As the fourth entry in the series, Mass Effect Andromeda brings the same sci-fi action RPG gameplay that was popularized by its predecessors, and is brought to us by Bioware and EA, the same developer/publisher combo that made the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Mass Effect Trilogy.
Long before Telltale games started using dialogue choices to impact NPC relationships, and carrying over player decisions into subsequent episodes and games, it was the Mass Effect series that pioneered and popularized connectivity across games that allowed player decisions in one game to dynamically affect changes in the game world of its sequel.
In addition to its emphasis on showcasing impact of player choices across multiple games, the Mass Effect Trilogy was also highly regarded for its polished sci-fi RPG mechanics, universe-building, character development, voice acting and its narrative.
Since the Mass Effect series was always known to take its storytelling seriously, it is odd to see the developer go back to the well, when the last game had ended series’ narrative in such a neat fashion.
Even though pedigree of the developers behind Andromeda promises similar standards in quality of story and gameplay as the Mass Effect Trilogy, it still begs the question as to whether Mass Effect Andromeda is a sequel that was truly needed, or is there nothing here to justify its existence apart from the apparent profit motive for Bioware and EA?
Set in the year 2819, Mass Effect Andromeda starts somewhere in between the timeline of the 2nd and 3rd Mass Effect game, and puts players in the shoes of either Scott or Sara Ryder; twin siblings that are part of a large crew of migrants who embark on a one-way, 600-year journey from Milky Way to the Andromeda Galaxy.
Unlike the original Mass Effect games, Mass Effect Andromeda does not carry over characters and decisions made in the previous installments of the series. The game’s story and its characters bear no direct connection to the narrative that unfolds in Mass Effect Trilogy, and players do not need to have played the Trilogy, or have knowledge of events in previous Mass Effect games to understand or enjoy the story in Andromeda.
The main narrative thread in the game involves Ryder and his/her team exploring the Heleus Cluster of the Andromeda Galaxy, in order to find viable outpost spots and habitable planets for the thousands of migrant voyagers from Milky Way.
Since exploration is the primary thread that binds the game’s narrative and gameplay elements, it is not surprising to find that Mass Effect Andromeda’s biggest strength is the design and presentation of the celestial bodies that populate its in-game universe.
Just like Mass Effect games of the past, Andromeda does a great job of capturing the solemn beauty of outer-space, as well as design variances in technology of different habitats, and the biodiversity in interplanetary environments.
Bioware has made use of the Frostbite 3 engine to create atmospheres that combine its visual design with great lighting and particle effects to create visually arresting vistas; every one of these landscapes is markedly different from another, featuring a look and color palette unique to each and every planet.
Where one planet showcases contrast of glowing neon blues and yellows in gray rocky land, another displays homogeneity in bright oranges of sandy deserts; where some planets showoff unique combinations like pastel purple and cobalt colored rainforests, others offer a more familiar feel, such as the cool blues and greens mixing with absolute whites of an ice planet.
Adorning these diverse sets of environments are the series’ staple sky-boxes; whether they are depicting grey cloudy storms, sunny blue skies or star-lit heavens decorated with huge planets, each sky-box is beautifully created and goes a long way in cementing the unique feel of each and every planetary environment.
Unfortunately, Andromeda’s visuals are not without their own problems; the game has plenty of issues that range from texture pop-ins during planetside exploration, to visual glitches like characters clipping through environment; these visual snags mar the overall presentation of the game and make it really difficult for the player to get immersed in these environments to appreciate the effort put in by the designers and artists.
Taking a cue from the first Mass Effect game, Andromeda puts a greater focus on open-world planet-side exploration than Mass Effect 2 or 3. Each explorable planet in Mass Effect Andromeda is home to a large map, that not only allows players to explore areas on an all-terrain vehicle to find new sites and outposts, but also incentivizes on-foot exploration in order to discover dozens of optional collectables, scanable objects as well as scrounge areas for resource elements and crafting components.
Unfortunately, the walking and exploration aspect of the game could have done with more polish. Not only do the large in-game worlds contain slight visual glitches and clipping issues, but it is also not uncommon for player character to temporarily get stuck in geometry, which can become more than an annoyance during incidents that involve concerted platforming and tense enemy shootouts.
Another problem with the game’s level design is that each planet overworld still requires players to follow objective markers for a selected mission/side-mission task to get any sense of where to go; this almost always results in a loop that requires finding a new area, eliminating enemy and scrubbing it for loot before moving on to the next one.
This constant loop can make exploration a repetitious and tedious affair, which is somewhat lessened by the much welcome inclusion fast-travel points in world maps.
Similarly, the act of tackling most of Andromeda’s priority missions is more or less a linear affair that, despite its focus on open-world exploration, still involves combing through dungeons containing labyrinthian corridors, which range from abandoned or hostile outposts to metallic ruins and vaults.
Apart from surveying different worlds, Mass Effect Andromeda also has a fairly hefty action and RPG component to its gameplay, which contains a lot of 3rd person shooting, leveling-up abilities, NPC interaction and a little management of squad-mates as well as some story-centric decision-making.
Like its exploration component, Andromeda is also more like the 1st Mass Effect in how it tackles its RPG mechanics; the game does away with the more streamlined approach taken by Mass Effect 2 & 3, and returns the series to more exhaustive weapon and armor customization options as well as greater importance of inventory and crafting process.
Players can invest credits and research points, as well as utilize any blueprints discovered and resource elements mined from various celestial bodies to develop various weapons, armors, special ammunition, augmentations and upgrade parts as well as technologies for the all-terrain vehicle.
However, keeping track of all the different types of research points and loot resources is made unnecessarily difficult due to some poor choices made in developing inventory and store user interfaces, making crafting a tedious and confusing process that, instead of providing viable options, ends up becoming a chore.
As far as the game’s 3rd person shooter combat is concerned, the game deemphasizes series’ cover-based mechanics, by making player character automatically hide behind objects instead of allowing player the ability to manually take cover.
This seems to be a deliberate change made to make the game’s combat less rigid and more mobile, however in practice it makes the act of taking cover less reliable, thereby making its combat feel less tactical and more chaotic.
Winning shootouts and completing missions/objectives nets player and his/her squad XP that is used to level up abilities that can be used in-battle, and range across three major skill trees; Combat, Tech and Biotics.
Biotic abilities allow players to use energy manipulation and psychokinesis, Tech skills allow them to buff their weaponry and debilitate enemy defenses, and Combat skills are used to increase weapon damage and accuracy.
In addition to these skills, players are also given ability to assign their characters different Profiles; these work like MMO classes/jobs, and allow players specific bonuses to stats and abilities when equipped. However, unlike previous Mass Effect games, Andromeda gives players the ability to change Profiles on the fly, allowing for more versatile and adaptive play experience.
Similar to its predecessors, character development and player choice is a huge part of Mass Effect Andromeda’s gameplay experience. The game sees return of dialogue wheel as the primary device to tackle NPC conversations and player actions, which not only affect the game world but also shape how different relationships turn out over the course of the story campaign.
Since the game’s narrative tackles a mix of lighter subjects like adventurism, duty and purpose with darker issues surrounding social effects of resource scarcity, civil issues, mistrust and xenophobia, it is heartening to see the game use a more nuanced morality system, as Mass Effect Andromeda makes a welcome effort to move away from the binary Paragon/Renegade character builds of the past games.
However, all the gains made by Andromeda’s nuanced dialogue choice and personality system are undercut by its lackluster script and uninspiring facial animations.
The concerns voiced in the hysteria surrounding recent previews were overblown, as the facial animations are not as comically bad as most feared; unfortunately, they aren’t too great either. Mass Effect Andromeda contains characters that have dead eyes and stoic faces, and are devoid of any emotion, which goes to show how the game lacks the polish and consistency that is the standard for modern AAA Action RPGs.
Same is the case with the game’s lack of organic transitions between dialogues, abrupt scene changes and clunky NPC movements. All these presentation aspects have an awkward/gamey feel to them, something that belong in old games from previous generation and not a modern narrative driven cinematic RPG experience
It is abundantly clear that Mass Effect Andromeda was not given the same amount of polish and care that was afforded to the Mass Effect Trilogy in the previous console generation. From its presentation to its gameplay, the game is filled with multitude of annoyances that are small enough that they dont break the game, but are frequent enough to break player immersion and harm the overall experience.
Despite its share of flaws, Mass Effect Andromeda provides its players with an enjoyable sci-fi journey that lasts 30-40 hours, and contains beautifully created worlds, lots of relationship drama, tons of action and even a multiplayer component similar to that of Mass Effect 3. There is certainly a lot here to enjoy for those that are fine with simply getting to play more of the same Mass Effect that they got 5 years ago.
However, those that are expecting a drastic change or an evolution of the series, should keep their expectations in check. Andromeda is a great game by a lot of standards, but it is not up to the lofty standards of the current AAA RPG market and certainly does not meet the expectations set by its predecessors.
Mass Effect Andromeda is to Mass Effect series, what God of War Ascension was to the God of War franchise; a sequel that is stuck in the past and ultimately fails to evolve the franchise into a new direction. It brings some changes to the Mass Effect formula, but nothing significant enough to warrant a return to a series that had tied everything nicely at the end of its trilogy of games.