It’s been five years since we last had a new adventure in the Mass Effect universe, and while the finale of Commander Shepard’s story went out with a somewhat divisive bang, it left fans wanting more from this world and wondering where they could possibly go from here.
It’s here that Andromeda feels unapologetically blunt in its presentation, as upon first contact with these species, the decision of whether to engage with hostility is taken out of your hands. Ryder has a few lines which suggest they aren’t bloodthirsty (though, in an RPG, you could argue that you should be the one to decide that), but your teammate in the end makes the decision for you. Even though the encounter probably couldn’t have ended any other way, there’s an obvious missed opportunity to present a moral dilemma or build tension, which is a shame.
As you get to know this new world, it’s the characters in it which help flesh it out and, largely speaking, they are interesting to interact with. It might surprise some veterans to only find six characters to choose between as sidekicks in your three-person squad, but considering how much is new for even experienced players, it might be a sensible move.
there isn’t too much hand-holding as you’re thrown into this new world, but for those who haven’t played the previous games it’s easy to miss the endearing charm
Each of the races you may know from previous games are given little introduction, with the player expected to take the characters themselves at face value, rather than relying on typecasting as other sci-fi can do (think of Star Trek’s Klingons and their honor-reliant characterisation). This has been a key theme of the series to date, and it’s nice to see there isn’t too much hand-holding as you’re thrown into this new world, but for those who haven’t played the previous games it’s easy to miss the endearing charm of some of the races, particularly Turians, who for some reason in this iteration all have a low-level distortion effect on their voice, which (personally) is quite distracting.
The sheer amount of information the player is asked to absorb in the game’s opening hours is exhausting, and often the game doesn’t endeavour to make your life easier. Take something as straightforward as your mission objectives: more often than not you’ll have one, or possibly two, key story mission objectives available at any one time, with some side missions and some one-off tasks. These are organised by location rather than mission type, meaning that outside the ‘Priority’ missions the objectives often have two or three layers of folders to sift through to find what you’re looking for.
You can also only mark one objective as active at a time, so unless you end up standing in the exact spot where something else takes place, things can pass you by. As a result the game feels frustratingly linear at times, particularly for completionists who thrive on exploring the rugged edges of the experience, which is often where the more original and memorable moments occur in any RPG.
The complexity doesn’t end there however, as there’s also a research system, a crafting system, an upgrade system and even a multiplayer tie-in system, which is a whole kettle of fish of its own - though not critical to the single-player experience, as has been an issue for some in the past. The skill upgrades offers the most diversity here, allowing you to spend points on your character to unlock certain abilities, but this time outside the confines of a class-based system, meaning that you can, in theory, cherry pick skills from across the biotic, tech and soldier distinctions.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case in RPGs which offer this perceived freedom, being a jack of all trades inevitably means mastering none, as the best iterations of each power require a large number of points. On the other hand, having invested all of our points in the Engineer tree so far, our powers don’t feel especially powerful, though admittedly the Engineer isn’t as ‘flashy’ as the mage-esque biotic specialist - The Adept.
On top of that, the profiles system (yup, another system) lets you switch between Engineer and Adept mid-combat if you’d like - to combat the different types of enemy you’re facing, for example. The reality with all of this though is that if you try to diversify you feel like you have a cluster of weaker characters, rather than one strong one.
The enemies you face are, generally, either the aforementioned Kett - a disappointingly under-developed set of generic shooty bad guys - and the Remnant - largely robotic enemies with few memorable character designs, some of which have insane stopping power for their size. The combat itself has been a particularly polarising aspect of the Mass Effect series, and Andromeda’s pronounced juxtaposition between pottering about exploring and entering the fray with your gun drawn makes for no exception. The kinetic speeds possible, and, arguably, required, as you cut down victims left and right is astronomically high. This is thanks in no small part to the addition of jump jets which let you boost into the air and dart out of danger at ground-level in a split second.
Those wondering what to expect from combat in general need look no further than the multiplayer mode, which offers the same wave-based co-op defence experience we’ve come to expect, only without the little variety ME3 seemed to offer. The end result is a more frantic move-and-shoot fest where you never quite feel safe or in control. Even the cover system, introduced in ME2, is out in favour of a context-based system which crouches you in cover when it feels like it, not dissimilar to the recent Ghost Recon Wildlands, though at least there you can creep up on enemies - not so in Andromeda.
It’s dialogue which has always been the real star of the series though, so what can we expect from chatting to our team members this time around? While there are some endearing characters, most conversations boil down to going through a list of fairly samey options - particularly “So why did you come to Andromeda?” and “What do you think of so and so?”.
It’s a disappointment not because we expect limitless possibilities - you can only write and record so many lines, after all - but because in previous games prying into people’s personal stories has led to intriguing plot threads and side missions in their own right. Here is feels like you’re box-ticking your way through without much regard for what’s being said, a feeling never truer than with the romancing options, which have always felt a little contrived, but here feel like you’re badgering characters as you utter the same one-liner each time you notice the option becomes available when you check-in after a mission.
It’s also here another issue crops up in the animation, something which has dominated ME:A chatter. In reality, facial expressions in particular are fine, and only occasionally distracting - in fact we find ourselves more frustrated by the NPCs who won’t stop tapping on a console or a tablet while they’re talking to us - the real problem is one which extends beyond a few glitchy speech profiles. There are instances of NPCs casually leaning up against walls that they are being partly absorbed by, standing awkwardly in the background cycling through a ‘busy work’ preset, even a woman on one settlement who’s just absent-mindedly swaying around as if intoxicated; it all makes for a game that doesn’t actually feel finished.
These are little things, but they end up having a big impact on the experience. Animations might be the most obvious area but the complexity of the UI and layer upon layer of systems competing for your attention all feel like too much. On top of that, despite all of the new things crammed in, nothing feels like it’s really taking a step away from the original trilogy and going out on its own - in the spirit of the narrative itself. There’s definitely some references to the originals, and we’d probably be complaining if they weren’t there, but the memorable moments which made that series special transcended the structure the developers had put around it. You won’t find something as tense as when Joker has to tiptoe through the ship or when you have to decide whether Ashley or Kaiden die, despite having only just gotten to know them in that instance.
While Andromeda is the first entry in a new chapter of the Mass Effect saga, in the end it feels like BioWare has fallen into the same traps it has in the past, not just with this series but Dragon Age as well. That said, they’ve still managed to produce a good game - sadly it’s just a small step and not the giant leap we’d been waiting for.