I remember the exact moment when BioWare’s 2007 sci-fi role-playing game Mass Effect hooked me.
After an opening mission full of evil robots, weird alien guys, and a giant scary spaceship, you fly to the Citadel — a massive space station that serves as the seat of galactic government in the game’s future version of the Milky Way. As your ship comes in to dock with the colossal station, the music swells, and you see a city, with streets and stores and a public fountain, teeming with interstellar citizens of all species. One look and you know that this is a massive and amazing world to explore.
In Mass Effect: Andromeda, the fourth game in the franchise and a narrative refresh with few ties to the original trilogy, a large group of the humans and aliens from the series shoot off to colonize a new frontier, the Andromeda galaxy. Once again, we prepared to discover a whole new galaxy of strange people, cultures, and places.
Andromeda is flooded with content, but it’s content that doesn’t really affect anything.
And yet, even after more than 35 hours, Andromeda was never able to conjure the same sense of discovery and wonder. In an attempt to recreate Mass Effect based on its past features, Andromeda struggles to capture what made the series so special for so many.
Let’s talk about space
Mass Effect developer BioWare is known for making a particular kind of action-focused RPG. Its games emphasize narratives with player choice, usually doing so through conversations full of options that let players respond to situations as they see fit. When conversations breakdown into violence, you’re running around in a cover-based third-person shooter, where you and two A.I. companions use guns and sci-fi-enabled powers to take down your foes.
Andromeda returns to this basic formula, but tweaks many of its core elements in significant ways. The game’s combat mechanics have been tweaked to feel quicker and more fluid, and conversations have been given more nuance. Instead of choices divided into the “Paragon” (good), and “Renegade” (bad), you now pick how you respond according to categories like empathetic responses, intellectual ones, professional and casual.
The idea sounds refreshing, but in practice, the expanded range of dialogue options often add many ways of saying the same thing. You can play a stuffy ambassador or a jokey one, but your amiable, well-to-do personality rarely shifts too much. As a result, the choices you make in Andromeda rarely feel as specific or as important as your very specific responses seem to imply. Despite an abundance of options, you’re mostly along for the ride throughout the story, rather than specifically shaping it.
A galaxy far, far away, but pretty much the same
That lack of impact is also the problem for much of Andromeda‘s story. At its outset, you awaken from cryostasis in Andromeda, on a ship of settlers called the Andromeda Initiative, 600 years after leaving Earth. Your character, either Scott or Sara Ryder, is part of the “Pathfinder” team: a well-trained, special-forces-style squad whose job is to scout their new home before people start settling down.
Things don’t go as planned, of course. When your ship — the ark — arrives, you do not find the paradise you were expecting, but an unlivable, hostile world.
Almost immediately, Andromeda starts bombarding players with worn space opera clichés. A massive space anomaly crushes your shuttle as you head to explore the planet, which you quickly discover to be full of hostile green aliens, floating rocks, ancient alien monoliths. It looks like Halo. Or James Cameron’s movie, Avatar. Or any of a dozen or so TV, film, and game properties — including Mass Effect. Within a few steps, the range of endless possibilities fans hoped for narrows down to the sci-fi equivalent of business as usual.
‘Oh god, oh god, we’re all going to die’
Andromeda pantomimes the original series, but fails to achieve the same weight and depth that defined the series’ past. Just like the Citadel of the original Mass Effect, Andromeda features a massive city in space, the Initiative’s appropriately named home base, the Nexus. It’s filled with the same city streets, and serves as home to several of the same species that struggled to tolerate each other in the original trilogy.
Though it would be hard for any fourth game in a series to illicit the same sense of wonder as its predecessors, Andromeda’s narrative would fall flat by any standard. At its core, Mass Effect’s stories revolved around concepts like cooperation, xenophobia, racism and friendship. While these conflicts are present among the game’s many, many quests and sidequests, they often feel underplayed and superficial.
The situation is primed for the personal socio-political conflicts that defined Mass Effect — small-scale personal stories that reveal the larger tensions that bubble and boil over when people are forced into unfamiliar situations. When you arrive, everyone on the station is struggling to eke out their survival after losing some colonies, but their attitudes suggest they’ve pretty much resolved to slowly starve to death as their resources run out. You are their generic and universal savior, and the conflict is basic. It’s you against the galaxy, and always you against the galaxy. At times, you may feel like the only competent person they bothered to ship to Andromeda.
Over the course of the game you will reshape planets and discover new alien species. And yet, your actions do not feel so consequential. The game is absolutely overflowing with content that doesn’t relate to the plot, mimicking BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Instead of giving you the hard moral choices Mass Effect is known for, you will spend most of your time driving around various planets, completing smaller quests that can advance the story, but often don’t. With seemingly dozens of missions to complete on every planet, it’s easy for the signal — the interesting, character-driven stories that flesh out Andromeda‘s world — to get lost in the noise of so many quests, spread around with so much travel and so much often-unnecessary combat.
Finding the silver lining in space stormcloud
Andromeda does, at least, manage to achieve an appropriately massive sense of scale. Its planets are huge, full of yawning chasms, colossal mountains, towering structures and gorgeous vistas that combine to spawn alien worlds worth exploring. Cities like the one on Kadara, a black market mafia planet run by exiled colonists, feature a sense of place indicative of the depth fans have come to crave, and most of the game lacks. While wandering planets in the downtime between missions can often grow a bit tedious, when combined with those missions that are deep and rewarding, the worlds start to come alive.
There are moments when Andromeda starts to click, to feel like the game fans remember. Just like in past Mass Effect games, once you’ve filled out your roster of six squad companions, you can start talking to them, learning about them, and even striking up romantic relationships with them. The best part of Mass Effect has always been getting to know your team, and it’s in these moments that Andromeda hits its highest heights.
The game surrounds you with some genuine and well-defined characters who you’ll want to get to know. There’s the excitable, wanderlust-addicted Asari Peebee, and Jaal, an Andromeda galaxy “local” who is a highly emotional and empathetic warrior. The more time you invest in your companions, even the comparatively boring Liam and Cora, the more Andromeda approaches the personal, character-driven magic that makes the original games so endearing. When you finally unlock the specific “loyalty missions” for each character, you’ll hit the game’s best moments. Here, Andromeda‘s personality starts to shine through, and it stops trying to copy old Mass Effect ideas and come into its own.
But even these relationships feel thin at times. There’s something missing from the interactions between the ever-positive Ryder (who can’t, it seems, really be mean to anyone) and his or her crew. The exchanges between Ryder and his or her closest confidants often feel like that between an employer and their employees. Make a choice that personally upsets a crew member (like letting people they care about die), and they’re mad briefly, but quickly move on without any lasting apprehension. To be fair, this has always been an issue in Mass Effect, but the newest entry is even more timid than usual. The game keeps you, and your interactions with your crewmates, firmly in the bounds of safe, uncontroversial choices.
And yeah, it’s buggy
It doesn’t help that Andromeda’s characters, on and off the Tempest, are often undercut by the game’s long list of technical issues. There’s a serious lack of polish throughout the game, and it’s hard to ignore. Though much of the game is focused on watching people speak — over the course of the game you will take part in hundreds of conversations — many characters’ faces, including Ryder’s, often appear blank and unresponsive, or twitchy, with eyes darting back and forth unnaturally.
Andromeda the conflict is basic — it’s you against the galaxy.
Prior to launch, GIFs featuring some of the goofiest bugs made their way across the Internet, but we’ve encountered so many weird problems that its hard to keep track. Twice in major character interactions, a second model of the character we were talking to strolled into the room mid-conversation and stood in the other character’s place, with the two mashing together like some kind of John Carpenter movie creature. Weird camera angles sometimes don’t show characters at all, and sound issues cut off pieces of conversation. The ambient dialogue between off-screen characters constantly seems to get disrupted by stupid things, such as opening a container or entering the pause menu at the wrong moment. It all makes the game’s story that much harder to enjoy, and kneecaps the good moments that might have made up for the game’s other problems.
We reviewed the game on the PlayStation 4, but we also tested the PC version. While stable, the game felt more taxing on hardware that expected given its extremely mixed visual presentation. The game also makes some strange choices in how it handles graphical detail presets, such as enabling changes in render scale by default. While it’s tolerable on PC, it seems the consoles took the lion’s share of developer attention.
Decent combat, and the galactic sink
BioWare has improved on some elements of the series, most notably its combat mechanics. The series has always built its shootouts around arenas for cover-based firefights and some very light squad-based tactics. Andromeda builds on that framework with a jump that flings you high into the air, and a short-range dash that can get you out of trouble or quickly into cover. These new, speedy movements open up engagements, making them vertical and giving you more options for quickly changing position. Like previous games, it never takes a ton of brainpower to figure out how to beat whatever Andromeda throws at you, but the battles now get frantic and fun in a way that previous games couldn’t support.
Ryder also has access to the same classes and special powers as Shepard, hero of the original ME trilogy, giving you some room to customize how you play. There’s a laundry list of abilities you can harness, ranging from chucking people through the air with a Jedi-like push, to straight-up setting them on fire.
Instead of a tight class system from previous games, you’re free to mix and match these abilities as you level up your character over time. The powers add a few options to each battle, like when you yank enemies out of cover by pulling them toward a miniature black hole. There are a few too many that don’t seem especially different from one another — you can “Push” and “Pull” — but once you find a set that works for your playstyle, they add a lot to the rhythm of fights.
Series fans will find all the abilities familiar, and using them along with your movement capabilities to quickly get around the battlefield adds enough strategy to encounters to relieve some of the pop-and-shoot monotony that might otherwise define Andromeda‘s battles.
While the combat feels markedly improved, the systems that go along with it are chaotic. The game is full of confusing menus for building new weapons, customizing your character’s abilities, setting combat “profiles” that give you passive battle boosts, and unlocking bonuses in your colonies.
While these systems all sound great on paper, none of them are especially well-explained, nor are they particularly important. You can safely ignore all of it, from crafting, to mining, to colony bonuses, to sending out “strike teams” on missions to earn you resources. The benefits don’t affect your ability to win fights or explore the game in a meaningful way.
There’s also a multiplayer mode, similar to the one introduced in Mass Effect 3. Players team up in squads of four to take on waves of enemies. It’s fast and frenetic at times, as you fight baddies and hold objective locations, and adding player-controlled squad mates over computer-controlled ones improves the experience quite a bit. The mode isn’t anything to really write home about, since you’ll fight so many similar battles throughout the single-player portion of the game, but teaming up with other players, and earning some single-player bonuses, adds a change of pace that helps break up all the driving and exploring.
That said, Andromeda, like Mass Effect 3, isn’t really about combat or multiplayer, and the mode doesn’t add a significantly different experience from the combat players will engage in over dozens of hours in completing the story. It may appeal to players who like Mass Effect’s combat, and it’s competent and fun, but doesn’t feel like anything more than a bonus for fans who already showed up for the story.Our Take
Mass Effect: Andromeda often comes off like a giant checklist of Mass Effect–themed content, but what it’s missing is the wonder and excitement that made the last Mass Effect games feel special. The previous games had their issues, but combined their elements to create a vast, interesting world full of deep characters with conflicting desires and experiences that made us feel connected to it. At times, Andromeda comes close to capturing that wondrous sci-fi magic that has made so many people love the series, but never quite lands the ship. This isn’t a new galaxy to explore — it’s a retread of an old frontier.
Is it better than the alternative?
This market is currently full of open-world games, and Mass Effect: Andromeda feels like it pales in comparison to many of them, especially with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild providing a massive, fascinating world to explore just a few weeks ago.
How long will it last?
We completed the main story arc of Mass Effect: Andromeda in just over 35 hours. With all the sidequests and multiplayer, we could see a die-hard fan spending another 20 or 30 more trying to see everything the game has to offer.
Should you buy it?
With the field of open-world games providing lots of different takes on the same kind of experience, Andromeda struggles to stand out. Die-hard Mass Effect fans may want to pick this up to see what happens next, but most players can skip it.
(PlayStation 4 review copy provided by Electronic Arts)