First up, a confession. I loved the first Mass Effect game and couldn’t stop playing until I finished it completely, then immediately embarked on a Renegade Shep playthrough. When Mass Effect 2 came along, I was so excited that I didn’t bother reading any reviews, I just went and bought it and started to play. However, the new direction that that game had gone down didn’t sit very well with me, and I never finished it, or even bothered to start Mass Effect 3. So now with the launch of Mass Effect: Andromeda, have EA and Bioware managed to recapture the spirit of the first game or am I doomed to disappointment again? With hope in my heart, I fired it up and blasted off.
It goes without saying that I will try to keep story based spoilers to a minimum for this review, but before you read on you should be aware that I may not be able to keep absolutely every secret, so please treat this as your **Spoiler Alert!**
Before we move onto impressions of the game itself, I just want to deal with the elephant in the room and discuss the much reported “facial animation” issue. I can honestly say that this has not had an adverse effect on me playing the game. There have been a couple of occasions when one of the companions, Peebee, did look like she was about to bite my character’s head off and had some kind of weird eye rolling thing going on, but it isn’t all the time and isn’t that big a deal.
On the topic of the animation, the running animation of the characters is sometimes a little strange; Ryder would at times come across as having a kind of bow legged gait like she was some futuristic pirate, but again, besides looking peculiar, it didn’t have a big effect on the game for me. The weird running issue seems to occur more when Ryder is running upstairs, but again it’s a long way from a deal breaker, and I must admit I struggled to notice glitches to the degree that the bad press surrounding the game would have led you to believe.
So, on to the game itself then and it is one of two halves; having the single player campaign to get through, and also a multiplayer element.
Strangely, I’ll deal with the multiplayer side first of all. Basically, what Bioware have done this time with the multiplayer is to make an almost Horde-lite mode. There are three tiers of difficulty to try; Gold, Silver and Bronze, and each of these modes has a recommended level associated with it – Bronze being up to level 10, Silver from 10-20 and so on.
Once you’ve chosen your difficulty tier, you then have to select your character. There are Humans, Salarians, Krogans and more to choose from, but the majority are locked away and can be obtained by buying the “loot boxes”, either with in-game credits or real money if you really can’t wait. The most expensive Loot Box is yours for a mere 100,000 in-game credits, and as I was earning around 10,000 credits per Bronze Tier game, it isn’t too much of a bind to save up for them. Obviously, there are cheaper boxes, with consumable items and new weapons in, as well as new characters, but as with every game that utilises micro transactions, the more you pay the better the chance of getting good gear.
After you’ve selected your species, then there are different classes, like Soldier, Engineer, Infiltrator and so on, all with different perks and biotics to use and choose from. Ranking up these characters is achieved via the Skill Points that you earn, and can be be spent on upgrading their perks and powers, making you more likely to survive on the field of battle. Want more powerful grenades or longer time limits on the biotics, faster recharge or carry a third weapon? The choice is yours.
In this multiplayer mode then, and you are basically left to survive six waves of enemies, some with other objectives thrown in, and then extract yourself from the map with as many players alive as possible. The pattern seems to be two waves where the objective is to survive, and take out as many enemies as you can, then an objective based wave, two more survival waves, then a second objective wave, hoping and praying that you stay alive long enough to get extracted. The objectives can vary, some being to destroy particular highlighted enemies, or defending a certain point on the map while data uploads, or having to hold and defend three separate points for a period of time. As there are only four people in your fireteam or squad, that last objective can be a real pain. Add in to this a time limit to achieve these objectives, and the pressure can really be on.
The enemies also rotate, sometimes being Raiders, other times Remnant or the Kett – Andromeda’s new baddies. Each of them can also have different classes, from the cannon fodder that run down the barrels of your guns to heavily shielded, massive enemies that take proper team work to put down. With the variety, you will come to hate some enemies more than others, that is without a shadow of a doubt. There’s an orange shielded guy in the Kett waves who is impervious until you destroy a small orb that he has circling his body, but my personal nemesis is always in the form of the Observers from the Remnant waves. These look like the squid robots from The Matrix series of films, can fly and have a constant laser beam attack that melts shields and leaves you in a world of hurt.
If you are downed, your team mates can revive you if they get to you in a set period of time, or you can burn a consumable item to get back on your feet. But you can only carry two of these into each round and if you don’t use the item or get revived, you have to sit the remainder of the round out, before being revived at the start of the next one. There’s something of a delicate balancing act to be carried out then – do you stay down and hope the team can get to you, or use the item and not have it available for the rest of the game? Would you being dead in the early rounds of the game be better than going down in round 6 and having no self revives left? Obviously strategy like this is much easier if you are playing with people you know, or are partied up with strangers at least, as the majority of randoms that I’ve got matched with didn’t seem to be interested in team work or helping each other out.
Instead I got much better results by playing with friends, communicating and performing team up combos, for instance. Having a friend pull an enemy out from behind cover using their biotics, then hitting them with a concussive shot turns out to be a very effective way of taking the bad guys to school. Confusingly though, the grenade button changes between campaign and multiplayer, going from the right bumper in single player to the left bumper in multiplayer. This caused some hilarious deaths, as I thought I was going to hit a floating enemy with a concussive shot, only to drop a grenade at my feet as it bounced off the cover I was crouching behind. Not a big deal, but surely it couldn’t have been that hard to keep a consistent control scheme between the two modes?
In addition to the regular games in multiplayer, there are also APEX missions that you can complete for better rewards. These follow the same pattern as the regular missions, but are harder, both in damage dealt by the enemies, and in the numbers of enemies per wave… or least that’s how it seems. The couple I played before hiding in the corner in tears had a decrease to our guns’ damage output, but then a buff to our melee damage, so trying to close the distance to enemies before they filled you full of holes became quite important. Your character is quite nimble, able to take cover behind the many waist high structures dotted around, before mantling over said cover to press the attack. There is also access to a jet pack, something which works with mixed results. The extra height the jump jet gives you is nothing to be sneezed at, as being higher up in a sniper nest does aid your longevity to no small degree, but the enemies have also been issued with them, so no corner goes unvisited by a bad guy for too long. The pack can also be used to dodge with a well timed press of the B button and a directional button, allowing you to slide away from grenades or other danger quite easily. At least, that’s the theory. The truth is more often than not I would slide myself either into the next piece of cover and my guy would crouch down, still well within the blast radius of the grenade, or I’d slide into a corner with similar results. However, with a modicum of spacial awareness, this can be a lifesaver.
The most important thing to say about the multiplayer mode though is that it is fun. With the right mix of teammates and proper planning, you can form yourself into a proper baddie mincing machine and the game flows very well. Even with mediocre team mates or playing with randoms, the fun of the mode shines through and this Horde mode turns out to be a very pleasing addition to the meat of the game – the campaign.
Speaking of which, we obviously need to touch on this as well, but in broad brush strokes to avoid spoilers.
Humanity and the other main races – the Krogan, Asari and Salarians – build Arks (giant spaceships) to go to the titular Andromeda galaxy, in an attempt to find the so called Golden Worlds, places that can be settled and ensure the survival of the races. Waking from stasis 600 years later, the game unfolds as the Human Ark, the Hyperion, crashes through an area of dark energy called the Scourge, badly damaging the ship. As the Hyperion limps into dock at the Nexus, a kind of forward station that has been constructed in Andromeda to act as a base of operations, your role in the future of all the races is revealed. There’s a section of gameplay before you get to the Nexus, but it contains a very large story spoiler, so I’ll gloss over that instead of ruining the adventure ahead.
As the game opens, you’re asked to choose between playing as either Scott or Sara Ryder, two fully formed characters with their own back stories already in place. This is a bit of a departure for character creation as in other Bioware games I’ve played, like the Dragon Age titles, the characters that you design are more of a blank page to project your personality onto, but not here. Obviously the physical aspects of your character are all tweakable, but after managing to create a fat Bet Lynch, I gave up and went with the default character model of Sara, preferring to get in touch with my feminine side. The choice of character doesn’t appear to make a huge difference to the story, as playing as a male Ryder through the early missions made not a bean of difference.
So, again skipping over various story related events, eventually you are granted access to the Tempest, your home for the majority of the game. I have to take a moment here and praise the design of the Tempest in particular, as it is a truly beautiful machine. Sleek and shiny, just sitting on the launch pad it looks like a speed machine from which the galaxy will open up for you.
As you explore, new star systems and worlds become available to you, allowing you to scan for brave new worlds. There are lots of things to discover, from asteroids floating around the star systems to satellites and mineral deposits on the planets that you find. The game does limit the worlds that you can actually land on, so there isn’t total freedom, but you can easily spend an hour or two just zooming from system to system, scanning anomalies and exploring the galaxy.
Following the main story leads you to different worlds, which can be landed on and explored, either on foot or in the Nomad, a totally badass 6×6 buggy that has two modes; a fast, two wheel mode which has a higher speed but limited off road capability, and full on mudplugger mode, turning the Nomad into a mountain goat. I’m not even joking either as with the right runup and judicious use of the boost, the Nomad can drive up and over inconvenient mountains on your way to the mission areas. There are a few out of bounds areas however, and if you drive into them then the Nomad is just reset back to the nearest safe position, which is a little jarring to say the least. Worse is the way that you can drive up a mountain and all of a sudden come across a blue forcefield, preventing you from driving further. What is this forcefield? Who built it? Why is it in the middle of nowhere? These questions and more are not answered in the game…but then, as long as you stay within the mission area, all is well and good.
This strange out of bounds behaviour applies when you are running around on foot as well, as a mistimed or misaimed leap can land you in seemingly deep trouble. But again you are mysteriously teleported back to safety, albeit with your shields depleted. Ryder must also have some goat in his/her DNA, as the ability to seemingly run straight up sheer rock faces comes in very handy when exploring.
In true Bioware style, as you explore and complete the key, story driven missions, there are a host of supporting characters dotted around the planets to lend a hand to. These can range from personal missions for your six squadmates, without which you can’t access the top tier of their abilities, to a bartender asking you to find ingredients for a new drink onboard the Nexus, and everything inbetween. It’s no exaggeration to say that for every one mission I completed, there were another three given to me. Each you do complete on a so called Golden World will help to increase the viability of a settlement on that world. For that settlement to eke out a living, the viability needs to be around 40%, which can easily be achieved by helping out the locals. Building a settlement actually gives a large bonus to viability, as does activating machinery left behind by a mysterious alien race, but I’m not going to say anything else about that! Eventually, the world you are on will have a viability of 100%, at which point you’ll probably find yourself happy to move on to next, even if not all the missions have been completed.
The worlds available fall into the familiar video game stereotypes; there’s a desert one, an ice one, a seemingly idyllic one with underlying issues and so on. The blurb that accompanies Andromeda claims there are seven Golden Worlds to find and colonise, and in the 40 hours I’ve so far dropped in, I’ve found five, so there is still a lot of game to play.
One of the best things about it, with relation to the mission structure and so on at least, is that at no point does it feel bloated or that you’re just being distracted with busy work. The missions are, by and large, go here and kill these people/get this thing/scan that item affairs, but the charm of the worlds and the interaction and banter between the squad members you bring along means it never feels like a chore.
The other missions are to do with the aforementioned alien tech, and all I can say is that the puzzles required for completion in order to enter the places are reminiscent of nothing so much as very complex Sudoku puzzles, played out on a five by five grid using glyphs. As time goes on, the puzzles get harder, with outlines being added to the grid, and the same symbol not being allowed twice. These can be a real brainteasers and failing generally summons some reinforcements who’ll try and shoot you to pieces… so pick carefully as getting these puzzles right can make things a lot easier for you in the long run.
Character development isn’t forgotten either, and as you complete missions and kill enemies you’ll rank up, acquiring skill Points on the way. Your companions also earn skill points, even if they aren’t on the missions with you, so it’s well worth swapping around every now and then to make sure that everyone gets their moment in the sun and their upgrades applied.
Ryder also has an extra trick up the sleeve thanks to the A.I., Sam. As he/she ranks up various skills, new profiles can be unlocked and given to the character, such as Soldier, Engineer and so on. Each of these profiles adds a different biotic loadout and skill set, enabling different missions to be taken a number of various ways. Want to kick the front door in and spray the place with bullets? You’ll want the Soldier profile then. Again, experimentation with the different loadouts will pay dividends, as you find the best set of skills that complement your play style.
Graphically, and Mass Effect Andromeda has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, apart from the odd awkward bit of animation I discussed at the top of the review. The Galaxy map looks beautiful, and the way the view zooms in and swings around to represent the ship flying is strangely hypnotic, and always good to watch. Also, the parts where the Tempest comes in to land or take off from the planet surface are always a joy to watch, even though the cynical part of my brain is saying “It’s just a loading screen”, it doesn’t seem to matter. Seeing the wildlife kicking about in the distance (and hopping out of the Nomad to shoot them with a high powered sniper rifle) is part of the fun of just driving about the planets in question, and it helps to foster the illusion of a living, breathing world that would still carry on, even without your presence to witness it.
Soundwise the game is also top notch; the cries of the bad guys, the sounds of the guns, and the noises of the spaceships are all very good indeed. Some of the dialogue, especially from the NPC quest givers, does sound a little phoned in, but I’ve had no complaints about the main character vocalisations, and would go so far as to say the writing and acting are both very good. The speech choices that you get to choose from are split into different categories, from a professional approach to a sarcastic, aggressive approach, which can have implications. Add into this the split second decision making that is introduced into some of the cutscenes (press RT to shoot someone, for instance) and the interactions between characters are very interesting, without even touching on the potential for romantic entanglements. As the conversation with a potential love interest progresses, there are special “love heart” options that open up, so your choice of partner is up to you. Will it be an Asari, a Turian, Human or even a new race, the details of which I’m going to keep to myself for now. Anyone who’s played a Mass Effect (or even a Dragon Age) game will be familiar with this routine, so I’ll not harp on too much about it.
So, to the conclusion then. Is this the brave new age of Mass Effect, the worthy spiritual successor to the original trilogy?
Well, yes and no. The story isn’t exactly new – getting a rag tag band of misfits to work together against a common foe – but is good fun nonetheless, and keeps you holding on to see what the writers have in store. If you don’t fancy pushing through the story, the exploration of the planets and the different solar systems allows you to while away the time by completing missions and raising the viability of the planets.
All in all, the scope and fun of the game shines through, and if you give it a chance, Andromeda will reward you with an enormous amount of satisfaction.