After years on ice, the Mass Effect series is finally back in the spotlight once more. After Mass Effect 3’s less than satisfactory endings, Andromeda wisely sidesteps the issue about what happens next in the Mass Effect canon by fast forwarding to the future…and to another galaxy.
Set more than six centuries after the end of the original trilogy, Andromeda takes place in the aforementioned galaxy. It seems that before the cataclysmic events of the third game, massive ships containing the major alien races in the Milky Way galaxy decided to move to the Andromeda galaxy and colonize it. Calling themselves the Andromeda Initiative, the ships are packed with the best and brightest each race have to offer.
In Andromeda, you’re part of the contingent of humans on the Human ark, Hyperion, and assigned to the Pathfinder team. Pathfinders, as you might surmise from their name, are basically scouts and explorers. They’re meant to explore, survey and secure the unknown planets and moons in the new galaxy, and if feasible, help to pave the way for future colonization.
Of course, things don’t go as planned and soon enough, you’ll find yourself embroiled in a whole new conflict with whole new races of aliens, as well as the Andromeda Initiative’s dire need to find habitable worlds to settle on. Without going into too much details, let’s just say that the plot starts off rather slow but soon hooks you in with its twists. However, if you’re a veteran from the old trilogy, don’t go expecting many references to the older games. There are callbacks to the past titles here and there (like the Liara T’Soni logs you can find on the Hyperion) but for the most part, the plot in Andromeda is all new, making it the perfect jumping in point for new fans as well.
Still, Andromeda doesn’t eschew the traditional Mass Effect gameplay structure, which has you and your companions journeying across space like an intergalactic Scooby gang. As before, you choose two companions to accompany you on a world and depending on who you choose, will get different responses and dialogue.
Apart from the main plot, there are also tons of side quests. Most will play out differently, depending on how you handle them. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from a BioWare title, though it’s nice to see some of the side quests in the game are incredibly morally complex, with no clear cut right or wrong answers. Loyalty missions for companions also make a comeback, which is a welcome addition. These missions unlock when you fulfill certain requirements with your comrades and allows you to flesh out more about the character and motivations. Plus, you get some neat gear and rewards for completing them.
In Andromeda, you’re no longer Commander Shepard. Instead, you pick which of the Ryder siblings to play at the beginning of a new game. Scott’s the default name for the male, while Sara’s the name given to the female. No matter which Ryder you pick, the other Ryder will still be a character in the game, though not a party member.
Speaking of reactions, you’re no longer forced to conform to straightforward Paragon or Renegade choices like in past games. Now, your responses are based on feelings and thoughts, whether you want to act casually or think logically for any given situation. Don’t worry, the game tells you what emotion you’re going to be using for a particular response so if you want to play like a Vulcan and choose only the logical responses, you can easily do that.
The biggest core change though, comes in the Skills and Profiles department. You no longer choose a class when you are starting the game. Instead, you now have profiles. Profiles are archetypes you can switch in and out of, allowing you the option of changing your play style on the fly.
Depending on what skills you choose, certain profiles might give you a better bang for your buck. For example, if you’re fully specced out in the Biotic line, using the Engineer profile (which gives bonuses to your Tech skills) might not be as effective as you using the Biotic-centric Adept profile. As you invest points in your skills, the Profiles rank up too, providing you with beefier bonuses.
On top of that, the Skills themselves are now much deeper and complex. They are broken into three different categories (Combat, Biotics and Tech) with 12 skills each, with each skill having its own skill tree. Nearly every skill in every tree is beneficial and the flexibility in choosing how you want to advance your character is one of the biggest draws of the game. Sadly, your companions aren’t as flexible as Ryder. They’re more archetypically Mass Effect classes and aren’t as customizable.
As you’d expect, some of the other aspects of the gameplay have changed as well, with the main being how the game now handles going into cover. The cover system’s been changed to an automatic one. Instead of pressing a button to snap to cover, the game decides for you. You’ll automatically go into cover once you get close enough to something you can take cover behind.
Sadly, this isn’t a change that’s for the better. There have been multiple times that I thought I was close enough to get into cover but the game didn’t do anything. The cover detection seems to really have trouble deciding whether to snap you into cover or not when you’re near curved surfaces. At the very least, this system should’ve been made an optional one, not forced upon everybody. On higher difficulties, the awkward and unreliable system will definitely prove to be a hindrance.
Coupled with the shoddy automatic cover system, combat can be a tricky affair. I don’t mean that in a good way.
Combat speed has been increased, which means the need to be quick and decisive in your fights. Luckily, Ryder can now jump with the aid of his (or her) jetpack, as well as boost himself to dodge or get around quicker. It makes combat much more fluid now since clambering to get to higher ground is now as viable a tactic as flanking the enemies.
Sadly, squad tactics have been simplified to the point where you can only choose the target you want your teammates to attack, form up on you or go to a specific point. You can no longer ask them to use their skills when you need them, which means setting up Biotic or Tech combos can be a pain if you don’t have the required trigger and ender skills.
On top of that, the series’ struggle with gunplay still continues, creating an unsatisfying combat experience, at least if you’re using guns.
Guns still feel relatively lightweight, without the impact or ‘oomph’ you’d expect. Compared to other third person shooters with similar mechanics (like Gears of War 4), combat is relatively mundane and nowhere near as stimulating (both in looks, sounds and feel) as it could be. Biotics and Tech skills liven things up somewhat and give you more options in combat but unless you opt to invest skills in them, you’ll be stuck with the basic boring gunplay.
It’s still fun to muck around with the extraneous combat mods you can find in the game. Some of them (like the scopes) change the gunplay style, though there aren’t any mods that give too radical a change, so if you’re expecting a mode that allows the pistol to fire grenades, for example, you’re out of luck.
However, if you thought that the number of different guns in past Mass Effect games was somewhat lacking, you’re in the luck. You can still buy gear from shops and find them as drops or in containers but now you can also craft them yourself. Find a blueprint, get the required materials and you can craft (and name) your very own weapon.
As with past games, on-foot exploration is just part of the whole package. The other part is exploration. Space exploration is standard fare, with you selecting your destination from the system map that’s shown on the Tempest (your ship). Once selected, the camera will then move along the preprogrammed route to wherever you wanted to head. At your destination, you can scan it for basic info and if there are anomalies, launch probes to uncover what they are.
It sounds much better in theory than in practice. In reality, the whole act of travelling, scanning and launching probes is incredibly boring. There’s not much to do other than pressing a button whether it’s scanning, probing or travelling. You don’t even get to control the ship. As before, you can’t land on every destination you can go to on the systems map; only a selected few are land-able.
Those few that you can land on however, are massive improvements over the barren worlds you could explore in the previous games. Not only are the maps much larger now, they’re also filled with hidden quests and locations. You have to explore to really get to the hidden stuff, which is great considering how shallow the space based exploration’s handled.
Planetary exploration isn’t just lip service, it ties in to the plot. Completing missions and other objectives on worlds raises its viability points, which you can then use on the Nexus to give you an edge. These bonus range from the passive (like giving you extra XP per battle) to giving you actual items you can use. Needless to say, it’s in your best interest to raise the AVP as high as you can if you want the bonuses.
With the huge maps, you get a new vehicle to navigate them with. It’s called the Nomad and longtime fans will undoubtedly find it similar to the original trilogy’s Mako. Unlike the ungainly Mako, the Nomad is much more maneuverable, with two different driving modes. There’s normal mode, which makes the vehicle speedier but with little traction and there’s the 6WD (6 wheeled drive mode) which is slow, but allows you to climb certain slopes and obstacles.
On top of the two moves, the Nomad can also jump and boosts for limited periods. One wonders though, the relevancy of two different modes when one that integrates both aspects of the two modes could’ve easily sufficed. While it’s true the Nomad is better than the Mako, it still suffers from mobility issues, especially in cramped or rocky areas. The boost is underpowered and drains too fast to be practical, making climbing slow-going.
Andromeda is a mixed bag of good and bad gameplay and it’s the same with the visuals. It’s definitely not a looker though it does get the job done. However, the animation and draw distance (on the planets you can explore) can be incredibly bad. Facial animation especially is wooden at the best of times. At its worse, the facial movements look robotic. Movement for the NPCs too can be stilted at times, resulting in the most mundane of actions (like walking, or dashing) looking artificial and awkward.
Also, there are frame rate drops that occur constantly, especially in cutscenes or during heavy combat. These are reduced on the PS4 Pro but still present on the nonetheless.
On top of that, texture pop-in is also prevalent. Quick camera cuts in the cutscenes are usually the culprit. To BioWare’s credit, the pop-in doesn’t last more than a second before it’s resolved but it’s incredibly annoying, especially considering the visuals aren’t that great to begin with.
Lastly, the engine also uses half-rate animation. What this does is that characters or objects that are animated, will animate at half the frame rate when they’re at a certain distance from your character. This translates to objects moving jerkily or looking like stop-motion animation when you see them from a distance. Needless to say, this isn’t a good thing at all.
As the start of a new story (and potential trilogy), Mass Effect Andromeda is off to an incredibly rocky start. Of course, the same could be said of the original Mass Effect and that game’s spawned three sequels.
Still, for a fourth entry in the series, that are certain expectations that gamers tend to expect. While Andromeda exceeds those expectations in terms of plot, characters and certain gameplay aspects, it also disappoints in many technical parts. The unstable frame rate, texture pop-ins and half-rate animation (not to mention the other bugs) is definitely not what one expects from a fourth title in a series, which should, by all reasonable assumptions, be at least technically competent. Hopefully, BioWare would be able to fix some of the teething issues mentioned with a day one patch and beyond.
Mass Effect Andromeda succeeds in extending the lore and canon of the series but falls short in a handful of technical aspects. Does that make it a bad game? Not at all, considering its core aspects are fun and fulfilling, but it does make it the most flawed entry in the series, and not what we had expect from the herald for a whole new generation of games.
NOTE: This review only covers the single player aspect of the game. The Strike Team missions and the Multiplayer will be covered in a specific article to be released in a few days.