Mass Effect: Andromeda spreads and eagerly offers you so much to see and do that it almost loses itself. The best way to focus on other people and trust that the mission will achieve at least some of its ambitious goals on this massive and uncertain journey into a foreign galaxy.
In Bioware's new third-party action role-playing game, you play Ryder, a human adventurer who lives in an advanced society capable of making space travel faster than light. Andromeda is the fourth entry in the Mass Effect series, and as some of the aliens and politicians return, the whole thing unfolds in a different environment that is friendly to franchisees. Ryder is part of the Andromeda Initiative, a group of researchers who are leaving the Milky Way in search of a new frontier: the Heleus cluster. The expedition is a demanding hike that takes 600 years of travel and puts members of the initiative into a cryogenic stasis. Being part of it means leaving everything behind without being sure that you will ever return.
Also read: Mass Effect: Andromeda Graphics Performance Tested
When Ryder and her colleagues arrive, everyone is shocked to discover that the "golden worlds" they have explored are not nearly as habitable as they hoped. It also turns out that the region is overrun by an enemy species called "Kett", and despite optimistic hopes of first contact, they are not interested in making peace. Even worse, almost all logistics associated with the trip go wrong: some ships arrive a year earlier, while other “arks” that contain whole species are lost and are not taken into account. Supplies to those already in the area are declining and tensions over these complications have erupted, with part of the initiative being banished to dangerous planets.
Within the first hour, the player receives the title "Pathfinder", ie someone who has to guide humanity to planets that are suitable for colonization. You will of course wonder if there can be such a great responsibility on the shoulders of a mere soldier, but the question of leadership – who deserves it, whether someone can be willing or not and what constitutes an inspiring leader – is an ongoing issue in all of Andromeda.
The ingredients for an exciting game are all there, but the structure of Andromeda slows the dynamic of the beginning. Where older games were slowing down, Andromeda overwhelmed you with choices on every planet you visit. When you arrive in a new locale, you can speak to an exceptional number of people, but they don't always have something meaningful to say. I went to Andromeda hungry to learn all about a new breed called Angara, because mass effect games have been great in the past to flesh out credible foreign race societies. But Andromeda's inconsistent writing hits the player over the head with the idea that the Angara have large families, to the point that what might be a culture-defining trait instead feels like repetitive writing that keeps telling, rather than close some and just show.
At a more fundamental level, the series' multiple choice dialog wheel now feels out of date. In recent years we've seen a number of games like Oxenfree and the Mr. Robot mobile game that deal with the dynamic, lively rhythms of the conversation, but Mass Effect is happy with the fact that people are clumsy and take turns exchanging ideas that you select from a dialog wheel. Many years ago, this method of presenting conversations brought Bioware to the forefront of narrative games, but now it seems that they are lagging behind in a revolution that they have helped. Thanks to the stilted voice output and the strange way in which characters deliver lines at odd intervals, some conversations just don't feel natural. Mass Effect lets you talk to people for hours, but it hardly reflects how real people speak.
Nevertheless, the dialogue has improved in one essential respect: You no longer have to choose between good "Paragon" and bad "Renegade" decisions. Instead, you can choose different tones that don't bind you to a particular morality. Mass Effect: Andromeda continually prompts you to think about what you stand for and, through your decisions, prompts you to convey values to an emerging society that you are looking for in a direction. What are you going to teach them? Will humanity be a ruthless, self-serving intruder, or will they find new allies and build their trust?
The more people you speak, the more quests you get and the more things get out of control. The first problem is partly in the presentation: pursuing quests is a nightmare. With a confusing user interface, you have to sort multiple nested menus so that you can hardly find what you want. Will a quest someone just told you about appear under the specific planet it is on? The quest giver seemed friendly. Is his request made under the "Allies" menu? Oh, this quest sounded important, will it go to Priority Ops? Even after playing dozens of hours, I keep trying to find what I want. I had to keep a separate list of what I wanted to do and how, and even then it felt overwhelming.
The very act of figuring out what's really important in Andromeda and figuring out the order in which to complete it reminded me of the helpless fear that comes with tackling an inbox full of emails
The "Additional tasks" category becomes even more complicated. Compared to other types, these quests sound like busy work. Paradoxically, the flavor text of non-priority missions still promised studies of the structure of the world and character that are essential for the player to take care of everything. If you are asked to collect 10 plants during a quest, it is not worth your time, is it? What if you are asked to scan 10 pieces of salvage that came from one of the most important missing ships? It sounds like it might be important, doesn't it? It is not a surprise. And that search you thought didn't sound like anything, hey, it actually has a well-written character that holds the whole place together. You never know and that's part of the problem.
The very act of figuring out what's really important in Andromeda and figuring out the order in which to complete it reminded me of the helpless fear that comes with tackling an inbox full of emails. Even if the content is a kickass, wading through and prioritizing is so mentally exhausting that the joy of what comes next is nullified. Proper pace and maintaining a keen sense of goals are impossible if the player has trouble figuring out where to start or how to go beyond the main story missions.
Since the game is about building a new home, I prioritized colonization missions. I assumed that the inevitable crisis will be determined entirely by my preparation and that human survival in this new galaxy will depend on how "viable" I have made planets. The game even gives you a certain percentage that you can use to track these viability statistics across different regions. All of this contributes to a total AVP number and level. Before you can set up an outpost, you need to bring viability to a certain percentage by dealing with all the urgent problems that plague a planet: for example, an area can drown in scavengers that you must clear before you can live there.
To transform rough planets into livable planets, one has to go to monoliths left behind by a mysterious civilization called the "remnant". To find them, you have to strap yourself into the Nomad, Andromeda's rugged new vehicle. You will spend a lot of time traveling long distances on the nomad: While there are not many planets to land on in Andromeda, the ones you can land on are enormous. I've had fun climbing extreme mountain ranges for far too long, although part of this exploration has been hampered by stuttering and texture pop-in.
The rest of the monoliths offer a familiar structure: they shoot at futuristic-looking enemies, jump around on platforms and look for “glyphs”. With these glyphs, you can decrypt consoles that allow you to access everything inside. Decryption is a sudoku-like puzzle that I loathe. In more complicated puzzles, I spent more than an hour studying alien symbols, a process that pulled any potential excitement from terraforming new planets.
By unlocking monoliths, you have access to the large remaining vaults, which are dungeons that look and play more or less the same. Sometimes the platforms and puzzles it contained were too simple because your magical "omni-tool" always uncovered the way forward when scanning. In other cases, the "puzzles" felt unfathomable and undervalued, and I only solved them through trial and error. Still, I kept going through this arduous process to build new outposts because the game told me I had to make room for settlers frozen in cryo. The decision about who is allowed to thaw is depicted as a monumental decision that states what kind of settlers we would be. I've tried to strike a healthy balance between military, scientific, and commercial settlers, but as far as I can tell, they only gave me occasional bonuses that I never really needed. The order and number didn't seem to matter in the long run. Given that Andromeda's reason for being is to find and build a new home, the mechanics feel irrelevant or are too abstracted into mere numbers and percentages.
I was particularly disappointed with the warehouse outposts we set up, which are so barebones that they can hardly be compared to franchise-defining locations like Omega from Mass Effect 2. The fact that everything looks like space Ikea makes sense from a historical perspective – of course we can't build a cool new city right away, we're just here! -, but it means that this mass effect lacks the flair of its predecessors. I hope we'll see these outposts bloom in more games, but that's not the mass effect I have to play this time.
Fortunately, Mass Effect: Andromeda's fight is excellent, and that's a good thing because you do a lot of it while exploring the world. In previous games, you selected a class that you could use to determine your skills. With Andromeda, on the other hand, you can select "profiles" that determine affinities. Profiles can be turned on or off at will, depending on how you want to play. You determine everything from the additional weapon power to the duration of your special "biotic" powers. From there you can combine skills of all class types. I mainly played with an attack ability that Ryder struck for massive damage against enemies, a “shock wave” ability that made enemies fly in the air, and finally with a summoning ability that brought additional firepower in the form of a drone. I couldn't build such a character in older games or in most role-playing games. Freedom frees.
Even in the fight against stick enemies, every encounter is enjoyable. Ryder can run at the push of a button, which is useful both to avoid enemy attacks and to scurry across the field. In combination with my loading capacity, I was able to face enemies in a split second, where I was forgotten about melee and shotgun. Charging also regenerates my shield, so I played more aggressively than I was badly damaged, instead of hiding behind cover. Ryder can jump in the air and hover when shooting, so you can easily maneuver around enemy cover. The cover system itself is picky because Ryder automatically holds onto it (or not!), But my build specifically rewards navigation, so it was never a big deal. Other styles of play may not have the same experience.
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While it is possible to combine attacks to do massive damage, you can no longer pause to tell your companions to make certain moves, eliminating part of the tactical rigor that defines older games. In his place, Andromeda asks you to think on your feet and use your reflexes. It's an exciting change that makes Mass Effect a fast-paced shooter, though it doesn't lack strategic elements. With Andromeda you can make three types of weapons, all of which can be modified in more detail. I ran around with a residual assault rifle that didn't use ammunition but was overheated after too much use, and a plasma shotgun that fired floating but powerful bullets. Both were equipped with special barrels, supplies, riflescopes, etc., so that these weapons could complement my techniques in the game.
It took me many hours to navigate through confusing menus and sift through an amazing amount of raw materials before I understood how to make good weapons. The game quickly throws everything at you – a large number of quests, the large selection of profiles and skills, the huge cards, the unwieldy handicrafts – and it takes a long time until you have completely occupied yourself with how everything works. I deliberately chose to protect myself from drowning by focusing on the ship's crew, as relationships were the cornerstone of the Bioware games.
Much of Andromeda's facial animation has been done, and while I still claim that the silly GIFs and footage shared before release were disproportionate or taken out of context, some hiccups are harder to miss than others. If a conversation with an expressionless NPC is interesting, I don't mind that her face is not particularly emotional. If you want to hit someone – which of course you can do in this famous series full of romance and sex – stoic body language and movement kill every feeling of intimacy that comes from your conversations. During a big story mission, I watched two main characters merge together in a cutscene. In a touching scene that was supposed to end a friendship, Andromeda bizarrely attached a weapon to a character's hand. The exchange became unintentionally fun, and while it was not harmful, it was difficult to focus on what was said.
Spoilerhttps: //t.co/qdVhPfMMsO pic.twitter.com/iIZ9CHO6lw
– Patricia Hernandez (@xpatriciah), March 21, 2017
Despite all of this, the overall experience has not been ruined.
Of all the things in the game, I was most amazed at what Bioware achieved with the large number of characters in this game. You can take allies with you on missions where they have extra firepower and a lot of jokes, but that didn't impress me. Andromeda's characters shine brightest during the downtime, away from the action. As you go through the quests, the characters constantly notice where they are and how they feel, even if they are not tied to important story missions. The ship has a public message board where people write to each other and make plans without you. You can hear conversations all around you as you walk around your ship. People rattle about who must have missed the food. They argue about ugly, unused sweaters that lie in the laundry. They decide to form a religious study group.
Andromeda's characters shine brightest during the downtime, away from the action.
When you explore cities, the other characters do the same: I met my allies at the bar, in the market, in the commons. Dozens of hours after completing the game, I was shocked to learn that a character had his own apartment. Even within the ship itself, characters are not always in the same place – you have to find them if you want to talk to them. To top it off, everyone will send you an email at random intervals. I went away and felt as if everyone had their own inner life, that they exist beyond the frame when I decided to recognize them.
It took me a while to warm up to the characters, but that's partly luggage. The core trilogy had three games to define their kickass characters, while in Andromeda everyone started from scratch. The comparisons don't feel quite fair. They'll happen anyway. I had a complicated dynamic with Cora, the deputy who, according to the protocol, was supposed to get the Pathfinder title about a fool like me. She didn't and that made conversations a bit awkward – it's not a feeling that games research very often. The Asari PeeBee, always curious and impulsive, felt like a fleeting personality alongside the cool and collected Asari aliens I had met in previous games. With Suvi, the ship's scientific expert, I explored the role of spirituality in a science-obsessed society. My new favorite character must be Jaal, the Angaran with surprisingly raw uncertainties about his place in the world.
I wasn't quite as drawn to the rest of the crew, but I didn't always have to be. It feels strange to say, but I loved how much some characters collided because it made them look like real people. Even if everyone in a team works towards a common goal, the philosophies may not always be the same, which can lead to tensions. Andromeda examines these pressure points and lets you see how people grow and learn to work with each other. It can be messy or heartwarming. At some point, a crew member wanted to start a movie night to raise everyone's spirits, but almost everyone had different ideas about how this could be done. What initially appears to be a simple item pickup mission is expanded into an epic, multi-part quest that makes everyone happy.
Sometimes the core of Andromeda can appear hollow. I resisted the naivety and the belief that 100,000 people could just start a new life in a house they didn't own. I didn't understand the initiative's belief that all races in the Milky Way could simply sweep their complicated stories under a rug to start over. It was as if Silicon Valley wanted me to think that a hot new app would somehow stop world hunger. Something was just wrong here. These stories are queried and complicated, but only if you do the right thing. It took many, many hours, but I finally struggled with Angaran's anger at the colonization of the people. And without spoiling anything, collecting all the "memories" scattered around the world has completely changed my understanding of the initiative. Andromeda's biggest mistake is to give the player so much choice that it's incredibly easy to miss the core of what makes the game good.
The action and structure of Mass Effect: Andromeda can be seen as a metaphor for the game itself, in which a population striving for a fresh start leaps into a new frontier. The goal is not the paradise we hoped for. For our characters, Andromeda required a leap in belief, the belief that the universe must have more for humanity. No one knew how much work it would take to build a new house, and in a way the whole game is about mitigating everyone's disappointment. The truth is that Andromeda itself is not the promised country players you were hoping for, but there are a lot of good things about this flawed new border for Mass Effect. The question is: will you play long enough to find it?