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Mass Effect: Andromeda – ReviewMalaya

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It’s ironic how the setup for the new entry of Mass Effect reflects so much on how its development went. A cast of familiar but entirely different people, thinking of a bright new beginning only to find out their leadership is gone and they have now grossly underestimate the undertaking of the journey they are getting into.

In Mass Effect: Andromeda, the entire cast revolves around the Andromeda Initiative- a group of thousands of Milky Way species that are making their way to find a new home in the Andromeda galaxy. Some of the people here are looking for a better life- some, like the Ryder family, their scarred reputation means going to a new galaxy is the only way to start life anew. When they arrived, all hell broke loose- all the initial plans gone wrong, their top leaders gone and none of the “golden worlds” they aimed to populate are habitable.

Andromeda is spearheaded by Bioware Montreal- which started off as a support studio to the main Edmonton team. It’s their first game as the lead team, and the compilation upon compilations of videos and gifs have been recorded what the state of the game is at launch.

It’s rough.

Andromeda has so many issues that a AAA game of its budget should not afford to compromise- especially in 2017 where all the AAAs coming out so far are masterpieces of their own. But there is fun to be had here if you dig deep enough.

Graphics & Sound

EA’s Frostbite engine is the new tech powering Andromeda and it delivers.. at some parts. The environments of the locations in this new galaxy looks fantastic, though not many are as imaginative as the opening prologue would suggest. Some of the lighting hues you’ll see as the planets change to be more habitable are breathtaking sights. It’s worth to just slowly rotate the camera and soak in the view.

Yet I can’t say the same to the human face models. All of them look off. No matter how much time you put in the character creator, the faces of the customisable Ryder twins just don’t look good for a AAA title of its size. The other alien species, including the two new ones introduced, all look much better however. The animations are so bad I’m inclined to believe that the team ran out of time to properly make them. There are clippings on the armour pieces. In some cinematics you see the squad carrying their own weapons (as in, you’re holding your own loadout of guns) but some scenes resorted to using the plain assault rifle without any rhyme and reason. Even in the same mission.

Alien races look superb, but human models stick out so much on how iffy they look.

And don’t get me started on the glitches. While I have not encountered any serious game-breaking ones, I’ve moved on from being shocked that such a bug did not get fix to just laughing at them if they ever happen. It’s just too many.

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Then there’s technical issues. Playing on the PS4, the game is targeted to hit 30fps though I have experience severe framerate drops that feel like it was running sub-20fps. And it’s not only in combat- it even happens in non-combat areas as well. There seems to be a streaming/ loading issue- loading times here are considered snappy (compared to, say, Bioware’s last game Dragon Age: Inquisition) but then the game sometimes struggle to load in textures properly. The game even sometimes stops abruptly just to have everything loaded.

It’s a technical mess on PS4. If you have a choice, go for the PC version, which is getting good feedback on performance.

Oddly enough, the UI is seemed to be designed primarily for controller use. It looks nice, clean and spiffy but annoying. A lot of information is buried too deep. You can’t glance over to see how all your stats (apart from just health and shields) stack up. The idea of having the buy and sell options in the right and left side of the UI when trading is cool but you can’t glance over just the buy side to see if you already have them and at what quantity unless you go over the left side.

The UI has a nice design but buries a lot of information. For instance, you can’t see all your total buffs from gear in and passive upgrades in one place, so min-maxing stats is troublesome.

On the audio side, sound effects are exceptionally well. Weapons feel satisfying to shoot- the typical weapons have a good punch to the sound. Your variety of tech, combat and biotic powers also sound great when activated. Then there’s the effect when you are in low atmosphere where all the sounds get muffled. The music score is nice- but not memorable enough as it’s mostly underutilised. There’s an impressive diversity to the voice actors too, it’s not just American English you’ll be hearing all the time.

Sounds also suffer from technical hiccups as well unfortunately, audio sometimes either don’t play at all or triggered pretty late: if you play with the subtitles turned on you can see that some dialog audio is not synced with when it should trigger.

Also, if you put in subtitles- you can spot another weakness: the voice direction is all over the place. Some characters have weird intonations and some seem to suffer from bad voice direction. There’s a point late in the game where a character just said “sigh” out loud when the subtitle indicates that as an action, not literally spoken. Then there was what supposed to be a gleeful laugh in the closed captions, but what I heard was more of a weak whimper.

You are Pathfinder Ryder. What makes you special this time is you are the only one that can interface with an ancient alien tech that another ruthless alien species is after. If you played enough recent Bioware games, this is retreading the same plot devices and setup all over again.

Gameplay

The setup here is as explained earlier: this is an all new cast of characters from the Mass Effect universe in making a trip from the Milky Way to Andromeda, just before the events of Mass Effect 3. With what happened with that game, it’s a good excuse to start a new fresh story without needing to tie it back to the original trilogy (that has significant variances due to player choice). The setup is interesting- you are one of the Ryder twins, which your father is the human Pathfinder- one of four of the pioneers that will lead the four different arks to find a new home.

Yet Andromeda failed to make any new fundamental changes to the formula. A lot of the things here can all be tied back to the original Mass Effect trilogy, and the on-foot exploration part takes directly from Inquisition with no meaningful additions or tweaks to the template. If you love exploring in Inquisition (or really despise it), then the same goes to Andromeda.

Jump jets certainly is a huge new addition to combat and exploration. You need to move a lot when fighting enemies that don’t use cover, and there’s some platforming bits as well.

Despite the negative remarks so far, the one saving grace of Andromeda is how they improved the combat- making it one of the best ones for the series. You now have jump-jets that lets you jump, hover and evade enemies in a firefight. Add that you now have more enemy variants that will flush you out of cover (like the beasts that, naturally, don’t use cover) and what you have is a very active third person shooter. You can still play it like a typical cover shooter ala Mass Effect 2 and 3 for the most part, but utilising the new mobility makes combat refreshing.

The trade-off here is that you now auto-cover rather than pressing a button to do so (which can be hit and miss), and you can’t pause to instruct your squadmates ( you can only just vaguely point them to an enemy or location). It helps with the combat flow that you don’t constantly pause to issue orders, but with the squadmate AI being like it is, I find them barely useful in the early game. The combo system- activating a power to prime them and another power to detonate it- seems cool but not flexible enough. Don’t expect to pull off combos with your squadmates for the most time, the most reliable way to combo is doing it all yourself.

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Another new wrinkle to the combat is a more fluid class system. You can now have free reign in what combination of combat, tech and biotic powers you want to invest in, regardless of class. The class system is now called “profiles”- switching to either six classes from the previous Mass Effect (plus 1 jack-of-all-trades class, the Explorer) will give you specific bonuses to stats. You can save up to four different profiles that you can switch up in combat on the go. Though in practice, it’s not really that practical to keep changing profiles mid-battle (a cooldown of all the abilities happen each time you switch) so building one or two profiles with the right skills is mostly the best way to go. But it’s fun to experiment with some other powers that you might not have tried before without the need of a new playthrough.

Andromeda also added back exploration into Mass Effect by way of Dragon Age: Inquisition. You now have big maps you can traverse filled with things to do. Plus you now have a rover that actually handles decently. Of course, Inquisition’s style of “very big maps that’s hard to traverse loaded with filler content” have its fans and detractors. As someone who enjoys that design (but loathe the amount of filler content and unneeded encounters) I found Andromeda’s worlds are a bit smaller in size and slightly manageable. It is still a completionist’s nightmare though.

Content & Longevity

Andromeda may be deemed to be the biggest Mass Effect (and Bioware) game to date, but it just added quantity, not quality. And I’m not talking about the technical issues here, even if all of that are fixed, I still feel a lot of Andromeda has to offer is really bland. Which leads to the biggest issue at hand: the uneven writing.

Despite all the buildup of an entire new galaxy at a far distance future I see nothing of that potential being capitalised for a brand new story arc. There’s too many similar plot devices that we already seen in the original trilogy- an alien race hellbent on destruction of others (the kett), an ancient alien civilisation that makes up for a lot of the mystery (the Remnant), a hub place where all species can gather (the Nexus). We’ve seen this in the original trilogy already.

You still ended up being the Pathfinder, the most important person in the game. Bioware has a long history of making the role of the protagonist a strong power fantasy and this, unfortunately is the same. But it is handled much poorly this time. And the writing tries really hard to put the other Pathfinders and the other Ryder twin of out the way of the Pathfinder to claim all the glory. Missed opportunities here to make something different.

The events that lead to you being the Pathfinder also felt ham-fisted and unsatisfying. In fact, most of the writing is very rough at the start. Your squadmates don’t really stand out as characters at the start. Other NPCs vary from quality. Some has interesting arcs and worth talking to. Some are just spouting out exposition that’s not even interesting. Sure, there is payoff at the end of some quests (character moments after the loyalty missions are really satisfying) but not all quests have a satisfying closure. At least there’s an attempt to explain a poorly done sequence that could be seen as a plothole leading to your Ryder getting the Pathfinder role. There is also a few plot twists that fell flat, and a big reveal that just confirms what fans have figured out when we knew the details of the Andromeda Initiative’s time of departure without adding more substantial new details. Loyalty missions are worth doing- but all of them are of varying degrees of quality.

Even Ryder is written a bit iffy. Paragon and Renegade dialog options are gone with the replacement being four different tones: heart (feel, intuition), intellect, casual and professional. It’s usually one or the other- so it’s not as nuanced as expected. There’s no specific benefit for sticking with the same tone, so that’s one step better. I only managed to like Ryder by the end where they finally had a proper heroic moment.

There’s only one mini-game in Andromeda and it’s.. alien sudoku. It’s biggest size is only a 5×5 grid rather than a full 9×9 sudoku grid. But, of all the mini-games you could add you put in sudoku?

As mentioned earlier, the quests are of varied quality. The ones labeled “task” seem so meaningless and all of them are lumped into one folder in your journal it’s better to not bother making them. Most of these are fetch quests or ” just go here and do this” variety. The longer quest chains are also questionable- the Movie Night chain is basically a long list of doing errands for your crew but the payoff is a good story moment. Some of the other quests supposedly impact the endgame, but all I noticed was one line of dialog referencing that in the endgame and that’s it. Choices lack any impact anymore since Andromeda is not tied to a trilogy setup like before and also due to the uneven writing.

While I loved the on-planet exploration, the planetary exploration is a step back. You can now have a look at what you are orbiting on the ship, but what that cost is a long seqeunce that initiates each time you hop into one place to the other. Exploring the galaxy map waste too much time in what I assume is loading screens for little benefit, what used to be a snappy chore turned into a chore of waiting over load screens, multiple times.

The RPG side of things gets expanded a lot in Andromeda, to a point that is similar to the original Mass Effect. Weapons and armour have tiers based on your level treshold, there’s a crafting system where you can slot in more buffs than the regular ones you find in stores. There’s salvage to sell off. I like these inclusions but for the most part it feels like too much work for the result as scanning items for research points and mining resources both on planets and in the galaxy map are not even fun now.

Micro-transactions are still the big thing here in the multiplayer.

Multiplayer makes a return, and if you played it in Mass Effect 3, then it’s the same deal. It’s a 4-player co-op Horde mode, but with lots of things to unlock that involves buying random loot boxes. It’s fun, since the combat is just as good here, but you’ll probably be best playing this with friends you know. My experience playing with randoms had been hit and miss due to lag spikes and lack of coordination, and it takes a lot of investment to get your characters to be viable for tougher missions. But when it works, it’s fun.

Overall, it took me about 60 hours to finish the story while putting outposts on all habitable planets and doing all the loyalty missions. There’s plenty to do here. And the endgame is fine. It gave me vibes of the first Mass Effect’s final mission, and there’s proper closure and an epilogue this time around.

Verdict

It’s hard to recommend Andromeda. On one hand, Bioware made some improvements based on feedback- better combat and exploration, a better ending. On the other, it fumbles at everything that used to be their forte- the writing is all over the place, it’s animations and face models are downright unfinished.

It seems that they were trying to just refine the Mass Effect formula rather than going all out with something completely different with their new freedom afforded by the setting. But they bit more than they could chew.

Andromeda won’t win back disappointed fans, nor will it be a good experience for new players. But if you can withstand all the animation fumbles, have a decent PC and can live without a strong story for a hook- there’s some enjoyment to be had. There are some good bits at the end which made me walked away on a high note after a 60 hour playthrough.

But boy, Mass Effect: Andromeda sure is a rough ride. But it has its perks.

You are in no rush to play this game, wait until Bioware patches most of the technical problems first.


Review is based on the PS4 version of the game (version 1.04) running on a regular PS4. Review copy purchased by Gamer Malaya. 

Supplemental articles leading to the review: exploration | environments