REVIEW: Mass Effect: Andromeda

SPOILER WARNING: There are going to be spoilers in here. The game’s been out for more than a week and there’s nothing here you don’t learn in the first few hours of gameplay, so this is a courtesy more than a necessity, but still: Don’t read this if you want fresh eyes for this game.

I am a Mass Effect nerd. What do I mean by that? I don’t mean that I like Mass Effect, although I do. I don’t mean that I’ve played every Mass Effect game all the way through multiple times, although I have. I don’t mean that I’ve spent many hours browsing the Mass Effect Wiki in pursuit of obscure knowledge about a fake universe and the fictional characters that inhabit it, although I can not deny that I have done this. When I say that I’m a Mass Effect nerd, I mean that for a big portion of my life, Mass Effect was my life. For a few years following the release of Mass Effect 2, I immersed myself completely in the lore of Bioware’s sci-fi “space opera”. I know more about turian physiology than I know about how my cat is put together, and I can tell you more about the First Contact War than I can tell you about the American Civil War. My nerdery for Mass Effect can’t be quantified, but if it could, it would be a really high number. Imaginary numbers high, like one of those ones with an ‘e’ in the middle of it.

I’m not telling you any of this to score geek points; honestly, I’m embarrassed at how much of my life I devoted to Mass Effect, because in retrospect, it’s not as incredible as my 16-year-old self thought it was. I’m also not telling you this as some kind of disclaimer, as if it taints my opinion, because, it doesn’t, and I wanted to like this game more than I wanted to hate it.

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No, I’m telling you all of this so you’ll trust me when I say that this game bears almost no resemblance to the Mass Effect games that came before it. There are turians, and krogans, the guns still fold up into goofy little boxes, and everybody’s armor still looks like its from a Power Rangers/Halo crossover fan fiction. Beyond that, this could be an entirely new sci fi franchise, because it seems to be cribbing from Mass Effect 1-3 more than it ever advances its ideas.

To start with, let’s talk about the much-maligned animations. They’re bad, especially in the characters’ faces. For a game that spends so much of its time in conversations, the characters themselves lack almost any emotional expression in their faces. After the game’s first few conversations, I had guessed that in regular conversations, the character models lacked any kind of rigging in their faces beyond their mouths and eyes. The game accidentally confirms this when, during a mission where you’re able to watch the silhouettes of a few dead colonists acting out their last days through your scanner, you can clearly see what lies under the hood of any given character’s skin: eyes, a jaw, and nothing else.

I know I’m not mistaken when I remember the models in previous games having more detail than this. There’s even a meme about how creepy those games’ main character, Commander Shepard, looks when he smiles:

creeepyshep
Yikes.

The complete lack of facial animation in Mass Effect: Andromeda makes me long for creepy Shepard smiles. Actually playing through the conversations in Andromeda is an exercise in suppressing feelings of the Uncanny Valley, as the robotic characters move their mouths to match the lines they’re supposed to say, but can’t be bothered to even move their eyebrows.

It’s a little unsettling, but mostly its boring. Voice acting can only do so much to sell a character that refuses to actually act. Good writing can help bridge the gap, but Andromeda doesn’t really have much of that either. What we’re left with are Chuck E. Cheese animatronics trying to keep us interested in a character-driven space opera, but the characters are shallow, space is empty, and the opera is boring.

A lot of this has to do with the new setting. If you’ve been following the video game press at all you probably have some inkling that this game takes place not in our own Milky Way Galaxy, the setting of the first three Mass Effect games, but the Andromeda galaxy, our nearest galactic neighbor. We’re told the journey took about 600 years, during which our characters all slept in cryo-stasis while an AI flew the ships through dark space.

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Nobody really seems to have a very good reason for leaving the old galaxy for the new one, and that includes Bioware. Maybe the team from the first or second Mass Effect would have been better suited to the task of creating a new galaxy from scratch, but the development team seems to have been woefully unequipped, and has left their new galaxy feeling strangely lifeless. There’s two new alien species, but learning about what the krogan are up to in Andromeda is still more interesting than either of them. There are a bunch of solar systems you can fly your ship through, but there’s nothing to do in any of them and they don’t add anything to the setting at all. Those sections that do add to the setting are more like re-hashed pieces from the games that came before.

The main ‘good guy’ faction in Andromeda is the Andromeda Iniative, of whom the main character, Ryder, is the ‘Pathfinder’. It’s a made-up title and nobody really seems clear on where the Pathfinder’s authority starts and ends. It’s a pretty obvious attempt at an analogue to the Spectres from the original trilogy, but there’s not any build-up here about why being the Pathfinder is a big deal; a lot of minor characters defer to you with reverence, or at least some awareness of who you are as ‘the Pathfinder’, but nobody important gives a shit, which leaves me wondering why they bothered with it at all instead of just giving you a generic title for everyone to forget, like ‘Commander’.

The new open world exploration parts of Andromeda mostly consist of driving around in your rover between duplicated set-pieces, where enemies wait for you to come shoot them, or else wait to ambush you when you pick up whatever quest item or story MacGuffin is waiting at their tiny, self-contained site.

It’s as bland as it sounds. You can approach (or skip) any non-necessary encounter in exactly the same way, and nothing changes between them. You quickly learn not to bother with any given ‘point of interest’ unless you already know you need something there, because there are twenty others just like it per planet and none of them are actually interesting.

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Speaking of the rover, it’s unarmed. Every time you’re driving somewhere and come across an enemy, you have to decide to either get out of the rover (which usually leaves you without cover, and is probably the most dangerous part of any encounter, stupidly enough), or else just keep going because very few enemies can do enough damage to you quickly enough to force you to stop and deal with them. Somehow, this is supposed to be an improvement over Mass Effect 1’s MAKO. The Nomad struggles to get up small hills without switching to a slower, 6-wheel-drive mode, and forcibly respawns you at the top of any cliffs that are worth driving off of for fun. The Nomad does not make you feel cool. The Nomad is diametrically opposed to cool.

As bad as the Nomad is, though, the game feels so much worse when it forces you to explore without it. Havarl, one of the homeworlds of one of the new alien species, is an impressive-looking ruin being reclaimed by the jungle, but, unfortunately, exploring it feels exactly like wandering around an area in World of Warcraft. Here, some enemies just sit around waiting for you. Thirty feet away, one group of baddies is fighting a different group of baddies. None of them are very challenging to mop up, but there sure are a lot of them!

Havarl has some entertaining climbing puzzles that are only slightly marred by how sluggish the game controls when Ryder holsters her weapons, and the visuals effectively communicate a pretty complex idea: some aliens are trying to maintain new homesteads built on top of and within ruins, which are being reclaimed by hostile flora and fauna at the same time. Fittingly enough, this planet is probably the quickest to ‘settle’ out of all the possible colonies, and beyond the visuals, there’s just not much going on beyond a big area with a lot of enemies to fight and no soul at all.

The other colony planets all have some kind of story that somehow ties into the greater arc, but none of them are very original, whether the context is within the Mass Effect franchise or within Sci-fi culture as a whole. Every character tells you your choices are monumental, but there’s not any bite to that bark. Par for the course for Mass Effect, at this point.

 

The Kett, AKA the new bad guy aliens, range from interesting to goofy, but lean towards goofy whenever you see their silly, flat faces, and their ENORMOUS EYES. Zoomed in, they kind of look like anthropomorphic, hairless cats but with bony exoskeletons. The more interesting Kett designs end up looking a lot like the Locust from Gears of War, which isn’t a bad thing per se, but things are certainly bad when your grand space opera can’t come up with more interesting designs than a company whose most distinctive aesthetic principle is big muscles and giant shoulder pads.

salarian

Moving on from all that setting and story stuff, there’s some compelling gameplay buried beneath the thin-to-non-existent polish on Andromeda’s facade. The conversation wheel is split up into four different emotions you can channel for each one of the Pathfinder’s lines, and they fit together well even when hopping between them. The game also recognizes which ones you prefer, so if pick sarcastic a lot, Ryder will use the sarcastic versions of throwaway lines during cutscenes you can’t otherwise interact with. It works a lot better than the old renegade/paragon dynamic, and actually feels like a more polished version of Alpha Protocol’s dialogue choices.

Combat is usually pretty fun, with a few different methods to approaching each encounter, and enemy types have a lot of variety in behavior. The environments where you have these encounters are almost universally boring or badly designed; on Eos, the Kett have a gigantic, shielded based on the edge of a cliff, with giant drops beneath suspended platforms. It looks and sounds like a fun encounter, but ends up unremarkable. Despite the potential for verticality here, what with the new ability to jump really high with a jetpack, or with space magi- I mean, biotics – every encounter generally plays out on one or two horizontal walkways with railings and some crates or electronics panels or support beams scattered around to use for cover.

You can throw a ball of biotic energy at enemies, or you can use technology to throw a fireball, or you can fire a ‘concussive shot’, which is a big bullet. Your enemies get set on fire, or they get frozen, or they get knocked on their butts.  There’s a lot of window dressing here, but its just that: window dressing.  The status effects don’t differ very much apart from looks.

You’re also limited by the way the powers interact in Mass Effect. You pretty much always have a similar set up in your three ability slots: in one slot, you put a power that ‘primes’ an enemy, in the second slot you put one that ‘detonates’ the previous power for a lot of damage, and then you have one freebie slot for whatever. You can mix and match between soldier abilities, tech abilities, and biotic abilities, but again, they’re not meaningfully different beyond how they look when you use them. You can select among a few different ‘profiles’ for Ryder, which are essentially the classes from the previous games with a few additions- sneaky Infiltrators, in-your-face Vanguards, tech-armored Sentinels, etc.

The profiles are a great addition and let you radically change how Ryder handles between encounters, especially when paired up with powers that play into the profile bonuses- for instance, the biotic ability Charge lets you throw yourself at enemies and charge across the battlefield, restoring some of your shields and putting you in a great position to melee attack enemies. If you have the Vanguad profile active, that melee attack will restore even more of your shields, letting you zip and zoom around and blow everyone up with big purple explosions without worrying too much about dying or taking cover, which is fun for awhile, and when it gets boring or gets you killed, you can switch up your powers and profile. You’re basically changing the colors of the explosions, but there are enough mechanical differences to keep it compelling.

peebee

You also get a lot of skill points to throw around and try different abilities, which is good, because Andromeda has a huge number of abilities to choose from, and reading their descriptions is never as fun as actually testing them out. This isn’t how Mass Effect has behaved in the past. It’s not how most RPGs behave, and nobody comes out and tells you to experiment in Andromeda, which is a misstep. It’s still probably less effective than maxing out three active abilities and then putting the rest of your points into the many, many passive buffs you can invest in, not that you need to worry about what’s most effective. Maybe these kinds of things are supposed to add replay value at higher difficulties, but there’s not much else encouraging multiple playthroughs.

Your squadmates have passed almost completely out of your control in Andromeda. They only have three active abilities and two passive abilities each, and you can’t tell them when to use their powers or who to target. All you can do is tell them to go to a specific area and wait there, and in the few occasions you would actually want to spend the time to direct them to one spot or another, they won’t actually be able to do it, so I wonder again why they bothered with this at all.

As long as you level up your squadmates with Ryder, they’ll generally remain useful enough to kill an enemy or two. You can’t really count on it, but the game seems balanced around fighting the enemies on your own, so your squadmates distracting enemies or getting kills is more of a bonus than a tactical consideration. This feels like a step backwards from the previous games, but judging from how the enemy AI copes with the freedom presented by Andromeda’s open world encounters (poorly), its probably better that you never need to count on Ryder’s squadmates to come through in a pinch.

The multiplayer here is essentially the same one as Mass Effect 3, except with a few quality-of-life enhancements, in line with the single-player combat changes. You can jump up in the air with a jetpack, now, which actually gives you something out of the toolkit that used to be reserved for the multiplayer components’ enemies, but beyond that, this is nearly the same game as before with a new coat of paint. Character customization is limited, and hopefully you’re not a big fan of any of the aliens because more than half of the character cards you might draw at random from the store are just more humans.

What’s that? Did I say ‘store’? Why yes, yes I did! This is an EA title, so the multiplayer component has a random draw gimmick where you spend credits earned playing multiplayer encounters to buy random packs of cards, which will reward you with new characters, weapons, or supplies. This part has also not been improved much from ME3, except now you can buy packs that exclusively have supplies, and everything seems to be more expensive than it was the last time around. You can still, of course, spend real money on fake credits to buy the chance to unlock characters and weapons, though! You, uh… you really loved that part the last go around, right? I mean, everyone loves microtransactions! Everyone!!!!

snowscape

This all sounds pretty dire, doesn’t it? Well, it is, I guess, but the disappointment here wasn’t completely out of left field. Bioware has been shedding talent since before the Electronic Arts acquisition in 2007, and the quality of their games has seen a correlating downward slide. Within the franchise, despite the many ways Mass Effect 2 improved on its predecessor, its story was garbage.

Mass Effect’s space opera began and ended with that game, and every time that the franchise has grasped at the grandiose since, its flopped pretty spectacularly. Mass Effect 2 and 3 are both driven by interesting characters in a complex universe, and both are hobbled by the need to have a big, galaxy-spanning story about good guys and bad guys shooting at each other. So the basic idea behind Andromeda was a good one, with respect to starting fresh without expectations; Bioware could have used this to bring the franchise back to Mass Effect 2’s high point. Instead, Andromeda goes off the deep end, throwing out a lot of what made Mass Effect worth the price of admission before, and only bringing in a handful of new ideas that were actually worth developing.

Is Andromeda the worst game ever? No, not by a long shot. It’s not even the worst open world action/adventure shooter released in the spring of 2017, because Ghost Recon: Wildlands is also here, and boy, is it boring, empty, and soulless.

Is Andromeda disappointing? Certainly so. What Mass Effect has succeeded at so many times before, it fails here, and it fails badly. But it does pick up the ball and bring a few good ideas of its own to the table. The good ideas are distributed unevenly, though, and keep the combat fresh while the story and characters are stale, and the exploration is half-baked. There’s nothing here that Horizon: Zero Dawn didn’t do better a month ago, except you can play this one with your friends.

If you really liked the multiplayer in Mass Effect 3 and want more of the same with a few tweaks, Andromeda might be worth your money. Otherwise, and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Mass Effect game, you should wait for a really good sale. In the meantime, you won’t be missing much.

-Parker

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Second Opinion

So, I need to be upfront about something: I haven’t played much of the Mass Effect series.* Actually, I haven’t played any of it. But don’t let that stop you from taking my opinion seriously. I have lots of nuanced observations from my time sitting in the same room that Parker games in, all the while I watch drag queen interviews on Youtube and inform him when the battle scenes get too loud.**

First off, let’s take a look at these bizarre animations. I stole this paragraph idea from Parker’s post, but much like college essays and Wikipedia, all you need to do is switch out some words and bingo, +A for in depth research! Everyone looks like they are made of plastic. I like the one woman soldier’s avant-garde makeup, but also would like to know what makeup she is using because despite the fact she’s running around space all the time shooting aliens it never smudges? My eyeliner smudges when I blink so I would really like to know.  I do appreciate that the female characters are not overtly sexual, because I fucking hate that shit and I let Parker know every. time. Still could use more diversity in skin color/body shape, but that’s a rant for another day.  Going back to the animation, everyone’s complete lack of facial movements makes me think there’s a big inside joke that requires some serious poker face.***

I don’t have much else to add except for awhile I thought the character’s name was Raider and I just naturally assumed they were related to Tomb Raider because that’s also a video game or so I’ve been told.

 

 

*is it a series? Is that in the gaming vocabulary? Like, I have no idea but I bet I will be corrected!!

**I would like to know why the HECK battle scenes have to be so loud?!? If it’s supposed to be “realistic” I would like to remind everyone that hearing protection is an important part of shooting and therefore all I should hear some polite pings.

*** The joke is that the game is bad?

-Alice AKA GamergurlX0X0420

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