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Mass Effect: Andromeda sprawls and sprawls, eagerly offering you so much to see and do that it nearly loses itself in the process. In this massive and uncertain voyage into an alien galaxy, the best way to center yourself is to hold on to other people, and trust that the mission will accomplish at least some of its ambitious goals.
In Bioware's new third-person action RPG, you play as Ryder, a human adventurer who lives in an advanced society capable of faster-than-light space travel. Andromeda is the fourth entry in the Mass Effect series, and while some of the aliens and politics make a return, the whole thing unfolds in a different setting that is friendly to franchise newcomers. Ryder is a part of the "Andromeda Initiative," a group of explorers who leave the Milky Way in search of a new frontier: the Heleus Cluster. The expedition is a demanding trek that requires 600 years of travel, during which members of the Initiative are put into cryogenic stasis---to be a part of it is to leave everything behind, without certainty that you'll ever go back.
Once Ryder and their colleagues arrive, everyone is shocked to discover that the "golden worlds" they scouted aren't nearly as habitable as they had hoped. The region also turns out to be overrun with a hostile species called the "Kett," and despite optimistic hopes for first contact, they are not interested in making peace. Worse, nearly every logistic involved with the trip goes wrong: some ships arrive a year ahead of time, while other "arks" containing entire species are lost and unaccounted for. Supplies for those already in the area are dwindling, and tensions around these complications burst into revolts, with some of the Initiative exiled to dangerous planets.
Within the first hour, the player is awarded the title of "Pathfinder," that is, someone who must direct humanity to planets suitable for colonization. You will, of course, wonder if such a huge responsibility can rest on the shoulders of a mere soldier, but the question of leadership---who earns it, whether or not someone can be ready for it, and what defines an inspiring leader---is a running theme throughout Andromeda.
The ingredients for an exciting game are all there, but Andromeda's structure slows the beginning's momentum. Where older games kept a tight pace, Andromeda overwhelms you with choice on every planet you visit. When you arrive in a new locale, you can talk to an extraordinary number of people, but they don't always have something meaningful to say. I went into Andromeda hungry to learn all about a new race called the Angara, as Mass Effect games have historically been great at fleshing out believable societies of alien races. But Andromeda's inconsistent writing beats the player over the head with the idea that the Angara have large families to the point that what could be a culture-defining characteristic instead feels like repetitive writing that keeps telling instead of shutting up some and just showing.
On a more fundamental level, the series' signature multiple choice dialogue wheel now feels dated. In the last few years we've seen an array of games such as Oxenfree and the Mr. Robot mobile game explore the dynamic, lively rhythms of conversation, but Mass Effect is content to have people standing awkwardly in front of each other, taking turns exchanging ideas that you pick from a dialogue wheel. Many years ago, this method of presenting conversation put Bioware at the forefront of narrative-driven games, but now, it feels like they are lagging in a revolution they helped start. Thanks to stilted voice acting and strange editing that makes characters deliver lines at odd intervals, some conversations just don't feel natural. Mass Effect has you talking to people for hours, but it hardly reflects how real people talk.
Still, the dialogue has improved in one key way: you're no longer railroaded into picking between good "Paragon" and bad "Renegade" choices. Instead, you can choose a variety of different tones that do not lock you into any specific morality. Mass Effect: Andromeda constantly asks you to reflect on what you stand for, and through your choices, asks you to impart values on a nascent society looking to you for direction. What will you teach them? Will humanity be a ruthless, self-interested invader, or will they make new allies and build their trust?
The more people you talk to, the more quests you acquire, and the more things spin out of control. The first problem is partially in presentation: tracking quests is a nightmare. A confusing user interface requires you to sort through multiple nested menus that make it hard to find what you want. Will a quest someone just told you about appear under the specific planet it takes place in? The quest-giver seemed friendly, so will his or her request go under the "Allies" menu? Oh, that quest sounded important, will it go into "Priority Ops"? Even after playing for dozens of hours, I still regularly fumble in finding what I want. I had to keep a separate list of what I wanted to tackle and how, and even then, the entire thing felt overwhelming.
The mere act of finding what actually matters in Andromeda, and figuring out in what order to complete it, reminded me of the helpless dread that comes with tackling an inbox full of email. Even when the contents are kickass, wading through it and prioritizing is so mentally taxing that it saps the joy of what comes next. Proper pacing and maintaining a sharp sense of purpose is impossible when the player has trouble figuring out where to even start, or how to progress beyond main story missions.
As the game is supposed to be about building a new home, I prioritized colonization missions. My assumption was that the inevitable crisis down the line would be determined by my preparation, and that humanity's survival in this new galaxy depended on how "viable" I made planets. Helpfully, the game even gives you a specific percentage tracking this viability stat across locales, all of which contribute to an overall "AVP" number and level. Before you can set up an outpost, you have to rank up viability to a certain percentage by dealing with whatever pressing issues plague a planet: one area, for example, might be drowning in scavengers that you must clear out before you can live there.
Terraforming harsh planets into liveable ones requires going to monoliths left behind by a mysterious civilization called the "Remnant." To find them, you must strap into the Nomad, Andromeda's hardy new vehicle. You will spend a lot of time traveling across vast distances on the Nomad: while there aren't many planets to land on in Andromeda, the ones you can land on are enormous. I spent way too long having fun trying to climb extreme mountain ranges, though some of that exploration was hampered by stuttering and texture pop-in.
Remnant monoliths offer a familiar structure: you shoot some futuristic looking enemies, you jump around platforms looking for "glyphs," and you use those glyphs to decrypt consoles that give you access into whatever lies inside. Decryption involves a Sudoku-like puzzle that I have come to abhor. In more complicated puzzles, I found myself fussing over alien symbols for upwards of an hour, a process that sucked away any potential excitement from terraforming new planets.
Unlocking monoliths gives you access to the big Remnant Vaults, which are dungeons that look and play more or less the same. At times, the platforming and puzzles contained within felt too simplistic, with your magic "omni tool" scanning always unearthing the path forward. Other times, the "puzzles" felt inscrutable and under explained, and I only solved them through trial and error. Nonetheless I went through this arduous process time and time again to build new outposts, because the game told me I needed to provide space for settlers frozen in cryo. Deciding who got to defrost is presented as a monumental choice, the sort of thing that broadcasts what kind of settlers we would be. I tried to defrost a healthy balance of military, scientific, and trading settlers, but as far as I can tell, the only thing they provided me were occasional bonuses that I never actually needed. The order and number didn't seem to matter in the long run. Given that Andromeda's raison d'etre is supposed to be finding and building a new home, the mechanics feel inconsequential, or are too abstracted into mere numbers and percentages.
I was particularly let down by the stock outposts we set up, which are so barebones, they hardly compare to franchise-defining locations, such as Mass Effect 2's Omega. The fact everything looks like space Ikea makes sense from a story perspective---of course we can't just immediately build a cool new city, we just got here!---but it does mean that this Mass Effect lacks some of its predecessors' flair. My hope is that we get to see these outposts blossom across more games, but that's not the Mass Effect I got to play this time.
Thankfully, Mass Effect: Andromeda's combat is stellar, and that's good, because you do lots of it as you explore the world. In prior games, you picked a class that helped determined your abilities. Andromeda, on the other hand, allows you to pick "profiles" that determine affinities. Profiles can be turned on or off at your leisure, depending on how you want to play, and they determine everything from added weapon power to how long your special "biotic" powers last. From there, you can mix and match abilities from all class types. I primarily played with a charge ability, which crashed Ryder into enemies for massive damage, a "Shockwave" ability that sends enemies flying into the air, and finally, a summoning ability that brought extra firepower in the form of a drone. I wouldn't be able to build a character like this in older games, or in most RPGs. The freedom is liberating.
Even when fighting against stock enemies, every encounter feels gratifying. Ryder can dash with the press of a button, which is useful both for avoiding enemy attacks, and darting around the field. Combined with my charging ability, I could come face-to-face with enemies within a split second, where I'd melee and shotgun them into oblivion. Charging also regenerates my shield, so I played more aggressively as I became critically damaged, rather than hiding behind cover. Ryder can vault up in the air and hover while shooting, allowing you to maneuver around enemy cover with ease. The cover system itself is finicky, given that Ryder sticks to it automatically (or not!), but my build specifically rewards navigating around it, so it was never a big deal. Other playstyles may not have the same experience.
While it's possible to combo attacks together for massive damage, you can no longer pause to tell your companions to do specific moves, eliminating some of the tactical rigor that defined older games. In its stead, Andromeda asks you to think on your feet, to use your reflexes. It's a thrilling change that turns Mass Effect into a fast-paced shooter, though it's not devoid of of strategic elements. Andromeda allows you to craft three types of weapons, all of which can be modified on a more granular level. I ran around with a Remnant assault rifle that didn't use ammo, but instead overheated after too much use, as well as a Plasma shotgun that fired off floaty yet potent bullets. Both had been fitted special barrels, stocks, scopes, and so on, all so that these weapons could complement my in-game techniques.
It took me many hours of navigating confusing menus and sifting through a staggering amount of raw materials before I understood how to make good weapons. The game quickly throws everything at you--- a high volume of quests, the ample profile and ability choices, the giant maps, the unwieldy crafting---and it takes a long time to fully wrap your head around how everything works. I made a conscious decision to keep myself from drowning by focusing on the ship's crew, as relationships have been the cornerstone of Bioware games.
Much has been made of Andromeda's facial animations, and while I still contend that the silly GIFs and footage shared before release were blown out of proportion or taken out of context, some hiccups are harder to overlook than others. When a conversation with an inexpressive NPC is interesting, I don't mind that their face isn't super emotive. When you're about to bang someone---which of course you can do in this famously romance-and-sex-filled series---stoic body language and movement kills any sense of intimacy built by your conversations. During one major story mission, I watched as two major characters fused with one another in a cutscene. In a touching scene meant to cap off a friendship, Andromeda bizarrely attached a gun to a character's hand. The exchange became unintentionally hilarious, and while it wasn't harmful, it did make it difficult to focus on what was being said.
Despite all of this, the overall experience wasn't ruined.
Of all the things in the game, I marveled most at what Bioware accomplished with this game's big cast of characters. You can take allies with you on missions, where they provide additional firepower and have plenty of banter, but that's not what impressed me. Andromeda's characters shine brightest during downtime, away from the action. As you progress through quests, characters constantly remark on where they're at and how they feel, even if not tied to major story missions. The ship has a public message board, where people write to each other and make plans without you. As you walk around on your ship, you can hear conversations playing out all around you. People riff on who must have left the food out. They bicker about ugly unclaimed sweaters left in the laundry. They decide to make a religious study group.
It took me a while to warm up to the characters, but that's partially baggage. The core trilogy had three games to define its kickass characters, whereas everyone is starting from scratch in Andromeda.The comparisons don't quite feel fair. They will happen anyway. I had a complicated dynamic with Cora, the second-in-command who, according to protocol, was supposed to get the Pathfinder title over a schmuck like me. She didn't, and that made conversations kinda awkward---that's not a feeling games explore very often. The Asari PeeBee, ever curious and impulsive, felt like a volatile personality next to the cool and collected Asari aliens I'd met in previous games. With Suvi, the ship's scientific expert, I found myself exploring the role of spirituality in a society obsessed with science. My favorite new character has to be Jaal, the Angaran with surprisingly raw insecurities about his place in the world.
I wasn't quite as drawn to the rest of the crew, but I didn't always have to be. It feels weird to say, but I loved how much some characters clashed with one another, because it made them seem like actual people. Even when everyone works toward a common goal on a team, philosophies may not always match up, which can lead to tension. Andromeda explores those pressure points, allows you to see how people grow and learn to work with one another. It can be messy, or it can be heartwarming. At one point, a crew member wanted to start a movie night to lift everyone's spirits, but nearly every single person had differing ideas on how to make it happen. What initially appears as a simple mission to pick up items expands into an epic, multi-part quest quest to make everyone happy.
At times, the core of Andromeda can seem hollow. I balked at the naivete and entitlement in thinking 100,000 people could just start a new life in a home that does not belong to them. I didn't understand the Initiative's belief that all of the races of the Milky Way could just sweep their complicated histories under a rug to start anew. It was as if Silicon Valley was trying to sell me on the idea that a hot new app would somehow stop world hunger. Something just didn't add up here. These narratives are interrogated and become complicated, but only if you pursue the right quests. It took many, many hours, but eventually I found myself contending with Angaran anger over human colonization. And, without spoiling anything, collecting all the "memories" scattered across the world completely changed what I understood about the Initiative. Andromeda's biggest flaw is in giving the player so much choice, that it's incredibly easy to miss the crux of what makes the game good.
The plot and structure of Mass Effect: Andromeda can be viewed as a metaphor for the game itself, where a population eager for a fresh start makes a leap into a new frontier. The destination isn't the paradise we hoped for. For our characters, Andromeda required a leap of faith, the belief that the universe must hold more for humanity. Nobody anticipated how much work building a new home would really take, and in a way, the entire game is about mitigating everyone's disappointment. The truth is that Andromeda itself isn't the promised land players hoped for either, but there is a lot that's good in this flawed new frontier for Mass Effect. The question is: will you play long enough to find it?