There are few video game series as beloved as Mass Effect. First released back in 2007, the first game set the stage for a huge, sprawling universe full of interesting aliens, a rich history, and endless possibility. Over the course of three games that universe expanded, while also looking more inward at the characters that players came to meet, and often love.
With the conclusion of the original trilogy there were a lot of questions about where this series would go. The answer seemed to be to go elsewhere, with Mass Effect: Andromeda sending players to the titular galaxy, far from the universe that they’d come to know. Would this gamble, made all the more questionable by having a nearly brand new team behind the helm, pay off? After dozens of hours with the final game the answer seems to still be in question, which is one of Mass Effect: Andromeda’s biggest issues.
Mass Effect: Andromeda begins during the events of ME2, with the Andromeda Initiative launching ships toward the far away galaxy. Over six hundred years later those ships arrive, the plan being that they set up colonies on any of seven “Golden Planets”, habitable worlds that had been discovered via telescope. This, of course, doesn’t go according to plan.
Instead our adventurous heroes find a massive cloud of “Dark Energy” that is destroying the planets, making them uninhabitable. Along with a murderous alien foe named the Kett, the Andromeda Galaxy is not working out as everyone had hoped. The human ark, one of four from the main races of the series, is the only one that made it to Andromeda somewhat safely. After setting down on the planned human homeworld, the player is made “Pathfinder”, and sets out to find new worlds and fix what’s wrong with them.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is a game that is built on promise
Mass Effect games always have solid and enjoyable gameplay. Taking elements of cover shooters, mixing it with RPG mechanics, and delivering a nice layer of polish, you’ll rarely feel like you’re bored or having an otherwise bad time while actually playing the shooter parts of the game. What sets this series apart from all the others out there has always been its story and its characters. Unfortunately this is where Mass Effect: Andromeda falls well short of its predecessors.
Let’s start with your character, the “Pathfinder”. This title is held in such high regard that many say the mission is lost without you. In fact you first find the Nexus, a hub where the four arks were supposed to meet up, in shambles and it’s said that only the Pathfinder can fix what has gone wrong. What is the Pathfinder? It’s not well explained in the story, but basically he or she is a regular human with some extra training and an AI companion that can see and hear whatever they are doing.
This apparently gives the Pathfinder the exclusive ability to look at a planet and say how viable it is for habitation. The people at the Nexus lacked this ability, which is why they set up on a radioactive wasteland of a world, causing the failure of two colonies in a row. The AI offers other abilities, such as manipulation of ancient alien tech, but that’s about it, and it feels very much like the title was decided on and forced into the story as an important element. It became laughable later on when even the newly discovered alien race, in a totally separate galaxy from our own, were saying things like “only a Pathfinder could do it”. It’s a small thing, but it’s a perfect example of the troubles found in Mass Effect: Andromeda’s story.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is a game that is built on promise. Moving the game to an entirely new galaxy held so much potential. We had already met so many alien races in the Milky Way, and the Mass Relays allowed us to explore so much of that space that there was little that was left untouched. The move to the Andromeda galaxy offered a lot of opportunity for fresh and new ideas, but Mass Effect: Andromeda largely fails to take advantage of this chance.
Throughout the game you will run into only two new alien races, one of which is the main enemy. Outside of that, the section of the Andromeda Galaxy that you are in is lifeless, besides non-sentient animals and factions built up from the Milky Way inhabitants. This would be acceptable if these alien races were vastly different from anything that we’d seen before, which would make sense given the fact that they live millions of light years away from anything that is even remotely familiar to us. Instead they are simply another race that fits neatly into what we’ve seen before.
Their technology is similar to ours, their culture is easily understood and not divergent from anything already encountered, they even take our credits for purchases, with a flimsy excuse given to justify it. The Kett are similar, and are presented as complete mustache twirling villains. As a series, Mass Effect has usually had interesting foes, with either mysterious or interesting motivations. Andromeda lacks this completely, with your first encounter with the Kett allowing you to decide whether to attack first, before they begin firing either way. You’ll continue slaughtering them throughout the game and their leader is given little motivation other than that he wants to kill everyone, which he explicitly states as his motivation at one point.
It was also rather disappointing that we are, once again, using ancient alien technology as a crutch. The Remnant, a name that is flippantly delivered before being used by literally everyone in the galaxy, are essentially magical wizards. Their towers can do almost anything, and it’s used as both your motivation and the villain’s for totally opposite reasons. There’s no attempt to explain why or how they do what they do, and it’s simply assumed that if they can do one thing, they can do the exact opposite. Going to a new galaxy only to find another ancient race directing your actions is cheap, and should have been avoided.
The main story of Mass Effect: Andromeda simply doesn’t work well, especially when you consider how much promise the new setting held. It almost would have worked better by staying within the Milky Way, perhaps having the crew of the Tempest, your new Normandy, going to or possibly getting stranded in an area without a Mass Relay. Encountering little new there would have made sense, and the threat would have felt greater, as it threatened to spill out into the Reaper conflict that was taking place elsewhere.
By the end of the original Mass Effect, which is the most similar to Andromeda in the sense that it started a longer running story, you felt a sense of completion. Yes, a greater threat loomed over everything, but beating Saren felt satisfying on its own. Mass Effect: Andromeda tries to accomplish this, featuring a similar outside threat that seems greater than what you’re facing now, but it just doesn’t work that well. Once it was over I simply felt glad that I’d finished the main quest, and saw that more was on the way in either DLC or the inevitable sequel.
So, the main story doesn’t shine, but there’s still more to Mass Effect than its main plot. Characters have always been an integral part of the series’ success. Andromeda does better here, delivering on the promise of deep and intriguing characters. It doesn’t knock it out of the park, and this is easily the least interesting stable of characters in the franchise, but compared to other games it is still near the top of the pack.
There’s no standouts like Garrus, Wrex, or Liara, but I did find myself getting attached to a few of the Tempest’s crew. Some of them certainly had their personalities dialed up to eleven, and they are more prone to simply speaking their motivation then showing it through action, but it’s still a cut above what can be found in other games. There was also an emphasis on inter-team dialogue, with crew members chatting between each other either on missions, or on the ship between them. These could be funny, interesting, or sometimes a little cringy, but I appreciated how they gave the crew a more realistic feel. If only these moments didn’t get cut off so often by other audio prompts.
The dialogue in general runs this same gamut of funny, interesting, and off-putting. Overall, despite what might get cherry-picked and posted online, the dialogue and writing works well. Conversations might not be memorable or feature any quotable dialogue, but they convey the information necessary, sometimes. There’s a strange thing in Mass Effect: Andromeda where people will use terms or phrases that are tough to parse out, either featuring names, idioms, or concepts that the player hasn’t encountered, or just running through some strange idea without explanation. I found myself exasperating “what?” at the end of a few exchanges through the game. Not enough to be a real problem, but keep the Codex handy and maybe turn on subtitles if you have trouble following along.
The delivery for all of this dialogue, which apparently amounts to more than the last two games in the series combined, is equally good. The voice acting all around is solid, with only much smaller characters and moments having problems. There were some audio logs with extremely questionable acting, but the main cast, including the two protagonists were all well done.
Now onto the elephant in the room: the animations. Specifically faces. To be clear, Mass Effect: Andromeda is a gorgeous game. It’s worlds are well crafted, and its use of the Frostbite Engine is exceptional. In many ways it is one of the best looking games out there, and it’s well optimized on PC allowing for high settings with little hardware. But, and it’s a big but, character’s faces simply don’t look good.
Even when not in motion the facial models just don’t look right, especially the default for Sara Ryder. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they sit in the Uncanny Valley, but they’re pretty plastic-looking, and the eyes are just off. When they do move there are some problems here and there, but nowhere near what many have feared ahead of launch. For the most part facial animation, as well as general character animation, does its job and is better than other games, but it can go wrong and when it does it looks and feels very off putting.
Some other minor complaints need mentioning as well, before we get into what Andromeda does well. The menu UI is atrocious, especially the quest log. Separated into different folders, the missions will often not make a lot of sense as far as where they are placed. Missions can end up in up to three different folders depending on how the game feels they should be cataloged. After a while it’s just easier to go where ever you want and use the map to find mission points. Which is even more essential when you realize that the game will sometimes change your selected mission without your input. And the objective marker is also pretty terrible, pointing you in the wrong direction sometimes, and almost always being a bit of a pain to follow. A mini-map should be priority #1 for any future updates.
Mass Effect: Andromeda, in many of its key areas, is a very troubled experience
Missions in general aren’t anything surprising either, with a lot of “go here, kill that” or long running fetch quests. Overall they’re passable, just don’t expect too much above standard within the missions. One of these fetch quests even locks away some pretty important story content, which feels unnecessary and unfortunate. It’s not tough to accomplish, but I’d rather not have to put in superfluous effort in order to make the game’s story more enjoyable.
Another small point is that Mass Effect: Andromeda seems to discourage exploration in a couple of ways. The biggest is that getting around the Heleus Cluster, your tiny corner of Andromeda, takes a long time. In order to fly from one planet to another you have to move through the slow menu, select your destination, then watch an unskippable video where it zooms to your current location, flies to the new planet, zooms in too far, slowly backs out, then lets you decide to land. It’s strange and seems like it’s there for presentation at the cost of gameplay.
So Mass Effect: Andromeda, in many of its key areas, is a very troubled experience. On the whole though it is still an engaging experience, but it does pale in comparison to what we’ve seen from this series before. Where it does improve is in the combat, which retains its exceptional third-person shooter mechanics while making for faster, more frenetic gameplay.
Everything largely remains the same from past efforts, with players facing off against large groups of enemies in arenas full of chest high walls. Cover requires no buttons, simply walk up to something and you’ll latch on and get behind it. Your new boost and jump abilities are the real stars though, allowing you to move about the battlefield quickly and efficiently, making cover less of a “pop up and shoot” affair. They even play into exploration, with some jumping required through missions.
Biotics and other abilities make for a unique experience in combat, allowing you to strategize to best take out your foes. Your character can be leveled up in a number of ways to effect combat, and at any point you can re-spec to whatever you want. More than any of its predecessors, Mass Effect: Andromeda allows you to shape your character however you want, and it will help players branch out from their comfort zones.
And all of this extends to Mass Effect: Andromeda’s multiplayer. It’s still a pretty standard co-op wave shooter, but it’s so much fun that you won’t care all that much. Testing online everything ran well even with the limited audience available before release. And for those who don’t care for multiplayer, you don’t have to play it in order to get the single player rewards. Instead you just assign teams of NPCs to the task and collect your rewards later.
Mass Effect: Andromeda held a lot of promise for the series. Taking the action to a whole new galaxy, there were endless possibilities. What we ended up with was a passable main quest, a forgettable new enemy, some enjoyable but not standout characters, and the same quality gameplay we’ve come to expect from the series. It’s got some big problems, but I still put well over 30 hours into it without ever getting truly bored. There’s plenty to explore and discover, it’s just not all as interesting as what you might expect.