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It seemed hard to imagine immersing myself back into the Mass Effect universe without the heroic presence of Commander Shepard, but Andromeda has put all my fears to rest. Fair warning, this review for will contain a few setup/early game spoilers, but I’ll keep major priority mission details and game-affecting decisions under wraps.
I admit it me a little adjusting time to get used to the new protagonist. They don’t exactly fill Shepard’s shoes, but Pathfinder Ryder does indeed live up to expectations and is more than worthy of standing alongside our favorite space explorer. Bioware, you did good.
That said, Andromeda is not without its ups and downs. I’ve spent the last week wavering back and forth between high highs of tugged heartstrings and trigger-happy excitement, and low lows of some hellishly boring space travel and glitchy game mechanics.
It all starts with the character creation section. In all honesty, this has been the most uninspired and disappointing aspect of the entire game. It’s not fully customizable; you basically have to choose a template face and make only minor adjustments. It leaves out the ability to drastically alter your character’s mouth, nose and eye shape beyond whatever shape they come in from your chosen template. The only options for extra additions are scars, makeup and tattoos (plus facial hair for maleRyder). No freckles, moles, or age lines here. And also no fucking eyebrow color changer.
I opted for femRyder with a hairstyle similar to my original femShep. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the final product, but she grew on me as the game progressed. If there’s one piece of advice I can give, it’s make your hair color darker than you think. I thought I was going for an auburn, red-brown, and it looks okay indoors, but in broad daylight my Ryder’s hair is BEACON ORANGE. You have been warned.
The story sets up fast — possibly too fast. There’s a lot of information thrown at you in the first dozen cutscenes, but it does slow down to a more even pace as things go on. The short of it is this, the Andromeda Initiative has sent four arks full of humans, Turians, Asari and Salarians respectively off into space to seek out a new home. In case you forgot that this was Mass Effect, things do not go to plan. The arks got separated and lost off course. The planet destined for the human population turns out to be not even slightly inhabitable. And just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, the human leader, the Pathfinder, dies in the heat of an ambush. Ryder happens to be the child of that Pathfinder, and in a further unexpected twist of events, they wind up his successor. Ryder is now the Human Pathfinder, suddenly destined to lead their people through the galaxy in search of a new home.
Understandably, it’s not so easy for Ryder to step into the role. Not everyone trusts them to handle the burden. And it really is a burden when you’re left alone trying to pick up the pieces scattered in the wake of your father’s death.
Pathfinder Ryder is quite a bit younger than Commander Shepard, and it’s hard not to notice the youthful naivety in their mannerisms and dialogue. It definitely gives the game, especially the early game, a completely different feel to the original trilogy, almost prequel-like.
The crew of the Tempest also feels more youthful and inexperienced than Shepard’s on the Normandy. But this is an important part of the story. These are the people who have left Earth and everything they know far behind for a new start at life. They left behind parents, siblings, and important memories. Much of the crew will tell you about these things as you get to know them. All of them are grieving something, but Ryder, one of the only people to actually come with family only to lose them right away, is able to find comfort in the shared stories of the team. This fits well with the nostalgic vibe of the entire game, as those of us who spent hours upon hours in the original trilogy have waited 5+ years for this next-gen experience.
And holy heck, is it good to play Mass Effect on the newer generation console. Elizabeth gave us an early-game PC review and raved about the smooth combat mechanics. Playing on PS4, I found that she was exactly right. This is the smoothest and sleekest Mass Effect combat has ever been. As a result, it’s absolutely the most fun. As an infiltrator, I’ve never enjoyed testing out various assault rifles and upgrading my tech powers more than I have in this game. The tech and biotic powers are pretty brilliant, a fantastic counterpart to your physical weapons. It’s extremely satisfying to seamlessly stun an enemy with electricity and then blast them to smithereens while their shields are down. And that’s just one of many possible combinations.
The cutscenes are also relatively smooth. I appreciated the way the story dialogue and background atmosphere, including radio announcements, sometimes continues between travel points to make your journey between load screen as invisible as possible. I could go into nitpicky details about the sheer amount of load times, but considering how fucking huge this open-world RPG is, I have no grounds to complain at all. After 40+ hours of gameplay I’m only just making a dent in the realm of possibilities for exploration.
The exploration and missions revolve primarily around traversing the galaxy in search of a new place to live as well as finding viable places to make outposts for the 20,000 people you have waiting on the ark. Luckily, a mysterious alien race known as Remnants have left wildly advanced technology that, if logged into correctly, can help out with some of the planets’ more dangerous environmental problems. This sounds weird but trust me, it makes a lot more sense and is definitely more interesting in-game than on paper. To get across the planets you get to drive the Nomad, a slightly better version of the infamous Mako.
What makes the Nomad so much more driveable is that it actually has a gear change, so you can go at a nice even speed across flat road and then roll your way carefully up rocky hillsides. This isn’t without hazards, of course. The roads have tire tracks already present to mark out the path you’re meant to take, but sticking to those tire tracks is occasionally impossible and makes you look like a pretty terrible driver. But I guess that’s inevitable, after all what did we say about Ryder following in Shepard’s footsteps?
Along the way you’re meeting new alien races, old alien races (hello Krogans), and trying really damn hard not to fuck up. Like Ryder, you feel pretty in the dark, and it’s difficult to tell what choices you’re making are having what kind of affect on your endgame, or potential future games. This is because Andromeda ditches the beloved (by some) paragon/renegade scale of the original trilogy and opts for the four-category dialogue wheel familiar to those of us who played Dragon Age Inquisition. Your Ryder can respond to a given situation either emotionally, logically, casually, or professionally. At minimum you’re going to rack up dialogue points in at least two categories, as every option isn’t available in every single conversation.
I chose to characterize my Ryder with the emotional and professional dialogue choices, an interesting mix that means she comes across extremely capable in the Pathfinder role, but obviously cares a whole damn lot, and possibly too much, about everyone she meets. My Ryder is extremely trusting and basically tries to make friends with everyone, which may or not actually work out in her favor. Who you side with — or more importantly, who sides with you — obviously affects what happens in the endgame, but I’ll leave that for you to discover yourself.
The further I got into Mass Effect Andromeda, the more I felt like I was at home. There was definitely a warm-up period but after a while Andromeda really does feel exactly like any other Mass Effect game. My only qualm with the new story is that your main enemy, the Kett, are frankly just not as scary as the Reapers. But Bioware does know just how to play into its original emotional beats. Not knowing where the other missing arks are or if they’re even alive is heart-wrenching when you know they’re full of Turians and Asari. I dare you to get through this game without thinking fondly of your original favs.
But even better is that I didn’t miss Garrus and Liara so much when the new Turian and Asari crew members, Vetra and Peebee, were around. I absolutely love the Tempest crew. Each character has their own well-developed personality and backstory that floods the game with colorful dialogue and interesting interactions, a surprising number of which can turn romantic. Andromeda eases off on previously limited relationship rules and actually allows you to get seriously flirty (and possibly more) with basically as many people as your Ryder is interested in. The commitment part doesn’t come until much later, so any time that love-heart option pops up in your dialogue wheel don’t feel like you have to hold back and save yourself for that one special someone.
If I’m being honest, it wouldn’t be a Bioware game without a few annoying game glitches. Mine have been relatively minor compared to a few complaints I’ve seen. But, in my 40+ hours of gameplay so far I have experienced occasional frame rate issues, characters and scenery failing to load on time, camera angles missing the speaking characters completely, team members appearing in odd places during combat, NPCs randomly walking way too fast, and interaction buttons only showing up when you’re on the exact right angle. None of these glitches really affected my overall experience, bar the interaction button issues. Sometimes they take too long to load and you’re left standing at a door you know is supposed to be openable just waiting for the interaction to show up.
Once, and thankfully only once, the interaction didn’t show up at all, and I was forced to reload a mission (this was during the Firefighters mission when I went back to speak with SAM on the Nexus, so keep an eye out and hopefully it doesn’t happen to you). This seems like something that will get fixed in a future patch. Other than that, there’s really nothing that ruined the experience. So are there bugs? Yes, but minor bugs given just how freaking huge the Andromeda game world is. On a developer level these are, in my eyes and for the most part, forgivable and fixable offenses.
More frustrating than the glitches is the space travel required to get through all the missions. There’s an absolute ton of missions to play through, and many of them require you to visit at least two or three planets. Annoyingly, the navpoint only allows you to track one mission at a time. A few other nearby missions will show up on the map when you’re on a planet, but if you’re trying to do things in the most time efficient way and with the fewest planet visits possible, you can forget about it.
The missions centered around your friends and allies are the worst offenders. Sometimes you have to go meet one of your Tempest crew members on a planet despite them normally being in the next room, only to get to said planet and discover that the next point in the mission is on a whole other planet entirely. There’s just too much back and forth traveling and much of it feels wasteful. It’s easy to spend half the day playing the game only to feel like you’ve barely accomplished anything in the time spent. Towards the end, I flicked on subtitles and started skipping through cutscenes just to save myself some time.
That said, the planets are gorgeous and the exploration is worth it when you have the time and patience. The best thing about open world RPGs is knowing that you don’t actually have to rush. With no linear level system to worry about, you can spend as much time anywhere as you want. When the gameplay is at its best, Mass Effect Andromeda is actually a very relaxing play. It’s very satisfying to work through all the missions on a single planet to get that planet to 100% viability and start a settlement there. The visual changes that happen to the planet after you do so make your work worth the effort. The designs are truly very beautiful.
Mass Effect Andromeda is worthwhile. It may not be the sleekest open world game out there, nor the most challenging, but it has heart, just like its predecessors. If you enjoy spending time getting highly invested in characters, cruising beautiful planets and blasting aliens, this game is for you.