Seeking out new life and new civilizations to shoot and have sex with, Mass Effect: Andromeda creatively sidesteps the limitations of Mass Effect 3’s ending by launching a group of pioneers into a whole new galaxy. What they find there is a vast and sometimes exciting action role-playing game that kept me engaged, but after the outstanding trilogy that created this universe, Andromeda is a disappointing follow up with some significant technical issues on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
From the opening moments, there’s an immediate sense of mystery and peril as the human colony ship encounters a massive, world-ruining space anomaly that throws their plans into disarray, and a new hostile alien race led by a threatening villain attacks on sight. The quest to find a habitable and safe new home for tens of thousands of frozen colonists and form a functioning independent government along with colonists from the krogan, salarian, turian, and asari ships is an interesting struggle that sets this Mass Effect apart from the establishments of previous games. At the same time, Andromeda just can’t stop itself from retreading some major plot ideas from the original trilogy, including another long-dead civilization that’s left advanced technology lying around.
What’s bizarre is that BioWare went to the trouble of shipping us 2.5 million light years away to introduce only two new alien races (plus some robots) over more than 50 hours of campaign and major side missions, and only one local joins your crew. Given that the original games have multiple background races like elcor, drell, vorcha, batarians, and more to add diversity and the sense that we were living in a universe full of different peoples, the Andromeda galaxy seems practically barren of intelligent life by comparison.
Our new customizable protagonist, Ryder, quickly finds himself thrust into the leadership role of Pathfinder and placed in command of a ship, the Tempest. (As with Shepard, Ryder can be either a man or a woman, but because my first playthrough was as a guy named Biff with a large ginger afro and a scar that looked as though he’d been hit in the face with a hot waffle iron, I’m going to refer to him as male in this review.) On the whole, Ryder is a likable and well-acted character who can carry the story, and the idea of having the alternate-gender version of your character play a role in the story as a twin sibling is a novel idea and used to good effect. It can also be ridiculous if you choose to use the character creator to make the twins appear as completely different races – or just freakishly deformed, tattooed, and scarred.
Most of the early dialogue choices we have to shape our version of Ryder are about how we want him to cope with this harrowing situation, and the options are usually either cocky overconfidence or self-doubt and pity without a lot in between. But eventually it evens out, and we get to choose between idealistic Ryder and pragmatic Ryder as we resolve conflicts throughout the region. The choices are rarely as high-contrast as the original trilogy’s Paragon/Renegade moments, and they’re more about deciding whether you want him to be an all-business logical type or a goofball with a self-deprecating sense of humor and cheesy jokes.
Your crew, meanwhile, is a fairly generic band made up almost entirely of existing Mass Effect humans and aliens, which despite their fairly deep and enjoyable backstories, always gave me feelings of deja vu. After all, how many times can we be introduced to a gruff new krogan warrior or an eyepiece-wearing turian? There’s nothing really wrong with them, but none struck me as memorable stars like Garrus, Tali, or Mordin. Peebee is probably the best of the cast thanks to her quirky humor and tendency to bicker with her fellow asari, Lexi. But the rest seem too comfortable with each other to be all that interesting in the way we saw with Wrex threatening to tear the team apart in the original Mass Effect. Everyone getting along, for the most part, is a little boring, regardless of how flirty and naked they get.
And my stars, do they ever get naked. I’m not just talking about Liam’s apparent allergy to shirts, here. You have plenty of romance options for either gender, including same-sex and interspecies, and when you’ve gone out of your way to talk to them and run errands for them (which often involve blowing up robots or killing outlaws) to kindle the flames of your budding relationship, you’re treated to a full-on R-rated sex scene the likes of which the Mass Effect series has never seen before. My wife’s reaction as I sealed the deal with human biotic commando Cora was to state, matter-of-factly, that, “This is porn. And it looks weird.” She’s not wrong on either count – especially since male Ryder appears to have painstakingly removed every hair on his body below the neck – but I’d call it tasteful porn thanks to the context of the conversations leading up to it.
Voice acting is almost universally strong enough that I quickly stopped noticing the generally sub-par human facial animations. Could they be better? Absolutely – a lot of games, such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, have done significantly better in that department and in giving characters hair that doesn’t look like solid plastic. But some weird expressions didn’t ruin Mass Effect: Andromeda for me any more than they did virtually every RPG for the past three decades. I’m much more distracted by the texture pop-in that happens during conversations, where a character’s face will go from looking like a blurry mess to having visible pores midway through a sentence.
On that note, Mass Effect: Andromeda is more than a little rough in the technical sense. On PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (I’ve yet to spend significant time with the PC version), it’s prone to major frame rate drops and hitches regardless of what’s happening on screen. I’ve seen it drop to slideshow levels when simply walking around the Nexus (the Citadel-like seat of government), driving through a flat wasteland, and fighting in a dense jungle. Animation glitches seem more common than in previous games. And, though some bugs are to be expected in a game of this scale, between myself and a few other players at IGN we’ve seen a fair share of broken quests. (BioWare has been aggressively issuing patches in response to our reports and claims to have resolved at least some of the problems already.)
Overall, though, the inconsistent writing is what makes this Mass Effect a rollercoaster of ups and downs. Occasionally, we’re confronted with excellent morally gray questions where both options have compelling logic and terrible consequences, where you’re forced to pick between, for instance, a long-term greater good or saving lives. Those are some of the best moments in all of Mass Effect: Andromeda and they’re right up there with the toughest head-scratchers of the original trilogy. I’d have loved to have seen more of them. There are also some respectable quests, such as discovering the truth behind the first murder in Andromeda using your Batman-style scanner on your wrist-mounted Omnitool and then deciding what to do with the results of your investigation. Having finished the campaign, however, very few of these no-win choices have come back to haunt me in the ways I’d hoped for.
In between those decisions are a large number of filler fetch and kill quests set up by stilted conversations, and those can become tedious as you try to fill up the viability percentages of the planets you visit. Plus, flying around in the Tempest and scanning uninhabited planets for resources is as dull a task as it’s been in any of the original trilogy games – and that’s saying a lot. But at least this time they’re over quickly; extracting resources is a two-button job, and if there’s nothing to be found you’ll know right away, without needing to waste time searching. Because of the semi-open structure of the campaign, it’s more or less up to us to do different things in order to keep things fresh.
Enough, break first then continue…
When you do land on a planet, the major worlds you can explore are almost all huge and visually distinct from each other. There’s your standard Tatooine-style desert and your Hoth-style frozen wasteland, but also a low-gravity world and a jungle that’s too dense to use your vehicle. Most have some kind of quirk to make them at least slightly mechanically different from each other, not counting the life support-draining factors like extreme cold or heat or radiation that all function in the exact same way by effectively putting a time limit on how long you can explore without returning to a safe area. Of course, given that these are sparsely inhabited worlds, the majority of each planetary map is empty space, and the most frequent things you’ll encounter there are repetitive enemy camps.
But covering that ground is at least somewhat entertaining thanks to the Nomad, Andromeda’s version of the Mako landing vehicle. This bouncy car is equipped with jump jets to launch it over small obstacles, a gear shift to make climbing up extreme hills more interesting than simply holding down the gas, and (I’m guessing) magic to prevent it from ever rolling over. It has no guns, but using it to plow over groups of enemy soldiers before hopping out to mop up the survivors is a good way to get some use out of it.
Another thing you’ll find a lot of is alien monoliths which must be activated in order to make a planet hospitable to colonists, and whenever you see one you know there’s going to be some puzzlin’. These puzzle vaults don’t force you to think outside the box; in contrast to classics like Portal, Braid, or the new Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mass Effect: Andromeda doesn’t introduce any kind of clever tools or mechanic, and instead relies on standbys like Sudoku and number sequences that can be drawn out on paper. That said, I happen to enjoy Sudoku, and doing a few of those was a nice break from the action.
I could do without the simplistic jumping puzzles found in those vaults, but I’m glad that they’re possible. Unlike Shepard, who could barely step over an ankle-high obstacle, Ryder is fantastically mobile, with a supremely satisfying jump-jet that vaults you over nearly anything. Combined with the jet-dash move, it’s easy to get comfortable running out to flank enemies, giving combat a much more energetic pace compared to the cover-focused combat of previous Mass Effects. You can even pull moves like launching into the air and aiming down the sights of your gun, letting you hover in place for a few seconds while you pick off an enemy who thought his cover would protect him. (It also leaves you exposed, so it’s not something you want to use all the time.)
I’m still not entirely comfortable with Andromeda’s automatic cover system, though: while I like how I was never locked into a spot when I wanted to jump or move out of it, I also never felt certain that I’d be able to safely hook into a safe spot if something wasn’t quite tall enough, nor was I confident that I wouldn’t get sucked into cover when I didn’t want to be. Most aggravating of all is that even though Ryder will automatically jump into cover, you have to manually control whether you’re oriented on the right or left side of the screen. There is no situation when I’d want to be on the left edge of a piece of cover and facing right – I want to lean out on the left side and shoot around it.
Your combat powers are, as usual, unlocked through dumping points into a skill tree, but this radically different class system is almost ridiculously flexible compared to previous Mass Effects and most other RPGs. You no longer select a class at the outset, but can choose from nearly any of several dozen diverse skills across three specialties: biotics, tech, and combat. There are some spectacular ones, including a great flamethrower effect and a handy combat drone that follows you around to both dish out damage and absorb some hits – I found that one almost indispensable. You’re limited to equipping three active powers at any time, but you can swap out your configuration and even your class profile right in the middle of a fight (with a cooldown penalty). You can even respec all of your ability points on your ship at any time between missions. That makes swapping saved loadouts feel more like working around a UI limitation than a meaningful character development decision, and it seems strange that you can swap out your powers at will but not the guns you’re carrying in your inventory.
Just like Mass Effect 3, power combos are an important part of dealing high damage and add some depth to combat. You can prime a target by softening them up with a biotic singularity and then detonate that target with a follow-up like biotic lance. And that’s why your companion characters are a bit disappointing in combat. It’s not that they’re incompetent – in fact they’re effective to the point where on normal difficulty I’ve been able to just about sit out entire fights and watch them take care of business, and they rarely get themselves downed. The problem is your control over them is limited to two commands: Stand in a place or attack a thing. And you can’t even pause the action to place them tactically. That’s just not enough control to reliably coordinate ability combos with them when you want to, so you’re pretty much on your own when it comes to both priming and detonating. They feel like AI stand-ins for co-op players, as though they’re intended to be more useful but can’t hear you shouting at them to cast a certain ability when you need it.
You can’t equip companions with gear, either, and that takes some of the fun out of the crafting system. Instead, you just swap out characters when you want different abilities backing you up, such as the melee-heavy krogan Dreck or the backstabbing Jaal versus the heavy-gunning Vetra and Cora the biotics expert. I understand the desire to cut down on micromanagement, but it’s a bummer that any tricked-out gun or armor you’re not using yourself anymore might as well be melted down for scrap. Crafting is therefore fairly ignorable – on normal difficulty you’d easily be able to get by just fine using guns and armor you find or buy – but I did get a kick out of applying augmentations to my crafted weapons to give them seeking plasma projectiles or cause my shields to recharge whenever I emptied the magazine of a small-capacity shotgun.
There’s a respectable variety of enemies thrown at you, including everything from different types of basic foot soldiers to large stompy mechs and huge alien beasts, and the three major factions fight distinctly enough to keep battles from becoming too stale. They do tend to be on the bullet-spongy side especially in the late game, though, and there’s a miniboss fight that happens a couple of times too often.