Review: Mass Effect: Andromeda

What will you see on the unknown frontier? Where do your priorities lie when survival is uncertain? How will you make familiar that which is completely foreign? These are some of the questions Mass Effect: Andromeda wrestles with as you find yourself on a galactic odyssey to colonize a new universe.

Bioware's latest foray in the role-playing space action franchise is, in many ways, an extension of the politics, ideas, and mechanics of the original Mass Effect trilogy. Andromeda tries to bridge the gap between the previous games and a new audience who might not know the series. It's an intriguing premise betrayed by unnatural dialogue, stilted characters, too many menus, and by-the-numbers moments. If Mass Effect is the video game equivalent of the Star Wars movies, Andromeda is easily The Phantom Menace-level of quality. 

Mass Effect: Andromeda (PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One, PC)
Developer: Bioware
Genre: Action RPG
Released: March 21, 2017
MSRP: $59.99
Played: Played campaign for 35 hours, played 6 hours of multiplayer

Mass Effect: Andromeda was reviewed using a final retail copy purchased by the reviewer.

You'll fill the shoes of Ryder (by default Scott or Sara, though you can create your own hero), a young adult adventurer who volunteers with their family for the Andromeda Initiative. They embark on an risky trek to send people from the Milky Way to the Heleus Cluster in search of new planets to call home. The 600-year journey across space forces the explorers to travel in stasis, waking up when and if they arrive at their destination. Every Milky Way species loads up their astronauts on their own separate arks to get there, only to find themselves challenged when they arrive. When Ryder and company arrive a year after the first group, the prospect of habitable "golden worlds" evaporate as hostile aliens attack outposts and low supplies cause mutiny. The Initiative senses all hope has been lost. Everything that could've gone wrong with the expedition has.

Andromeda's opening act does not put its best foot forward. This first planet is meant to tutorialize jump-jet traversal and evasion, how the combat's new automated cover system works, and introduce the new alien menace, the Kett. Instead, you end up with a muddled explanation of what's happening, an interface and map that are difficult to decipher, and some frustrating checkpoints without the ability to save manually until you leave the planet. This first chapter ends in Ryder becoming the "Pathfinder," a leader of the caravan with a special link to the group's artificial intelligence. The dramatic event surrounding Ryder's role change feels completely unearned. Regardless of the dialogue wheel choices you've made, Ryder comes across as an immature, privileged kid among teammates who really don't want to be there. At least the binary "Paragon/Renegade" choices have been expanded to include an emotional, a logical, professional, or casual response, which supposedly will develop Ryder's personality over the course of the game. Sadly, the choices don't make much of a difference over the course of the game.

Things continue to devolve quickly from there. Your reunion with the first pioneers fills your quest log, but the log now more resembles a computer's file folder structure. What's more important to tackle first, "Priority Ops," "Allies," "Heleus Assignments," or "Additional Tasks?" Your guess is as good as mine. Your inventory and research/development options are similarly broken down by type of item, category of research needed to unlock them, and resource cost. You know that feeling when your email inbox is flooded? Bioware has somehow built an entire game around that. You can't track multiple quests at a time, waypoints sometimes won't appear, and the game does not guide you to what Ryder's priorities should be. Some side quests will flash "ON HOLD," forcing you to wait to complete them. This makes this content seem like busy work until you get to the next plot point.

Generally, the main quest will have the team settling new worlds. Your efforts will add up to a planet's viability score, and while you have some say over how your colonies develop, it turns out to be a shallow system. Transforming harsh biomes into habitable ones will require Ryder and friends to find monoliths and unlock ancient alien technology from the Remnant, almost always ending in a sudoku-like puzzle and discovering an underground vault. You'll have to use your wrist scanner to view objects, like Batman: Arkham Asylum's "detective vision," usually to press a button or flip a switch you wouldn't have found otherwise. The outposts you end up building look like they come out of a furniture catalog, and the bonuses they add to the Initiative are marginal at best. Would you like 30 of a resource, 60 credits, or 5% more weapon damage? 

On the galactic side, scanning planets for resources returns from Mass Effect 2, which is easily the worst gameplay feature from the best entry in the series. Landing and moving around the few explorable planets requires the Nomad, an all-terrain vehicle resembling the Mako from the original game. How many more borrowed ideas from other games can I list? Andromeda reads like someone looked at a "How to make a Mass Effect game" recipe, bought all the ingredients, and then botched the end result.

In Andromeda's favor is a lot of fast-paced gunplay and combat. New biotic, tech, and combat powers complement old favorites, and you're not restricted this time around by the class you choose at the beginning of the game. Want to be a sniper who can charge in and shoot a flamethrower at your foes? How about a sneaky shotgunner who can pull foes in and concuss them? Do you prefer using a pistol while being able to give allies armor and weaken foes? By not being bound to classes, the game encourages you to explore various skill trees, building general profiles for your Ryder based on how you spend your ability points. Speccing in some directions will grant bonuses, and if you hate your loadout or weapons, you can switch them out fairly frequently. You can also combine abilities with yourself or teammates to great effect. There is a lot of shooting that breaks up the large boring sections of the story quite nicely.

Speaking of teammates, your ability to order them around is limited to general "stand here, defend this point" commands. The game's AI is also strangely buggy. I found enemies shooting at walls, squadmates who end up standing on top of enemies, and noticing them using abilities at invisible targets. Outside of combat, I also found NPCs walking into frame of a conversation they weren't involved in, characters looking somewhere between you and the object they're holding, and overlapping spoken dialogue. These bugs wouldn't normally bother me, but they're so pervasive as to be distracting. Worse, the game's voice actors deliver their lines unenthusiastically. Some characters' strange cadence make it sound like the universe's most awkward high school play. They should call it Mass Effect: Uncanny Valley of the Dolls.

Your mileage with your ship's crew will vary depending on your familiarity with squads of Mass Effect past: Peebee is almost-Liara, Cora is almost-Miranda, Drack is almost-Wrex, Liam is almost-Jacob, Vetra is almost-Garrus, and Jaal is almost-Thane. They have fun personalities but aren't very unique. Jaal and Peebee are the standouts for me, but don't bring enough to the table for me to be wholly invested. As is standard for these games, your romantic options are limited by the gender of Ryder you select, and the sex scenes continue to look like sex-ed demonstrations. I understand why people come to the Mass Effect fiction to kiss charming aliens, but the nuance of real intimacy isn't portrayed in most of these choices, only a flirting pass or fail checklist.   

Mass Effect 3's wave-based multiplayer returns in Andromeda and is mostly serviceable. It showcases how maneuverable you should be in the single player and your friends' teamwork will often mean the difference between whether you survive all waves or falter in round three. You can pump points into your multiplayer characters, though they all have predetermined loadouts. EA's blind boxes also come back, but the return on investment for your dime or time is low. Should you choose to play multiplayer, there are rewards that transfer over to single player. Just like Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, you can also automate your single-player rewards by sending out strike teams, which operate on cooldown timers. Divorced from the context of a larger story, the third-person shooting here seems empty. The mode's inclusion is unnecessary and comes across as uninspired.

Bioware announced they will patch some of the game's more glaring technical issues and intend on working on some of the missteps to animations and dialogue options. However, even if these issues get fully resolved, it won't be enough to fix Andromeda's core problems. The game is a dull slog, the writing is poor, and Andromeda fails to bring anything exciting to the Mass Effect universe.

At best, Mass Effect: Andromeda is a superfluous reset to one of the finest franchises from the last generation of games. If you had asked me if I wanted more games in the model of Mass Effect 3, my answer would be an unequivocal yes. After playing Andromeda, it's hard to get excited about Mass Effect moving forward. I kept coming back to this game looking for something compelling, and was disappointed nearly every time. There is an expansive, interesting Mass Effect game to be made within this template, but Andromeda isn't it. Players will find it a divisive entry in the series. It should've been lost in space.

"Mass Effect: Andromeda is an intriguing premise betrayed by unnatural dialogue, stilted characters, too many menus, and by-the-numbers moments."

GOOD: Combat feels fluid. More dynamic skill trees and crafting systems open up gameplay options.

BAD: Cookie-cutter plot feels like a retread of the first Mass Effect. Voice acting and characters are robotic. Squad and enemy AI is terrible. Layers of menus bury sense of progression. Multiplayer is uninspired.

SCORE: ★★☆☆☆