I confess to being a newbie to the Mass Effect series, having little to no familiarity with the previous installments beyond what my friend Brandon has explained to me. However, I recently had some downtime and a couple Xbox gift cards to spend, and Xbox was doing a summer sale on games, letting me pick this one up for a nice little discount.
I had, of course, heard about many of the early difficulties the game had experienced, but I assumed that many of them had been solved by now. And my last experience with a BioWare game had been the wonderful Dragon Age: Inquisition, and so I was ready to dive in.
Andromeda picks up at the end of a 600+ year journey of many of the Milky Way species to the Andromeda galaxy. Plans had been made to settle what were purported to be “golden worlds,” but upon arriving in Andromeda after so many years in dark space, the golden worlds are not so golden after all. The Andromeda Initiative’s (Ai) first potential world for the Ark Hyperion turns out to be virtually uninhabitable, and upon arrival a hostile non-native species (the Kett) that will brook no negotiation is met.
All in all, a pretty miserable set of circumstances to wake up to after a 600 year nap.
You play one of the Ryder siblings (I played Scott), the offspring of the (soon to be late) human Pathfinder Alec Ryder, whose team’s mission is to locate viable planets for settlement. After encountering the menace of the Heleus cluster known as “The Scourge”- an energy field that has rendered all the golden worlds unviable- the mission of the Pathfinder is to discover the source of the Scourge and to utilize ancient technology from a race known as The Remnant to bring the golden worlds back to viability.
You are aided by your very own artificial intelligence known as SAM, as well as team of commandos and a ship with which you can explore the Heleus cluster.
Andromeda is an action RPG, combining some classic shooter mechanics with role playing mechanics such as light resource management, a purportedly deep choice system, multiple branching questlines, relationship development, etc.
The combat system is heavily shooter based, with some light squad based strategy components, such as directing one of two squadmates to defend a certain area, attack an enemy, etc. I found the “attack enemy” command to generally be the more effective route, but that might be based on my style of play. For the combat itself, there is an interesting duck-and-cover system, which unfortunately doesn’t always work as you’d want, but usually good enough to keep from dying unnecessarily. You can switch cover reveal sides, although sometimes this has an opportunity cost in that you might find yourself out of position.
There are tons of combat upgrades and styles; Andromeda has what are called “Profiles” that let you allocate ability points to a certain style of combat. For example, Soldier is heavy on attack and defense, so you can both take a pounding and receive one. Other profiles augment tech or biotics depending on the level of the Profile. Personally, I never found any need for a profile other than Soldier, but I also forgot about them!
Along with profiles and weapon upgrades, there is one of the best mobility features I have yet encountered in a game: the jumpjet. This standardized piece of equipment fires a short burst that acts like a quick jet-pack. It can help you reach higher ground, but also can be used to quickly strafe to clear distances or to avoid incoming fire or bad situations. It takes just a little bit to get used to, but once you do it really becomes a joy to use.
Getting around is also not as tedious as in, say, Dragon Age: Inquisition. You are able to use a really fun ATV called the Nomad on most of the worlds, and it’s a blast to drive. It’s normal speed is fast enough to keep things moving along, with the addition of a turbo-boost for the final push up some hills, as well as a 6-wheel drive mode to climb steeper slopes. You can also use it as a weapon in a pinch. Granted, it handles really improbably, as you can never tip it over. And it can also fall from any height that doesn’t fall into the range of death height according to the game’s mechanics. This can lead to some fun moments where you accidentally launch off a cliff and are hurtling towards the ground while your squadmates are having a casual conversation. Personally, I was glad it was an unrealistic experience; it’s way more fun to drive the thing without worrying about such trifles.
It’s also nice as a quick way to extract from a planet without having to journey all the way back to your ship.
To get around Andromeda, you are equipped with a ship called the Tempest. It is a little area complete with map and sidequests, although it serves more as the way to go from place to place, almost like a fast travel hub. Not being equipped with any weapons, it does not serve as part of the combat experience, and there isn’t really any flight involved (as far as the gameplay is involved.) This is probably a blessing, as it likely would have devolved into the cringe-worthy inducing frustration of something like the gummi-ship levels from the Kingdom Hearts series.
Overall I found the combat an enjoyable aspect of the game, which is good considering how much there is. The controls are usually pretty responsive, and there is usually enough variety throughout to keep it from getting overly stale.
One thing that I did find a little off-putting was just how much ammo there was. Granted, after playing something like Fallout 4 where ammo always seems to be a problem it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it did seem somewhat incongruent. After all, one of the things that the story of the game keeps reiterating is how tenuous the situation is; resources are scarce and time is running out to find viable habitats. Yet with all this scarcity, there is an abundance of ammo. Go figure.
Another aspect of the combat that was so-so (and this may be because of the difficulty level I was playing with) was that there didn’t seem to be a significant difference in weapon upgrades. I still kind of felt like I had to spray the same amount of bullets into the Kett with this assault rifle over that one. Eventually I just stopped upgrading. I actually had the same experience with Dragon Age: Inquisition. The crafting and or purchasing of better equipment just never seemed to make a noticeable difference.
For that matter, I’m not sure I even bought or sold anything the entire game, besides things I had to buy for a quest. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it kind of felt like a lot of the depth of this game was superfluous.
Of course, an action RPG is nothing without the RPG part, and by and large Andromeda delivers on this. I thought the overall story arc was good, and I think that my lack of familiarity with the series actually helped the experience. In a way I really identified with the Angaran race; after all, they meet a group of species from another galaxy that they don’t know anything about, and much of the story is them coming to learn about each other, as well as whether or not to trust. I found myself in a similar position and thought it probably enhanced the storyline for me.
The main quest is fairly satisfying, although I’m wondering when the whole who-can-control-the-technology-from-a-long-lost-civilization trope will be overcome in a space-based RPG. That quibble aside, it was enjoyable to explore the various planets and locations and help achieve viability. I was able to get 100% viability on all the available worlds before wrapping up the main storyline, although I’m not sure if that made a substantial difference or not.
There are tons of side quests, and for the most part they are pretty interesting. Some can be quite tedious, however, especially when they make you hop from planet to planet to planet. It’s fine for the most part, but some just seemed horribly incongruent. For example, one of the plot points that is continually stressed is how tenuous the situation is, how finite the resources are, etc. Yet there is a side quest (actually, a “Task”) called Movie Night where the crew of the Tempest ends up sending you off on little missions throughout the Heleus cluster just to procure items for the perfect Movie Night. Sure, there are tens of thousands of Milky Way residents still in cryo because we are trying to make Heleus viable for them, and some of the colonies are on a knife’s-edge of survival, but we can definitely expend all these resources to grab a copy of a B-list movie from a port a few light years away…
One interesting aspect is that your character has the chance to develop the various relationships among his crew. This is mostly accomplished through side quests that pertain to them specifically, with varying results. I chose to not take the relationships beyond friendship, except for one romantic relationship that nevertheless remained fully clothed.
As you progress through the game you will be confronted with lots of choices, both in how to achieve viability on the golden worlds as well as in conversations and relationships. That being said, I never really got the sense that my decisions had that much of an impact. It could be that the decision tress were really tightly integrated and thus seamless in their outcomes, but one experience left me wondering.
It involved the Angaran Jaal, who was about to be shot by the leader of an opposition movement. Before the trigger is pulled he pleads with you not to intervene, but you are given the option to do so. The first time I accidentally intervened (killing the assailant), and afterwards I was informed that I made this leader a martyr and it would be harder to break the will of his followers. However, I still received the loyalty of Jaal. Not having wanted this outcome, I reloaded my save and didn’t intervene. Jaal survives, and the opposition leader is seen for the monster he is, and you see his followers slink away in disappointment and disillusionment. You still receive Jaal’s loyalty, but following this you still always face these enemy forces as if nothing has happened. Thus, the crisis of the decision seems completely meaningless.
Like the AAA title this is, the visuals are generally pretty top-notch. Gorgeous landscapes often greet you on different planets, with the camera giving you a better view at opportune times. The galaxy-scapes are also often breathtaking, and there is wonder around every corner.
The cut-scenes are usually rendered out pretty well, although I did notice some texture clipping from time to time (like when Ryder’s face goes through his shirt) as well as some texture popping more often than I would have liked. That being said, the visuals are still superb, and it is often fun to explore just to see what you can see.
However, I do feel there was something of a missed opportunity here, perhaps necessitated by the story. The tragedy of the Scourge has rendered formerly golden worlds uninhabitable, drastically changing their climates, etc. The Angaran world of Voeld, for example, is Hoth-like in being a frozen snow-covered wasteland. This intellectually makes sense in the context of the story, and while it has some visually interesting features, ultimately there’a a lot of time spent roving around on an ice-planet that ends up looking pretty much the same anywhere you go.
Havarl was the most visually interesting planet, and it lamentably was the smallest. With the gorgeous scenery elsewhere in this game, it was really a shame that so much of the gameplay takes place where the visuals didn’t have a chance to shine. For example, one major component is activating the Vaults on each world. The first one on Eos is actually really cool and affords some of those “wow, this is cool” moments of unexpected visual grandeur. But then you go through vault after vault, all of which look pretty much the same. It brought back memories of trudging through the Library on Halo: CE. After all, once you’ve seen one derelict ancient civilization’s technological bowels, you’ve seen them all, making this particular genre-based trope (in any game) the equivalent of a routine colonoscopy.
I wasn’t overwhelmed or blow-away by the soundtrack. I would say it was usually absolutely appropriate for the scenes I was in, but there wasn’t usually anything that stood out as particularly evocative. There were some genuinely emotional moments in the game, and for the most part the soundtrack in my opinion didn’t take advantage of the opportunities it was afforded.
The voice-acting on the whole was really well-done, and really helped to breathe life into the game. My only real gripe was that Scott Ryder’s voice acting- while generally superb- at times felt perfunctory and matter-of-fact, most notably during times when it needed more pathos for what was being said.
A Missed Opportunity
One unfortunate missed opportunity that characterized Andromeda was actually integrally related to the storyline and the choice system.
The man goal of the game is to make these former golden worlds viable again. The viability rating is increased as you complete more planet-related quests, as well as ultimately activating the Vault on each world. It’s pretty straightforward, and as you do more and more quests you can eventually (and predictably) get 100% viability on each world.
That, however, was a fairly significant flaw, in my opinion, especially in relation to the main storyline. Everything has gone wrong, and your job as Pathfinder is this desperate attempt to find viable planets or return them to viability. And supposedly the choices you make have lasting consequences. However, when it comes to the most critical aspect of the main storyline, there is basically one path you can take and it always leads to viability. The only real question is how viable and in what order.
This is further exacerbated by the relative lack of worlds to explore. True, you can go to various systems in the Heleus Cluster and do planetary surveys, but there are very few opportunities to get down on planets and explore. Given that the entire premise of the Ai is to explore the Andromeda Galaxy, this seemed a very odd missed opportunity to me, and somewhat disappointing. After all, there could be all kinds of cool and strange and visually and emotionally evocative things that could be dispersed throughout the cluster, and for the most part your journey is confined to these relatively small worlds.
I would have liked to have seen perhaps twice as many potentially viable planets, with finite resources necessary to sustain some of them. Investing resources in one or doing quests on another might affect the viability of another planet, forcing you to choose where you want to try and achieve viability (perhaps somewhat along the lines of the settlement system in Fallout 4). In fact, this is precisely what the Pathfinder is supposed to do within the storyline, and so I found it odd that this didn’t really figure into the main game. I felt it would have given decisions far more weight, as well as potentially expanded potential replay value.
No game this big can be perfect, and Mass Effect: Andromeda certainly has its flaws. I think there were some big opportunities that were missed and some weird quirks throughout that momentarily pull you out of the narrative.
However, coming at it with the perspective of an outsider to the series, I didn’t have any particular expectations for what this game should be. If anything, my expectations were formed and tempered by my experience with Dragon Age: Inquisition, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
At the end of the day, for me this was a fun game, and while I thought it could have used a bit more polish (a lot in some places) and perhaps gone in some directions that would have fit better within the structure and narrative, I still enjoyed my time playing it and may even go back for another playthrough to see how different decisions might affect the outcome.