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.