As you might imagine, humanity branching out into a new galaxy comes with a few teething problems.
The 20,000 plucky cryo-frozen pioneers onboard the Ark Hyperion awake from a 600 year journey from the Milky Way to the neighbouring Andromeda galaxy, met by a billowing space scourge that swells and consumes anything that passes through it. That’s a pickle, particularly as it has seemingly rendered the worlds earmarked for colonisation as inhabitable, storms wracking the surfaces, while the first life you encounter planet-side wants you dead. If that wasn’t enough, the Nexus, your giant orbital home-base, is over a year behind schedule and the Arks of the Milky Way’s other Council species have gone missing. Gosh.
As the Pathfinder (a role your character, Sara or Scott Ryder is thrust into), it is your job in Mass Effect: Andromeda to lead the way in interplanetary clean-up, finding a way to make these hostile worlds viable and lead democratic duties to the indigenous species. That’s a lot of problems to unpack. But as an experienced space-adventurer, or at least a player well-versed in the tasks of Mass Effect and RPGs at large, you are used to such challenges. Bring it on.
Less expected, perhaps, is experienced developer Bioware’s own struggles in transferring its enormously successful space opera to its new home. Andromeda is a clean break from an original trilogy that so delighted its players with fizzy third-person combat, smart inter-species-politik and the chance to get jiggy with aliens. That’s all still here, of course, and at its heart there is a familiarly satisfying sci-fi core to Andromeda. A fancy ship to command, a galaxy to explore, a motley crew of humans and aliens to get to know. A good game of grand scale and pioneering spirit. Yet this can be buried under a litany of technical hiccups, narrative clumsiness and occasionally bewildering decisions.
This could be put down to the fact that, for better and worse, Andromeda is a far more open game than its predecessors. Its general rhythm has you touching down on an open-world planet --be it the sandy dunes of Eos, the crime-ridden Kandara spaceport or the icy archipelago of Voeld-- and setting off in your swanky space buggy the Nomad to explore. Scattered throughout these worlds are tasks that set you on the path to colonisation, helping out other settlers, getting involved in an age-old conflict and, most regularly, activating Remnant (ancient alien) technology to clean up each planet’s hostile atmosphere. In contrast to the original trilogy’s urgency and denser locations, this is a game to be drawn out at leisure, rinsing each planet of its quests to improve its viability and help expand the Nexus.
This rather more nebulous instruction of ‘get out there and colonise’ is a noble goal and, at times, can be thoroughly engaging. First steps on a planet can be breathtaking; gorgeous landscapes that stretch out to an initially ferocious horizon. Emerging from the neon-tinged ‘vaults’ that filter the atmosphere can be equally arresting. Voeld bequeaths a sparkling aurora over snow-capped mountains as a reward for cleaning up, for instance, and it’s lovely.
But having already committed to a mission of breadth, Andromeda conspires to overfill the game with needless bulk. Missions are often clumsy busywork and usually overlong, with needless toing-and-froing or doubling up on objectives. One particularly strange example had Ryder taking down an enemy base and tasked with disabling a shield generator. Rather than sabotaging one console, Andromeda insists you must walk around to three machines that are in close proximity and hold the triangle button until they go pop. Why? It’s the kind of thing that unnecessarily dents the game’s pace and there are examples of it all over the galaxy. From lengthy alien Sudoku puzzles to hack into Remnant consoles, to a bizarrely long (if fancy) animation sequence when travelling between planets on the galaxy map. None of these complaints are particularly egregious in isolation, but add up to a niggling catalogue of errors.
Combat fares much better. It isn’t long after first planet-fall that you are trading ballistic fire with the murderous Kett and there is a definite zest to the skirmishes. The shooting is peppy enough, if served with a capricious auto-cover system, but its boon is in your character’s movement. Ryder is far nimbler than the original’s Commander Shepard, boasting a jet pack which can boost into the air or whizz into a rocket-dodge. Blasting around the battlefield is a riot, particularly if you make full use of your biotic (read: magic) and tech powers.
I have a loadout that includes a biotic charge, for example, which allows me to target and rush an enemy from distance. Used in conjunction with the jet-pack, I am a free-wheeling killing machine, zipping around the battlefield, jet-jumping over bad guys before zooming in with a biotic charge and finishing them off with a shotgun. Though if you are the more reserved kind of soldier, there are a huge amount of upgradeable skill options in the class screen which are interchangeable as 'profiles' and easily re-specced. It is not the most elegant or precise shooter you will ever play, but its extra layers mean it’s always good fun and helps mitigate those often tedious objectives.
If the combat is Andromeda’s most pleasant surprise, it is the alarming drop-off in the game’s writing that is of most concern. The dialogue, in particular, is unusually flat and laboured for a Bioware game, while Andromeda often fumbles what should be its biggest moments. A frantic opening draws you in, with the team shocked awake by the scourge and thrown into instant turmoil. But it is when our visitors from the Milky Way encounter new species that the narrative lacks the impact you would hope for. You come across the Kett almost immediately after setting foot on the first planet, but after a very brief attempt at diplomacy, you are already gunning them down and pilfering loot from their corpses. The game is quick and blunt about making the Kett unquestionably evil, robbing Andromeda of some of the original game’s smart ambiguity.
Friendlier are the Angarans, a more sophisticated race of tentacled humanoids not unlike Star Wars’ Twi’lek. But even here the first encounter lacks the pomp and circumstance you would hope for, with a flicker of mistrust quickly replaced by random angarans dishing out side-quests about species history and trade deals gone bad with abandon. Even the immediate ability to communicate in English is hand-waved with a later mention of ‘translators’. But how did they… and how did we get the lang… never mind.
It’s just a little clumsy, lacking the kind of wonder that comes from encountering new species. Even the established galaxy of the original games handled this better, with the exotic and unusual hanar (floating psychic jellyfish) or elcor (lumbering elephant people) bringing a sense of otherworldliness that both the kett and angarans lack.
So it is down to the more familiar faces of your crew to pick up the slack. And here there is more of that Mass Effect sparkle, bringing together a ragtag bunch of different races, beliefs and drives. For all of its flaws, Bioware’s knack of building a diverse melting pot even just aboard your ship is something to savour, creating friction and friendship in a way that works, save for the odd clunk of the dialogue.
New angaran chum Jaal is probably the pick, skilled and honourable with just the right amount of distrust. I am fond of Peebee, a skittish asari who has the rare quality of choosing to keep her own counsel on private matters until your relationship develops. Grumpy old krogan Dreck is good to have along in a fight. And after initially finding him an excitable irritant, your ‘regular guy’ Liam brings a flicker of grounded humanity to the ship, as he tries to keep morale ticking along with crew movie nights on his beat-up sofa. The notice board in the Crew Quarters is always worth a read too, as the crew bicker over the washing up. The Nexus throws up its own more serious conflicts too, with Krogan, Salarian and Turian ‘directors’ butting heads over the thrust of the initiative. The less said about wittering AI companion Sam the better, but in many of its characters there is still some of that Mass Effect magic.
Less alluring is the myriad of technical flaws that plague Andromeda. Much has been made of the often wonky animation, for instance, all dodgy lip-sync and glass stares. And while this can be an unwanted distraction, it is one of the game’s more benign hiccups. I’ve had enemies frozen in mid-air; I’ve had bosses spawning in the wrong place, making progress impossible. In one instance I needed to talk to an angaran ally to advance the mission, but the prompt didn’t appear. In an attempt to nudge him along, I bumped him, shot him, I even ran him over with the Nomad. He just stood there unfazed. Just as I was about to turn off the console, he suddenly sprang to life and legged it to another area where he deigned me worthy of a conversation. Honestly, it was kind of weird.
And that’s the thing; so much of what holds Andromeda back feel like avoidable oddities or strange decisions. Because when it works, when that core is allowed to shine, there are still few games as engaging. Finding your way through an alien vault, with undulating platforms to scale and Remnant guardians to battle; storming a Kett facility with a crack squad of Angarans; cresting a peak in the Nomad to reveal a stunning view. That’s the kind of exhilaration any space-farer seeks. It is a pity such adventure is hindered by its baggage.