Mass Effect Andromeda is a huge game. I've played for a little under 20 hours now, haven't progressed too far in the plot, and I feel I could easily play for another 60 hours before I had to return to the main plotline. More than that, I feel like I wouldn't mind playing for another 60 hours without progressing in the main plot. Andromeda may be a new galaxy for humanity, but its world is far from empty.
Andromeda has had a bit of a lukewarm reception to its early access trial, with impressions ranging from damning to just 'meh'. I have to say, they're not wrong -- at least when it comes to the first mission.
The game starts really slow, as has often been a flaw in Bioware's big RPGs. The expedition onto Habitat 7 is very much a classic Mass Effect tutorial level. You take your generic human companions somewhere with plentiful, expendable enemies so you can figure out the combat controls. You probably lose a member of your highly disposable team somewhere to raise the stakes. The tutorial level on Habitat 7 feels more like Halo or Gears of War than it does Mass Effect.
Many of the other problems that have been noted by Early Access players are in fact very valid. Many transitional cutscenes feel unnecessarily long and can't be skipped -- flying between planets in the galaxy map, for example, or landing on explorable planets and taking off again. They're so long and tedious that second-screening is almost essential if you want to explore the cluster. Granted, the first time you see them, they look awesome. Some of the planetscapes you zoom up on before using the scanner are straight-up gorgeous, but having to see it every time will make you want to pull your hair out.
These are just a couple of Andromeda's share of problems, I won't deny that. But it's not a bad game. Hell, it's not even a 'not bad' game -- it's a pretty damn good one.
Again, Mass Effect Andromeda is huge -- and because of this, it's not a game that can be properly experienced in 10 hours. I don't think I've even managed to experience it properly in my 20 hours of playtime, and I fully expect my own opinion to change as I delve deeper into the game. Andromeda rolls out slowly, introducing its world to you piece by piece and then setting you free to explore it.
Arriving In A New Galaxy
Mass Effect Andromeda -- it's in the name. We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. The very beginning of the game has your chosen Ryder waking up in the cryo bay of the Hyperion spaceship -- and waking up in a galaxy hitherto untouched by humanity. It's the perfect place to start a new story -- the player knows as much about the Andromeda Galaxy as the character does, which is to say, nothing. It's also the best way to completely sever any temptations to fall back on the success of the trilogy. Andromeda is very much its own game.
In many ways, Andromeda winks to its predecessor while moving on to tell its own story. The Mass Effect trilogy was all about protecting the galaxy as it was, stopping the Reapers from destroying the life as we know it in the Milky Way. Andromeda is different. There is no 'life as we know it', and while the Milky Way pilgrims must fight to survive, that's only a piece of the puzzle.
One of the biggest differences to the trilogy is Andromeda's anti-military bent. Of course there's plenty of fighting to be had, but you're often reminded that the Andromeda Initiative is a civilian initiative. While they have a militia to protect colonists from the many dangers of the new galaxy, all of the Initiative's top brass are hesitant to get involved in anything that even smells of military. "We came here to make history not repeat it," as Ryder says.
Sara Ryder's own background is in security rather than military -- guarding archaeologists on Prothean digs back in the Milky Way. Where Shepard was already a decorated military hero by the start of Mass Effect, Sara (and Scott) are younger, more inexperienced, but also unshackled by military protocol.
Despite her inexperience, however, Ryder has a lot of responsibility thrust onto her from the outset. Unsurprisingly, nothing goes to plan in Andromeda. This is thanks to a destructive dark energy cloud called the Scourge, a force capable of destroying spaceships and making nearby planets unlivable. In fact, a collision with the Scourge was responsible for the death of most of the Andromeda Initiative's leadership -- so when Ryder arrives on the Nexus, she finds a community in disarray, being led by the Initiative equivalent of middle management.
When you arrive, the Initiative is in dire need of energy, food, water and resources. But more than that, it's in need of a leader -- one with the charisma and drive of deceased founder Jian Garson or your own father Alec Ryder. It needs motivation. It needs someone who can say 'everything is going to be alright' and mean it. As Ryder, this is your job now.
As Pathfinder, there are a lot of responsibilities on your shoulders. There are decisions to be made, though some of the game's most interesting choices so far aren't the huge, world-changing ones (though they do exist), but the small things. Will your Ryder be a propagandist, hiding her struggles to boost morale for all the scared colonists on the Nexus? Or does truth reign supreme in this new world? Will you build military strength to make sure your colonists are protected? Or will you build on the original Initiative vision, founding a society on scientific discovery over brute strength?
Of course, Andromeda has its 'big bad' and its enemies, the kett. They're essentially space orcs, and while they have their own mysteries to be solved throughout the game, they start out as very bland moving targets. Your main antagonist, the Archon, is similarly mysterious and slightly bland, conjuring memories of Harbinger in Collector form. The Archon's design is oddly non-threatening, which makes it harder to take him seriously as an enemy. He looks like one of those monkeys from Twilight Princess, with huge eyes that make him look sad or confused. You kind of feel sorry for him. The antagonists are there to serve as a common threat -- but the process of settling the new galaxy seems like far more of a story focus than engaging the Archon does.
A Stranger In A Strange Land
The grand theme of Andromeda interrogates humanity's place in this new galaxy -- with a focus on the fact that humans are the aliens here. It's only after Eos (and beyond the scope of the Early Access trial) that we are introduced to Andromeda's native people, the angara. I feel like the game really picks up with the introduction of Helius' weird cat-squid people. They're something we've never encountered in a Mass Effect game before -- an alien race who are entirely unfamiliar with humanity.
When the team first discover the angaran homeworld Aya, Ryder is tasked with making 'first contact' with the planet's natives. As you become the first human to enter their city, you pass through crowds of horrified whispers -- "why is its head so small?" "how does it stay upright on those legs?" "don't go near it". If you try to get your scanner out to check out the city, you'll find yourself with multiple laser sights trained on you. You feel like you need to pick your words carefully. Some angarans are curious about you, others are repulsed and others still openly hostile.
The angaran squad member, Jaal is one of the most interesting characters to have in your roster -- to the point where I soon started taking him on all missions just for his contribution to the plot. On one hand, everything about your ship, the nexus and your crew is interesting and new to him. His whole 'show me the ways of your people' schtick is very familiar in the sci-fi genre. And then suddenly that dynamic gets flipped on its head -- because he's the native in a galaxy you know nothing about. At one point when Ryder goes to handshake with Jaal, for example, he almost aggressively corrects your posture to the angaran version of that gesture. You're the alien here.
Progressing in the story unlocks new worlds to explore, including other angaran planets -- but Ryder's influence can also be seen back on Andromeda's version of the Citadel, the Nexus. Each time you blaze the trail for new outposts and colonies, the Nexus comes to life a little more. Its huge empty spaces gradually fill with colonists who've been woken from their cryosleep, each time unfolding a little more of the world of the Initiative -- and offering up more side quests to be distracted by. For those who are interested in alien diversity, the Nexus also homes way more female krogans, salarians and turians than existed in the entire trilogy.
While the Nexus is the main hub for the Milky Way immigrants, it's not home -- that distinction belongs to the Tempest. This ship is your base, where you go to relax and catch up with your squad. In many ways it's similar to the trilogy's Normandy, and just like the Normandy it feels like home. The moment when you finally step on board the Tempest feels like the 'true' start to the game, even though it comes a couple of hours into the game. This is where it starts to feel like a Mass Effect game.
Maybe this isn't as much to do with the Tempest itself as it is the characters who live on it, however. I'm just going to put this out there right now -- your companions are really, really great. Andromeda really recaptures the social dynamic that was so addictive in Mass Effect 2. The characters have nuance, they have personality and quirks without being obnoxious about it. They all feel familiar, like they're people you might just know in real life.
Interestingly, Andromeda's is the smallest squad in any Mass Effect game, with only six characters on the roster -- Cora Harper and Liam Kosta, humans from your original Pathfinder team, former smuggler and requisite turian badass Vetra Nyx, flighty asari tech genius Peebee, old man krogan Nakmor Drack and curious angara Jaal Ama Darav. They're also joined by the crew -- salarian pilot Kallo Jath, science officer Suvi Anwar, chief engineer Gil Brodie and asari doctor Lexi T'Perro.
You also collect all your squadmates surprisingly early in the game -- at least compared to Mass Effect 2 where you were still recruiting right up until the endgame. Combined with how few of them there are, this seems to have allowed Bioware to spend more time on each of them. That extra effort is definitely noticeable.
The reason that the squad works so well is less about the characters' individual traits as it is about the dynamics between them all. Each character has their own friends and rivals on board, people they like to hang out with in their time off or people they're too intimidated to talk to. The characters don't stick to their own little boltholes on the ship -- more often than not they're out and about, working on projects together or just hanging around in the crew quarters for a chat. I've probably spent more time listening in on my crew's conversations with each other than I have actually talking to them. It all feels natural, like you're the cornerstone of a big, dysfunctional family.
Flirt options are plentiful with both squad and crew members, as well as side characters that you encounter out and about. While I've been indulging quite liberally in flirting, I still seem to be in the beginning phases of most of the romances I've pursued, so I can't really say too much about that system. Ryder is sometimes suave and sometimes horribly awkward, but to me that's all a part of the charm.
If you do want to keep track of potential romances or your relationships with your squad, the game now tracks Ryder's personality, plot decisions and relationships in a codex. This is essentially the replacement for your paragon/renegade slider, though it couldn't be any more different. Instead, the profile tracks Ryder's character traits such as her sense of humor, professionalism or impulsiveness -- all based on your actions. It also keeps track of whether you're on friendly terms with your companions, reminds you of the secrets they've confided in you and even notes whether you're flirty with each other or not. Reading these little profiles feels like the same kind of guilty pleasure as googling yourself.
While a lot of people will mourn the loss of the binary paragon/renegade system and the identities that came with them, I'm really enjoying the way the new system works. It feels more natural -- there's no pressure to choose a renegade option just for the sake of maxing out your stats, but you can still character build quite effectively through dialogue options and interrupts. Even though the emotional/logical/casual/professional choices aren't very specific when it comes to tone, your lines generally come out as you might expect them.
Unfortunately, not all characters are created equal. Some of the characters can be a little lacking where others are particularly compelling. Cora, for example, seems quite inconsistent. I'd put a lot of it down to the fact that you can't quite tell if she's angry at you for taking the Pathfinder title or not -- and I'd put that down to the fact that Cora is one of the characters whose facial animations just aren't up to par.
Yes, I am going to mention the facial animations. Yes, some of them are exactly as heinous as you've heard. The problem mainly affects just a handful of characters -- most notably Cora and Director Addison, from memory. It seems like default female Ryder also looks goofy in a lot of scenes -- but my own custom Ryder doesn't have those problems.
It's the human faces that tend to be the worst offenders, with some seemingly stuck with frozen eyebrows and expressionless eyes. The animation isn't nearly as noticeable with the alien characters, thankfully. Overall, as many have said, it contributes to a dead-eyed expression in some characters that can be offputting, but it's not nearly enough to make a big impact on the game.
Thankfully the voice acting picks up the slack, creating strong, expressive characters even where the animation is lackluster. This is led by Ryder herself, voiced by Fryda Wolff. She's young, often excited or irreverent, with the occasional drip of stone-cold sarcasm. Her lines range from anger to snark to suave little pickup lines (or super awkward ones), making Ryder a really fun character play. It takes skill to pull off some of the more goofy lines that, to me, are just one of those little things that comes with the Mass Effect package. The rest of the voice acting is generally up to par with Wolff's performance, though some of the side characters are pretty poorly voiced, and sometimes it's a little too easy to pick up the same voices being reused for different characters.
Fighting For Andromeda
I've found combat really fun so far, as well as being surprisingly challenging. While it's easy to make fun of Mass Effect for being the only game with two difficulty levels below 'normal', normal is actually surprisingly hard.
The ability to jump really adds a new dimension to the game, especially when paired with the forwards boost. You can hover momentarily by pressing the aim button, allowing Ryder to temporarily snipe from in the air. It's a very satisfying move when you pull it off properly. Though I initially had reservations about the cover system I've really come to like it since. During one battle I was having trouble with destructible cover, so I ended up driving the Nomad onto the battlefield and using it for cover.
The other new feature, profiles (such as Vanguard, Infiltrator and all those familiar classes) works really well. You can switch up your profile on the fly, changing from Adept to Infiltrator in the middle of battle as you need it. It's cool to be able to experiment with different play styles and change it up as you go, where in the trilogy I got locked into three full games of Vanguard. Granted Vanguard is still the most fun to play, but you can't biotic charge through the whole game.
You fight a mix of aliens, humans, robots and assorted wildlife. Each type requires a bit of a change in approach, and experimenting to see what works best with each has been one of my favourite parts of combat. I've been through one big 'boss' battle, which go down fairly similarly to those in the trilogy. You'll also have to face 'survive until extraction' battles, which pit you up against enemies you can't possibly hope to beat yet.
The multiplayer is pretty well integrated into the game without being compulsory. The system is kind of like Assassin's Creed Brotherhood: you're given a list of open missions which you can send 'strike teams' on for various bonuses. Successful missions also level up your team. Select marked missions can be played in multiplayer instead of sending an NPC team -- but for those of you like me who generally can't be arsed going online, you can send regular teams on these to get similar perks. The missions seem to rotate -- some of them expire after a set amount of time and some are constant.
Bigger Is Not Always Better
On the downside, the UI is not great. It's overly complicated and hard to navigate, and some of the menus -- especially the research ones -- are just too big. There are too many options to the point where you can either spend hours delving into the system, or just give up and pick options at random. Comparing weapons is weirdly obtuse -- instead of comparing a pistol with a pistol or an assault rifle with an assault rifle, you just compare with the weapons you have equipped. Between looting, shopping and crafting the whole system is so complicated that I've never even changed weapons yet. Some people will love having this much detail, of course, but I'm not one of them.
Scanning was an ability I was quite keen to see in Mass Effect -- probably because I'm a rabid Metroid Prime fan -- but it hasn't been implemented as well as it could have been. To begin with, Andromeda disables your ability to scan for the entire first mission, which is the point where you'd think it should be encouraging you to get into that habit. To have the game bring up 'no data' on scans for the first hour or so leaves the player wondering what the point is, aside from a couple of 'go here, scan this' missions.
Mass Effect Andromeda hasn't been without its fair share of glitches, either, from character models spontaneously disappearing to NPCs randomly teleporting across the room. Oddly enough I've mostly noticed this happening with angarans. Odd things sometimes happen with the dialogue as well -- the subtitles for ambient dialogue often intrude on the subtitles of a conversation you're in the middle of having. At other times, the subtitles come up way before the dialogue actually gets said, resulting in occasional awkward pauses while the sound catches up.
The most distracting of the many little quirks in Andromeda comes from its confusing timeline. During the beginning section of the game, things often happen out of order. You'll hear dialogue talking about a character that hasn't been met yet, or characters will call things by names we haven't learned yet, or you'll unlock codexes about the angara before you even know they exist.
In other places, the timeline doesn't quite make sense. For example when you first go to Aya, you're the first human many of the angara have seen. Everyone is amazed, horrified, shocked, curious. When you fly to another angara settlement on a different planet just minutes later, the inhabitants are generally nonchalant, uncaring that you are the first human they've ever met. Go back to Aya an hour or two later and suddenly everyone will be reminiscing about that time ages ago when they thought you were so new and scary. Time runs as it needs to for the plot, but as a player it really doesn't flow.
Exploring A New Galaxy
Now back to the good -- one of the things that Andromeda really gets right is the planet exploration.
The Nomad (or Mako) facilitates exploration so perfectly you almost forget that it was ever absent. It just feels right. The handling of the Nomad is greatly improved from when it was the Mako, thankfully, and it's pretty fun to zoom around both icy plains and rolling sand dunes.
Just like in Mass Effect 1, resources are collected from the surface of planets you explore, though this time it's done differently. You don't have to get out of the Nomad to collect minerals now -- instead, you send out mining probes from the safety of your vehicle. It feels like the perfect mix of Mass Effect 1's resource exploration and the later games' probe-based mining.
I still have a few issues with the Nomad, however. I'm not quite sure how to repair it, which means I've spent a lot of time driving around in a vehicle that's only a few shots away from exploding (and very much on fire). While you can get an extraction from the Tempest at any point in the Nomad, this unfortunately requires you to watch the entire 'leaving the planet' cutscene again immediately.
So far, the side quests found on these worlds are not terrible. While not as good as Horizon Zero Dawn's incredibly strong side quests, they've generally been a step above Inquisition's fetch quests or, god forbid, shards. The addition of scanning adds an extra element that sometimes feels like lazy game design and sometimes feels like an interesting way to solve a puzzle. Many of the quests require you to investigate with this scanner, and sometimes you just stumble on mysteries of your own. The subsection of side quests labelled 'tasks' are the most inane of all, and generally not worth pursuing unless you're in the area.
While the first couple of planets you're dropped on are unfortunately some of the most uninspiring, each of them have beautiful little details that reward you for exploring. In the frozen mountains of Voeld, for example, ancient, bioluminescent whale-like creatures swim in lakes beneath the ice. As a huge lore nerd, I could get lost in these curious crevices of the world -- and their accompanying codexes -- for days.
Mass Effect Andromeda ultimately trades polish for ambition. It's a big game crammed with data, lore and conversation that invites exploration, even though many of the features could do with some fine-tuning (or an overhaul). At its core, it gets that Mass Effect feeling right -- weaving a compelling storyline around humanity's place in the universe, then giving you the perfect ship full of misfits to take you through it.