How do you follow on from one of the best video game series ever made? This is a question that has clearly bugged Bioware since their seminal Mass Effect trilogy came to an end five years ago and fans began clamouring for a new adventure on next-generation hardware. That a new Mass Effect game would be made was assured, both to settle this demand but also to see how far technology could push the series forward. But distilling and improving upon the formula was never going to be easy. And so it has proved.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is the result, a spacefaring RPG epic that casts you in the role of a young “pathfinder” tasked with finding new worlds for humanity to inhabit. If the original series was a doomsday prophecy, this incarnation is rather more National Geographic with a lighter tone, a doe-eyed cast and pretty locations galore. The personality of the earlier games is still here – somewhere – but it’s been dulled and diluted by its new roster of young simpering recruits who walk around spouting lines as if they’re in an Adam Sandler movie.
Next to the urgency of earlier stories, Andromeda begins tamely, situating you in the shoes of its fresh-faced protagonist; either Sara or Scott Ryder. You’re free to choose which half of the brother-sister duo you want to assume, but both are a far cry from the brow-beaten Shepherd of old. That point of difference is actually a boon. Who doesn’t appreciate a fresh start? But Andromeda bungles the script, no more than in the early going when it has the all important job of making you like these characters. The Ryders are ciphers and the supporting cast are forgettable.
The new stage for the action is the Andromeda galaxy in the Heleus cluster. Ryder wakens from stasis to learn that humanity’s plan to colonize new worlds is in bad shape. S/he’s soon in charge of picking up the pieces and finding those very worlds to call home. At the same time, s/he needs to get to the bottom of a strange technology which has piqued the interest of a nefarious new group of enemies known as the Kett. The Kett are wonderful caricatures of Hollywood’s gallery of rogues, replete with a self-important leader who arrives in every scene to an operatic swell ramping the volume to 11. I loved it, which is to say it’s just the right side of corny.
The rest of the game is the wrong side of corny, though, and that begins and ends with the script. A new light-hearted tone ripped from the pages of the Uncharted playbook is inexpertly carried by dialogue so bad you think to yourself, “Seriously!? How was this even put on paper, yet alone recorded and inserted into the game proper!” And when the script is not making your eyes roll in disgust, it’s just there: empty, going-through-the-motions-chat that’s always in the tell not show school of writing. At least the fan-favorite paramour encounters are back, but even these have turned into tortured pre-tween trysts inspired by reruns of The Big Bang Theory.
The script isn’t helped out by the game’s engine, either. The facial animation has been much derided prior to release and though it’s never as bad as critics have pointed out, there are moments where your credulity is severely tested. Bulbous eyes just pop out at you from the screen, mouths contort awkwardly and skin and lips look odd. Next to the mo-cap brilliance of Uncharted, Andromeda’s characters look like they’ve all been made on a Sims-style create-a-character screen.
That’s not to say some of it doesn’t look brilliant, mind you. Walk around the innards of the Tempest – your new ship and base of operations – and you’ll appreciate the fantastic lightning. Dock the Tempest on a planet like Eos, and you’ll be stunned by the arcing vistas and beautiful dunes as sand churns beneath tires. Explore the depths of a Remnant vault and you’ll be treated to ornate slate and ominous glyphs. And get this: there are tons of places to visit and sights to soak in.
Clearly Bioware ran out of time to truly stress test the script and interrogate its cornier characters, and when you begin to take the Tempest to all four corners of the galaxy, it’s a marvel they’ve released a game on time at all. Andromeda’s vast open-world hubs are stuffed with incidental details to pour over and side quests to pick up, and these sit beside linear diversions that advance the story, all of which are held together by an almost complete absence of loading times. The excruciating and much-maligned elevator rides of the original game are long gone.
It’s also fair to say that Andromeda gets a lot better after a shaky start, and finds its footing in the familiar territory of political gamesmanship, as different races advance their cause at the cost of others. You’ll often be asked to make a difficult decision that will impact your standing with a squadmate, and though some of the scenarios are familiar, it’s still a neat trick. New races, like the Kett and Angara are also worthy additions to the series.
Combat is also exponentially better, and it works in concert with the new environments. Options are stacked on the battlefront and fights are tense, messy, chaotic affairs as you jetpack and boost yourself around terrain searching for flanking opportunities. The less said about your AI teammates the better, but at the very least, guns pack a punch and enemies pose a threat, and this is by far the most kinetic combat experience of the series, one that has excised all the slowdown and tedium of past games.
But should Andromeda really be compared to its predecessors? The truth is that this is a new breed of Mass Effect game, one that gives you more freedom but also takes something away. Bioware has managed to satiate our craving for bigger worlds to explore, replete with a six-wheeled tank to facilitate travel, smoke billowing from its backside for good measure. But traversal has robbed Mass Effect of something else: a sense of purpose. This new Mass Effect has been designed by consensus, created to tick every box possible and fulfill the ravenous demands of its impossible fanbase. But Bioware has suffered a crisis of confidence and stuffed these new worlds with filler, leaving you feeling strangely empty inside. Though each world is big, exploration often ends in disappointment as you come across recycled enemies and repetitive design.
The more, more, more mentality might look good on the back of a box, but next to contemporary titles, Andromeda feels pale, lifeless – a backwards step. It’s also in a bad shape technically, at least on the PS4, where framerates regularly plummet below acceptable levels, making combat and traversal more tedious than fun.
Multiplayer comes in two flavors: a strike team mode where you deploy AI soldiers to complete missions off screen and net you rewards (similar to the tactical reconnaissance options in Metal Gear Solid V) and four-player cop-op proper, where you dive into the thick of the action and try to complete those missions yourself.
Missions come and go from day to day, so they’re not around infinitely, but it’s entirely possible to complete a mission your strike team has undertaken as well. Thanks to the improvements made to combat in the main game, the action is fast and frenetic, and the battlegrounds invite experimentation, with maps offering vertical vantage points from which to gain the upper hand. The early going can be taxing work, especially when you’re under-leveled, so it’s important you stick at it.
To fast track yourself to success, you can pay real money in exchange for better gear. Micro-transactions are tantalized prominently, and if you want to make the going easier, you’ll eventually need to cough up money for the very best equipment. I’ve never been a fan of the idea of paying more for in-game stuff, and I’d sooner see this disappear completely. Ultimately, it’s academic, because Andromeda’s multiplayer is a nice-to-have, but not the reason you’ll buy it, and in a few weeks from now, only diehards seeking a diversion will be online.
As in every Mass Effect game, the singleplayer is where the bulk of its gameplay resides, and in the end, Andromeda is an oddity: a triple-A title backed by an enormous budget that glimmers and glistens on screen and shows off a cast that can’t stop making fun of one another, but one that’s really not having any fun.
I suppose the real question is, how was it ever going to succeed? With fan expectation so high and the demand for a bigger game at fever pitch, Bioware has tried to cave to these demands, but in the end they’ve tried to please everyone without pleasing themselves. Though all the pieces fit, it’s a tight squeeze and beneath the bodywork the game is crying out for more time in development or more scrutiny on its script.
While I’ve enjoyed my time with Mass Effect: Andromeda, I’m not dying to go back. It’s not bad, not by any stretch, but it’s missing that special something. Franchise devotees will no doubt dive in and find lots to like, but its newcomers who will pop the disk in the tray and walk away wondering what all the fuss was ever about.
This review is based on the PS4 version.
Good? Yes. Great? No. This new Mass Effect is full of stuff to do, but it's a game that's been designed by consensus, not conviction.