One step backward for Mass Effect: Andromeda

“I’m just waiting for this game to pick up,” said my older brother, 40 hours into his playthrough of Mass Effect: Andromeda. Upon passing that milestone myself, I’ve grown to understand his fatigue. Needless to say, I’m not quite feeling the latest installment of BioWare’s famed sci-fi RPG.

Mass Effect is an RPG first and foremost. The series has always focused on its characters and world-building, yet its tight and tactical combat has kept the series going strong since 2007. The series has amassed a huge, well-earned following through its unforgettable characters, densely populated universe, and memorable story beats. The series knew what it wanted to say, and how it wanted to say it. 2012’s Mass Effect 3 was a shocking cinematic spectacle. My personal favourite, Mass Effect 2, was praised for its strong characterization and high level of polish.

With Andromeda, BioWare Montreal takes all of that polish and shoots it out of the nearest airlock.

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(Mass Effect: Andromeda, Electronic Arts)

The game is huge, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What’s wrong is that it rarely ever makes good use of its size. It has a truckload of playable content and an endless list of weapons and items. Despite all of this potential, Andromeda quickly collapses under its own weight.

Mass Effect: Andromeda diverts from the series formula, with decidedly open-world elements. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t succeed at having fun, rewarding exploration. Nor does it benefit from the calculated encounters of past games’ linear designs. Exploration encounters are messy, meaningless, and seemingly placed at random. Even Borderlands 2 had better map design in 2012, with its open-world areas having clearly identifiable areas of importance and interest. Andromeda’s idea of a point of interest is a small enemy camp which rewards the player for a small amount of loot that’s as inconsequential as the firefights themselves.

The battles are still fun, but they rarely ever carry meaning. Ryder is quite literally hitting bad guys for the sake of hitting bad guys. The Kett and Remnant threats on the map are placed so carelessly that I, as a player immersed in a story, struggle to believe that either force is a real threat. Four planets in and I haven’t felt an ounce of dramatic tension, or a personal stake in a single encounter. Even in the few well-designed, linear missions, it never feels like Ryder is in danger. Even in the game’s attempts at creating drama and heat, Ryder feels so detached from the plot that nothing ever feels at stake.

Fortunately, the squad mates can save that narrative. The game does not take too long to establish each character as a member of the Pathfinder’s team. As per Mass Effect tradition, these six characters add colour and meaning to the world around them. Unlike in the original trilogy, I actually have trouble picking a favourite squad mate, which is a testament to the amount of love and care put into them. Despite the series having featured over a dozen squad mates in the past, the new crew still feels like a breath of fresh air from the well-established cast of the past. Drack specifically represents a side of the Krogans that neither Grunt nor Wrex captured before. Cora draws a lot of comparisons to Miranda, but still comes off as a character with a new and valuable perspective on the established universe.

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The core combat is made better by Ryder’s wide array of skills. (Mass Effect: Andromeda, Electronic Arts)

Andromeda’s sidequests feel either lazily designed or lacking in meaning. Typically, the player just needs to talk to a number of NPCs, scan a couple of objects, or slaughter a group of enemies. On top of currencies and items, you’ll pick up some lore but you’ll hardly ever meet interesting characters or are asked anything thought-provoking. One of the game’s first sidequests has Ryder tracking down a rogue repairman who has been sabotaging the Nexus, Andromeda’s equivalent to the Citadel. After some investigation, mystique, and negotiation, Ryder locates the real culprit who makes some interesting points about his motives. The player then decides whether to have him arrested and… that’s really it. I called security on him and there was nothing more to come about from that interaction. This particular sidequest actually felt better than a lot of the missions to show up on the first few planets of the game.

While one could explain Andromeda’s departures as “expansive,” many of these changes fall flat or are executed poorly. The Pathfinder has access to all powers in the game, as opposed to Shepard, who was stuck to one of six classes. These classes take form in Ryder’s “profiles” which buff certain abilities for different combat situations. This system is actually quite fun and it keeps the player actively thinking about how to handle the ever-changing battlefield.

Unfortunately, the profile system has its own issues. For some odd reason, the game limits you to three powers at any given moment. Ryder can switch between profiles via the weapon wheel, but this brings up a huge design flaw. Why is there no power wheel? Ryder can access over 20 powers, but there’s no power wheel, a feature that BioWare implemented in the original Mass Effect in 2007. In addition, the player can no longer call upon the powers of Ryder’s two squad mates. This removes almost all team synergy and makes the squad selection near-inconsequential.

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Here’s hoping they patch in a proper power wheel. (Mass Effect: Andromeda, Electronic Arts).

The jump and dash mechanics help speed up the rhythm of battle, which would otherwise play at the same speed as the past trilogy. Sadly, Andromeda makes little use of these new features. The dash move is fun, but it has no synergy with anything Ryder can do. You can’t dash smoothly into a melee, and it breaks up your aim. There was an opportunity here to create interesting combinations of powers alongside the dashes, but they simply don’t exist. Dashing into targets is awkward as Ryder will slowly drop off in speed at point-blank distance from the hostile. The jump gives Ryder the ability to float mid-air and fire down upon enemies. The float skill actually has some accompanying skills, but otherwise it’s just a good way to dip out of cover and get shot. These two mobility techniques also turn melee monsters into a joke. It’s extremely easy to kite hulking melee tanks with the dash alone, and the jump is an easy escape outside of attack range.

Ryder’s range of skills and profiles turns him or her into a complete powerhouse. It really is fun to switch between combat styles and absolutely wreck squads of aliens and robots. The increased mobility made Vanguard seem more viable than it had been in previous titles. The ability to fly headstrong into groups of enemies feels more at home in Andromeda than ever. However, in one of the game’s few balance issues, there are far too many enemy types that simply crush the Pathfinder at melee range. At least three common hostiles can instantly kill Ryder with a grab attack, rendering the Vanguard class unviable in comparison to other profiles; I still consider it to be the most enjoyable of all play styles.

One thing that Andromeda does quite well is weapon choice. There are a ridiculous amount of weapons, giving players a lot of room to experiment and tune their play style. The range of weapons is great, but the system of obtaining them isn’t so good. My first question is: why is there an inventory limit? As an RPG player, I enjoy the act of collecting, and I had trouble letting go of items to make room for more. This is especially backward because Ryder’s wide range of skills suggests that you should have a wide range of equipment for him or her to use. It doesn’t help that the R&D and augmentation systems are a complete mess. There’s little point in permanently augmenting a weapon upon creation when a superior version of the item is just around the corner. Finding development materials is also a bit of a mess. There is no synergy between menus to streamline the experience. There is no way to mark materials à la Fallout 4, and so you’ll probably find yourself switching awkwardly between the R&D menu and the shop menu in order to buy those necessary resources.

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Just when you thought you were done upgrading your favourite gun, another five tiers show up out of nowhere (Mass Effect: Andromeda, Electronic Arts)

The land vehicle, the Nomad, just isn’t very fun to use. Initially, it’s not quite fast enough, the boost is underwhelming, and the vertical thrusters basically do nothing. After a hefty amount of upgrades, the Nomad picks up, but it still is limited in its range of abilities. In a game about fighting new aliens in foreign space, there was a missed chance here to include vehicular combat. The Kett drop in from shuttles, but no such vehicles even challenge the Nomad. BioWare gives Ryder a bunch of mobility skills but the Nomad, the main method of getting around, is basically glued to the ground with little fun to be had. It might’ve been made better with a weapon or something – something to set it apart from the other vehicles in the series. The Nomad has very little, if anything, to identify it as special. The Mako and Hammerhead from previous games had distinct features about them. They weren’t perfect, but they handled flexibly, were fun to use, and parts of their respective games were built around them.

Andromeda is all about discovery. It’s about making first contact, landing on new planets and carving a path for the Milky Way’s races to follow. Again, this is a great concept, but the game misses the mark. The planets simply do not have interesting plots attached to them. The player systematically hits solid ground before shooting some baddies, solving some glorified Sudoku puzzles, and dropping a flag in the ground. There’s a bit of fluff here and there but it rarely ever hits hard. Interactions vary in quality, and the game’s characters take far too long to become engaging in comparison to its predecessors.

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Vetra’s got her priorities straight. (Mass Effect: Andromeda, Electronic Arts).

Without going too far into it, even the multiplayer aspect is underwhelming. The mission format and design is near-identical to the arena-based survival mode of Mass Effect 3. This comes as a surprise to me as Andromeda has made a multitude of advancements in its combat. It’s neat that multiplayer missions can reward the Pathfinder in the campaign, but there’s very little incentive to play a game mode that is relatively unchanged from 2012’s Mass Effect 3. 

Ultimately, Andromeda isn’t a bad game. It’s definitely fun, rich, and playable. Its existence is frustrating because the Mass Effect property has vast potential and the game could have been much better. BioWare made a brave decision to shift direction and theme with this installment, and some of it shows, but the end product is a cobbled-together mess.

Grade: C+

(Featured image: Mass Effect: Andromeda, Electronic Arts)

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