written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
It’s been a long wait, the last generation of gaming was defined by the experiences… one such experience was the Mass Effect series capturing the hearts and minds of the gaming populace. As a huge fan of the original Mass Effect trilogy, I found myself in a bit of a bind in the month leading up to Mass Effect Andromeda. Realizing that despite looking forward to the game, I knew that tempering my expectations may be in order. I had to review this game as objectively as possible, not letting myself get stuck behind Commander Shepard Blinders. I realize that in the weeks leading up to the release, Mass Effect Andromeda has faced a bit of a media shit-storm… because of this reason I realized that a month to relive Shepard’s tale (playing the original trilogy) then let Shepard lie after Mass Effect 3’s closing credits. This was one of the best things I could have done before jumping in to Ryder’s adventure in Andromeda.
Jumping in to Mass Effect Andromeda, the story revolves around the Andromeda Initiative and their 600-year journey to the Andromeda System. Launching during the events of Mass Effect 2, the journey is a one-way trip in cryo-stasis to extend the reach of Milky Way races beyond their home system.
Before you get into the whole narrative, you have to pick which Ryder sibling to play as. Though similar to previous games where you had to craft your playable character, Mass Effect Andromeda’s Ryder differs greatly from Commander Shepard. First off, when you pick a gender you are playing as THAT sibling. The narrative features twins Scott and Sara (default names) Ryder and the one who eventually takes on the Pathfinder mantle is the twin you picked. The biggest departure from Commander Shepard is in how your playable Ryder is brought to life. Whether male or female, your Commander Shepard was never that much different from the opposite gender. Taking into account how ME:A’s narrative follows one of the Ryder twins with the other still factoring in to the story, they both had to have some differences that made them unique while still affording the player to experience a similar story regardless of which twin they started with. It’s the small things that hold up for me; while Scott was working with the Alliance, Sara studied prothean artifacts. Having different backstories even play into squad mate conversations, this gives the player a little bit more of an incentive to jump back in and play from the other twin’s perspective.
You can use the default character model, much like in previous installments this is not customizable, or craft a Ryder from scratch. Personally, my experience with the character creator wasn’t the best. The lack of options coupled with limiting much of the created character to the base head model make for a frustrating experience if you just want to jump in. Thanks to the fine folks on Reddit though, courtesy of the Share Your Ryder subreddit, it’s proven that with a little time and effort you can craft a decent looking Ryder. Where the character creator does shine is in your father Alec. Depending on the starting head model you use, Alec Ryder will somewhat resemble your character. This attention to detail makes for an experience that further solidifies YOUR Ryder as an individual. In the Original Trilogy (referred as OT going forward) your created character never looked as good as the rest of your team, instead resembling Random NPC 9 instead of the main character. With either Ryder twin, even when using the character creator, your Pathfinder looks as if he or she belongs with the rest of your uniquely designed team.
Firstly, I wanted to touch on gameplay… primarily combat. There’s a lot of new here, something that falls in line with my personal approach of viewing ME:A like a new IP rather than a continuation. Gone are the character classes, instead opening up the entire plethora of Ryder’s skills regardless of which specialization you initially pick. Ryder can equip up to three abilities at any given time. Like previous installments, your powers are separated into three classes:
Combat abilities - these are for the Ryder who prefers guns to powers, a seeking concussive blast or (new to the series) barricade and trip mine further diversify your command of the battlefield.
Tech abilities - like the Engineer and Sentinel classes, tech powers use Omni Tool technology to use abilities like incinerate, overload, or deploy an assault turret.
Biotic abilities - for your inner Jedi, warp mass effect fields to push/pull/throw and all around whip enemies around.
Do you want to specialize in biotics and roam Andromeda as a Space Wizard? Do you plan to channel your inner Commander Shepard and go commando with all combat abilities? You can even equip an ability from each of the three ability classes and create something unheard of in the OT. To manage all the options, classic character classes are now included in Ryder’s unique combat profiles. Once you reach a certain point after the prologue, a point where the game mechanic is justified by the narrative (love this it when they do this) you have access to combat profiles. Here is where the traditional character class system lives now.
Unlocking and leveling up new profiles when you plug points into their specific skill disciplines is where you can feel a little familiarity. On top of equipping skills you can equip a profile that grants Ryder unique class-specific bonuses based on the class along with unique passive abilities. Returning from the OT are all the original character classes; Soldiers are combat specialists, Engineers specialize in tech, and Adepts prefer biotics. As for the hybrid classes; Infiltrators are tech/combat specialists, Sentinels employ both biotics and tech abilities, and Vanguards use biotic and combat abilities… kinda like a Battle Mage. New to the series isthe jack-of-all-master-of-none Explorer class. To help with managing your combat profiles, you can pull up your favorites wheel to pick between up to four pre-built profiles you can switch between on the fly. Switching profiles does put your abilities into cool down, but if you make sure to stay below the maximum weapon weight while actively seeking mods that increase recharge speeds, I’m sure you’ll be okay.
Some abilities now feature an all new function for added… “omph” for lack of a better word. You can prime an enemy then detonate the primer for explosive combos. For example, Incinerate not only lights an enemy on fire while chipping away at health with a damage-over-time element, if you use an ability like Overload you can detonate your enemies in an impressive display. Ideally, you’d want your squad-mates to help pull off these combos, but unfortunately the curse of not having a very competent squad make this quite rare, couple that with ME:A doing away with the power wheel and you have to just trust in your AI companions. Instead you may be better off setting up your Ryder with a primer and detonator ability… this way you can ensure that you will always be able to combo yourself or at the very least follow up with your squad. It helps that ability cool downs are unique to each individual ability (much like in ME1) instead of putting all your abilities on a cool down (ME2/3).
While I was tempted to play like I did in the OT, I quickly learned that when shit gets hairy I found myself switching between profiles and even experimenting with new combinations. You can set your current skills and profile to a favorite at the press of a button, but one thing that I felt would have made for better management between favorites is if you can save at least up to ten or fifteen favorite setups, but still only equip up to four. That and the ability to label certain favorite setups would have made navigating the menu more streamlined than what we ended up getting.
Moving around will feel familiar to fans of the OT, but while locales in the OT seemed at times quite expansive… they were very flat and in the case of Mass Effect 2 & 3, very linear. In ME:A, they did indeed build out… but also built up. Courtesy of Ryder and co’s jump-jets (something Shep could have used) exploring takes you up and down as much as it does forward and back. Not being limited to a flat surface gave me a very different perspective, one that makes sense for ME:A’s focus on their hero being an explorer rather than a soldier. Lore wise, it also makes sense. From chasing Saren across council space to tackling the oncoming Reaper invasion, Shepard was a boots to the ground soldier. While exploration was (kinda) part of Shepard’s story, narrative wise… Shepard was focused on the goal in front of him or her. Ryder is a Pathfinder, while the story does task you with fighting the mysterious kett (ME:A’s main antagonists) from the opening scene all the way to the final epilogue… your quest has always been focused on exploration over combat. Jump-jets also serve the purpose of propelling you high up, dodging left/right/forward/back, and also hovering when aiming your weapon.
To better explore the world, we get the spiritual (and passive) successor to the Mako. Ryder’s Nomad is a six-wheel vehicle with two modes. four-wheel drive is meant for zoom-zooming around fairly fast while six-wheel drive helps you traverse steep environments. Nothing as gravity defying as the Mako, but does the trick. Driving the Nomad is meant solely for transportation, unlike the Mako or the Hammerhead… the Nomad is meant for exploration over defenses. Your ride features a kinetic barrier but with no offensive artillery; in fact even the Tempest is a smaller scout ship. ME:A goes to great lengths to emphasize that Pathfinder Ryder is an explorer and the furthest thing from the soldier Commander Shepard was.
Gunplay is more so the same if you are familiar with Mass Effect 2 & 3. Zoomed in, over the shoulder third person perspective puts you right in the thick of battle. The cover system is situational now, no longer requiring a button press to get into cover. Very welcome is the addition to switch which should to look over, in previous games you could only ever look over the right shoulder and that ended up limiting what you could actually do in combat. Now we’re in a brave new world, with it comes new weaponry and armaments. Milky Way gear is more of what we already have been used to, Heleus weapons and armor are native to the species of the Heleus Cluster… primarily the kett and angara, Remnant weapons and armor are based on the mysterious civilization that predates the angara.
Weapons and armament can be crafted or purchased, much like in the first Mass Effect, weapons and armor have ranks that start at rank 1 all the way to rank 10. While I liked how in ME2 & 3 they improved combat, I always did miss the ability to find stronger versions of my weapons. Unfortunately, you can’t outfit your squad with either weapons or armor.
The story follows your Ryder twin as he or she takes the mantle of Pathfinder. After waking up from a 600-year nap, you learn that the Andromeda System… along with all the “Golden Worlds” you were searching for are less habitable and more deadly than previously studied. Much has happened in the 600+ years since the Andromeda Initiative left the Milky Way.
Mysterious monoliths (complete with robo-guards-of-death) left behind by a people referred to as “the remnant.” As your main antagonists, an almost fervently religious species called the kett seek the secrets of remnants and their tech. Playing a central role in the narrative, the remnant are the driving force behind how Ryder plans to make these formerly Golden Worlds capable of sustaining life while the kett seek remnant knowledge for more nefarious means.
I wont get too into the story (because #spoilers) but I feel that to really enjoy Ryder’s journey, you honestly have to give up on Shepard and his crew. This is a very different story and with it comes a new hero, it wouldn’t be fair to constantly compare Ryder to Shepard. As a fan of the series, I like the turn they took centralizing Ryder as less of the soldier and more of an explorer. With a new character comes a new way to convey the narrative, the biggest change in the series is ME:A shying away from the Paragon/Renegade system that played such an important role in the OT. Instead, we get up to four “tones” you can take with your responses; emotional, logical, casual, and professional. This creates more of a chance to diversify your responses than what we had in the OT. From my countless replays of the OT, I know that when I decided to head down the path of a Paragon or Renegade, I almost automatically stuck with that morality through the entire game. It made sense mechanically since certain dialog options only showed up when you were at a high enough Paragon/Renegade level. To that end, the lack of a charm stat for Ryder does away completely with the ability to influence NPCs with honeyed words.
Your squad is tightly knit crew… more akin to your squad in ME1, focusing instead on your six squad-mates and your small crew on the Tempest. While I loved how big my little party got in Mass Effect 2, the decision to go with a smaller group in ME:A made getting to know them all the more worthwhile. You owe it to yourself to give these characters a chance and really get to know them. No offense to series favorites like Wrex or Tali, but I feel that the characters that join you on the Tempest are some of the best written characters in the entire franchise. Loyalty missions are back and improves heavily on the system built in to ME2. Each mission is unique and make up some of my favorite moments in the game, leading up to these loyalty missions are individual quests which help flesh out your squad-mate’s involvement. Before, you received these loyalty missions at certain intervals of the game with some dialog to help give relevance. What I loved about how ME:A approached loyalty missions was how you actively set up these epic missions with a quest here and a quest there… eventually leading up to said mission.
Despite some janky animations and numerous issues with texture/graphical pop-in, the world of Mass Effect Andromeda is gorgeous. From the endless snowy hills of Voeld to the jungles of Havarl. Each world is unique and with them come unique obstacles.
Returning from ME3 is the co-op “hoard mode” style multiplayer, unlike in ME3 your participation in multiplayer does not affect the narrative. Mass Effect 3’s readiness rating depended on you playing multiplayer, and while the affect in negligible (in my opinion) the need to force this mode on those playing the campaign did not sit well with many players. APEX Strike Missions can be actively played or you can send a strike team on a mission and after the allotted time reap the benefits. Multiplayer was surprisingly one of the best things in Mass Effect 3 and the inclusion of the mode in Mass Effect Andromeda further expanded on the game’s replay value.
Now, as I’ve been mostly gushing about the game… I do need to focus on where they could have improved. While I could nit-pick the facial animations, UI issues, overly long travel animations, and of course the many bugs… I can sum much of this up in the game lacking polish. Mass Effect Andromeda has a lot going for it, it’s an exciting new tale in an established universe I’ve grown to love.
Outside of the issues with the game’s polish, I grew weary with much of the game’s sidequests. Many of them require you to hop not just around the map but across the cluster. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it weren’t for the extremely long and drawn out animation sequences when you traverse around the cluster. I found myself putting ff much of my exploration because seeing your ship take off once through the cluster may be cool… it’s seeing it the 347th time that begins to grate on my sanity.
As a fan of BioWare games I am used to how many of their titles, and the OT is without exception, lacked polish at release. I feel we need to give them time and give BioWare the benefit of the doubt here, on my build I experienced multiple bugs and animation snafus… but while some were frustrating, none of them were game breaking enough to make me actively dislike my experience. I plugged over 50 hours into my first playthrough with over 50 in a New Game + playthrough (oh yeah, ME:A has a NG+). I can say that I enjoyed my time and look forward to jumping back in.
Mass Effect Andromeda is far from perfect, but I feel that much of the community response has been overblown, even pushing some in the community to actively harass and doxx a female animator (who by the way did not work on Andromeda)… fuck you gamergate. The game isn’t perfect and does lack polish, but there is so much here and I feel that given a patch or two the game will be more stable. An exciting story, incredibly satisfying combat system, and some of the best writing in the entire series make up for many of the game’s buggy moments. I felt like much of the negative response came from players who put Commander Shepard and the OT up on a pedestal, but do yourself a favor and revisit the OT… it wasn’t perfect and by no means do I intend to excuse them for releasing a buggy game. As I said in the start of this review, leaving Commander Shepard and the crew of the Normandy behind was the best thing I could have done before Mass Effect Andromeda.
+ great cast of characters
+ super-fun combat system
+ griping sci-fi narrative
+ new conversation system
- needs more polish
- confusing menu system
- inconsistent facial animations
- usual "BioWare" clunkiness