Review

Mass Effect: Andromeda Review | The Heart of Exploration

Mass Effect: Andromeda

Things were never going to be easy for the next game in the Mass Effect series. Between the beloved memory of the original trilogy and that story’s polarizing ending, wherever BioWare took the series next was bound to live in the shadow of Commander Shepard’s legend. Mass Effect: Andromeda’s launch, unfortunately, was muddled by an unwarranted amount of criticism for issues that, while present in the game, ultimately amount to minor hiccups in an otherwise bold adventure. A desire for another hero like Shepard is not unreasonable, but BioWare wanted to tell a new story with a new protagonist. Cutting through all that noise, players who stick with Andromeda through the adjustment period are left with a new beginning that delivers on the core of the series while finding a unique voice.

Speaking to those issues that drew such wide criticism before getting into the many good things about this title, one of the largest points of concern was the facial animations of the characters, particularly the human and asari. The first day of playing took some adjustment to facial animations that jarred against the beautifully rendered landscapes and locations the characters explored. However, soon after the game was released, a patch was implemented to address this issue, and the improvements went a long way in amending those animations. One could even argue that the original trilogy had smoother animations, and, with five years of development time, being chagrined when the animations were subpar is not unreasonable. Nevertheless, taking down the entire game due to a less-than-ideal face does not warrant such vehement criticism, especially when the issue has been addressed and simply playing long enough would make the faces more palatable as well. The galaxy map, though gorgeous, was, at first, unwieldy, with long, unskippable animations when transitioning between objects in the same star system, an issue addressed in the same patch as the facial animations.

Enemies becoming invisible, floating in the air, or otherwise glitching out of firefights is another point of concern, and, at times, work in the player’s favor in making foes easier to take down, and, at other times, force entire sections of combat to be repeated, a trait particularly frustrating on higher difficulties. The UI, with folders and layered sections to navigate, takes a while to get used to. The smaller glitches that appear in some dialogues and the lack of notifications for some new conversation points with NPCs also hampers immersion. Objective markers can be frustrating in their habit of suddenly changing or even misleading players in certain areas. BioWare should be held to a high standard, and players can certainly be disappointed that such issues occurred with a new engine and five years of development time. The first Mass Effect was far from perfect, and the technical issues that plagued that seminal entry are comparable to the ones in Andromeda. In the end, when the criticisms are weighed against the game as a whole, none of the issues that made such waves are game-breaking. The damage those early complaints did was tremendous, however, as any criticism was bound to rock Andromeda considering the high levels of expectation for the sequel. Looking beyond this day-one criticism, however, BioWare has succeeded in realizing a vision of exploring a new galaxy from the eyes of an outsider, while still retaining the core of what made the series so popular in the first place.

MEA_March_48

Before Andromeda came out, OnlySP looked at some of the biggest RPGs to release since Mass Effect 3, and pondered what effects they could have on the sequel. BioWare appears to have learned a lot from those titles, as well as the new creative processes associated with such a vastly different setting and cast of characters. Keeping true to the studio’s reputation, strong characters drive the story, and though players may take a while to warm to the new ones, sticking with them reveals a lovable band of misfits who fans will want to see return in the inevitable sequel to Andromeda. As the protagonists, the Ryder twins are no Shepard, with their youth and inexperience being a major point of development for their characters. No matter which gender players choose, BioWare does an excellent job in capturing both the personality of someone thrust into a role of leadership without the proper training, as well as that of an explorer in a strange land, searching the terra incognita of Andromeda’s Heleus cluster onboard their own Normandy, the Tempest.

Once players adjust to the purposefully naïve, often sarcastic, and sometimes even cringy dialogue, an intentional tone becomes apparent, not poor writing. Andromeda seeks a lighter tone, with more humor and naivete, in contrast to Shepard’s hardened war hero presence and the higher stakes of the trilogy’s narrative. This comparative levity extends to the rest of the crew that Ryder picks up during the journey, all of whom are unique in their own way, yet play off their young leader’s enthusiasm and optimism, as well as their ignorance or arrogance. While BioWare could have pushed the dialogue choices to have more of an overall arc on Ryder, enough options are present to make the player feel as though they are embracing different aspects of the same reluctant leader to shape the people around them. Furthermore, while only six squadmates are available, the limited number allows deep arcs and complicated relationships to emerge, from the quirky Peebee and dutiful Vetra, to the jaded Drack and the truly alien Jaal. The relationships formed with these characters progress naturally and organically throughout the main story’s arc. In this respect, BioWare remains masterful, as expected, and the cast of new, young faces carries the burden of living up to the Normandy’s squad with aplomb.

From romances to friendships, as well as several missions not limited to one just for loyalty, the developers do as much as they can with this new squad, as well as the other members of the crew. SAM, Ryder’s neural AI implant, is also a central character to the narrative, reviving the theme of organic and synthetic conflict from the trilogy while also explaining Ryder’s combat prowess and capacity to interact with the Remnant. In order to bridge the gap between the original trilogy and new series, having familiar races and ideas reimagined through the conversations with each member of the Tempest crew goes a long way, and shows a clear connection to the home the characters left behind. From name drops and referenced events, to deeper, more satisfying connections revealed only as the game goes on, callbacks to the original trilogy abound—some fan serviced, but others based on continuity. These connections show that without the original trilogy, and the story told therein, Andromeda, and the titular Andromeda Initiative, would not have been possible.

Beyond the characters, the plot captures the idea of the outsider exploring a strange new world quite well. Ryder and the Initiative, in finding that conflict and hardship are not exclusive to the Milky Way, discover that the new threats facing them are echoes of the galaxy they left behind for the six-hundred-year journey to Andromeda. The golden worlds they had hoped to colonize are anything but, and the native species, the Angara, are oppressed by a division of the Kett empire led by the Remnant-obsessed Archon. Ryder’s ability to interact with the Remnant, a term for both the ancient technology used for terraforming the planets of the Heleus cluster and the myriad machines found throughout the star systems, make the player the new focus of The Archon’s obsession, and thus the hero who must stop him and save the cluster. While making this reluctant leader a hero to the Angara seems a strange move, especially when they have been fighting the Kett for much longer and with greater losses, the way the relationship with the Angara develops allows for a more palatable story that could, nevertheless, have been more self-aware or respectful. BioWare also does a good job in setting up the Kett as a seemingly one-dimensional, obviously morally evil enemy, before exploring the fact that they are only a small part of a larger, mostly unknown empire. The Archon’s obsession with Ryder and the Remnant drives him in a way different from what drives the rest of the empire, and in making that distinction allows his place as a villain to be based on his individual behavior rather than that of his species. In this way, the title feels very much like the first act in a larger story. This chapter does have a conclusion, but also leaves many questions unanswered. The balance between the two makes the ending at once satisfying and open as the cliffhangers left are strong allures for whatever comes next in the series.

MEA_March_54

Beyond the main story, Ryder is tasked with creating outposts on five planets—each unique, diverse, and large—from icy Voeld and tropical Havarl to the scorching deserts of Elaaden. By structuring the game in this way, the question is raised as to whether Mass Effect needs to be an open world game, and if having Andromeda be one hurts the series. Having a tight narrative, as in Mass Effect 2, where players visit planets for dedicated missions rather than exploration, worked for that entry. In Andromeda, however, having these open planets fits more in line with the themes of exploration and discovery. Dragon Age: Inquisition bore a similar approach to Andromeda, with several open areas to explore and missions taking players to others. For Andromeda, however, the planets feel much more alive, purposeful, and larger than Inquisition, and thus a better utilization of the open-world format. Using the sometimes unwieldy, but useful, Nomad to traverse these planets (echoing the Mako from the original trilogy) allows players to truly appreciate the beauty of the visuals and sound design within the game, and further reinforces the benefits of the open planets and the side missions found on them.

Taking a page from The Witcher 3, the side quests in Andromeda carry a weight that makes them feel worthy of completing, whether Ryder helps an NPC with a moving request, or finds a reason to explore the planets and see what lies beyond the main plot. In some cases, the planets contain vast empty spaces where players can simply enjoy the scenery without engaging in story or character moments, though most exploration is driven by quests. Asking NPCs why they came to Andromeda can become routine, but narratively works as a clever way to create meaningful characters in a way that fits with the rest of the plot. Some of the quests, no matter how intriguing or worthy the narrative value is, can be tedious if players are forced to jump from planet to planet, especially as traversing the galaxy map can take several minutes, even when transitions within star systems are skipped. For the most part, however, fully exploring these planets feels rewarding in terms of gameplay and story, and captures the idea of exploring the unknown.

To completely experience these planets and missions, players must also engage in combat. Though the dialogue choices ensure Mass Effect: Andromeda retains the series’s roleplaying heritage, the combat has been revamped for this new entry, focusing on fluid and fast traversal of asymmetrical battlegrounds, from open plains with minimal cover to densely packed cargo bays where cover works for both the player and the enemy AI. A hallmark of the series, biotic and tech powers make a triumphant return. The former’s space magic of throwing, pulling, and otherwise damaging enemies with harnessed energy looks as gorgeous as the flamethrower and cryobeam of the latter. With over thirty skills, both active and passive, split into three main categories of Combat, Biotic, and Tech powers, players are free to build Ryder as they wish. Instead of the classes of old, Profiles exist in their stead, unlocked depending on how many skill points are put into each tree. The titles of these Profiles will be familiar to veterans, the Vanguard a Combat/Biotic combo that boosts both types, as well as the Explorer that rewards those who try a little of each tree in their battles.

Instead of having access to every power, only three active abilities can be equipped at one time, forcing the decision of what loadout will best fit any situation. While this design choice limits the range of powers players can access at one time compared to earlier games, up to four loadouts can be equipped, allowing players to fluidly switch out powers as needed. Nevertheless, these limits can disrupt the flow of battle and not be an ideal solution in the long run, but work in trying to capture flexibility and balance. The player’s choice of squadmates to complement their powers—key to higher difficulties—can also force players to use companions they do not desire story-wise but will make combat easier.

MEA_March-36

These nuances do not make the combat less enjoyable, as the sheer maneuverability of the player allows for intense and strategic firefights. With several enemy types ranging from the Anointed shock troopers of the Kett and the rogue Roekkar sharpshooters to the Hydra mechs of the Outcasts and the gargantuan Architects of the Remnant, challenges present themselves frequently, but can usually be overcome by a skilled player once they are comfortable with the combat. The enemy AI packs a punch on the higher difficulties, as well as a nimbleness to dodge incoming biotic attacks and intelligence to flank distracted players with deadly efficiency. At times, a sudden death in the middle of combat can feel like slamming on the brakes, as the frantic pace of some of the tougher firefights can be abruptly halted by an enemy outplaying the player. Squad AI is usually competent, able to receive commands and stick to them, and the rewarding feeling of finishing a tough firefight thanks to a squadmate or being rescued by cover fire from an ally, especially if the combat is near conclusion, makes their competence much more appreciated.

In addition to the combat powers and squadmates, a wide range of weapons are available to players, from handguns and shotguns to snipers and assault rifles. Many familiar models from the Milky Way return, but designs based on the Kett, Angara, and Remnant are also available for research or purchase. Players can also equip mods to enhance their weapons, such as lowering their weight, improving accuracy, or increasing damage. Each weapon has a weight, and if players go overweight their active ability cooldowns increase. Finding the right set of weapons is key, as they can have even more of an effect on combat than abilities. A revamped melee system goes beyond the omniblade from 3 and includes everything from asari swords to Remnant cryogauntlets. Armor also comes into play as different sets give bonuses, such as more shields, better accuracy, shorter cooldowns, or more headshot damage. Coupled with the ability loadout chosen by the player, combat is flexible, explained lore-wise by SAM’s neurological connection and seemingly a smart design choice.

To obtain these weapons and armor sets, players can either purchase them from several merchants throughout the Heleus cluster, or research them at a research station. Players earn Milky Way, Heleus, and Remnant research data throughout their adventure, from scanning items and investigating anomalies, as well as completing missions and simply exploring the planets. This data allows players to craft weapons, armors, and upgrades with minerals found, reviving the mining mechanic from the trilogy through exploring the galaxy map and sending out probes planet-side with the Nomad. Through this unique approach to crafting, players are rewarded for their exploration efforts with tangible means to strengthen their characters, and that immersion factor is another example of blending the themes with the gameplay. While the UI for this feature could be easier to navigate (an argument that can be applied to all aspects of the UI), learning how to do so rewards players with access to cool new toys for investigating the places they visit and engaging with the galaxy. Additionally, as with the weapons, mods can augment crafted items, offering a similar variety of bonuses to help players fine tune their equipment more deeply.

Tying all these elements together is the Initiative. The Nexus, where the arks from the various species were supposed to end up, becomes the de facto Citadel of Andromeda, a place to return to between missions to get reactions from NPCs and to see how the player’s actions are affecting the rest of the Initiative. Throughout the game, the outposts players establish serve to reflect Ryder’s decisions, and additional hubs become accessible offering different perspectives on the cluster. The Nexus remains the key point of contact for Ryder, but the galaxy does begin to feel more opening and welcoming the longer the game goes on. Ryder must make each planet viable enough for an outpost, by activating each planet’s Remnant terraforming vault, and helping locals, and in this way, has a measurable and visible effect on the worlds they are visiting in their role as Pathfinder. Thus, BioWare marries the gameplay to the theme and allows players to feel as if they are truly making better lives for the Initiative. By increasing viability, players gain points to unlock cryopods of colonists in the areas of commerce, military, and science, which, in turn, unlock items such as credits, experience points, and faster research, respectively.

MEA_March_52

Rounding out the package are two supplementary aspects of gameplay: Strike Teams and APEX missions. The former is reminiscent of Dragon Age: Inquisition’s War Table missions, where players send teams of APEX operatives to complete either Bronze, Silver, or Gold difficulty missions that will reap rewards such as credits, minerals, or weapons/armor. While these missions are optional, the rewards are helpful in the fight against The Archon. APEX missions are the multiplayer missions, allowing players to take control of humans and other species to fight waves of enemies and complete objectives with other players, a la Mass Effect 3. The faster combat and different ability sets, however, make the multiplayer feel fresh and make sense narratively with
out being a requirement to complete the game. In unlocking new characters and weapons, plenty of reasons exist to dive into the multiplayer and see why the game mode’s addition to the series continues to be a boon.

Looking to Andromeda as a whole, the longer the game is played, the more the care put into the game becomes apparent. Once players can get past a longing for Shepard and a learning curve for the new gameplay and narrative, a sense of familiarity with a series that succeeds so well at bringing a rich sci-fi setting and deep narrative arcs together reigns. The passion the team has for the game is clear, much like the developers of FFXV, which makes the overblown criticism more frustrating. BioWare should be held accountable to those issues in a way reasonable to their impact on the game. As a package, however, the game contains much more good content that those issues cannot outshine. The large open planets and meaningful side quests reflect feedback received on Inquisition and the success of The Witcher 3. The soundtrack captures a familiarity with the previous themes of the series while also standing out with tracks subdued and energetic alike. The codex tracks the player’s decisions and tries to clarify the extent Heleus is reacting to Ryder. Emails received from various NPCs also flavor the experience and are based on player’s decisions and relationships, aiding in immersion as well. In doing so, the game manages to feel reactive, perhaps less than some would like, and provides satisfaction by allowing players to see that their actions are not performed in a vacuum but are part of a larger story.

To that end, Mass Effect: Andromeda succeeds in realizing BioWare’s vision to make players feel like a Pathfinder making their way through the unknown. From the characters and plot, to the galaxy map and open planets, the studio uses a familiar set of ingredients to craft a new adventure that still bears the flavor of Commander Shepard and the Normandy. This game is an instance where, more than ever, the game genuinely gets better the more one plays. While not a perfect sequel, with issues that need to be addressed, both technically in the now and narratively in the future, BioWare has created a strong opening to a new story that is worthy of the Mass Effect mantle, while also forging a fresh path through the shadows of legend.

DISTINCTION

Click to comment
To Top