Genuinely bad AAA games are rare nowadays. Your annual Call of Duty is probably always going to be at least competent and well put together; so much money is poured into these things that the most common issue is blandness, rather than actual disaster. Actual disasters are few and far between, with Assassin’s Creed: Unity being one of the few that springs to mind. Mass Effect: Andromeda is one of the roughest, most frustrating AAA games I’ve played in years. Unlike some of the more hyperbolic reactions it has garnered, I don’t think it’s awful. There are things to like here, but troubled game development is writ large over almost every part of the game. Some rough AAA games such as Final Fantasy XV can be so oddball and weird that they loop round to being loveable, despite their flaws, but Mass Effect: Andromeda is simultaneously too ambitious and conservative in design to achieve even this. Mass Effect: Andromeda has its moments, but it’s difficult to view it as anything but a failure.
Sidestepping the endings of Mass Effect 3, Mass Effect; Andromeda takes place 600 years later, in the Andromeda Galaxy. The Andromeda Initiative sent forth massive arks of Milky Way species in stasis, to awaken in their new home and establish a new frontier. Upon arrival, the Initiative discover that the Heleus Cluster of the Andromeda Galaxy is more dangerous than they thought, with a mysterious phenomenon known as the Scourge damaging the ark ships and a hostile alien force, the Kett, determined to wipe them out. Commander Shepard is gone and replaced with Pathfinder Ryder; the Pathfinder is the one who is in charge of scouting planets and establishing new outposts. Only the human ark, the Hyperion, as well as the central hub of the Nexus, have made their way to the intended destination. Ryder must set out with a new crew and her ship the Tempest to establish new homes for the Initiative, fight the kett and find the missing ark ships.
Andromeda’s story stumbles out of the gate. It attempts to take the series in a whole new direction, but in the process forgets what people liked about the original trilogy. The original trilogy had a brilliant sense of humanity as the new kids on the block, the upstarts. There was a real sense of defined history which impacted the events of the story: the Rachni Wars, the Genophage, the Quarian creation of the Geth. The setting felt full and alive and engaging. Mass Effect: Andromeda goes for a more Star Trek approach, focusing on exploration and discovering new lands. Without this sense of culture and society, the whole setting feels unbearably bland. Everyone keeps going on about how utterly alien it is, but it’s no more unique than anywhere from the original setting; we still have an ice planet, a jungle planet, a desert planet etc. The returning races from the original trilogy are the Asari, Salarians, Turians and Krogan. A lot of the weirder and funnier species make no appearance, such as the Quarians, Hanar, Elcor or Volus. The new species don’t exactly fill the void; the Kett are mindless and lack in any sort of personality. The Heleus natives, the Angara, are generally likeable, being built on empathy and emotional connection, but really they just feel like a combination of the original Council races. They have the empathy of Asari, the intelligence of the Salarians and the battle-prowess of the Turians, but I don’t think people are going to be clamouring for the return of the Angara whenever this series comes back. The new galaxy setting had the opportunity to double down on some of the glorious weirdness from the original trilogy, but ends up as far more conservative.
There’s little sense of narrative drive, with frustratingly vague goals. This may be a consequence of the open world approach taken, but Dragon Age: Inquisition did the same thing and I felt still managed to tell a coherent story. Where the original trilogies had an unknowable and terrifying foe, the Reapers, lurking in the background, it was fronted by believable and engaging villains, with even forces like the Geth and the Rachni imbued with depth and clear motivation. The lack of an engaging antagonist makes the whole thing feel directionless. I overall liked the new crew, particularly the elderly warrior Krogan Drack and the Angaran charmer Jaarl. Still, when you look back at the squad in Mass Effect 2, possibly the best team of characters I’ve seen in an RPG, they never come close to the same status. The voice acting is generally good, but the writing is much more mixed. Outside of some core main characters, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of entirely forgettable quest givers and NPCs. Much was made of Hainly Abrams, a transgender woman who within seconds of meeting reveals that she is trans, as well as her deadname. Transgender representation in games is a good thing; Bioware themselves pretty much nailed it with Krem in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Although the dialogue has been altered and patched, it reveals how utterly shallow these characters are. I could tell you much more about Krem than the fact he is trans, but with Hainly Abrams I could tell you nothing else about her. So much of the writing is entirely shallow, with characters I spent hours with but could tell you almost nothing about. The best parts of the game are the loyalty missions and there are some lovely character moments, but we lack the tension and conflict which undercut the ‘BEST TEAM EVAR’ dynamic if the Normandy. One area that did work for me was Ryder herself. She’s a bit more of a defined character than Shepard and you can’t really be a complete bastard, but that wouldn’t have been appropriate for the story told here. More often than not, Ryder is sardonic and irreverent, but never irritating. Overall, I think I liked Ryder more than Shepard but unfortunately the people she was interacting with were never as good.
I normally mention technical issues towards the end of a review, but they have to be brought to the forefront here. Now, I’m played this game a couple of patches deep, so the now infamous animation issues weren’t quite as pronounced as they were at launch but, well, they’re still not good. Almost every scene is undermined by them; the characters always look off, never quite seem right, in the way they stand, the way they move, their facial expressions. I’ve read and watched a lot of interesting stuff about this and I totally appreciate the nightmarish complexity of a dynamic animation system a game like this requires, but taking into account the reasons why this problem exists doesn’t actually stop it from being a problem, as sympathetic as I am for the fact that this likely was not the fault of the animation team themselves. There are major issues with the plotting and writing already, but even the stronger scenes (and there are plenty of good ones) are undermined by the animation issue. I suspect that the issues are more fundamental than any patch can solve.
The core structure to Andromeda is very different to the previous games, and resembles Dragon Age; Inquisition more than anything else. Now, I actually really liked Inquisition, although I’m aware that a lot of people didn’t. Sure, not every side quest was a winner, but the focus on exploration was well married to a central plot and I liked the variety of zones. It got blown out of the water by The Wtrcher 3 a few months later, but I still feel that Inquisition is underappreciated. Andromeda attempts the same structure, but is less successful. There are a handful of explorable worlds, which are usually pretty big. All but one use the Nomad, a replacement for the Mako from the first game, an all-terrain vehicle which lets you race around the planet. It controls pretty nicely and has quite impressive grip for more vertical movement, particularly after a few upgrades. Most of your time in the game will be spent getting a mission, driving somewhere in your Nomad, shooting some stuff, and returning. Mission variety isn’t great, but I did like how the game makes it very clear which missions you can avoid. The missions are categorised four different ways; main story quests, loyalty quests/quests attached to a particular supporting character, Heleus tasks which see you improving the different planets, and ‘additional tasks.’ Do the first three, but ignore the ‘additional tasks’, there’s almost nothing worth doing there. I wish more games made it so clear what was filler; one thing I hated about Fallout 4 was the way I would feel tricked into doing boring procedurally generated quests because they were sorted alongside proper ones made by an actual game designer. If you take this approach and ignore the boring missions, the issue of padding and filler becomes much less egregious.
Possibly the only unqualified success of Mass Effect: Andromeda is the combat; it may initially look similar to the original trilogy, but this is mostly superficial as this is most certainly not a cover shooter. It took a while to adjust, but this is a combat system which relies on constant movement and momentum. I went all in with biotics and shotguns, so my approach was largely based around teleporting across the environments and blasting enemies up close. With some cleverly placed upgrades, you can almost break the entire combat in some quite pleasing ways. It stopped being challenging in any way after a few hours, but as a sheer power fantasy I never quite got tired of it. I don’t know how fun other builds are, but I can’t recommend a biotic/shotgun build more highly. My enjoyment of the combat helped to alleviate a lot of the pacing issues; sure, the side quests mostly are of a ‘go here, kill this’ variety, but that never really bothered me.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is a disappointment; it has some strengths, but it’s clear that it’s fascinatingly troubled development has left it damaged in a way no patch can fix. There was a lot of potential here, but I think now the best thing that Bioware could do is give it a few years, then return to the Milky Way for an actual Mass Effect 4, leaving Andromeda as a spin-off. I didn’t have an awful time playing this game, it’s OK, but when it was released in the same month as Breath of the Wild, Nier: Automata and Horizon: Zero Dawn, OK isn’t good enough.