Mass Effect Andromeda
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One (tested), PC
Release Date: Out now
A whole galaxy is a big promise to make. An entirely unknown galaxy, which is fully explorable with a compelling story? That's one hell of a promise. BioWare has taken its well-known series and set it in a place so far away it can exist without the repercussions of the original trilogy affecting it.
Between the first and second of the Mass Effect games the Andromeda Initiative sent 100,000 cryogenically frozen individuals from a selection of the Milky Way's alien species in arks to the Andromeda galaxy. In this new galaxy there were multiple "golden worlds" identified, planets which would be suitable for colonisation.
Of course things don't go to plan as the (mostly) human ark, Hyperion, arrives at a galaxy less than ideal for habitation. It is the job of Ryder (Scott or Sara depending on the player's choice), the human Pathfinder, to find an ideal home for the Milky Way colonists.
BioWare was clear with the elements of the previous trilogy it wanted to bring to Andromeda. The exploration from Mass Effect, character development and relationships from Mass Effect 2, and the combat from Mass Effect 3. All of these things are evident in Andromeda. You spend your time either driving around planets, chatting with various characters or shooting and/or punching enemies. All of these elements range in experience from "not great" to "good", but despite its flaws, Mass Effect: Andromeda is still an enjoyable space romp.
On a large scale the game looks gorgeous. The galaxy map, which you use to select planets to scan or explore, is stunning. The planets themselves are beautiful, with environments ranging from huge desert vistas with twisted rock formations, to dense tropical bioluminescent forests. As a still picture they work wonderfully, but they struggle in motion.
While exploring the planets in the Nomad (an all-terrain vehicle) plants, rocks, even enemies and wildlife will load and pop up directly in front of you. Even when standing still and admiring the view you will notice certain textures and details popping in and out. When you go to check the map you have to wait a moment before the actual roads and detail appear. You constantly feel like the game is going: "Hang on, wait a moment, almost there..." While you impatiently wait to move on. This isn't helped when the framerate judders in particularly dense environments or when large numbers of enemies are about.
While the macro looks lovely but struggles with framerate and pop-in, the micro detail is often just bad. The internet has been awash with the bizarre facial animations for a while now, and unfortunately they're not isolated cases. It jars particularly as this isn't a game in which you're meant to flick through dialogue and barely see a character's face.
The game wants you to engage with the characters, have conversations, get to know them, and that's very difficult to do when their eyes don't look at you, or their face doesn't move, or they stand with their back to you.
The Ryders (male and female siblings players choose between as their customisable protagonist) themselves often have a glazed look, with nothing but their mouths moving, eyes darting round the room like the world's most suspicious entity. It's not just that the actual animations are poor, the lighting is nothing short of bizarre at times. Your companions and the world surrounding the protagonist can all be bathed in pleasing light, but for some reason when the camera focuses on Ryder's face it's as though someone's holding an unflattering fluorescent light just out of sight.
The combat will feel very familiar to those who played Mass Effect 3, with third-person shooting pairing with a number of special abilities that can be learnt. The biotic abilities (a kind of space telekinesis) are still very enjoyable, sending enemies flying through the air or you warping towards them at alarming speed. The automatic cover system works fine but with a few frustrations, while the addition of a jet pack is very welcome. It allows you to spring up, hover and fire your weapon, before leaping back down to safety, and adds a pleasant new dimension to the combat.
Players can bring two teammates along with them for missions who can be directed and told where to stand, but other than that you have very little control over them. The game wants you to focus on Ryder, who is enjoyable and has an enormous number of powers to unlock and augment. It is a shame however that you can't have a little more say over your teammates. The AI for both them and enemies can be very hit and miss. On a few occasions I found myself watching as an enemy and my teammate did eternal vaults over a box instead of facing each other.
While the worlds you explore often look good, and are definitely vast, they suffer from some of the recurring issues found in many open-world games. Journeying from point to point, the world around me rarely did enough to hold my attention. This wasn't helped by the fact that many of the side quests required me to go from A to point B across huge, largely featureless maps.
The characters and your teammates on the whole are a well-developed, better-realised and have a sense of place that was missing in previous games. They feel as though their life doesn't only occur when the protagonist wants to speak to them, though some are definitely more fleshed out than others; Vetra, Drack and Jaal are particularly well-realised, while Liam is nothing short of infuriating.
The main story that guides you through these worlds is fine but nothing spectacular. One thing that does make for a nice change however is that the story is largely driven by the idea of hope for a new home, a fairly positive emotion rather than just being focused on a big bad enemy or looming dread. However, it is a very slow burner. It took about 12 hours before I felt like I had properly reached a point where the game wasn't explicitly guiding me towards certain goals, leaving room for little else.
A core issue is that while this is a game about exploring the unknown, it all feels very familiar. Ancient technology and bony evil aliens abducting people drive the plot, and it feels all too reminiscent of the previous games. The new galaxy of Andromeda features only two new species: the largely "good" Angara and the Kett, who are introduced as "the bad guys" with no explanation for their motivations or intentions for hours. Despite the protagonists being new to the galaxy, armed to the teeth, and unable to understand the Kett, they are immediately branded as monsters for shooting a teammate, and diligently become cannon fodder.
Despite having developed entirely separately from the Milky Way, they're both bipedal, fairly humanoid and fight using assault rifles. Even the buildings are similar. The Angara are a race that lives in huge familial groups and favour emotional candour, yet its outposts are also lots of stairs with metal boxes and doors that slide open sideways, incredibly similar to the Milky Way species.
The writing itself is often uncomfortable. Every line feels like an attempted one-liner vying for your attention, the result being conversations and interactions that often sound unnatural. Both the larger story and these rough exchanges turn what should be a very interesting and nuanced premise into a great lolloping narrative that leaps from one thing to the next.
To the credit of BioWare, despite Andromeda's many flaws I still wanted to visit the planets with my teammates, to progress and colonise new worlds. It is a solid game, but one with issues that appear worse than they are due to high expectations the developers have earned from a stellar history of better RPGs. Would I be thrilled about the prospect of another game set in the Andromeda galaxy? Probably not. However, if future games can push past the familiar and embrace ideas of the "unknown" that Andromeda aspires to, but never realises, then I do think the series still has something to offer.