Despite my facetious comments last week, you can’t fail to have read the early, mixed (to put it kindly) reaction to Bioware’s new sci-fi epic: Mass Effect: Andromeda. It didn’t officially release in Europe until March 23rd. But, with EA Access, the reality was that by Thursday much of the world had already played the first 10 hours. And they were not happy. I know, I know: you shouldn’t read reviews (except ours!); form your own opinion blah blah. Suffice to say, some of my excitement in the lead up to the sequel of probably my favourite IP of all time was dampened significantly. That said, here are some thoughts on my experiences so far.
If it wasn’t already clear from the type of article this, whilst I will try and avoid discussing major plot points, it’s inevitable that some of what I write will evaluate systems and content that may spoil the game for you if you are yet to play it. Read on at your peril.
Let’s start with the elephant in the graphic design lab. Within minutes of Andromeda being available to play to the public there were GIFs online of characters in various states of animation hell. Strange facial expressions, eyes not doing what human eyes should do in conversation etc. I’ve created a custom version of the main male playable character Alex Ryder (you have a twin if you decide to go the other gender route – Sara Ryder) and as such many of the expressions won’t have been designed for the unique face that I chose. That said, mouths move generally in sync with the speech and bar the occasional loose eyeball making the character look cross-eyed, I can’t find much to complain about. It’s certainly a big step up over Fallout 4 for example, albeit using a far more modern game engine, and I put many hours into that.
There is a strange canned animation/ video that plays at the start of many of the conversations which makes Ryder appear as if he’s standing far too close to the person he’s speaking to – almost like he’s sneaked up on them. I can’t really explain it other than to say it looks out of place.
Graphically the rest of the game fairs pretty well. I’ve completed the tutorial area, explored most of the Nexus Space station and seen many of Eos and Havarl’s sights. It’s all pretty stunning stuff. Even when combat gets busy I haven’t found any particularly nasty drops in frame rate; it’s smooth sailing so far. On the day of release I was already two or three patches of the game deep so I haven’t come across anything too major in the way of bugs either. One hard crash in 20 or so hours and one occasion when I landed on Eos, my squad spawned about 100 metres away from me – minor irritations in the grand scheme of things.
In conversation however, the game suffers badly. Prior to sitting down with Andromeda, I was playing Tides of Numenera. We reviewed and enjoyed it a few weeks back. Standout was the depth and variety in the lore and characters. Not a single NPC was there to fill space; they all felt like they had a place in the world that existed before I came across them. Andromeda by contrast is sci-fi 101. Members of your crew, of which you can recruit 6, all signpost their personality traits – they’re far too ready to reveal important information about themselves to someone they’ve only just met. To some extent it’s difficult to criticise this aspect as most games of this type require some suspension of disbelief with regard the immediate importance of your player character in the game’s world. But it does come across as particularly silly and forced in Andromeda.
Similarly, some lines of dialogue make you wonder if the writers just got bored half way through and thought we wouldn’t notice. Your alien team mate genuinely says after finding a sect of monks who have lain undiscovered for years: “I have heard of them, but never really gave it much thought.” Sure, I get that you and I might have things myths and old stories that we don’t think about on a day to day basis, but did Bioware really think it was acceptable for a major character to display the same lack of enthusiasm at a key plot point? Just get him to make up a story, or spout a rumour he had heard about them as a child – anything else in fact!
It’s not just the spoken word that suffers either. These hidden monks are built up to have an air of mysticism; you journey through a huge ancient temple in order for them to impart some centuries old lost knowledge that will advance the quest. That whole atmosphere disappears the second you find an email on a terminal from the head sage asking the other monks not to tax their computer system too much as it can’t handle it. Seriously, an IT issue, in mythical temple!
All of that said, I’m still playing and as I write this I can’t wait to get home and pour some more time in. There is a lot that Andromeda gets right. Chief in that for me are the worlds and the combat. Starting with the former, the planets I’ve visited so far are better characters than the rest of your squad put together. On the title screen, the opening two notes that play remind me of the opening sequence in Star Trek: The Next Generation – a series all about finding new people, places and things. It’s a good analogue for the game actually – all of the little icons on the map are just beacons to entice you to explore these wonderfully crafted spheres.
They’re brim packed with things to do. Some are just filler (like finding the missing scientific research for the eleventieth time!) but often you’ll come across an enemy base you weren’t expecting or a cache of equipment containing an upgraded piece of armour. I got Eos to 80% viability, the measure by which you can tell how you’re doing on a planet, went back several hours later and stayed for another 6-7 hours! Ask me again in 20 hours, but for now it’s interesting, varied content which often has me looking at the clock and wondering where the evening has gone.
If I’m not running around down on a new outpost, then I’m in the menus agonising over which new weapon or armour design to dump my research points into. I would have liked some of the later game armour and weapons to have not been visible on the research screen; perhaps to be discovered as a reward for taking down a particularly tough boss? As it is, they’re locked behind a level cap in terms of when you can research them. But I don’t want to be unduly critical. There are hundreds of different combinations of kit, all suited to the multiple different abilities and play styles on offer. I suspect I could start a new game (or even re-spec my current character) with a different focus and equipment set and have it feel like a different game entirely.
Which leads me into Andromeda’s greatest strength, it’s combat system. I’ve gone for a cross between Soldier abilities, which make you pretty handy with guns, and Biotics – essentially the game’s magic system, Mass Effect newbies. As in the multiplayer, three abilities are mapped to the bumpers. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of using Biotic Charge to close the distance between me and an antagonist before unloading my plasma grenade modified shotgun from up close and then jet-packing away to do it all again from behind cover.
It’s early days yet, but my unexpected run-in with a Kett (the game’s main bad guys) Power Station was intense and one of my favourite encounters in a game in recent memory; maybe ever. It was filled with enemies of various types across huge, multiple height levels. So much to think about at once and barely a moment to stop and work out what needed to happen next to progress – absolutely first class. I’m looking forward to making use of the profile system later in the game to switch my play style mid encounter.
The removal of the powers wheel was a bone of contention during preview. Indeed I noticed it in my multiplayer piece but thought Bioware had done a good job of sidestepping many potential issues by giving you seriously improved mobility via the jetpack. With multiple more hours under my belt now, I’m not quite as comfortable with the change. Your computer controlled team mates do a reasonable job of staying behind cover with the notable exception of fighting against turrets where they unfailingly run into the line of fire. However, without the ability to trigger specific powers it becomes difficult to set off the destructive Biotic combos. The few times I’ve managed it so far have been by luck. Perhaps as I gain more experience I’ll learn to notice the visual cues a little better.
Story-wise I get the impression that I’m still pretty early on. I’ve had the opportunity to trigger a couple of spontaneous choices in conversation which I see the game took note off on the stats screen. These were hued orange rather than having emotional connotations as in the previous games. I’m yet to see if these have any impact on the end game. In fact when I think about it, I’m not really playing Andromeda for the story. It seems an odd thing to say about a story driven series but as I’ve said, it’s the fantastically realised worlds that are pulling me back for more at the moment. Despite the really pretty shocking dialog, for me Bioware have nailed the Mass Effect feel and I’m genuinely excited to see the rest of the game and what the future holds for the series in general.
Aside from the vocal minority who have been absolutely destroying the game in forums, there seems to be a good number of people really enjoying this. Let us know which camp you’re in via the comments below!