplay overall. Mass Effect has always had a vast amount of abilities that make for interesting gameplay but it always sucked being restricted to just a small portion of them in a single playthrough. I made it about halfway through the game before I started to get tired of using a Tech based build so I switched to a build that incorporated more Biotics which helped spice up the gameplay. For a game that lasts as long as Andromeda does, the ability to reinvigorate the gameplay like this is not a small thing.
However, the most disappointing change in Andromeda’s combat is the effective removal of the tactical element. In previous Mass Effect games, you had more control over your squadmates and you could command them to do pretty much whatever. In Andromeda, you’re limited to telling them where to stand and who to attack. You cannot have them use specific abilities and that kinda stinks. You can tell that the goal here was to make the combat more of a streamlined shooter experience. Not that that’s a bad thing, but the tactical element to actually commanding a squad was always a great feature in Mass Effect’s combat.
But my biggest issue with the combat in Andromeda, by far, is the automatic cover system. In past games, you had to press a button to lock yourself into cover. This was removed in favor of a system where your character will automatically take cover in combat for the sake of fluidity and I don’t think it really worked. There were too many instances where Ryder would pop out of cover or just not take cover at all and it got me killed. While I like the idea of making the combat more fluid and it works the majority of the time, this is a system that needs to be refined a little bit more. The automatic cover system allows for more creative environments but is incredibly frustrating if/when it doesn’t work right and you die because of it.
Andromeda also transitioned the Mass Effect series from a more linear experience to an open world experience, much like Dragon Age: Inquisition did for the Dragon Age series. I totally understand the concept here; the focus of the game is on exploring a brand new galaxy and an open world helps in this area. However, I’m not really sure open worlds are BioWare’s forte.
I really like BioWare’s world design and I think they do a great job of coming up with beautiful environments. The problem comes with filling that world. While Andromeda was an improvement from Inquisition, the worlds still felt too shallow. Andromeda features several decent sized worlds that effectively consist of getting in your Nomad and just driving from point to point for a few hours to check off everything on your list so that you could make the planet habitable before moving onto the next one. Exploring BioWare’s environments often feels like more of a chore than anything else.
Speaking of moving across planets, let’s talk about the galaxy map. The standard method of travel in Mass Effect is getting on your ship and navigating your path on the galaxy map. With the Frostbite 3 engine, there was a clear focus on being wow’d by the space travel. The problem here however, is that there was way too much emphasis put in this area. Every single time you travel you have to sit through a 15ish second cutscene where the Tempest would lift up from the planet, fly through space, zoom in on the new planet and then zoom back out. While that doesn’t sound like a big deal, it is.
The first couple times, it’s pretty cool because it’s damn gorgeous. But then you end up having to go through that sequence five or six times just to scan planets and gather resources to chart a system. Then you have to sit through it over and over every time you travel between planets. On top of that, there’s a cutscene you have to sit through both when you’re landing on and leaving a planet. All of that is unskippable and over the course of an entire playthrough, where you’ll easily travel between planets too many times to count; that useless time will rack up fast. In my 71 and a half hour playthrough, I don’t even want to know how long I spent sitting through those cutscenes. They’re pretty and you want to show them off, I get it; but that’s way too much and it’s something BioWare should absolutely consider patching.
Another feature in Andromeda to encourage exploration is a new scanning mechanic. As you move through these new environments, you can activate a scanner on your omni-tool and identify new things like plants or objects to rack up resources that can later be used to craft different items. Again, it’s another one of those neat little features in theory but rapidly becomes a chore to maintain.
Speaking of the crafting system, it’s not good but it’s not great either. The crafting feature allows you to create a wide variety of weapons, armor and modifications that can be tailor made for whatever build you’re running but it can also be fairly confusing since everything is combined into a big, stacked list for no apparent reason. If you want to craft a level seven armor piece, you have to shuffle your way through all of the levels just to get to what you want even though you have no reason to ever need to see the lower level stuff again. Then there are all sorts of issues with deconstructing items to get modifications back and it’s all a little confusing to understand.
Mass Effect has always had a hacking/decryption mechanic where you have to solve little puzzles for things like opening doors and chests. In each game in the series, this mechanic is changed up to a new type of puzzle and it’s really just a minigame. For some reason, BioWare opted to turn those into Sudoku puzzles in Andromeda. Now I’m biased in that I actually like Sudoku puzzles so I liked them. They were fairly basic 4×4 (sometimes more complicated 5×5) puzzles that weren’t that difficult to solve but I can understand why some people won’t like them. Hey, at least you can bypass the puzzles with an item if you really hate them that much.
Alright, Mass Effect’s bread and butter. This series is built entirely on its story. Yeah, it’s nice to have good gameplay, but we’re here for the story. Andromeda starts off pretty slow and there’s a lot of info dumping early on. Because Andromeda is effectively a soft reboot, there’s a lot of exposition early on where characters feel like they’re just reading out of the Mass Effect history book. This can make the beginning of the game fairly difficult to get through if you’ve already been through it before.
However, I feel like the story really gained traction the later you got into the game. While it wasn’t as strong as the story in the original trilogy, it was still pretty good. I went into the game really having no clue what the story was about, other than settling in the Andromeda galaxy, and I feel that it properly develops as you start to learn what exactly is going on in the Heleus cluster.
I generally don’t care as much for the endings of these kinds of games as I do the journey. Andromeda’s ending was fine but for me, the real strength of these stories is when you’re faced with a major decision. You invest all this time getting to know characters and then bam, you have to make a one or the other decision on the spot. Andromeda had one particular decision like this but it wasn’t quite on the level of Ashley vs. Kaidan in Mass Effect 1. I feel like Andromeda could have used a more finite decision like that to really add an element of permanence to the story. But if a game can stop me dead in my tracks and make me debate a decision for five minutes only for me to feel terrible once I’ve done it, then they’re doing something right.
A major complaint with Andromeda has been the dialogue. Prior to release, it looked like the dialogue was going to be very childish and casual but I don’t think it ended up being that bad. I felt that for the most part, the dialogue was on par with the rest of the series. The removal of the Paragon/Renegade system and the inclusion of more casual/emotional responses certainly added a less serious tone in spots, but I didn’t think it was too bad overall and was generally an improvement over the previous black/white system of right/wrong. There were a couple instances where it was pretty bad but for the most part, it was fine. I would have liked more mid cutscene reaction opportunities though.
I think an important part of these kinds of games is that there are meaningful side quests that aren’t necessarily required but they complement the main story. You’ll have your list of random fetch quests but you’ll also have a list of quests related to things like notable characters and establishing outposts. All of these side quests aren’t required but they help develop characters, establish outposts and some will have an impact later on in the main story.
Andromeda’s loyalty missions are a real star in the game’s story. As in past Mass Effect games, each squadmate has a specific quest chain that you can follow as you learn more about them. These were well designed quests that developed throughout the game and culminated in a mission that would send you to totally unique areas on the different planets you come across. Each one of these missions had a focal point that the squadmate’s development builds up to and how you get involved depends completely on you and how you feel about that particular situation. If you want to get involved in a big decision you can but you can also abstain and allow the character to make it themselves. The loyalty missions were done extremely well in Andromeda and they each had a huge impact in the development of your squadmates.
As for the squadmates themselves, I loved them. The highlight of my Mass Effect experience is getting to know my squad. Andromeda kept the squad size down to six, which was a great decision. A smaller squad makes it easier to interact with everyone and really get to know each character. I went into Andromeda thinking that Peebee was going to be one of my least favorite characters in any Mass Effect game, as she seemed to mirror a character I didn’t like in Dragon Age: Inquisition, but she ended up being my favorite character in the game and my romance option. I don’t know if there was a character that I felt quite the same about as I did with Garrus in Mass Effect 1, but I generally liked them all and I thought Andromeda’s squad was great. However, the non-squad members of the Tempest crew were nowhere near as good as the non-squad members of the Normandy crew in past games. Either way, I love my space family.
The second I started Andromeda, it felt like Mass Effect. It’s been five years since Mass Effect 3 but there was no doubt that Andromeda hit the feeling. It felt like you were right back in the mix of things. I love the Mass Effect universe so much and it did not take long for Andromeda to nail the feeling of it. With the stress on exploration, it really felt like you were exploring a new frontier that felt both familiar and different at the same time.
It was a bit weird to hear dialogue about things related to the events of the original trilogy. For context, the characters in Andromeda left the Milky Way galaxy prior to the events of Mass Effect 3. This means that the characters in Andromeda have a perspective on things like the Geth that are potentially outdated, depending on what choices you made in Mass Effect 3. I won’t call it immersion breaking, but it definitely felt a little awkward to hear characters talk about things that were not necessarily true in my playthrough of the original trilogy.
However, there were two things that did ruin my immersion at times. I was incredibly disappointed that character models were reused and simply recolored throughout the game. There was pretty much one model given to each race and it was just recolored to make them look different from each other. For example, every Asari not named Peebee had the exact same face. The most annoying example of this was Dr. Lexi T’Perro, who was voiced by Natalie Dormer. Lexi presented a really great opportunity to import Dormer’s actual face into the game and create an Asari version of her. Instead, they just slapped her voice onto a copy pasted Asari model; which was incredibly disappointing.
The reusing of models was not exclusive to NPCs either. The enemies and wildlife you encountered on one planet was the exact same as all the others. In Andromeda, you’re limited to one star cluster as opposed to the entire galaxy so I understand a lesser variety in this area but it kinda stunk that every planet in the entire cluster was filled with mostly the same stuff. Buildings were also reused a significant amount, which resulted in every outpost or building you stumbled across being identical. The planets were different but everything in them remained the same.
On a much smaller scale, there are only a handful of areas in the game that should require characters to wear helmets. Usually because they’re in space and you know, it’s hard to breathe without one. Except in at least one of these areas, my helmet wasn’t put on by default. I like to hide my helmet in gameplay and cutscenes but it’s immersion breaking when you’re fighting in space and you don’t have a helmet on. This required me to go back into the settings and turn them on, which was annoying. Again, is it the end of the world? No. But it’s a fixable problem.
Overall, I felt Andromeda was just challenging enough. I played through on Very Hard and it was just hard enough to punish you for not properly using the cover system. If you don’t use the cover system or your build isn’t set up properly, you will die. It’s fairly straightforward. The automatic cover system could certainly make things frustrating if it didn’t work right but outside of that, I never felt like I got screwed over by something that was out of my control.
Graphics & Visual Design
No two ways about it, the game is freaking gorgeous. Bringing Mass Effect to the Frostbite 3 engine was destined for something great and it delivered. Some of the sightlines and vistas on the different planets were downright beautiful. Each planet had its own unique flavor and they all looked phenomenal.
The galaxy map is one of the more beautiful things you’ll see in gaming this year. All the stars, planets, black holes, nebulae, etc. were just so damn beautiful. It’s no wonder BioWare made it a point to show them off. While the animations moving around the galaxy map sucked, I’ll never be sick of just seeing what was in space because it was that damn cool. You can tell that they put in the effort to make sure that traveling through the Heleus cluster looked and felt like you were actually traveling through space.
On the downside, the animation in Andromeda is dreadful. You’ve likely heard by now about the animation problems and it’s as bad as you’ve heard. There are some instances where it’s fine and I eventually reached a point where I didn’t notice it as much but the problem is very much there. This should be a top priority for BioWare to address in upcoming patches because poor animation in a game that stresses its narrative focus is not good. On top of the poor animation, a lot of the characters just look terrible. Default female Ryder has looked horrendous since the day she was shown off and it’s stunning that nothing was done to change her face prior to release. It’s pretty hard to focus on the dialogue when the character filling the screen looks like a wooden puppet or some deformed creature.
The UI and menuing in Andromeda is atrocious. Everything is just lists on top of lists. It takes forever to find anything, the inventory is all jumbled up and your quest log is like playing with a Matryoshka doll. I know this was probably done to be console friendly but it’s painful to deal with. It’s just one of those things that’s not game breaking but you start to get irritated whenever you know that you’re going to have to take time out of your day to shuffle through the menus for five minutes.
Another problem with the UI was related to crew conversations on board the Tempest. As you get to know characters more and as you progress through the game, new dialogue options become available to you and characters will give you more information. On the dialogue wheel, conversations you’ve already had are greyed out while new conversation options are a bright white. However in Andromeda, some of these new conversations are hidden within the greyed out text which you would have no way of possibly knowing based on the UI. So to access that new dialogue, you have to choose an option that you’ve already selected before to find the new dialogue. If you don’t know that’s the case, then you’re likely missing out on quite a bit of dialogue with each of the characters. That’s a big deal when you’re talking about a game that’s 90% dialogue and narrative.
There’s really not much to say here as Andromeda is pretty consistent with other Mass Effect games. The sounds are all pretty spacey, the combo explosions wub the place up and the sound is beautifully drowned out when you’re in space. But much like we’ve seen in past Mass Effect games, the sound can glitch out and it’s annoying but it usually evens out. Again, it’s another small glitch that should be fixable.
The music in Andromeda is fairly disappointing. There’s music there, but I hardly even noticed it. When I play other games in the series, there are moments where the music really helps boost the atmosphere. In Andromeda, I’m not sure I can think of more than one or two moments where the music really stood out to me. Even the menu music in Mass Effect has been great and in Andromeda it’s just ok.
The squad banter in Andromeda is terrific. It was a lot of fun to shuffle around my squadmates and hear how they all interacted with each other. Sometimes your squadmates would be busting each other’s balls and other times they’d actually be discussing something more personal and getting to know each other. While exploring the different worlds, squad banter is so important because it makes you feel like you’re actually out in the field with real people and not just henchmen who happen to be fighting with you. Gimme immersive sounds and squad banter while exploring over music any day of the week.
One of my complaints with the sound in Andromeda is that the volume of dialogue changes based on the direction that you’re facing. Often times, I would be engaged in a more open setting while talking with a character and if my squadmate was standing ten feet behind me and had input, I couldn’t hear them. This made it pretty much mandatory that I paid attention to the subtitles or else I might miss a portion of the conversation and that sucked. There were way too many instances where NPCs were talking and I just straight up couldn’t hear them.
But by far my biggest complain in the sound department was SAM, the AI in your head. SAM is basically the game’s built in tutorial/handholder. SAM will let you know when you can do things like scan an area or mine for resources. The problem here is that, while I do like SAM, he talks way too damn much. The frequency on SAM’s dialogue needs to be dropped because he’s talking every five seconds and it often times interrupts conversation between your squad or other dialogue in the area. A lot of the time, SAM is just repeating the exact same lines over and over again and it’s completely unnecessary.
I really don’t have any complaints with the controls in Andromeda. The Mass Effect combat system has been refined now to the point that it’s fairly fluid and easy to jump into. Again, automatic cover not always being the most reliable was really the only issue here. The addition of the jetpack and evasion mechanic certainly spiced up the movement speed a bit and the ability to sprint in non-gameplay areas like the Nexus was a godsend.
Andromeda is a technical nightmare. I don’t have the highest end gaming rig out there, but my computer is certainly good enough to run just about any game at top quality and maintain a high frame rate. With Andromeda, I was forced to run lower settings across the board and that still wasn’t enough. I had constant frame rate drops and repeatedly ran into instances where things didn’t load properly. Every once in a while my game would freeze and I would be forced to close out and load back in. Other times, enemies just straight up wouldn’t load and then would appear out of thing air once I got within a couple feet of them.
When I initially started the game, there was one particular cutscene that I physically could not get through without freezing and it took seven or eight tries with different settings before it finally worked. In 2017, any AAA title launching with as many performance problems as Andromeda has is inexcusable. Performance is certainly a major area that BioWare should focus on in upcoming patches as there’s a lot of room to improve and it’s a fairly fixable problem.
This area really depends on how you view strong narrative games. If you’re someone who just plays through a single player game once because you’re pretty much all set once you know the story then you likely won’t get much value out of Andromeda here unless you play the multiplayer. But if you like playing through a game where you can have two completely different experiences, then you’ve come to the right series.
Much like the rest of the series, Andromeda is shaped by your decisions. Did you play through as female Ryder and treat your dialogue professionally and by the book? Try playing through as male Ryder and be a bit more casual with your dialogue options. Or when you make it to a big decision, just choose the opposite of whatever you chose the first time and see how it plays out. Maybe try romancing a different character or seeing how much casual sex you can possibly have throughout the game. There’s tons of replayability with Andromeda if you’re into exploring all of the different options at your disposal to shape the narrative.
Look, I love the Mass Effect universe and I loved this game. There’s just something about this series that I get wrapped right up in. I think the reaction to this game has been somewhat overblown but that doesn’t mean the criticisms aren’t accurate. Mass Effect: Andromeda has a lot of problems and it sounds like BioWare is going to go to work in addressing them. A game as big as this should never release with some of the problems that Andromeda has but when you set the problems aside, there’s still a pretty good game down there and a worthwhile experience waiting for you. The problem is that there are just so many damn problems that it overshadows that content.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is one of those games that I would advise you to wait on. If you’re a big fan of the series then you probably already have it but if you don’t, you’re gonna like it. At its heart, Andromeda is a Mass Effect game. It’s a deep story based game that you can easily sink tons of time into just exploring all of the different options available to you. For everyone else, you should probably wait until BioWare cleans it up and by then you might be able to swipe it in a sale somewhere. In the mean time, if you’re interested in the series and haven’t played it before you should definitely go give the original trilogy a shot. I would absolutely stress that you be fairly interested in the series before trying Andromeda because if you’re not crazy about long narrative experiences and sci-fi worlds then Mass Effect is probably not the series for you.
Mass Effect: Andromeda ends with a lot of loose ends and it’s fairly clear that they wanted to leave the door wide open for a sequel. I can’t imagine that this game won’t get at least one sequel so make sure you keep your save files so that you can import them over whenever that game happens to come out. In the mean time, I’m gonna get ready for a New Game+ Insanity playthrough.