Set sail for fail?
I love the Mass Effect series. It’s one of my favourites of all time. On the whole, I enjoyed the hell out of the last Mass Effect games – yes, even 2 and 3 (despite the odd ending). And yet somehow Andromeda sort of flew under my radar for a while. I mean, I knew it was a thing that existed, but I didn’t really know if I wanted to play it or not. But I’ve finally finished it, and my verdict stands. Is it a worthy succesor to the previous trilogy? Or another Bioware failure.
What is it?
ME: Andromeda (now ME:A) is a game couched in ME lore, but in a brand new galaxy, and thus a brand new set of lore. You don’t really need to have played the previous games to play ME:A – it’ll all make sense. The basic storyline is that an outfit called The Initiative have set out from the Milky Way to colonise the Heleus cluster in the Andromeda galaxy. They set out just at the beginning of the events of the original ME trilogy, hence whatever happened in ME is largely irrelevant to this plot. The humans, turians, asari and salarians all have massive spaceship arks that are supposed to link up with the Nexus, effectively the central hub station, and they fly off for 600 years of deep space flight.
Predictably, when you arrive it’s all screwed up. You arrive with your father and sister, only to find that the designated habitable world (called Golden Worlds) is actually now a hellhole. A strage stellar anomaly, called the Scourge, has wrecked the planet and slaps your ship around, and you face off against an alien race called the Kett, who seem hell bent on stopping your efforts to colonise the cluster. From here, it’s up to you to make a home for all the races in this cluster, becoming the human Pathfinder.
This basically means you fly around to different planets, activating strange technology left behind by an unknown race of aliens referred to as the Remnant. You also assemble a squad of assorted heroes to assist you in your endeavours. And that’s pretty much it, in a nutshell.
Note: I will do my best not to spoil things in the storyline, hence why this review is a little vague and doesn’t talk too much about the story.
In many ways, ME:A feels like the culumative efforts of all the previous ME games – they seem to take the best elements of all of them and combine them together. For the record, I believe that ME1 had the best exploration elements, while ME2 had the best combat (it was much faster when they removed heat-based weapons). There isn’t a lot of ME3 in ME:A which I guess many would consider a good thing, although in a way ME3 was an evolution of the previous two games. To that end, playing ME:A feels good. The combat has that frentic, fast-paced element that made ME2’s combat feel good, but it does bring back some heat-based infinite ammo weapons from ME1 (if you’re inclined to use them – they’re fairly well balanced).
More importantly, ME:A has a big focus on exploration. In ME1, you’d go around to different planets, checking out what was on the surface to obtain extra items or for storyline reasons. ME:A brings back a bit of this – there’s loads of places to visit for the sake of mining or for finding anomalies. These add up into experience points, extra items/materials, resources, or research points. Research plays a big part in this game – there’s a load of stuff to research and it’s basically equipment overload – you’ll probably never research everything, and you’ll need to conserve resources to craft what really matters. There’s loads of lore text scattered around too, so it isn’t as sterile as “You scanned this alien thing, here’s 50 research points.”
The Nomad is a Mako replacement and does basically the same job, except it isn’t as god awful as the Mako was when it comes to traversing terrain. It’s also unarmed. Planetary exploration leaves lots of scope for side missions and exploration. Specific planets are basically big, open playgrounds for doing story missions, side missions, and generally exploring to see what you can find. This part of the game feels good, but maybe a little bit too busy, a little too unfocused.
The storyline itself is fairly well done and consistent. It’s a self-contained story, like ME1 was; it leaves the door wide open for sequels and DLC, but it also has a definitive finish with a payoff at the end. It isn’t like ME2, which didn’t resolve anything and was basically a bridge and little else. You feel like you make actual progress, but you don’t feel too rushed. Voice acting is fairly good across the board – Male Ryder is as good as Female Ryder IMO, but I had no problems with ManShep in the previous games. Also the conversation options in general seem a little more expanded in some respects, although there’s no Paragon/Renegade system, and very few interrupts. I actually think this is a good thing – the Paragon/Renegade thing eventually devolved into “Be super nice” and “Be a giant dick” which defeated the purpose of it.
In all, I’d say that on the whole, ME:A is fun to play – it’s a sort of return to the old Mass Effect storytelling and gameplay. There’s a lot more focus on exploration and mystery, as opposed to solving problems that came in with the previous games. Then again, this is the start of the series, the setup for another trilogy if Bioware decides to take it that way. This is more testing the waters than anything else. A well crafted test, but the potential for new things to come (and probably a different focus).
Graphically, the game looks gorgeous on my PC, but I did have occasional framerate issues and had to drop a few video settings (gaming laptop: 16GB RAM, 1070, Core i7 6700HQ) to get it running mostly smoothly.
That said, there are a lot of things I don’t like, some of which significantly hampered my enjoyment at times. Firstly, while I wouldn’t call facial animation awful, there are times when it feels a little off, and at some points it just looks a bit ridiculous. It’s not quite uncanny valley (to misuse a phrase, in a sense) but you look at it and go “Wow, that’s… kinda weird looking.”
Secondly, I didn’t feel like there was much of a connection between Ryder and the crew. Most of the crew are likeable enough, but they’re generally not very interesting. I think the roster is a little too large in a sense – with too many main characters it sort of makes them all blend into the background a bit. This has been a bit of an issue in the original trilogy too – the more people you get on your team, the less you care about each of them. I think ME1 had the best mix, and we’re getting a litte too big for our own good here. Sometimes the options to talk to squadmates is fairly restricted.
Thirdly, the UI is awful. I’ve played it both with an Xbox Controller and KB+M, and it feels awful on both. I don’t know what the hell they were thinking. The UI elements are clunky, blend into the background, are poorly labeled, and lack consistency. It’s awful and doesn’t suit anybody.
By far my biggest issue is that there is just too much shit to do. “Bug content is king!” I hear you cry. “How can you complain that there’s too much to do!” And to be fair, unlike the previous games, almost every sidequest is basically inconsequential (even some you might expect to be important have little impact on the ending). You can do them or not do them, it’s up to you – and I didn’t do a lot of them. It isn’t the number of things, but rather how long some of these quest chains tend to be – and they eat up a lot of time for not much pay off.
Some of these quest chains span multiple planets – and the Galaxy Map pre-patch was absurdly slow, and even post-patch there’s still quite a bit of waiting around – and most of them amount to “Go here, scan this, go to a new planet.” You spend ages just shuttling between planets for a few lines of dialogue and a quest marker for another planet, to do the same thing. It gets pretty damn old after a while, and it starts to make quests feel like a chore. If you know where the quest will be going, you can try to group quests together and do them all in one hit when you visit a planet, but at least for your first playthrough you won’t have a clue and will be stuck travelling around. This sort of busy work sometimes is useful, but frequently isn’t.
Unfortunately, some of the more entertaining quests, like squad member loyalty missions, fall prey to this same concept. I honestly got sick of it and would just try to breeze through some things just to stop moving between systems and planets. By the end I’d started to actively avoid side quests so as not to clutter up my quest log, because I knew I’d spend hours tracking them down if I didn’t. As it is, it took me 44 hours to get through what I’d consider all of the major quests, as well as a handful of side quests that just happened to be on the way to another quest. There’s still loads of content I haven’t even had the chance to trigger – but I don’t really feel like doing them.
I’m sort of not sure how to feel about ME:A. When I was playing the main quest or in the meat of the side quests, I was having lots of fun. I was engaged in the story and liked the characters. But when I wans’t doing those things, it became like a chore. I spent a lot of those 44 hours just staring at the galaxy map, or driving out to a remote spot on a planet just to scan something, only to be told to go to yet another planet instead. That sort of busy work gets old fast, and while it’s a lot of content, it’s not what I’d consider time well spent. The original hads quest chains that were clustered together – you didn’t spend too much time dicking around for little payoff. It artificially inflates the hours played – and there’s already a lot of gameplay here.
It sort of feels like they tried to go back to Mass Effect, the game that started it all, except with some of the better mechanics of the later games. And it sort of works, when it isn’t being hobbled by an awful UI or long, boring quest chains. The combat is much more fun than the first game, relevant exploration aspects have been brought back, and it’s a proper story that has an actual conclusion. But the characters are a bit underwhelming in some ways, probably because there’s way too many of them with a corresponding reduction in conversations, and there’s just too much stuff in here for its own good.
I like this game. I enjoyed playing it. I actually do want to play it again. But just not now, and not for a few months, because it’s also tiring. That’s a feeling I didn’t get in my first playthroughs of the original trilogy. In subsequent playthroughs? Sure, I got tired of some of the missions, and doing some things felt like a chore. But the missions themselves were fun initially, and even on the second playthrough. But this time? All I could think was “Do I really want to start this loyalty quest? Because it’ll be a while before I get to the good part.”
I do recommend Mass Effect: Andromeda. It’s somewhat flawed, but it’s still an excellent game. I’m curious to see where they’ll take the series. But it does have some flaws and introduced some feelings of annoyance that I didn’t really have with the previous games. Still, I’d recommend getting it – on PC or PS4 at least, I hear the Xbox One port has problems.