Mass Effect Andromeda is a fresh start. It features a new crew, trying to make their home in a new galaxy and divorced from the beloved series and its derided tri-colour ending choices. This reboot of sorts gives its makers an opportunity to cast off some of Mass effect’s baggage. Instead they’ve made many of the same mistakes, delivering a game that is perhaps by necessity or perhaps by wilful design, reminiscent of the very first Mass Effect.
Andromeda delivers some heavy-handed exposition early on, front-loading the experience with what seems like too much information. It settles in to a better narrative groove later on, but the early hours of the game aren’t very strong.
You choose to be one of Ryder twins, Sara or Scott – soon to be revived from a hundreds of years of long cryogenic sleep. The pair are the progeny of the Human Pathfinder, one of a handful of leaders from the Milky Way galaxy tasked with finding new settlements in further reaches of space. Along with other Arks from other species from the Milky Way, the human exploration ship has come to the Andromeda galaxy, looking for new worlds to settle on. According to their long-range scans, these new astronomical bodies could be “golden world” planets – hospitable, habitable. Home.
Things don’t go quite to plan because of course they don’t, and in the hundreds of years since their journey’s start, their would-be new homes aren’t quite as welcoming as they imagined. The space around the Heleus system in Andromeda is filled with the Scourge – an expanding, destructive mesh of… something that looks like steel wool that’s had a bit of electricity applied to it. The Salarian, Turian and Asari Arks have all disappeared. There’s also some sort of old angular Remnant technology everywhere that doesn’t seem to have been there when the teams from the Andromeda Initiative left the Milky Way in their frozen slumber.
On top of that, the worlds within that cluster are subjugated by a race of silly-looking rocky aliens with rubber faces. They’re the Kett, and they serve as the primary menace in this new Mass Effect. Not quite as imposing as rogue Spectres or looming Reapers at first, the Kett reveal themselves to be a worthy, somewhat goofy foe.
Within the first hour of Mass Effect: Andromeda it becomes clear that you’re the chosen one as situation dictates that you become the next Pathfinder. The implant in your head allows you to receive the Pathfinder’s SAM, a neurally-linked artificial intelligence of your father’s design that allows you to be a cosmic wayfarer. It also, for reasons that can only be explained as a narrative contrivance, allows you to interface with the centuries-old remnant technology that could be the key to making the cluster you’re now in habitable. Much of that interfacing devolves in to a tiresome Sudoku-like relic puzzle.
It’s clichéd hero stuff, going from trope to trope as it tries to give players some sort of impetus. But far from Ryder being chosen by destiny, fate or some other intangible force, they’re chosen by a human being. Ryder is young, underestimated by her new crew as she takes over the job of Pathfinder – playing on, and subverting the key themes from the original game.
Becoming the Pathfinder leaves Ryder with an unenviable set of tasks: find a new home for the humans and the rest of the Milky Way’s expatriates by establishing new colonies; find out what happened to the vanished Arks and of course, save the galaxy from a megalomaniac. It’s packed with writing that’s sometimes asinine, sometimes nuanced and poignant. Is it all that different from Shepherd’s tale?
No, and as with that first game, its charm lies less in its overt story and more within its smaller tales. The relationships and sub-stories involving your crew have always been a hallmark of Mass Effect, and the narratives you’ll find in Andromeda are as endearing as ever. Andromeda serves up a diverse cast of characters to accompany you, proffering bits of wisdom and delightful little anecdotes when they’re not helping you shoot things. Interestingly – and a bit of a change for the series – you’ll have nearly your full crew in the early hours of play.
You start off with two humans, fellow members of the Andromeda Initiative. Cora is a tough-as-nails biotics specialist who was supposed to be the Pathfinder’s successor. She’s joined by Liam Costa, a funny and affable young cockney lad. Soon, you’ve got a complement of a crew, its ranks filled by the species you’ve come to know and love from your old adventures. A battle-ready Turian, a wise but menacing Krogan, a wacky and irreverent Asari and a character from a race new to Andromeda. They’re all eventually interesting, and their loyalty missions make them doubly so. Even the crew you can’t bring with you on your missions have a little more personality.
Interaction with other people is a little different. Gone is the quick and easy choice to be a Paragon or Renegade. The conversation wheel is now replaced with a slightly more robust one, offering fewer black-or-white choices that favours tone instead. You can appeal to emotion or logic. You can be casual or carry yourself with utmost professionalism, mixing and matching your responses to suit the moment.
The other great big Mass Effect hallmark for me is also intact; discovering new worlds. Probably my favourite aspect of the series is the exploration. Your first real one is an acrid desert that could easily be mistaken for somewhere like Arizona. Dry and dusty, it’s hardly the most hospitable or interesting place to explore – but as you start to gain a foothold and establish an outpost it starts opening up, offering a semi-open world that’s ripe for exploration. From there, you’ll reconnoiter frozen tundras, dense lush biomes and everything in between – trying to find somewhere that’s suitable for sustaining human life. You’ll even see giant flying space lobsters.
Planet traversal is made a little easier through the reintroduction of a ground vehicle. This isn’t the horrible and clunky Mako though. The Nomad is a 6 wheel drive all-terrain-vehicle, which lets you switch traction on the fly. The upgradeable Nomad is also adept at mining for mineral resources, which you’ll use for the game’s largely unnecessary crafting system. You can also scan planets for said resources, using a system that seems like it’s taken a step back from previous games. Flying to planets and firing off probes to extract minerals is dull and mindless.
There are quests, of course – a seemingly endless list of things to see and do in this new galaxy. They range from the unimportant humdrum (usually labelled as “tasks”) to grander, more elaborate exercises like solving murders or dabbling in the newly established political landscape. Importantly nothing I did ever felt like mindless fetching. It’s not Dragon Age: Inquisition, and unlike with that game, I don’t regret the dozens of hours I’ve spent exploring Andromeda.
Secondary to exploration and relationships – for me anyway – has been the actual playing. When you’re not exploring, talking to people or trying to solve what seems like everybody’s problems on the Citadel-like Nexus, you’ll be shooting at things. Lots of things. The Kett are a formidable enemy, and you’ll have to use a deft combination of armaments, space magic powered biotics and technology to bring them down. As you level up, you’re awarded the points necessary to put into these disciplines – but you’re never stuck in one role. I’ve always favoured Mass effects Vanguard class – analogous I suppose, to the traditional RPG’s Battlemage. Here though I was able to dynamically shift roles through something called profiles which lets players switch roles to leverage different buffs, adapting to suit my playstyle. Your hero is now also a lot more mobile, thanks to jump-jets that allow you to actually jump over obstacles and scale vertical surfaces.
Beyond that, combat itself isn’t too removed from the previous games. It’s the same sort of competent, cover-based third person shooting – though going to cover is now contextual. A bigger change is the removal of the radial powers and orders wheel. You have less granular control of your squad mates, able to send them to spots to cover or defend, but you no longer have direct control over their powers. It does remove some of the game’s tactical gameplay, but I can’t say I missed it too much.
Weapon modifications make a welcome return from the first Mass Effect, adding a layer of complexity that’s been missing from the series’ sequels. While Andromeda is still an action shooter it still has more role-playing mechanics inside that can be a little overwhelming at first; systems on top of systems on top of even more systems. There’s crafting (with modifications!), mining, biome viability and other busywork that don’t make too much of a functional difference to the game, but will delight people who prefer their games to have more than just shooting inside of them.
And of course there’s the multiplayer, which isn’t too far removed from the wave-based co-operative shooter from Mass Effect 3. You’ll still be shooting wave upon wave of bad guys, grouped with a collection of friends or random people form the internet. The difference here is that it’s not mandatory. There’s no Galactic Readiness you need to prepare for, so those who prefer to play alone can skip it entirely. It is ably weaved into Andromeda’s single player through passive Strike Missions, where you’re able to send non-player teams off to do operations. Some Apex Missions allow you to join in, earning rewards for single player and unlockable multiplayer loot in the process.
You’ve probably seen some examples of the game’s poor writing and some of its subpar animation by now, and your face is likely tired of it all. It does start off that way, and your character and crew – particularly the human ones – all seem to be plasticine puppets with Parkinson’s disease. While there’s little that can be said to excuse the jarring animation, it does seem to get better or at the very least become less noticeable. It’s all excused within Andromeda’s climax, which delivers just the sort of tense and epic space opera stuff we’ve come to expect from Mass Effect. By the end of it, it felt like I‘d done something important.
If Andromeda has egregious faults beyond its occasionally sophomoric writing, it’s that it just doesn’t really do enough that’s fresh. It uses new technology to create bigger, better-looking worlds – but it doesn’t do much that we haven’t seen from the series before. It doesn’t make much of a generational leap. For better or worse, it’s really just more Mass Effect – and I’m okay with that.