Mass Effect: Andromeda really blows it.
BioWare had an opportunity to reinvent its homegrown sci-fi series with this game. We’re five years removed now from Mass Effect 3. All that controversy around the game’s ending — which a pressured BioWare eventually altered in its “Extended Cut” DLC — is in the past.
It hasn’t been long enough, apparently.
Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s story takes no chances. The choices you make have meaning in the moment, but few lasting consequences. You never have to decide, for example, which crew member to sacrifice or how to go about keeping everyone alive during a suicide mission. It’s always a more clinical “this or that.”
It’s not as if the story is incapable of delivering such situations. We pick up 600 years after the events of the original trilogy, with Commander Ryder (our new hero) serving as the vanguard for an exploration force charged with colonizing a new galaxy.
She (or he) is one of four “Pathfinders,” each representing one of the main alien species in Mass Effect: humans, Asari, Turians, and Salarians. They’ve all — along with a small contingent of Krogans — set out to start new lives in this distant galaxy.
All of which is to say: exploring new planets and setting up outposts is a core focus of Andromeda‘s story. You’re in uncharted territory, charged with turning nothing into something. Hard decisions should really come with the territory.
You do have some influence over the course different colonies take after they form, but the most meaningful changes to Andromeda‘s worlds — all of them — are scripted. There’s very little you can do to influence the overarching narrative or the people in Ryder’s immediate orbit.
Not that you’d care if that were the case. Ryder’s crew is disappointingly forgettable, largely because the voice acting is so dismal.
I can’t even blame the performers here. They all showed up and read their lines, but they seemingly did so with little or no direction. Quality voice acting doesn’t happen in a vacuum; the actors need guidance from someone who can help pinpoint the emotional substance of each scene.
Whatever might have happened behind the scenes, Andromeda feels hollow. Its climactic moments possess zero emotional depth and its supposedly tense exchanges play out in a heated monotone. The fact that none of it works makes this an issue with direction rather than performance.
BioWare’s outdated approach to cinematic storytelling doesn’t help much, either. Just about every dialogue exchange takes the form of shot/reverse shot cuts between each speaker. If film is a language unto itself, Mass Effect: Andromeda speaks with the vocabulary of a toddler.
The worlds are cool to explore, at least. You can only land on the surface of a small handful of planets, but each one is a sprawling virtual space filled with eye-catching points of interest.
This isn’t just a win for art design. Each planet’s visual uniqueness translates into different hazards that you need to contend with. There’s an airless, low-gravity environment where radiation levels are so high you can’t leave your rover. There are ice and desert worlds where extreme temperatures influence how and where you can explore.
Forging new trails, establishing outposts, and — eventually — taking steps to make each location more habitable rank among Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s more memorable moments. You might not care so much for the story, but it’s easy to love the places it takes you.
It’s just too bad getting there is such a chore. Just like past Mass Effect games, you can explore entire solar systems and scan the planets you can’t land on for resources and points of interest. It works the same as it always did: you click on individual solar systems and planets from your Galaxy Map and your ship flies there.
The difference in Andromeda: your ship actually flies there. Every time you chart a new course — whether it’s to a different solar system or another planet in the same system — you’re forced to sit through a laborious first-person cinematic in which you fly through space from point A to point B.
The first time you see it, you go, “Oh, that’s neat.” The second time, you think, “Hmmm, is this going to happen every time?” The third time, you start pressing buttons in the hopes of skipping the stupid sequence. (You can’t skip it.)
It’s not a big deal when you’re jumping from one exploration area to another, but that’s not how space exploration works in Mass Effect. There are scores of planets and asteroids and wrecked ships to scan. And between each one — even the many where a single click of the mouse represents the sum total of your interactions — there’s an unskippable cinematic to sit through.
It amounts to a lousy user experience, especially when quests send you on a journey between multiple planets. I eventually gave up on exploring Andromeda‘s solar systems about halfway through the game. It’s a terribly dull process.
On the more action-packed side of things, BioWare played it safe here as well. The third-person combat — which mixes together gunplay with limited-use abilities — feels immediately familiar. The online mode, a carbon-copy of Mass Effect 3‘s wave-based survival, is nearly indistinguishable from the previous game.
Andromeda-sourced weapons introduce new behaviors for Mass Effect firearms, like charged attacks or seeker projectiles. You can even craft your own Milky Way or Andromeda weapons with these augmentations. They’re fun to play with, but do little to change the tactical makeup of each encounter.
If anything changes the feel of Mass Effect combat, it’s the switch to contextual cover. Previously, you could huddle down behind a wall or low-lying obstacle by running up to it and pressing a button. Now, no button press is required; if you get close enough, Ryder automatically hunches over.
It’s a great idea in theory, but one that often falls apart in the heat of battle. There’s nothing to lock Ryder in place, which means that the slightest movement — even a single step to the left or right as you fine-tune your aim — can leave you suddenly exposed.
It’s frustrating, but hardly an experience-killer. For the small handful of times I died because of finicky contextual cover, it’s best described as a minor complaint. Your mileage may vary, however; some people hate contextual cover mechanics.
The most frustrating thing about Mass Effect: Andromeda is how much of a regression it represents after the successes of Dragon Age: Inquisition. That was a larger and more involved game by almost every measure.
Andromeda‘s story may be about blazing a trail into an entirely new galaxy, but it feels slimmed down by comparison. There are fewer spaces to explore in general — less than 10 in all — and three of them are different shades of “desert planet.” The locations themselves are gorgeous, but they are too few in number.
Somehow, this game about exploring a galaxy with roughly 1 trillion solar systems — more than twice the size of the Milky Way — feels smaller than the 2014 game about a single fantasy world. A different team led development on Andromeda (BioWare’s new Montreal studio) but foundational mistakes were made. I hope BioWare looks inward for answers.
What a great shame. We’re not even three months into 2017, and we’ve already seen multiple Game of the Year contenders. Mass Effect seemed like the safest bet of them all, but Andromeda is nothing more than a milquetoast effort that — whether this is true or not — feels inescapably boxed in by its own troubled past.