It's been several years since the sun set on the story of Shepard and the reapers, time enough for us to develop a near insatiable appetite for another Mass Effect. Andromeda is that new game, and it acts as both a continuation of the franchise and as a departure from the original trilogy. Mixing up a few ME staples with a host of new and revised mechanics, Bioware is no doubt hoping that this exploration-driven entry in the series will kick-start another epic story of courage in the face of adversity, where action and player-defined choice go hand-in-hand when shaping each player's individual experience.
There are a lot of factors at play here, and despite (perhaps also because of) the series' heritage, Mass Effect: Andromeda has ended up a sprawling, glorious, terrible, engrossing mess of a game that does plenty right as well as a few things wrong. It's going to be divisive, make no mistake, and while most will be able to forgive its many idiosyncrasies and enjoy the adventure that lies within, others will bounce off the limitations of a game that already feels as old as Mass Effect 3.
Much has been made of Andromeda's technical faults. We've seen people sharing Ministry of Silly Walks-style gameplay clips, and others mocking the painfully awkward facial animations. Funny walking wasn't a problem during our playthrough, but we can't deny that some of the facial animations are shockingly poor at times, often undermining the conversations they're supposed to enhance. Bioware has always struggled a little with eyes, and that's no different here, but rigid faces and blank expressions also work to undo much of the emotion delivered in the script. For a game of this size and scale, and having not long seen this very same thing done right in Horizon: Zero Dawn, it's hard to be positive other than to say that even a broken clock is right twice a day, and sometimes the blank stares of the characters evoke an accidental thoughtfulness that fits the moment.
Overall the visuals are something of a mixed bag, then. While some of the textures could have been crisper (disclosure: we played on Xbox One, it looks better on a decent PC or a PS4 Pro), much of the design work is brilliant. Andromeda feels like a Mass Effect game in the sense that it mixes interesting alien architecture with some stunningly realised worlds that simply beg to be explored. The new enemy, the kett, are also suitably menacing.
Bioware has an almost unparalleled reputation for strong writing, and some of that quality has made its way into Andromeda, but there's also a surprising amount of dialogue that fails to hit the mark. In terms of the chief protagonists, there's a touch more sass than we're used to from past games, and Fryda Wolff and Tom Taylorson both do a decent job of bringing them to life (even if Scott Ryder does sound just a teeny tiny bit like Nathan Drake). The voice acting in general is pretty solid, and there's some good performances from the ensemble cast.
From the Ryder twins - a neat narrative device that sees the character you don't select involved in the plot as an NPC - through to the key crew members and the random folks you meet along the way, the characters in Andromeda struggled to grab us in quite the same way as their predecessors did. It's a hard act to follow for sure, and we spent three games and hundreds of hours with Shepard and company, so perhaps that was to be expected, but it's still worth noting.
Without wanting to delve too far into the story, the setup involves the chief species from the Milky Way making a 600-year one-way trip to our nearest galactic neighbours in Andromeda, travelling in varying numbers in a flotilla of huge space craft, intent on settling a promising corner of this new galaxy. Of course it's not that simple, and by the time they get to their new home in the Heleus Cluster the fleet has split up and the situation has turned hostile. It's a great backdrop for a new adventure, and our only complaint is that they didn't make enough of it, and upon arrival in this strange new place they had an opportunity to really establish the setting and entrench our understanding of what it's like to explore the unknown and get a foothold in a hostile environment. Instead, Andromeda quickly falls back on familiar mechanics and RPG/Bioware tropes in order to tell its tale.
The main story (or critical path) that we follow is, thankfully, pretty decent. Once again, it doesn't quite stack up against what we've played through in the first three games, but then again, we saved the frickin' galaxy the last time around, and this would have had to have been something truly special to beat that. This story comes reasonably close, and some of the main missions are really fun, with a couple of tasty boss battles thrown in to spice up an engaging plot that had us wanting to know more about this new enemy and the galaxy that they live in. Although a bit more time could have been taken at the start to set the scene, and the ending felt a little disjointed, overall the mix of story and setting worked.
Some of the side content is really good, too, although as is typically the case, the overall quality is variable. There's a lot of busywork to contend with, from scanning solar systems to mining ore as you explore. A big part of the game is exploring new planets and making them increasingly viable for colonisation, and this is achieved by completing various objectives, usually by exploring in the Nomad (which is much better than the Mako, by the way) and shooting either kett soldiers or the mechanical guardians that patrol tech-filled bases left behind by a mysterious pre-cursor species. Before and after the main story is completed you can take care of a number of non-essential assignments, and we had plenty of meaty missions to tackle even after the credits had rolled, with fresh challenges emerging to extend the adventure beyond the events of the critical path, often in pleasing and engaging ways.
While out adventuring we did feel the influence of another Bioware game, namely Star Wars: The Old Republic. Some of the locations you visit are huge, for example, and exploring them properly takes a lot of time. Scattered around the place are little bases too, and these are full of enemies to shoot. This is good, because the combat is fantastic, but you can also have too much of a good thing, and it's not long after you depart an enemy base that it repopulates. It keeps the large sandbox environments busy, at least, but at times it also makes it feel like you're exploring an MMO and not a focused single-player experience.
The best thing about Mass Effect: Andromeda is most certainly the combat. Bioware has built in a huge range of potential options, and it feels like we've only scratched the surface after more than thirty hours with the game. Biotic powers return, and are mixed with a range of weapons that fall within four general categories (pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, and sniper rifles), not to mention tech-powers that offer further tactical options. You can map three abilities for quick access, and the decision becomes whether to go deep on three or four main abilities, or spread your skill points around and invest in a range of different perks to suit contrasting occasions.
The gunplay itself is kinetic and punchy, and while there are RPG systems working in the background, you never see the numbers crunching. Instead you're treated to visceral combat, and some barnstorming set-pieces filled with enemy encounters that get the blood pumping, and the new jetpack in particular makes a huge difference to the way combat feels (in fact, you can extend that to on-foot exploration in general). Flexibility has been built in across the board, so individual builds will feel very different, and you can unlock various "profiles" that specialise you for certain combat situations (for example, if you come across a particular type of enemy, or if you want to keep your opponents at arm's length, there's builds that focus you towards a particular play-style). It's a great setup, and the more stuff we were shooting at, the more fun we were having.
Once each mission has concluded you're left to discuss events in your ship, the Tempest, and it's here that you form relationships with your crew, including romantic liaisons. You can romance pretty much anyone you want, and all you need to do is talk to whoever you fancy for long enough and eventually they'll succumb to your charms (a side note: Bioware promised us that the banging was pretty good, but we found ours to be a little underwhelming if we're honest). When you're not making the beast with two backs with your chosen squeeze, there's team meetings to discuss major events, emails to check, video calls to make, and you can also level up your squad, send out special forces to tackle events for additional rewards, as well as link to the multiplayer. Also, don't forget to spend the various experience and research points you've earned while out on your travels.
If anything, there are too many systems at work here, and as such it can be easy to lose sight of what you're doing and get lost in the little details. You earn points to level up your overall facilities and thus get a few choice bonuses, and by scanning various things out in the field you earn three different types of research points to be spent across three tech trees. On top that you have to level up Ryder and his/her crew, picking abilities and passive buffs to suit the way you play. The research and development section in particular feels overly complicated; it's simply not as clear as it should be. In fact, the whole UI is overflowing with things to tweak and read, although on the flipside that also means great depth for those who want it.
Further depth is delivered by the co-op driven multiplayer. It links to the single-player campaign, but not to the extent that it did in ME3. Here, teams of up to four players band together to take on waves of enemies, with objectives changing between rounds. Different human classes are available from the start, but you'll have to play a while before you can unlock some of the alien alternatives. The formula doesn't stray too far from what we saw in Mass Effect 3, but that's no bad thing, as the combat is definitely a strength here, and those looking to extend their adventures in Andromeda will find plenty of opportunity to do so. We had no issue playing on Xbox One, but it's worth noting that the PC version of the game was experiencing teething pains around launch.
There's a lot going on, with a lengthy campaign, oodles of side content, and a deep multiplayer mode, however, not everything fits together as snugly as it should, and plot holes, disjointed storytelling, and feature creep have combined to lessen the game's overall impact. The Mass Effect DNA is apparent throughout, yet ultimately it fails to match the experience delivered by its predecessors. Andromeda tries to do something new, but succeeds only in part. The story, which sees humanity and friends attempt to colonise this strange corner of space, acts as a nice framing device for this new adventure, but perhaps more could have been made of the setting, and in the end it slipped too easily into the tried and tested. Things certainly picked up in places, and there were moments when we were having a fantastic time, when those things that make Bioware RPGs great shone brightly and we were immersed in the adventure, yet still our overall feeling is that this is a game that has missed the mark.
A buggy launch definitely won't help gloss over the imperfections, and the various technical faults and a lack of polish only serves to highlight that Mass Effect: Andromeda hasn't come together with the kind of cohesion that made the original trilogy all-time classics. You could draw a parallel to the difference in feel between Knights of the Old Republic and its Obsidian-crafted sequel, where the second had all the same ingredients as the first, but didn't quite hit the same sweet spot. Then again, we're also left thinking of another game from a different franchise, The Bureau: Xcom Declassified, which took the Bioware formula, mixed in some new combat skills with an established setting, but still didn't end up bettering or even equalling the game that inspired it. The difference between those games and this, is that Bioware themselves made Andromeda, and as such it's not unreasonable to have hoped for something a little better.
Mass Effect: Andromeda's biggest crime is that it's only a very good game. Bioware has always made outstanding RPGs, but this one doesn't quite reach the same highs as its predecessors. The studio has raised the bar so high in the past, it's hard not to be a little disappointed with what they've served up here. Having said that, we don't want to sound overly negative, because we still found ourselves engrossed in this adventure for many, many hours, and along the way we had a lot of fun. There's enough of the series' DNA in there that fans will find this a worthwhile adventure, but now that the credits have rolled and the dust has settled on our first visit to Andromeda, we can't shake the feeling that the glory days were left back in the Milky Way.