I would hate to sit down and actually add up how much time I have put into the Mass Effect universe over the years. I could probably make a rough guess and say it would be in the hundreds of hours. And that’s not even counting the series of novels and comics I have also worked my way through.
Lets just say, it is safe to assume that I’m bit of a Mass Effect fan. Now after a 5 year hiatus, Mass Effect: Andromeda has arrived and it is wonderful to be back amongst the Biotics, grumpy Krogan and deep lore, that makes Mass Effect such awesome Sci-Fi goodness.
Andromeda received some early criticisms around character animations and various technical/design issues on release, but Bioware have had the ‘patch train’ running full steam ahead, so many of those early complaints have been addressed. The multi-player aspect, which is essentially Mass Effect 3s wave based co-op missions, has also had some stability fixes. Mass Effect: Andromeda released about 2 weeks ago and I have held off on my review for two reasons.
Firstly, the post-release patch is a thing that we as gamers have to accept, I’m not saying it’s right…but it has become the norm. So to my mind, giving a game a final review based on its state on day 1 sells the long-term game and prospective future gamers short. Secondly, being a big RPG, smashing through it with strict time constraints, kills the fun. Reading the Codex, exploring the world and smelling the roses, is crucial if one wants to feel like part of the universe.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is set within the same fiction as the ‘Commander Shepard Trilogy’, falling canonically between the events of Mass effect 2 and 3. Gian Garson, a wealthy visionary, has created a huge non-government organisation called the Andromeda Initiative. With the goal of sending nearly 100,000 people from the four major Milky Way races to the Andromeda galaxy, to explore and start new colonies. The voyage of the ‘Nexus’ and the four ‘Arks’ takes 600yrs with the crew in stasis. On arrival they are met with tragedy and hardship.
The main space station, The Nexus, collides with a huge unknown energy cloud called The Scourge, which has also made the planets in the system uninhabitable. (I would highly recommend reading/listening to the novel ‘Nexus Uprising’ for more detail.) This throws the whole Initiative into chaos. The players custom male or female avatar, ‘Ryder’, arrives a year later aboard the huge Human ‘Ark’ and it also hits the Scourge. Through events out of his/her control, Ryder becomes symbiotically linked with the Initiatives core Artificial Intelligence. So, the job of forging a way ahead for the troubled Initiative unsurprisingly falls to the player…the new ‘Pathfinder’.
It’s hard to put my finger on, but Andromeda has a real Mass Effect 1 (ME1) feel to it. I think it’s the fact that I had to go through the motions of getting to know my new protagonist and (in my case) ‘Her’ new crew. Also, the underlying mystery in the story is still very much the classic Sci-Fi space opera that made ME1 sooo good. I probably differ from many Mass Effect players, as I always thought ME1 was the strongest of the series as a RPG package, even though its combat was less than impressive.
Bioware have certainly looked back to ME1 for inspiration, but the gameplay and underlying design choices are solidly ‘next-gen’. Sure, there are some MMO-ish fetch quests and collection busy work. But the vast majority of quests are varied and interesting, especially the great crew ‘loyalty’ missions. Importantly, the 3rd person combat is now fluid, visceral and extremely customisable…which is not something that could have been said about any of the previous Mass Effects.
Andromedas 3rd person combat is still based on the Mass Effect mainstay, the trade-off between powers vs weaponry. If you carry into battle a huge arsenal of weapons the weight penalty will mean the powers, like biotics and tech skills (essentially force powers) have a much longer cool-down. But unlike the previous Mass Effect games, sizable improvements have been made to the shooting, how class set-ups work and the main characters overall mobility. Classes are not chosen at the character creation screen then locked in for the next 60hrs. They are now selectable profiles that can be leveled and swapped on the fly depending on the situation. Its a great idea, but the user interface for it is a bit slow, so I tended to choose a powers loadout then stick with it for the mission at hand.
Boosting, hovering and dashing around the battlefield is explosive and fluid, and in some ways feels very similar to Platinum Games slick 3rd person shooter ‘Vanquish’. Cover still plays a role, but with enemies often closing the gap or flanking, being mobile is the better way to go. The enemy AI is nothing to write home about, many of the drone enemies are mere cannon fodder for biotic throws or tech combos. The bigger enemies and lieutenant-types with shields and armor take a bit more planning to manage. The use of the right powers or ammo is needed to wear them down. But to be honest, this only matters on the higher difficulties and frankly, Andromeda is too easy on the ‘Normal’ setting.
After I had leveled Ryder a few times, I found her and her squad just too powerful to allow for any challenge/fun. So, I would recommend any experienced gamer play on the next level up ‘Hardcore’, so there is at least some tension to encounters. The important feeling of a challenge, then justifies the time that can be put into the awesome research and crafting system. Armour and guns can be simply looted and used, but the Research and Development system allow them to be crafted from gathered resources with cool ‘Augmentations’. Simple ‘Mods’ like XP boosts and shield or ammo recharge rates can be added, but more elaborate augmentations can also be built into gear.
Things like health buffs on each kill, sniper rifles that fire sticky grenades, or my personal favourite, an assault rifle being changed into a high rate of fire plasma rifle – with homing rounds! The only issue with the system is that only Ryders gear can be altered. There is no way to customise the loadout or craft for party members, there is only levelling of their basic skill trees. Further to that, while in combat control is limited to a basic squad mechanic of attack ‘this’ enemy or defend ‘this’ spot. That is a real shame and fails to bring back the tactical gameplay ME1 and even the Dragon Ages, were famous for.
The omission of involved squad management and overall tactical control hints at some underlying design compromises I suspect Bioware made early on, to make a Mass Effect for the new generation of gamer. ME1 came out 10 years ago, so there is a whole new crop of gamers who never played as Commander Shepard. To that end, the game has a feeling of streamlining or accessibility which I, as an older gamer, had to make peace with early on. Ryder as a character also seems to be bridging that gap to the new generation of gamers. Ryder is a 20 something out of her depth type character, as opposed to Shepard, who was a 30-40s born leader and hardened soldier. Hopefully though, this youthful aspect to Ryder, will allow her to grow and mature across the rumored trilogy. Something that upon reflection, Commander Shepard as a character never actually manged to do.
Squad-mates are drawn from the crew of the Tempest, just like the original Mass Effect series. Talking with them and reading their attached Codex entries breaths life into these new friends and as one would expect, opens up the ability to ‘Romance’-em, if the mood takes you. My only major complaint with all the characters, Ryder included, is that everyone has too much emotional self control. The voice acting itself is great, but at no point do the characters get the opportunity to become furious with each other and show some raw emotions.They are believable and friendly, but a little bit inert.
The Pathfinders mission is to battle the ‘Kett’ and visit planets in this new galaxy, using mysterious alien technology to alter their uninhabitable environments. Then the Initiative settlements can in turn flourish. There are 5 primary planets to visit, that are very different in nature, but require similar actions to change them into livable worlds. Granted, if one was to mainline the story quests to get the main planets done, the word ‘repetition’ would quickly jump to mind. But I suspect doing this, would only sell short the overall experience and the wonderfully detailed worlds Bioware have created.
Disappointingly, there are only two new species introduced in the Andromeda galaxy, the hostile Kett and the friendly Angaran. The Angaran are interesting as a culture, but aesthetically the actual character models seemed plastic and unbelievable. Something though, I was very happy to see the return of was the ME1 six-wheeldrive vehicle, the ‘Mako’, except it is now called the ‘Nomad’ and it looks….well, f*cken awesome! It plays a huge part in navigating the large open worlds. It has unlockable perks and skins, and customising this six wheeled beast for cool screens-shots became a favourite past time of mine.
Mass Effect has always been about the ownership of a character and their adventure. My Ryder doesn’t take any shit, has bit of a ‘thing’ for Asaris and her best mate is a 1000yr old Krogan Battlemaster. I have a sense of companionship with my Ryder and I love being back in this universe, with all the canon I have come to intrinsically know. Simply put, whenever I turn on my PS4, all I want to do….. is go to Andromeda.