It might only be 5 months old, but 2017 has already distinguished itself an excellent year for gamers. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild undoubtedly stands out from the rest, receiving almost universal adulation from critics and players alike upon release, however, titles such as Nier: Automata, Horizon Zero Dawn, Persona 5 and Nioh have all contributed to make this a truly remarkable period for the industry.
Yet, despite this cavalcade of incredible games, the one I, personally, was most looking forward to at the outset of the new year was Mass Effect Andromeda; the latest title in developer BioWare’s inimitable space opera franchise and the first in 5 long years. Unfortunately, this only made my sense of frustration and disappointment all the more acute when, having finally played Andromeda myself shortly after its late-March release, I experienced first-hand the abundance of glitches, missteps and sundry other issues that plague this otherwise largely enjoyable sci-fi epic.
For all the technical issues alluded to above, the thing that’s always attracted me most to the Mass Effect series, is the extraordinary world building. The story, characters and world building is so impressive that, for me, it comfortably surpasses Star Trek and, dare I say it, even Star Wars in terms of depth and creativity. And it’s here that the game’s best features shine.
Taking place 600 years after the events of Mass Effect 2, Andromeda puts players in control of Ryder (who, as always, can be male or female depending on your preference). As a pathfinder representing the daring Andromeda Initiative – an enterprise composed of Human, Krogan, Asari, Turian and Salarian emigrants who’re seeking to colonise a small section of the distant Andromeda galaxy – it’s Ryder’s job to locate any potentially habitable planets within the so-called Heleus Cluster and deal with any threats or obstacles that stand in the way of the mission; and there are many. Led by megalomaniacal and somewhat derivative Archon, Ryder’s primary concern is the alien race known as the Kett, although he/she also has to deal with a range of other problems, including a mysterious phenomenon dubbed The Scourge, various groups of former Initiative representatives turned bandits, a race of ancient robotic guardians called the Remnant and an insular, terrorist sect of the otherwise peaceful if mistrustful Angara; the game’s second new species of sentient aliens. Each element is well-considered; supported by genuinely interesting fiction and seemingly plausible science.
As this extremely brief summary suggests, there’s a lot to take in here, but, thankfully, the main narrative is a mostly interesting one that, while not quite as captivating as the Reaper storyline from the original Mass Effect trilogy due partly to some inconsistent writing, generally manages to maintain the player’s attention from start to finish. It’s true the sheer number of side-quests and sub-plots can distract you from the primary story and thus make the plot feel slightly disjointed at times; it’s not uncommon to find yourself rifling through the game’s comprehensive codex every so often as you desperately search for a clue as that’ll remind you what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. However, these secondary narratives are enjoyable in their own right, especially that which involves Ryder’s family history and their relationship with his/her AI implant, SAM.
The game’s characters – all of whom you can romance as you’d expect – are hit and miss. Squad mates Cora and Liam come across as bland and unforgettable though not aggravating, whilst Drack essentially serves as the updated version of Wrex or Grunt from Mass Effect’s 1 and 2 respectively; the physically imposing, uncompromising and often endearing Krogan tank. On the other hand, I found Jaal, Vetra and especially Peebee to be welcome additions to the Mass Effect mythos; a trio that wouldn’t be out of place in any of the preceding instalments. Erratic as the portrayal of Ryder’s squad mates are, it’s worse for the supporting cast of NPC’s. Sloane Kelly is about as stereotypical a gang leader as it’s possible to write without devolving into satire, Initiative director Jarun Tann is bewilderingly insipid for a character that occupies such a position of authority within the game’s story and transgender quest giver Hainly Abrams is so poorly written, it’s hard to imagine anyone at BioWare could have been happy with this version of the character. The reception of Hainly was so negative in fact, it elicited an apology from BioWare themselves, who’ve subsequently confirmed they will be patching her character in future. Ultimately, the cause of this regrettable disparity in quality is the patchy writing. Capable of amusing or even inspiring on occasion, it’s far more frequently exasperating.
Considering these problems, it’s a good thing for Andromeda that the gameplay is pretty robust and benefits from the multitude of alterations made since the release of Mass Effect 3 in 2012; though again, it’s far from flawless. The simple addition of personal jump jets enables you to zip around the terrain with an agility that was lacking in previous Mass Effect titles, increasing the number of offensive and defensive options available to you during skirmishes. BioWare has also overhauled the character progression system to facilitate far greater flexibility when building your perfect explorer/soldier/diplomat/space Lothario. Whereas previous instalments forced you to select a specific class at the commencement of your adventure, restricting the type and quantity of abilities available to your character, Andromeda adopts a more fluid approach. Every one of the game’s skills are accessible to Ryder (once you’ve spent sufficient upgrade points to acquire them), allowing you to fine-tune Ryder in whatever way best suits your play style. For instance, if you decide you would like to augment Ryder’s physical talents with a smattering of biotic powers, you can; it’s entirely up to how aggressively you invest in combat, tech and biotics. Not everything about Andromeda’s combat is quite so laudable, however. The game’s obligatory crafting system for one becomes irritatingly time-consuming towards the end of your adventure as you attempt to manufacture the highest-quality weapons and gear, whilst encounters start to feel repetitive after a few hours of play in spite of the relatively healthy assortment of enemy types you have to contend with, boiling down to little more than mass, free-for-all brawls. Andromeda’s multiplayer offering suffers from a fair amount of déjà vu as well. With just the one co-operative mode available, a tiny pool of maps and precious few options for customising your avatar, it’s not going to make much of an impact on the player base.
Still, aside from the aforementioned surfeit of side-quests, there’s so much to explore in Heleus the mediocrity of the online mode shouldn’t cause too much consternation. Whether you’re traversing the cluster in an effort to learn more about the numerous star systems and fully immerse yourself in the experience, or speeding across one of the game’s 5 distinctive worlds in the surprisingly intuitive Nomad, helping out distressed colonists as you go, Mass Effect Andromeda is one of those non-open world titles that still manages to keep you permanently occupied.
Conversely, there are few positives to draw from the game’s customisation options. Anyone who enjoys spending a good half an hour in character creators will find the variety of options seriously disappointing here, made worse by the unappealing hair styles, facial templates and collection of distinguishing features that are available for selection; even something as simple as fashioning a realistic looking hair colour becomes a Herculean challenge. The switch to a less polarising morality system likewise seems to have fallen short of the promises made prior to the game’s release. Rather than giving you greater freedom to mould Ryder’s personality, the 2-5 response types don’t actually appear to affect the course of events in any significant way so that relationships with your team mates and NPC’s tend to develop in exactly the same way from one playthrough to the next. Forming a truly despicable anti-hero is thus impossible: gone are the days of punching journalists, extorting innocent civilians and pushing enemies through windows.
Up to this point, balancing the negatives and positives hasn’t been particularly difficult, but finding complimentary things to say about Andromeda’s performance and presentation – a game that spent 5 years in development, let’s not forget – is really challenging. Frame rate drops are extremely common, the action stopping for at least 10 seconds altogether at least once a session; sound effects regularly fail to trigger, usually immediately after booting up the game; online connectivity fails just as frequently, restricting your access to the APEX missions you need to gain extra resources and enemy troops routinely become trapped within the level geometry. Character animations are even worse, which is saying something. Eyes are always difficult to render in video games, yet BioWare has partnered the habitually emotionless eyes of the game’s hundreds of individuals with death mask faces that are as rigid and lifeless as a Madame Tussauds exhibit.
Similarly, looking at surfaces close up reveals grainy textures that would be considered average last generation, while the papery leaves and garish colours of the native plant life also fails to withstand closer inspection. That being said, the game can appear quite attractive, even charming from a distance. Harvarl – one of the quintet of planets you visit early in the narrative – is reminiscent of Pandora from the film Avatar; a beautiful twilit landscape decorated with flowers and trees of deep purple, blue and pink. The cut-scenes are easily the most evocative visual spectacles, as you might expect, and therefore account for roughly 90% of the screen shots taken during my 2 playthroughs.
All things considered, thanks to its combination of immaculate world building and largely entertaining combat, anyone who has fond memories of the original trilogy would be remiss to forgo Mass Effect Andromeda: it might not be as immersive as we were all hoping, but it’s not as appalling as some would suggest. Those without this sentimental like to the franchise, however, will find the profusion of bugs and slap-dash game design too obtrusive to ignore and should therefore give it a wide berth – 7/10