Mass Effect is one of those franchises that carries with it an enormous reputation. The original trilogy, though its ending was controversial, is still widely regarded as one of the most beloved trilogies in the medium. With Mass Effect Andromeda, Bioware faces an enormous challenge of living up to those expectations. The good news is in some ways, Mass Effect Andromeda improves upon much of what made the original trilogy great, especially in regards to combat, RPG mechanics, and open-world gameplay. Unfortunately, it is held back by a lack of technical polish and a lackluster narrative.
Mass Effect Andromeda takes place more than 600 years after the events of Mass Effect 3, in the galaxy of Andromeda, a distant neighbor of our own The Milky Way galaxy. The protagonist, one of the Ryder twins of the player’s choosing, is a recon specialist for the Andromeda Initiative, a human-led effort to establish a settlement in the Andromeda galaxy. Members of the initiative comes out of cryofreeze after hundreds of years of travel through dark space, and finds a galaxy that is equal parts foreign and dangerous. On their first trip to a new planet, the group encounters a malevolent new alien species, ancient alien technology, and more trouble than they ever expected from humanity’s new home. From this point forward, the story of Mass Effect Andromeda unravels a disappointingly straight-forward tale, culminating in the weakest Mass Effect story to-date. The narrative isn’t bad, in fact it’s pretty enjoyable and chock-full of entertaining one-liners, but it certainly doesn’t surprise in the way most Bioware narratives do.
The good news is Mass Effect Andromeda’s characters, as is often the case in Bioware games, are very memorable, and stand tall alongside other casts from the studio. Per usual, I found some of the human companions a little bland, but the alien party members, especially Peebee: the nerdy Asari character, are unique and interesting. The dialogue and banter are also of high-quality, though some of the dialogue is a little clunky. Romance options have also made a return, which are sure to be a crowd-pleaser.
Despite a less than enthralling story, Mass Effect Andromeda brings to the table overhauled shooting mechanics that outclass the original trilogy. In Andromeda, players are more mobile than they’ve ever been, able to boost horizontally, leap vertically, and teleport through certain barriers. The dynamic cover system makes it so characters automatically crouch when near cover, and no longer become glued to items they hide behind like in previous games. The variety of abilities available to the player offer a wide range of experiences. Biotic players can teleport to close distances and engage their foes in a melee, freeze enemies in their tracks, or unleash a flurry of grenades ad blaster fire. Various small improvements in each area of the combat system creates what is indisputably the best gameplay in any Mass Effect game, especially in the way it allows players the freedom to customize their play style.
Whereas previous Mass Effect games had the player choose a class and stick with it, Mass Effect Andromeda invites the player to create their own class by choosing the skills and abilities they want, and creating customized archetypes based on their choices. If a player chooses mostly combat skills, they’ll gain bonuses for those abilities, and will be encouraged to focus on those skill trees. Later on, if that same player spends skill points on biotic abilities, they unlock the “Vanguard” specialization, which gives bonuses for focusing dually on combat and biotic abilities. This system allows players to really choose to be the Pathfinder that best suits their interests and playstyle. The game handles weapons in a similar manner, where any weapon type is equippable, and can be customized and paired with any other weapon in the game. Whereas previous Mass Effect games put barriers on how players could play, Mass Effect Andromeda opens everything up, and that’s great news for picky players like myself.
For all its faults, I adored the original Mass Effect game, and Mass Effect Andromeda shares one thing in common in particular with the original title: open-world exploration. Much has been made of Mass Effect’s failed first-attempt at implementing open-world elements into the series — barren wastelands with little other than the infamously infuriating Mako to comfort you, but with Andromeda, Bioware reminds us how far it’s come since those days. Now the open worlds you visit are filled with life, and absolutely packed with enemies to fight, people to meet, and quests to do. Best of all, the Mako has been replaced with The Nomad, a much faster, more maneuverable, and more reliable vehicle. Exploring new planets, and ticking every little thing off of your to-do list is addictive and far less frustrating than the days of the original game.
The side quests you’ll encounter in Mass Effect Andromeda are far less fetch-oriented than say Dragon Age Inquisition, but still fail to reach the heights of fellow open-world games like The Witcher 3. Where Dragon Age Inquisition’s quests felt like a chore after 60 hours, Andromeda’s left me feeling far less frustrated thanks to a wider diversity across each of them. One side quest might have you solve a murder mystery, while another has you uncovering ancient alien technology. There’s a lot more variety than we’ve seen so far in open-world Bioware games. Despite this, most of the side quests do amount to “find this thing,” “kill this guy,” or “scan that, please” and rarely ever surprise or engage the player in any meaningful way.
The visual presentation in Mass Effect Andromeda is a bit of a mixed bag. Mass Effect Andromeda’s characters and animations aren’t pretty. In fact, for a game coming out in 2017 and touting 4K, they’re downright bad. Faces are blurry, lifeless, and a bit dead in the eyes. If motion capture was used for the faces in Mass Effect Andromeda, it doesn’t show, and the result is something more distracting than immersive. With so many interesting characters, I wanted to be pulled in, but instead found myself staring at their bizarrely-moving lips or slot machine eyes. The environments, on the other hand, are gorgeous to look at. The open worlds of Andromeda are vibrant and varied. One world will have constant thunderstorms and rocks hovering in the air, and the next will be a barren rock with no atmosphere and low gravity. Worlds feel more alive than they ever have in the series even if the characters occupying those worlds are made more alien by clunky animations.
Mass Effect Andromeda also is subject to a ton glitches that can be quite a headache . In my time with the game I witnessed some truly bizarre things. I saw enemies become lodged in the ground, which halted progress that required me to clear the area. My character would occasionally become locked in a bizarre position, unable to perform most tasks until I reloaded the game. In one particularly amusing instance, I had a conversation with another character who spoke their own lines, then opened their mouth again and spoke my lines with my character’s voice, after which the conversation carried on as if nothing happened. All of these bugs happened in between significant framerate drops, which were especially prevalent on console versions.
Fairly early in the single player campaign you’ll encounter a Turian commander named Kandros that handles security on the Nexus. He’ll introduce you to “strike teams”. Not unlike the AI-driven missions in the Mass Effect 3: Datapad “Galaxy at War” minigame, you’ll be able to send out computer controlled teams to tackle missions on your behalf. Before each mission, there is a brief overview and a success percentage presented based on your strike team’s level and the difficulty of the enemies encountered. If you want to help tilt the odds, you can seamlessly enter multiplayer from here, jumping directly into these missions and ensuring their success. Alternatively, you can simply select Multiplayer from the main menu and achieve the same effect without the single-player tie-in. Missions undertaken by your AI-driven strike team (or you directly, should you choose to jump in) yield rewards you can use in the single player campaign. That said, the whole thing is entirely optional.
In Mass Effect 3, players were required to engage in multiplayer whether they wished to or not to achieve the access to all possible endings. That requirement has been removed, ensuring you can explore every bit of what Andromeda has to offer without ever having to touch multiplayer if you are so inclined. That said, if you choose to skip multiplayer, you are missing out on a great experience.
You won’t be taking either of the Ryder twins into multiplayer battle, so your multiplayer adventure starts with picking a character from an initial roster of six humans. These characters are a mix of different Mass Effect class staples including Vanguards, Sentinels, Adepts, Engineers, Mercenaries, and everything in between. Naturally, the selection is fairly shallow at the outset. Not unlike Dragon Age: Inquisition’s multiplayer, you’ll need to farm out new weapons, goodies, and characters to equip them. With a character selected, you can now tackle a series of optional tutorial levels, or jump straight into battle.
As you complete matches you’ll earn XP to level up your character and earn new skills, but you’ll also pick up credits, which can be used to purchase new packs that unlock characters, weapon mods (you can equip two for each weapon), XP boosters, and much more. Like any good RPG, these are classified as common, uncommon, rare, and ultra rare, scratching the loot collection itch. As the game has no class restrictions, any character can use any weapon, so there’s never a time you’ll get a ‘bad drop’ with something you can’t use.
As you level up your selected character, you’ll spend skill points between five different powers, three active abilities, and two passive traits. You’ll want to coordinate which powers the group has available, because just like in single player, you can synchronize your abilities with other members of your squad to unleash power combos, resulting in catastrophic damage. There’s a lot to discover here, and certainly much more than we could uncover in our time with the final game.
If you’re the type that has more money than time, Mass Effect Andromeda offers microtransactions to give your equipment and available character classes a boost. Using in-game credits, or “Andromeda Points,” you can buy with real cash, you can purchase packs which give you mods, weapons, new characters, and consumables. If you’re a busy individual, this will allow you to quickly ramp up your characters, though the random nature of this keeps you fairly honest. It doesn’t replace skill, and there’s nothing lost if someone else is overpowered for their level. Thankfully, Andromeda’s multiplayer doesn’t feel like it’s pay-to-win.
If there’s a word I’d use to describe the multiplayer in Mass Effect Andromeda, it’d be “fast”. The matches are fairly short at just 15 minutes, and the enemies are smarter this time around. Flanking, tying you up with Wraiths (the armored and spiked dog-like creatures in Andromeda that have biological cloaking), and using mixed tactics like sniping while closer enemies prevent your escape. Thankfully, you have a few more tricks up your sleeve this time around. All characters have jetpacks that allow you to leap into the air, as well as quickly zip to the side for a quick evasion. This level of agility fundamentally changes the plodding tank-like approach of its predecessor. It enables verticality, new ways to create line of sight or escape, and leaping down to smash the ground to scatter enemies all around you never gets old. It’s a welcome change that results in a mode that requires planning, coordination, and a full understanding of your character’s abilities to survive higher difficulty levels.
The multiplayer modes are split into easy, medium, and hard difficulties, called Bronze, Silver, and Gold. Bronze mode consists of 7 waves with 4 survival and 3 objective rounds, the last of which has the player being evacuated. Silver and Gold increase the difficulty and number of waves, though I’m unable to know how much, as I was never able to reach the end during my time with Andromeda so far. Survival waves asks players to hunker down and wipe out their aggressors, while objective waves have players hacking nodes, disabling devices, and securing an extraction zone.
Mass Effect Andromeda’s multiplayer is fairly challenging, especially at its highest difficulty settings, and requires all four players to work together to overcome hordes of enemies. So far as I can tell, it isn’t very likely that even the best team will be able to get through Gold difficulty without leveling up a bit and improving their equipment. The players will face off against three factions: raiders, the Kett, and the Remnant, the latter of which is absolutely the most brutal faction to go up against. The game ships with five maps, with future map installments recently announced as free updates, preventing any fracturing of the multiplayer audience.
Mass Effect Andromeda was jointly reviewed by myself (Travis Northup), and Ron Burke. The text of this review, and the opinions expressed were collectively composed.