Mass Effect as a series should need little introduction. The now decade-old sci-fi franchise has wowed audiences with its deep story and character development, space politics, adrenaline fueled action, and choosing which alien to get it on with.
The original trilogy was based around the trials and tribulations of Commander Shepard, with a climactic ending effectively killing off any further story developments at the end of the third game. Mass Effect: Andromeda creatively sidesteps this problem by branching off and completely avoiding the events of the third game.
Mass Effect: Andromeda (henceforth MEA) takes place around the time of Mass Effect 2, but then tacks on 634 years worth of space travel as intrepid adventurers pack up and move home away from the Milky Way, to stand on planets in a new galaxy; our closest neighbor, Andromeda.
Several Arks are launched, housing each of the major species, to colonize a new galaxy and experience the warm fuzzies of adventure. Of course, everything goes according to plan as everyone arrives safely, unpacks their things and gets adventuring…
Except, the Andromeda Initiative contracts a severe form of Murphy’s Law and some of the worst crisis response teams in the galaxy – which is saying something, considering they’re the only crisis response teams in the galaxy. Just about everything goes wrong, and it’s your job to fix it as the human races’ designated Pathfinder (you are effective appointed Judge, Jury, President and overall leader of the expedition).
From here on, I’m going to try to avoid talking about as much of the story as possible to avoid spoilers, or at least avoid certain specifics. However, for those interested in the game specifically for the story, take note – it is Mass Effect, and everything you’ve come to expect from the franchises is in MEA, both the good and the bad. You are presented with endless choices, moral dilemmas, half-truths and lies, and unfortunately a number of plot holes (seriously, did no one vet these people before bringing them 2 million light-years from home?).
The first opening hour sets the pace rather well for MEA, as you spend all that time tweaking your character to make it look half-attractive, only to have it hit repeatedly by a shovel as soon as they begin to talk or express themselves. Humans and Asari got a rough deal when it came to facial features, and it does leave a lasting mark, as nearly every scene you are reminded of the abomination that was the character creation process. Some work is being done in the background by Bioware to fix some of the more drastic errors, but we’ll have to wait and see.
However, there was something that bugged me past the poor selection of adjustments of ugliness sliders. Here we are in a new galaxy on a voyage of discovery, separated from the original story of Shepard and the Reapers, yet we can only play as a squishy human. The story was written with humans in mind, but there are multiple pathfinders, one for each race, so it does come across as a missed opportunity – something that becomes more apparent as we progress.
With character in hand, as one of the Ryder twins, you are awoken from stasis to be greeted with unexpected news about the whole trip to Andromeda. Things are in dire straights right from the get-go, from an astronomical body which is later dubbed the Scourge, that is destroying everything in its path. The supposed habitable planet you were meant to be greeted with, is a borderline hell-hole, and it’s this that makes up the heart of MEA; finding out what caused the Scourge and setting up colonies despite of it. Of course, you will need friends along the way, as is tradition in any Mass Effect; your squad of romantic interests.
The different alien species and their interactions and culture clashes, was what really drove Mass Effect. The banter between teammates, the back story behind each race, the different outlooks on life. Life on the Citadel was a rush of aliens and cultures, both major and minor. Thing is, most of that was left behind in the Milky Way, as Andromeda is probably the most barren cultural cooking pot you’ll find on this side of the galaxy.
Of the 20 or so alien races of the original, only five make it to Andromeda; Asari, Humans, Salarians, Turians, and Krogan. It is mentioned very early in the story that the Quarians were coming, but their ship was delayed since it would be ferrying a number of the other minor races too, but the lack of diversity in Andromeda does become quite apparent when you’re finally introduced to the new species.
Here we are, a brand new galaxy, and how many new alien species are there to interact with? Two… or if you want to be technical about it, three if you include the Remnant. Those ‘two’ races are summed up as the very unimaginative ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in this story, Angaran and Kett respectively, with the Remnant being a semi-dumb artificial life-form that has structures dotted around the place. You do pick up an Angaran as a member of your team, but beyond this, I’ll leave it to you to explore.
This lack of cultural diversity is another symptom of that phrase I uttered before, missed opportunity. While Mass Effect had plenty of aliens to interact with, most of them were still humanoid, and Andromeda is sadly no different. Oh how I long for the day to play as an Elcor diplomat or a Hanar movie star, but sadly, it’s not to be. Even the lack of the Quarian ark is somewhat bothersome, as their background would have influence on some of the matters explored in Andromeda. While it all might be one big missed opportunity, it does seem more geared towards loading up a wagon of DLC and sequels – although so far, none have been mentioned.
For those that played the original Mass Effect, you may remember a certain vehicle called the Mako and the dozens of hours spent driving around in a perpetual low-gravity bouncy castle on wheels. The Mako was a horrible vehicle and there was always a sense of dread when you had to use it. Fortunately, it was subsequently scrapped in later games and was regularly referenced in affectionate disdain. MEA took the concept of the Mako and actually made it likable with the Nomad, our new 6-wheeled land-based exploration vehicle.
A lot of exploration is done through the Nomad, so it’s worth investing in it, and by investment, I mean research. The Nomad is more than transport, as it’s also your second life-line in an often hostile environment. It provides physical shielding from would-be assailants, but also as a life-support raft, protecting you from environmental hazards such as radiation and extreme cold. It also allows you to climb steep terrain with relative ease, allowing access to those hard to reach places.
Research in MEA is, to keep it succinct, a convoluted mess. Too much needless complexity and insufficient resources to effectively manage. The whole crafting system in general is a maelstrom of arbitrary points, resources, level caps and discovery issues. There are three research types, each with their own associated points, each acquired through different methods (although it usually boils down to scanning, either on land or in space). Once you have enough points in a given area (Milky Way, Helios or Remnant), you can then spend those points to research armor, weapons or augments.
The problem is that each piece of armor or weapon has multiple levels, each requiring hundreds of points per level to increase its effectiveness. When you’re only given a couple hundred research points per hour, you can only specialize in a single piece of equipment – which you might as well buy from the store, since they sell the gear anyway. So what’s the point of research?
Armor and weapons that you have researched are unlocked in the development section for manufacture. It’s here where some of the interesting crafting takes place as it allows you to build equipment with augments. These are in conjunction with weapon mods (such as scopes, barrels, etc), that are permanent, and can turn shotguns into grenade launchers, snipers into laser weapons, or have a host of biotic or tech power boosts. The problem is that you can’t manufacture augments (they can only be found after you research them), and the resources required to build the equipment are not readily available, at least to begin with (you won’t find Titanium or Platinum until you are a good 10+ hours into the game). If you are playing the game for the story, then to be fair, you needn’t worry about crafting and research, as all the basic weapons in the game can do the job. If you decide to play at a higher difficulty, then you may be more reliant on the extra edge of crafted weapons. In all honesty though, if the research and development section were removed, I doubt anyone would say they missed it, as it doesn’t really add value to the experience.
Another odd system is APEX and Strike Teams, which can be seen as a mini resource gathering system. You send out small teams of people to complete missions, earning a reward in the process. However, you never see the team, they’re just another stat to monitor. APEX missions, which are more difficult, can be completed in multiplayer if you wish, or with a strike team. Surprisingly, the multiplayer element is fun with unlockables and all missions being built around co-op, rather than competitive, so the atmosphere is a lot more friendlier than your typical action RPG. What doesn’t make sense is that Strike Team missions, which are single-player only, are based on mission dictated by the online server. Once you’ve completed the available missions, you have to wait, real-time, for the server to issue new ones… for a single-player only system. Thanks, EA.
To add yet more stats to monitor, there is AVP (Andromeda Viability Points) and cryo pods, used to unlock settlement bonuses such as improved research, larger inventory, more resources, and better trade prices. What becomes a problem though, is managing all these different systems, as they are spread out over different terminals and only accessible from specific locations, namely, the Tempest, your new Andromeda style Normandy space ship.
By now, you will have heard of the horrors of waiting through 15 seconds of unskippable cutscenes as you jump from one planet to another, and the 30 seconds or so every time you leave or enter a planet’s surface. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but multiplied out through hundreds of planets, it’s literally hours of time wasted, looking at the same cutscenes over and over. For us early players, we battled through, for new players and those holding out, a patch is in the works to drastically shorten those scenes. What is infuriating is the necessity to leave the planet, just to manage APEX and research, because you can’t access those menus anywhere else (although some planets have research stations… if you can find them/remember where they are).
This all seems like a lot of negativity, but in truth, it’s nitpicking. Mass Effect: Andromeda is still a worthwhile game, and any long-standing Mass Effect players will be happy with the result – once the more critical bugs are patched. There is still a good 100 hours of content to play through, even without multiplayer. While you can speed run the game in about 20 hours, you will miss out on a lot of the side quests, and let’s be honest here, that’s why we play Mass Effect in the first place.
MEA is an NVIDIA Gameworks title, which might be good or bad, depending on your take. On top of this, it’s one of the first games to be released with HDR support from the get-go, or High Dynamic Range. While explaining HDR is a little bit beyond this review, the result is better contrast in light and dark areas, with a wider color palate. Unfortunately, it’s not something we can show you, as you would need an HDR monitor to see the difference, but it’s one of the few features in displays worth getting excited about. The problem is that there are very few monitors or even TVs that can actually take advantage of this, so this is something that will only become evident a year or two down the line as more people are exposed.
What did excite me with Andromeda, was the inclusion of NVIDIA’s Ansel screenshot engine. Just like The Witcher 3 was all about the eye candy with its vast open expanses, Mass Effect: Andromeda also screams for the Ansel treatment. While sadly, I can’t upload 200MB screenshots, I can upload some of the scaled-down and compressed versions for you to peruse. If you have a phone with a VR headset, you can also take a look at some of the 360 Stereo images if you’d like. If you have an NVIDIA GPU, I urge you to press Alt-F2 and take Ansel for a spin.
A full assortment of graphical options is made available, varying from the usual low to ultra presets, NVIDIA’s HBAO+ shading, temporal anti-aliasing, and a new framebuffer option called HALF16 64-bit, which is a different texture compression system for the extended color palette available on HDR monitors and TVs (you don’t need this for a normal monitor).
In all, Mass Effect: Andromeda is still a Mass Effect game through and through. The choices are there, the banter between your intrepid team is there, the grand story arch, but at the same time, so much more could have been done. How this progresses with DLC and sequels remains to be seen, but as it stands now, is MEA worth it? Once the patch is out to fix some of the more glaring facial faults and space travel time, then yes, I would most definitely say so. Given time, it’ll only improve even more.