With Bioware’s latest entry in their behemoth sci-fi RPG series now available for a sneak peak on EA Access (Xbox One & PC), we’ve taken Mass Effect: Andromeda out for a test drive and can now (mass) relay our initial impressions of one of this year’s most highly anticipated releases. And never fear, this article will be strictly spoiler-free in terms of plot and characters.
You may remember that the last entry in the series, Mass Effect 3, caused a bit of a fuss 5 years ago. So many fans raged at the infamous conclusion of the trilogy -that somehow managed to be both lazy and convoluted in equal measure- it genuinely seemed unlikely the franchise would return. But space and time heal all wounds and Bioware have put a significant amount of both between this new entry and its predecessor by moving proceedings to an entirely new galaxy, Andromeda.
A FLOCK WITHOUT A SHEPARD
For veterans of the series, it’s definitely a slightly disorientating and disconcerting feeling to start a new Mass Effect game without the comfort of your own Shepard or knowing exactly what’s at stake in the galaxy. It’s been virtually a decade since we first stepped into Commander Shepard’s shoes on his/her quest to stop the Reapers and there’s a slight feeling of an imposter about our new protagonists, Scott or Sara Ryder. At least they’ve managed to solve the whole nebulous gender thing this time round by having the player characters as twins, only one of whom wakes up from hypersleep as the ark-ship Hyperion arrives at its supposed new home planet.
The first striking aspect of Mass Effect: Andromeda is how facial animations in Bioware games continue to have the entwined fate of the more realistic they look, the weirder they feel. It’s the old uncanny valley of the “the lights are on but nobody’s home” factor that many a CGI face has suffered from over the years but it really is quite pronounced here. While the faces look nearly photo-realistic when motionless, as soon as a character moves their lips, the illusion is very quickly shattered.
Next up is the new dialogue choice system, which is closely modeled on the previous ME games but you now get to decide between 4 different answers (Logical, Emotional, etc) and there no longer tied to either the Paragon or Renegade paths. The symbols for the various tones aren’t immediately intuitive but the dialogue wheel keeps them in a fixed position so you should be able to make sure you’re staying all lovey-dovey with your new Asari (or whichever race you’re into) crush. The game demonstrates to you straight out of the gate that it is paying attention to what you say but choice is so often an illusion in Bioware’s lands and only time will tell if your decisions will truly have consequences like in The Witcher 3 or zero impact like in -well- Mass Effect 3.
After Ryder’s rude awakening, we are sent down to the new home planet to see why things are not going to plan. Once we’re down on solid ground again, it reassuringly feels very much like a Mass Effect game with the added bonus of some verticality thanks to a reasonably well-implemented booster pack. It’s surprising quite how familiar it feels given that Bioware had to build Andromeda from the ground up on EA’s Frostbite 3 engine (the previous three were powered by Unreal). We’re also given a new scanner to -you know- scan things with that immediately feels both reminiscent of Metroid: Prime and a little intrusive, though it quickly becomes apparent that the game will nudge you if you should be using it so you don’t need to be running around with it open all the time.
This opening planet is ostensibly the game’s tutorial and it sometimes quite lapse on a few of the finer details when it comes to controls and menus but it does a functional job of easing us back into the swing of things. That said, this re-introduction to the Mass Effect universe is by far the most underwhelming overture in terms of drama for the series. One can’t help but shake the feeling that the set-up here is little more than Lost In Space rather than the mold-breaking death and resurrection of Commander Shepard that ME 2’s intro shocked and delighted us with.
DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!
Combat has been modernized considerably with enemy encounters now far more fluid than the enclosed shooting galleries of the previous ME games. After a relatively easy skirmish with a couple of ‘Ketts’ (a new race who don’t speak the lingo but somehow all their tech is compatible with ours, of course), Andromeda takes the gloves off for the next encounter and flushes you out of the comfort-zone of cowering behind a chest-wall until enemies forget all their life-preservation skills. It’s a lot faster and fluid and, even on Normal difficulty, it proved quite challenging (and this is coming from someone who relishes playing ME on Insanity).
Once you get out into the game world properly, it quickly becomes clear how important moving and dodging is as enemies will regularly try to flank you. Plus in the new wide open areas, you are denied the awareness of enemies being funneled towards you by corridors, so Ryder really does have to be on his toes. This is also the first Mass Effect with respawning enemies in its open areas, so grinding is now possible if you want a better equipped Ryder for later missions.
The new planet maps are indeed particularly vast, or at least the one available in this trial was, and you’re given the Mako’s all-terrain successor, the Nomad, to get around. When out on your travels in these environments, the game constrains you with various levels of radiation to stop you wandering off unprepared and presumably you upgrade armor later to access these areas unfettered. While Andromeda isn’t strictly speaking an “open world” in the same way as other space-faring titles like Elite Dangerous or No Man’s Sky are, it is definitely the most expansive and open ME to date and feels like a return to the series first and deepest installment rather than the more arcadey sequels.
And while this might be most welcome news for hardcore fans who felt the series sold out its true RPG roots, it is possible to over do it.
TWO WRONGS DON’T MAKE A RIGHT
Remember how Bioware replaced the unwieldy driving sections in the first ME with the tedious planet surveying in ME 2 and then just didn’t bother with either in ME 3 much to everyone’s approval? Well, there must be some amnesiac designers at Bioware because in Andromeda they have inexplicably combined unwieldy driving sections with tedious planet surveying for reasons so inexplicable that you expect Kelly-Anne Conway to pop up and try to defend it.
Hopefully, the resources gathered by the activity aren’t that vital so perhaps one won’t have to engage with the laborious process that often. But it does lead into a bigger potential issue with Andromeda and one that’s marred many a game this generation: crafting systems and resource management. In just the first few hours, Ryder reveals himself to be quite the kleptomaniac, even by RPG-standards, and the game’s been shy in letting us know what it’s all for. We do get an early chance to see the games crafting system -or R&D as its known here- and it does bring back some uncomfortable memories of the hoarding problem that ME 1 had. In fact, it also bears a close resemblance to the weapon crafting in its sister RPG, Dragon Age: Inquisition, which was unbearably fussy at times (it’s not the only the similarity between the two titles, either). 20 or so hours in and it might all seem manageable but in the 4 to 5 hours spent given in this trial, thw whole experience is constantly teetering on the overwhelming and daunting/refreshing lack of hand-holding once you’re set loose.
And while we’re letting all the air out from the “Welcome Home” balloons, one must sincerely hope there are some actual characters waiting for us later on in the game. While Ryder might be intentionally green and novice, his charisma-vacuum companions make ME 3’s Jacob look like Robert Downey Jr. so far. This should be the biggest concern for fans because even if Andromeda is delivering the best gameplay of the series that won’t count for shit if the game’s writers can’t summon up someone or something worth giving a damn about to compliment it. Also, if there is a threat to rival the Reapers, it remains absent in the first few hours.
Looking forward, it feels like Mass Effect: Andromeda -despite its far, far away setting- isn’t quite the giant leap some were expecting. It definitely looks and plays like a Mass Effect game and has struck a strong balance between its RPG roots and its more popular action-orientated successors. Whether it has sold its soul in the process by sacrificing story and personality for a more expansive, modern experience remains to be seen but this is a series that has thrived on balancing engaging gameplay with purposeful writing. And surely no one wants a repeat of when the series screwed up the latter part of that formula again…
MASS EFFECT: ANDROMEDA WILL BE RELEASED ON MARCH 21ST IN THE US AND MARCH 23RD WORLDWIDE. THIS ARTICLE WAS BASED ON THE XBOX ONE VERSION OF THE GAME.