Mass Effect: Andromeda – Review

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Few franchises in video games are as beloved or storied as Bioware’s Mass Effect series.  A science fiction epic in every sense of the word, Mass Effect has long been regarded as a great example of what in-depth RPG’s can be if the focus is placed on narrative and character development.  Unfortunately there is a cloud of controversy swirling around Andromeda at it’s release, largely dealing with technical issues and severely outdated animations.  But how does this affect the game as a whole?  Is it still worth playing?  Read on to find out my thoughts on the matter.

Andromeda comes along at a very busy time for the video games world as we’ve seen some stellar recent releases; Guerilla Games’ Horizon: Zero Dawn for example, or NieR: Automata, and even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the Nintendo Switch.  Given such a robust roster of games playable in such a short window, and potentially limited budgets of gamers the world over, many found themselves in a position to only pick one, with many holding out for the latest entry in the Mass Effect saga.

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One Small Step for Man

Following the original trilogy, Andromeda sets out to tell a new story in the connected and vast universe established by previous Mass Effect games, bidding farewell to the beloved Commander Shepard and introducing the Ryder Twins.  As part of the Andromeda Initiative, you’re tasked with investigating potentially habitable worlds for the future colonization efforts of humanity.  These so-called “Golden Worlds” represent the last best effort of mankind to reach among the stars and find a new place to call home.  Naturally things don’t go as planned, and you find yourself taking on the role of Pathfinder and carrying on the mission.  I love the premise that the story sets forth, and few things are more dire and realistically plausible than the need for humanity to expand throughout the universe and find other worlds on which we can thrive.  The developers have proven time and again that they’re perfectly capable of penning a great story, so I’m left wondering what happened during the process of writing Andromeda.

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While the central theme is clear and concise, and the beginning strong, many of the middle chapters of the story thus far leave much to be desired and feel somewhat disjointed and apart.  I can understand the concept of chaptered work in episodic fashion, but there must always be a central thread that ties these things together.  So far in Andromeda I’m having trouble finding that central theme, and I’m growing concerned that it might be buried underneath average character stories and to much “back and forth” fetch questing that plagues lesser role-playing games.

Overall I feel that the story has taken center stage in this game, as it should, but it also feels a bit anemic for what you’d expect given past entries into the series.

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One Giant Leap for the Uncanny Valley

I would like to say ahead of time that I’m not jumping on the eponymous hate bandwagon that many seem content hopping aboard, but that doesn’t mean that I’m unwilling to provide a reasoned critique of what we’ve been given here.

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In point of frankness, parts of the game are absolutely stunning, with environments featuring rich detail and some intricately designed alien architecture.  The development and design teams really outdid themselves with the world design, as each one feels unique unto itself but still familiar because of the presence of Remnant technology.  Structures, vehicles, flora and fauna all look great, and that’s where it stops.

To discuss the visual flaws, the first and most obvious candidate for criticism are the character models and their facial and body animations.  The character models themselves aren’t absolutely terrible, though they do look a bit dated; armor and weapon designs add to this by appearing rubbery or plastic and not at all appearing as things from centuries in the future.  Some of the designs are indeed wildly alien and neat at their core, but much was lost in translation between design and execution.

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Facial and body animations are absolutely the worst culprits here, with the facial animations ranging from slightly strange and disjointed to wholly discomforting and outright inappropriate for the scene.  While I’m not much of a graphics whore myself, I do take issue with facial and body animations in an RPG where you spend most of your time looking at them.  I deeply value immersion in my RPGs, and having a character behave in this way completely kills that immersion.  As an example, I had a character take a sip from a glass, rotate his arm completely around his body before putting the glass through the bar, spinning backwards and walking away.  That goes beyond the claimed “minor animation issues” and approaches full on bad quality control.  Sometimes these things can lend to a kind of charm for the game, like Bethesda is known for with it’s Fallout and TES franchises.  But this is something else all unto itself and awful to boot.  I can’t imagine why the character design in this game is so immensely crude given the power of the Frostbite engine, but neither am I an artist or developer.  But as a gamer, I do not feel like the money I spent on this game is recompense for the game I was given.

Peace Isn’t an Option

Putting aside the visual flaws and animation challenges, the combat in the game is actually pretty decent.  Featuring a deep customization system for both weapons and skills or powers, you’re free to decide exactly how your Pathfinder and their crew approach combat situations.

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Using the traditional toolkit of previous Mass Effect games, characters have access to Combat, Tech and Biotic abilities, each presenting very unique pathways for upgrading and encountering fights in the game.  Combat is exactly what it sounds like, focusing on engaging enemies with firearms and grit.  Skill with firearms is rewarded by having more ammo, being more accurate with a given weapon, or handling the weapon better in combat.  It also gives you access to grenades and rockets of various types for use in battle.  Tech is more concerned with turrets, defenses and fortifications and can absolutely be considered the “engineering” option for your character.  Lastly, Biotics give you superhuman abilities such as creating areas of gravity and levitation, blasting enemies with energy, or disrupting defenses.

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Coupled with these areas of specialization, Profiles develop for your character based on what you’ve invested points into.  The Soldier profile develops as you put points into the Combat tree, while Engineer will develop from points put into Tech.  There are several profiles with some requiring investments in each; Pioneer, for instance, requires an equal investment in all categories but gives you very well rounded bonuses in exchange.

The combat can feel a bit clunky at times, as I felt the third person over-the-shoulder camera would’ve been fine staying where it was during exploration and not totally zoomed in.  This takes away your periphery as well as makes an already busy screen feel even more cluttered.  That being said, it was fine and nothing more.  Average, if you will.

Manifest Destiny

Within the auspices of character progression there’s also a very deep crafting and resource system that rewards you for spending time developing it.  As you explore the world you’ll find things to scan with your Omni-Tool, such as plants, alien devices and the like.  Doing so will give you research points into one of three possible development trees, where you can then develop weapons, armor and mods based on that groups technological understanding.  The more you learn about a group, the more advanced technology you can develop as a result.  This research is then turned into Development, where you actually craft the item you’ve researched with potential modifiers that give it extra bonuses.  Chest armor with extra shielding, a Sniper Rifle with extra ammo, you get the idea.  All in all I felt this system was very well designed and clearly a focus.

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This, coupled with the galactic exploration component really lend to the feel that you’re out in the ‘verse discovering things and making a name for humanity among the stars.  Once you’re given your own starship, you’re given leave as Pathfinder to explore the unknown and find humanity a home.  There seem to be a decent number of explorable worlds, though these could also simply be called levels that you need to travel to.  I’m not so cynical, however, and I think using the Nexus and the Tempest as a hub to get to these places adds to the exploration feeling.  There are also about a billion quests that you’ll find along the way that help to flesh out each world.

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Mass Effective?

All in all, there are some parts of this game that I really enjoy, but then the parts that I don’t enjoy come right along to knock me back down into the atmosphere of reality.  The flaws present in the game aren’t game breaking by any means, but they are immersion breaking which is so much worse in an RPG of this potential caliber.  It is with a heavy heart that I criticize a game that I wanted so much to love, but as good as the basic systems in the game are, I’m not sure that this is a game I’m going to fully enjoy as much as I’d wanted to.  I think the story is worth seeing through, and I definitely like to give my best to an RPG, but if I weren’t already a fan I would probably pass on this entry in the franchise, and hope that Bioware can learn a thing or two from what’s happened here.