There’s few games that will carry the same weight of expectation as Mass Effect Andromeda. The original trilogy remains one of the highlights of the last generation, despite the furore surrounding the third entry’s ending, and with Andromeda’s step into a new galaxy and onto a new console generation, gamers have been eagerly awaiting its arrival. While Mass Effect Andromeda is far from perfect, it’s still been worth the wait.
It’s 2819, and you awake aboard the Ark Hyperion, a craft carrying 20,000 colonists to the Andromeda Galaxy. At the end of a 600-year voyage, you’re amongst the first to awaken, but everything isn’t what it was supposed to be. The so-called “Golden Worlds” that were planned to become home turn out to be inhospitable, dying or dead. As you assume the role of Pathfinder, you’re the leader of the team tasked with finding the colonists a new home.
You’ll be performing reconnaissance, mapping unknown territories, mining, as well as undertaking more diplomatic missions and staging support efforts. You improve the viability for life on each world by completing missions, unlocking forward stations, or getting rid of pockets of alien resistance. All in all, you’re an intergalactic busy-body, just as you were in the previous games. Things definitely get off to a slow start, but the sense of exploration pervades the entire game, and the mystery surrounding your own family, and the drive to make Andromeda home in the face of adversity carries you along, even if it all feels a little too safe, and some of the writing is resoundingly pulpy.
You can make a quick start, taking either Sara or Scott Ryder as a ready-made option, or create your own vision of a Pathfinder. The character creation tools are solid enough, though even with a variety starting points, I struggled to make my character anywhere near as close to lifelike as the defaults. One nice touch is seeing your father’s appearance alter depending on how you customise the Ryder twins.
Rather than the Paragon or Renegade dichotomy, speech options now have four tonal choices covering Emotion, Logic, Casual and Professional. It means that there’s much more variety to the way conversation rolls on, and more nuance to your own character’s personality as you’ll no longer simply choose the good option or the evil one, but whatever fits best with your image of Ryder. It’s a welcome improvement, especially as you spend so much time talking to other characters, and your own character will start to reflect the personality traits you favour, even when they’re out of your control.
Despite the changes, conversations otherwise operate in the same way to the previous Mass Effect and Dragon Age games. Fans will be glad to know that you’ll be speaking to a number of well-loved races from the original trilogy, including the Asari, Krogan, Turian and Salarians, though this being a new galaxy there are some new races to encounter as well. The Kett are an aggressive, war-like race, with bony outcrops around their heads and bodies, while the Remnant are the technological leftovers of an ancient civilisation. The blue-skinned Angara, meanwhile, are a spiritual people who favour personality over formality. Both the Kett and the Angara prove interesting adversaries or allies, but the Remnant could easily have come from any science-fiction film or book from the last fifty years.
For those looking to immerse themselves fully in the world, besides the more freeform character classes there are RPG systems upon systems piled into Mass Effect Andromeda, all of which can potentially suck hours of time from you between and during missions. Mining resources, scanning alien technology – which in turn provides points for researching – developing new technologies, and of course building personal relationships with each member of your team, are only a small part of what’s available to you. As ever, you can have a particularly personal relationship with the object of your affection and Mass Effect once again leads the way in terms of inclusivity, and shows that there really are no boundaries to romance.
Andromeda essentially re-skins some of the best-known features from the Mass Effect trilogy, with the Nexus replacing the Citadel as the central hub for the Andromeda Initiative, while you embark on your personal ship the Tempest. The fastest ship in its class, its huge meeting room with its 360 degrees of viewports give it a light and welcoming feel that the Normandy and its enclosed spaces lacked.
What isn’t reskinned is your new Nomad transporter, the sports car of planetary exploration. It’s a huge improvement over the original Mass Effect’s bus-like Mako. You can explore huge swathes of a planet in it, with swift four-wheel drive or slower six-wheel when you need extra traction, while it’s equipped with a boost and a jump for getting out of trouble. It’s upgradeable as well, and you can load it out with various defensive measures or improve its performance in a variety of ways.
Navigating in the Tempest is also a simple matter, with some great graphical transitions making it feel as though you really are a member of a space exploration team. While the planetary scanner returns, allowing you to find points of interest or mineral deposits, the ship refuelling has been done away with, streamlining the experience for the better. This is true science fiction theatre, and there are shades of Star Trek and Star Wars at play here, alongside the novels of Iain M Banks or Isacc Asimov. There are very few games that have nailed the sensation of adventuring in space as well as Andromeda does.
Returning from the third game is the multiplayer, though this time there’s only a very loose connection between it and the single player content, with the ability to send Strike Teams off on missions that gain you various rewards. These missions can either be automated or handled personally in multiplayer, though it does make them completely optional and ultimately somewhat throwaway. The full multiplayer horde experience is still as enjoyable as before though, benefitting from the improved visuals and expanded combat movement, and tackling missions with a team of like-minded compatriots remains a thrill.
Despite some of the early feedback from Andromeda’s Early Access trial, most of the game genuinely looks phenomenal, and in the midst of combat or exploration on an alien planet, there are plenty of moments where you’ll be drinking in the visuals, particularly if you have an HDR enabled screen. Labyrinthine alien structures glow with fluorescent glyphs, while the flora and fauna of alien worlds gives way to some remarkable, breathtaking landscapes.
Where things fall apart are in the character models, both in appearance and animation, and there can be some distinctly lacklustre design at work in both the central and the outlying characters. Commander Addison is an early low point, and her almost robotic animations and mannequin-esque eyes serve to pull you robustly out of every conversation with her. Bioware’s games have never had the most remarkable character appearances, but then it seems relatively common for games of this scope to take things a little easier in this department. Despite that commonality, it’s still a big disappointment, and there’s been little improvement, if any, over the previous games.
Indeed, despite all of the good work that’s been done elsewhere, Andromeda certainly isn’t without flaws. Whether it’s the glut of minor annoyances, like an immersion-breaking pop-up window each and every time you pick up some salvage, or something more likely to seriously break your concentration such as a character’s speech not playing, screen tearing, frame rate drops, or the physics engine going crazy when you despatch an enemy, they all serve to cheapen what is still largely a good experience.
People will have different mileage on such things – I know some gamers who can barely play something if the lip-syncing is off, let alone if a character is hanging unintentionally in mid-air – but it’s a shame that Bioware haven’t been able to sand off more of the game’s rough edges given how long it’s been in development.
I found it hard to be excited during the opening hours of Mass Effect: Andromeda. It feels too safe, too much like what’s gone before, but then it clicks. There’s a moment where the galaxy opens up and you find yourself embarking once more on a huge mission across compelling, beautifully constructed planets, surrounded by memorable characters. Sadly the glut of technical missteps serve to cheapen proceedings, but this is still an adventure you don’t want to miss out on.
Versions tested: PlayStation 4 Pro, Windows PC