$40 million and five years, etcetera…
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: March 21, 2017
Before we begin, let’s get the important detail out of the way – this is my first time back in the Mass Effect universe since the first one. You can use that to dismiss my review if you wish, though given the degraded launch state of Mass Effect: Andromeda, I feel pretty confident in being able to assess this one without having experienced everything in between.
Indeed, Andromeda is in part designed for folks such as I, taking the “soft reboot” approach popular in Hollywood to reuse a brand name without alienating potential new audiences.
Taking place in a sexy fresh galaxy 600 years away from Commander Shepard, any of the series’ main plot threads are conveniently shelved so we can play Pathfinder Ryder of The Initiative – a group of colonists who traveled to Andromeda after discovering viable planetary environments and arrived to find the whole thing’s a mess of cancerous tendrils, glorified Genestealer cults, and other assorted horrors.
When playing this game for the first time, you get a good idea of how those colonists feel, waking up after a long sleep to find everything’s gone to hell.
Andromeda leaves a terrible first impression. Almost immediately the buggy, easily broken, sometimes eldritch character animations make themselves known, backed up by dialog that would be better written by fanfiction authors than professionals. Characters don’t just move like they’re made of wood, they speak like it too.
Facial animations are by far the worst, providing horrifying glimpses into what a game developer thinks human faces might look like in a world where human faces are replaced by independently shifting flesh masks that gurn and snarl at whatever dares look their way.
As far as bugs go, I refuse to agree with those who claim they’re “not as bad as the Internet makes them out to be.” At least playing on PS4, I can safely say the bugs are as bad as the Internet quite rightly described. Not a single session has occurred in which I didn’t deal with some sort of bemusing technical problem.
Such glitches include but are not limited to:
- Allied characters merging into one nightmarish gestalt entity during cutscenes.
- NPCs creating duplicates of themselves after dialog.
- Ryder’s legs breaking and causing her to hobble around like her tendons have been cut.
- Character models blurring during dialog scenes, appearing as if behind a veil of vaseline.
- Enemies and allies alike spawning mid-air and dropping to the ground in frozen stock poses.
- Missing transitory animations leading to certain attacks displacing or awkwardly teleporting characters.
- Enemies and allies alike spawning mid-air and refusing to drop the ground.
- Ryder speaking with her voice distorted as if wearing a helmet, even when she isn’t.
This image of Season Six Cersei Lannister chatting with Ryder is a real screenshot. The rough edges and JPEG-style artifacting is all part of the original image – I can tell you it looked even worse in motion.
Fortunately, the vast majority of these bugs are more amusing than destructive. The lack of professional quality for a project of this size and budget is simply staggering, don’t get me wrong – I’m just merrily surprised the game only crashed once, which is less than a few better made games on PS4 have managed.
Nevertheless, Mass Effect: Andromeda is a shitshow on the technical level, and it’s not just the weird animations and humorous defects. Graphically, the whole thing looks well below par and certainly below what BioWare and EA themselves showed of the game in promotional material.
Textures are flat and often pop-in dramatically. Cutscenes are sometimes still trying to fully render someone’s face while they’re speaking. Whole sections of the map may be missing as the player arrives and will have to snap desperately into existence. Andromeda is littered with the distinct hallmarks of an underdeveloped project rushed to completion.
Such an assumption isn’t exactly hard to make, given BioWare itself has indirectly admitted as much by promising the fix the game “over time.” Releasing an unfinished game and updating it over time is something Early Access exists for, but I suppose Origin doesn’t have that feature yet.
As a note, the first patch came out just before this review was ready to publish. The list of fixes addresses nothing of what I’ve spoken about so far.
Frustratingly, Mass Effect: Andromeda really isn’t all that horrible a game. The writing improves after the initial hours, introducing a villain who is at least interesting even if he isn’t particularly complex and a few plot twists that do a good job of surprising the audience. Side missions range from awful to exhilarating, with bigger loyalty missions tending toward genuinely great writing and additional tasks coming off as the afterthought they clearly were.
Perhaps the most stunning bit of bad narrative (inconsequential spoilers incoming) came up during an early side quest in which you try to determine the fate of a Turian accused of murder. It turns out the victim was actually shot by Kett – the Andromeda Galaxy’s obligatory baddies – but the Turian did fire a shot and thought he’d hit.
The logical assumption is to charge the Turian with attempted murder, a crime you can be charged of because it’s real and happens and almost every adult knows about it. Maybe they don’t have that in Canada, because Mass Effect: Andromeda lets you choose to proclaim him innocent or see him found guilty of murder. Nothing in between, no nuance. He’s guilty or he’s innocent.
Neither option represented justice, but the idea of changing the charge isn’t even floated by Ryder or her associates. It’s an infantile all-or-nothing scenario.
Good writing could have done something with the inherent lack of real justice, turned it into a plot point rather than plot hole. This is not what BioWare did here. In fact, not one clue hints that they even figured this storyline was completely fucked up.
It’s but one example of the glaring oversights present in this game’s script, but it perfectly encapsulates how illogical and downright abstract one’s options can be.
Loyalty missions and other larger side quests are much better, often containing moments of genuine humor and some decent character building for those few party members who have character.
Giving Ryder four dialog options that provide no clue as to what she’ll actually say is something cribbed from Fallout 4. There, it was mildly exasperating sometimes, but here they went to effing town. When given dialog options, you kind of have to guess what Ryder’s tone will be – sometimes the text choices don’t even reflect what finally comes out of her mouth.
The overall premise of Andromeda is a fascinating one, and that fascination is stoked when attempting to locate the rest of the Initiative. Each species traveled to Andromeda aboard an “Ark” but the fleet was scattered across the galaxy. When Ryder locates each of the lost races, they have their own horrifying backstories attached that really help solidify what a mess the Andromeda Initiative turned into.
Andromeda is all over the place, tonally and in terms of quality. Fleshed out characters are fantastic but others are completely one-dimensional. A lot of love was put into the Ark missions, and yet nobody thought to perhaps make the Angara – an all-new race for the Mass Effect universe – a bit more freaked out over encountering five new alien species at once.
I’ve spent most of the review damning Andromeda with faint praise while predominantly savaging it, but I should stress that I didn’t have a terrible time playing it. There was enough – just enough – story to keep me at least attached to the main campaign, while the combat was surprisingly fun.
Though players may switch classes for some reason and active skills are limited to a mere three, the cover-based shooting mechanics found in Andromeda are, to be quite fair, better than what you find in a lot of sci-fi action-RPGs. Fast-paced with just the right amount of chaos, even small scale battles feel like intense shootouts against relentless opponents.
Weapons pack a satisfying punch and can of course be crafted and modded with all sorts of cool stuff. However, while Ryder does need backup to draw enemy fire and deal with the sheer volume of opponents faced, party balancing really doesn’t feel important at all. Ryder’s skills and weaponry are enough to where her allies are more meat shields than carefully tuned supporters making up for any weaknesses in a player’s build.
No matter who I had in my party, I felt just as effective the whole way through, and I felt particularly effective.
This isn’t an issue if you’re just looking to shoot things. Andromeda does shooting really quite decently. It is not, perhaps, what BioWare fans typically want first and foremost, however. For me, it provided reasonably enjoyable shooter with some RPG elements, and I can totally understand any disappointment from those who wanted an enjoyable RPG with shooter elements.
My thoughts on the game have fluctuated much. I’ve been thrilled by some of the larger fights and story missions. I’ve been bored to tears to by monotonous planet scanning and repetitive recycled boss encounters. I’ve been laughing my head off at the game’s selection of ghoulish, sub-Bethesda glitches. I’ve been burying my face in my hands at some of the terrible writing, and nodding with impressed curiosity at some of the great writing.
It’s also got multiplayer I guess. It has microtransactions and stuff. Whatever.
Andromeda is an undeniable mess, one that is now being hurriedly fixed after it already “enjoyed” its most effective sales period. The state it released in – considering the money and publisher behind it – is hard to conceive, let alone forgive, but a game can be a buggy mess and remain fun.
Andromeda is fun… sometimes.
Other times it’s a dreary slog through recycled cutscenes, infantile character interactions, and a lot of badly masked loading screens.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is so full of ups and downs it might as well be my trousers at All You Can Fuck Buffet.
About the best thing I can do is just split the difference, so…