And that’s a problem for the studio’s Mass Effect: Andromeda, the latest entry in the series out March 21 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC, because it is no Mass Effect 2.
What you’ll like
Andromeda takes Mass Effect and its conceits to a new galaxy. You leave Commander Shepherd, the hero who ended the last trilogy as a mythological savior (and a band of hot aliens) behind in the Milky Way. After 600 years of travel in cryostasis, your character — you choose either the male or female Ryder — wakes up … and it’s immediately time to shoot some new aliens.
The combat is where Andromeda shines. As in the earlier Mass Effects, you are a mix of super-soldier and quasi-Jedi who can rush into just about any situation, smash numerous enemies, and survive. Depending on how you customize your Ryder, encounters can play out in a number of varied but satisfying ways. I focused most of my upgrades into capabilities that enabled me to charge into combat and then do melee strikes and shotgun blasts. But you can also play it as a Gears of War-style cover shooter where you have Force-like powers to lift enemies out from behind obstacles. Or you can also play as a sniper demolitionist, or any number of other combinations.
Andromeda makes you feel cool. It helps that you character has a jump pack that enables them to burst forward, backward, left, or right at any time. It also helps that a lot of the powers look smashing or have devastating damage animations. For example, the concussive shot you get early hurls at your enemy with a cool curve-ball effect, and when it lands, it often flings foes into the air.
During the campaign, fighting was easily the most fun I had with Andromeda, even if it’s not what I came to the game for.
Science fiction may often seem like the default genre of all video games, but it’s quite rare to get something that feels like it’s in the tradition of Star Trek. These days, most futuristic sci-fi comes with apocalyptic connotations. In that environment, it is counterintuitively refreshing to get something like Mass Effect: Andromeda that feels like its story might fit well in a cheap paperback extended-universe Babylon 5 novel at the grocery store.
After Ryder wakes up from their 600-year sleep and begins fighting with new aliens, you quickly discover that your trip to this new galaxy isn’t going as planned. Each of the major species from the Milky Way came to find new home planets in Andromeda, but only the Earthling vessel has safely arrived — and even your ship showed up late. On top of the missing arks (of course the ships are called arks), the planet humanity has chosen as its potential new habitat is covered in life-threatening radiation and is under attack by some kind of manifested artificial dark-energy cloud.
It falls to your father, the chosen Pathfinder, to sniff out a viable new planet. You join him on his exploration of the first world, where you encounter and kill the Kett, an ostensibly Andromeda-native species that is a mashup of Klingons and the Borg. You also stumble across a vault from a “Remnant” species that has technology can instantly terraform planets … convenient, that is.
From that predictable setup, it comes down to you to spearhead humanity’s exploration of Andromeda while also evading the Kett and helping out the other aliens — both those from the new galaxy and your old home.
This isn’t great storytelling. I found a dozen gaps in the plot and premise that don’t add up. But I was also happy to spend some time in a sci-fi world like this one.
The other stand-out feature of Mass Effect: Andromeda is its cooperative multiplayer. Players fight off waves of enemies like in Gears of War’s horde mode. You and three friends can get together and take on multiple difficult tiers where you mostly kill aliens but occasionally have to defend or activate an objective.
It’s a simple addition, but it’s one that is fun thanks to the combat and the varied playstyles. It is a riot to see that roles that the other players on your team are taking and choosing a character with abilities that complements them and fills in any gaps they are leaving open.
What you won’t like
Mass Effect: Andromeda feels small and boring. It works like the series always has; you go around the galaxy, find characters, and take on missions. What that really comes down to is following a waypoint, talking to someone or fighting someone, and then getting a new one to follow.
In the first three games, the window dressing of the conversations and the galactic traveling was enough to make appear more than what it was … or maybe in the past, I cared more about the conversations and the destinations I was traversing the galaxy to reach.
In Andromeda, all of those trappings feel like limitations.
The seams where the game no longer supports exploration are more glaring that ever. Every planet has a lot of artificial boundaries — radiation, blistering heat, or some other phenomenon keeps you from going to far afield during the time you might actually want to explore the worlds in question. Previous Mass Effect games have had similar gating, but Andromeda also piles on poor design on and plain old stupidity on top of that.
On Voeld, a Hoth-like ice world, I got a waypoint that told me to go check out an enemy encampment at the top of a mountain. I drove around the mountain twice in my six-wheel all-terrain Nomad, and I even tried to climb up to the waypoint on foot. My vehicle eventually could no longer ascend the slopes, and my Ryder got to a point where he would float backward down the slope. I gave up, went to do another mission, and that triggered a quest where the local resistance would fly me directly to the enemy base. No other mission I played worked like that, and boy, did I feel burned wasting 45 minutes trying to get up to the waypoint on foot and in the Nomad.
Camera and conversation system is broken
Mass Effect: Andromeda has a lot of busted components. The Frostbite Engine (the tech developer DICE created for its Battlefield shooters and publisher EA is now using on all of its franchises) can’t handle the dialogue system, for example.
When you start a conversation, the camera will zoom in, but who the hell knows if it’ll end up properly framing the people who are speaking. Too frequently, you see just half a face or to struggle to get the camera to even look vaguely in the direction of the primary actors. Even at its best, the camera still makes me uncomfortable. The action is too weighted to the left side of the frame, and this leaves me fidgeting with the right stick attempting to get a better angle, something that never works.
Things break even further when your companions try to get involved. Most of the time, when one of my teammates tries to chime into a conversation, they do so from 50 feet away. It’s hilarious and completely distracting to hear your Krogan companion nonchalantly crack a joke that you can barely hear because they’re so far away.
A lot of the art in Mass Effect: Andromeda is OK, but the tech side of making human characters is off big time. The faces look like they’ve been run through a Xerox machine about 25 times. The contrast on all of the facial blemishes and imperfection is turned up to the max, and it’s difficult to look at. I actually felt physically repulsed looking at the standard male Ryder face.
And the character-creator is lacking. For example, here are the eight beards:
Game-breaking and distracting bugs
I’ve already listed a couple of bugs, and maybe you’ve seem some of the jacked up animations circulating on Twitter and Reddit. But now, let me tell you how bad things can get.
Me and my crew were infiltrating an enemy vessel. We had made a lot of progress when we came to a major, 10-minute long fight. After the rumble, I reached a section of a trap where the doors would close and lock right before I would cross their threshold. As the second door closed on me, I turned and saw my new waypoint through a door to the right. I ran through that door and started to explore.
From here, the mission slowly started to fall apart. My characters shouted about enemies that didn’t exist (something that’s happened more than once), and nothing in the environment seemed to be fully responding the way they should.
Eventually, I found an exit to continue my mission, but it took me into a completely dark part of the ship. Normally, when you enter a dark area, you character auto-engages a flashlight. That didn’t happen. I started to get the feeling that something might have broken, but I wasn’t certain. To navigate my black maze, I kept switching back to the map until I ended up in the Archon’s Chamber, which is where I had been trying to get this entire time. Only, nothing happened when I was in there. I was looking for an object, and it wasn’t there.
I knew that I had completely broken the scenario when I stumbled across a team of Salarians who had been simultaneously assaulting the ship. All three of them were frozen and standing inside of each other. Clearly, I had jumped the scripting. I loaded up my last save hoping it would put me right outside the Archon’s Chambers … instead, it took me all the way back to the start of that 10-minute major battle.
All together, I had just wasted about 30 minutes. The second time around, as the doors closed on me when I approached them, the third door also closed before I could run through it. This triggered a new event that I didn’t see the first time, because I was able to run through the door before it closed.
While that’s the biggest bug I’ve experienced, I’ve also had my character load in completely bald for a 20-minute section of gameplay, I’ve had crucial geometry related to a quest not function properly, and, yes, I’ve had my character’s walking animation completely fall apart.
Mass Effect: Andromeda, so far, is broken.
I’ve never felt like I’m in another galaxy
But as distracting as the bugs are and as boring as the gameplay is, my biggest criticism of Andromeda is that it just never feels like you’re actually exploring an entirely new galaxy. Nothing about the story, the gameplay, the aliens, the ships, the missions, or anything feels all that different from what players will remember doing in the Milky Way in the first three Mass Effects.
And BioWare has made a lot of choices that make the setting inconsequential. The new alien race you meet is well aware of humans by the time you arrive. You get story reasons for this, but these don’t matter. To give players the maximum effect of what it would mean to travel to another galaxy, your character — the Pathfinder in charge of finding a new home world for humanity — should be the first human, and really the first citizen of the Milky Way, that anyone in Andromeda has ever met.
I don’t get what the writers were doing here, but it makes me think that they didn’t really care about their own premise, which makes me wonder why I should care.
Games have to fit into our lives, and that’s not always fair. Mass Effect: Andromeda might’ve worked a decade ago on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but it doesn’t work in a world that is delivering games like Horizon: Zero Dawn, Nier: Automata, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. In this reality, BioWare’s latest role-playing game is old, broken, and often boring.
Worst of all, it’s going to disappoint fans of the Mass Effect series.
Publisher Electronic Arts provided GamesBeat with a PC copy of Mass Effect: Andromeda for the purposes of this review.
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