Mass Effect: Andromeda Review
Mass Effect: Andromeda opens as journey that has taken hundreds of years comes to an end. The civilized races of the Milky Way galaxy constructed huge arks filled with tens of thousands of colonists each and sent them across the void to the Andromeda galaxy. Initial scans of Andromeda identified a number of "golden worlds" that would be ideal for colonization, but when the arks arrived they found that either those initial scans were terribly wrong or that things had changed in the hundreds of years it took for the arks to cross the space between galaxies. Your role in the colonization effort is that of a "Pathfinder", an explorer and scout whose job it is to find suitable worlds for colonization, and to make sure those worlds are relatively safe to land on before the first outposts are established on them. Your job also entails serving as a first-contact ambassador for the Milky Way and you'll soon find that three alien races occupy the Andromeda neighborhood you've arrived in - the aggressive Kett, the autonomous machines left behind by an ancient race known as the Remnant, and the peaceful Angara.
Andromeda is a new beginning for our colonists, but it's also a new beginning for the Mass Effect series. The races from the Milky Way will be familiar to those who played the original series, but the characters and events of those games are now hundreds of years in the past. If you're new to the series as I am, you can jump into Mass Effect: Andromeda without worrying that you've missed everything that comes before it. The game does a pretty good job of bringing new players up to speed on things like the history and dynamics of the alien races that have come from the Milky Way with you without making series veterans slog their way through a bunch of information designed to bring new players up to speed on things. I'm sure that knowledge of the prior games will allow you to get more out of Andromeda, but new players won't be left feeling like they've walked into the middle of a movie, either.
Even without becoming bogged down in an extended recap, Andromeda is a slow-starting game. There's a little bit of action on a planetary expedition near the start of the game, but it's sandwiched between lots of time spent on the space station known as the Nexus that serves as the game's hub area. You have to meet and converse with a large number of characters while completing a few quests that while technically aren't fetch quests, they sure feel like them. Even after you're given command of your own ship, the Tempest, it takes some time before the story becomes really compelling. There's a tremendous amount of set-up involved that is done through exploration, conversations, and reading text before the game feels like it has all the pieces in place to begin to make things interesting. It's not that the action side of the gameplay is boring during this long-playing opening act, but a story-driven game should really kick its story into high gear a lot earlier in the process than Andromeda does.
During the game's numerous conversations, you'll be periodically given the option of how you'd like to respond. You'll have up to four choices, which will fall into one of four response styles: casual, logical, emotional, or professional. The choices you're given for responses will be different ways of saying the same thing, so it's more a matter of how you come across to the person that you're speaking with than it is about controlling the direction taken by a branching conversation. And I'm not sure why, but what you end up saying is always different than the text you're shown, so even after you've made your choice you'll have no idea what you'll actually say. The game indicates that the style of your responses will affect the development of your character, but I can't say that it was something that I really noticed as the game went on. It seems that the choices are more important in terms of who you're speaking to at the moment, and that the best way to maintain a good relationship with your crew and the others that you interact with is to match your responses to their personal style rather than use them to develop your own. You will build relationships with other characters in the game, and if things are going well you'll be given an option to flirt or to say something that will strengthen your bonds of friendship. It would appear that the rules of workplace harassment have been significantly relaxed in the far future, but it still felt a little awkward to hit on just about everyone in my crew.
There are times during conversations when you will need to make a choice that will actually branch the conversation or storyline, and these are clearly marked by divergent arrows. You'll never know when they'll show up, though, so you need to pay close attention during each conversation or you could face an important decision without being too clear on exactly what it is you're deciding. Andromeda does use your choices in these cases to drive events that occur later in the story, and it's interesting to see the unforeseen consequences of some of your decisions play out further down the line.
The game really shines when it comes to combat, giving you the feel of a third-person shooter while staying true to its RPG soul. While you're an active participant in the dynamic combat - taking aim, firing, and such in real-time - the game is rolling the dice under the hood to determine the damage that you're taking and inflicting during the fights. You'll need to make judicious use of cover, but avoid remaining planted to the same spot. The enemy AI is quite good, and you'll find yourself being flanked or flushed out of cover if you start camping. Different enemies have different tactics and attack styles as well, so you'll have to adjust your tactics based on who or what you're fighting. You're given a shield to protect you, but it can only absorb a small amount of damage and you must duck behind cover to recharge the shields or you'll find yourself a casualty of war. Your suit is equipped with a jump jet which you can use to increase your mobility with boost and dash moves, and which you can use to deliver a melee strike from the air that can be useful to flush an enemy out of cover.
You'll be accompanied on your expeditions by members of your crew or other allies, and they'll join you in battle as well. You can give them limited commands in battles, but they are capable of handling themselves and contributing to the outcome of the battle so I pretty much let them do their own thing. You can revive fallen squad mates during a battle, but unfortunately they can't return the favor to you.
The game also has a multiplayer battle component that is known as Strike Missions. The Strike Missions can be accessed from the regular game through special terminals, but the missions essentially take place outside of the game. And the term "missions" is generous, as they are all essentially multi-wave horde mode style battles. Up to four players can participate or you can take them on by yourself. The battles will be hard to win at first because you have to earn and upgrade a separate set of equipment for use in these missions. You can also assign strike teams to complete missions, which is a way to let the game grind passed the earlier levels for you. This is a much longer route to take as it takes hours for your teams to complete a single mission. The Strike Missions feel a bit superfluous for an RPG and they didn't hold my interest for long - they weren't compelling enough to drag me away from the main game. If you have friends who own the game, though, I can see it being enjoyable as a way to play the game together.
As in a typical RPG, completing quests, winning battles, and accomplishing other goals rewards you with experience which accumulates to increase your character level and award you skill points. Points can be spent in three different skill trees, and the skills in each can be improved further by adding additional points to them. The first tree gives you your combat-related skills, and you can think of the other two trees as your spell books although they are, of course, technologically developed attacks. You can have up to three attack skills enabled in a battle which you can fire off using the bumper triggers on the controller. Your companions will also earn skill points which you can assign to their skill trees which lets you customize their attacks to compliment your build.
You'll primarily improve your weapons and armor through crafting, but crafting in the game is a convoluted and tedious process. Crafting requires two phases, research and assembly. To research anything you'll need to earn research points which come in three different types. To earn these points you'll need to scan objects in the environment, but you won't know what can be scanned until you bring up your scanner. While you're exploring or whenever you enter a new area, you'll need to bring up your scanner and look for objects to scan, a tedious process that takes some of the fun out of exploring. The research points can then be spent while at a research station to create new blueprints, but each type of research point can only be spent in the corresponding tech tree. In addition, each blueprint will require a number of resources to be created as well, resources which you'll need to accumulate through mining deposits or finding caches while you're exploring or from a merchant. Crafting can then be done on a station using the blueprints that you own, but again it will take a collection of resources to build each item. Trying to keep track of what resource is needed where and what you're short on is a pain to manage, as is trying to compare stats on items that sit in separate tech trees. It's all so tedious that I tried to stick with a loadout as long as possible or tried to find incremental upgrades through vendors rather than spend all of my time in the crafting system quagmire.
Graphically the game is a mix of good and not so good. The views of space and planets from orbit are spectacular. If you sometimes find yourself lost in the images on the NASA site, you'll enjoy the view during your travels through the stars. Character models are not as nice to look at, resembling characters you'd see on the last generation of consoles. Movements are also a bit awkward, especially the running animation which doesn't quite look natural. These issues are noticeable while playing, but not so much so that they will get in the way of your enjoyment of the game.
Overall, despite its shortcomings Mass Effect: Andromeda was an enjoyable experience for me. The first few hours feel like a grind, but you will be rewarded for sticking with it. The game is dragged down a bit by all of the reading that must be done and some overly long conversations, but this is rather typical for the genre. The game really shines when you're exploring an alien world and battling the local fauna, and when you get down to it that's what you really want out of a space-based RPG.
Final Rating: 82% - Once you trudge your way through the slow start, Andromeda becomes an interesting galaxy to explore.