How do you follow up one of the best video game trilogies of all time? By retelling it, apparently. That’s the direction Bioware went with its newest chapter in the Mass Effect story. Beginning just after the start of Mass Effect 2, the Citadel has approved the launch of the Andromeda Initiative, a program designed to send a colonies of salarians, humans, turians, and asari to the Andromeda galaxy to expand the boundaries of civilization. Putting the action 600 light years away allows Andromeda to skirt the events of Shepherd and the Reapers without jeopardizing continuity while retaining the technology and elements that make up a Mass Effect adventure. Unfortunately, the game experiences severe separation anxiety and fails to take full advantage of its new setting.
Settling the Heleus Cluster in the Andromeda galaxy is a joint effort between Pathfinders, hand picked members of each race trained to search for and colonize golden worlds that had been detected at the start of the project. 600 years is a long time, however, and when the human ark reaches their target world Habitat 7, they find it in a state of ruin because of the Scourge, a painfully unknown anomaly that brings destruction to anything it comes in contact with. There’s also the appearance of the kett, a race of humanoid aliens led by a being named the Archon who is intent on launching his own campaign to colonize worlds. To make matters even worse, the other arks failed to reach their golden worlds and are presumed missing in action.
To make a long story short, a series of circumstances forces you, the player character and son (or daughter) of the human Pathfinder is given the task of colonizing the Heleus Cluster in their father’s name, locate the missing arks, and halt the Archon’s plans. That’s a lot of responsibility to shoulder but Ryder won’t be doing it alone and gathers a collection of allies to help with the mission. The problem is, Andromeda fails to take this opportunity to wipe the slate clean. Each character that forms Ryder’s team is a boilerplate stand-in for their obvious counterpart from the original series. Even the kett bear a strong resemblance to an enemy in Mass Effect 2. It’s only after an hour or so into that Andromeda introduce a new race of aliens called the angara. These creatures are currently locked in a war with the Archon and his kett and Ryder’s appearance has the opportunity to shift the balance in their favor.
Standing in the middle of Ryder, the angara, and the Archon is the Remnant, the name given to a long dead, technologically advanced civilization. Sound familiar? Time after time, Andromeda just can’t seem to shake off the yoke of its predecessor and sadly, most of the narrative driven content suffers from “been there, done that.” It’s a real shame because I absolutely love the idea of the Andromeda Initiative and it’s goal is one I can really get behind.
One area of the game that deviates from the formula is its open world leanings. Instead of exploring the galaxy in the Normandy looking for planets with interactive military bases and side quests designed to help people, Andromeda is built exclusively as an open world adventure, giving you a series of planets with large, open maps populated with non-linear mission objectives and areas of interest. Putting the time into clearing out the kett, dealing with the Remnant, and terraforming worlds makes each planet viable for Initiative colonies. Sustaining colonies also benefits the Nexus, an uninspired Andromeda stand in for the Citadel, allowing you to bring merchants, military personnel, and scientists out of cryo which, in turn, offers perks and materiel to help develop new research and technology. To prevent the player from getting overpowered too quickly, the rewards are doled out over time via free-to-play style cool down periods. Bleh.
The thing is, having spent nearly 20 hours working through the game’s vast laundry list of side content, I realized how much of it felt like busy work. Each planet has a vault that needs to be activated to make it viable. Each planet has kett outposts to be cleared out. Each planet has Remnant shrines and sudoku puzzles to figure out. Secondary missions typically run the gamut of “go here, scan that, go there, scan that.” Thankfully, fast travel Forward Stations and a functional Mako stand-in make getting around planetside relatively pain free. Major secondary missions, such as the crew loyalty quests, involve planet hopping which would be great if it weren’t so damn tedious–and this is coming from someone who really loved Mass Effect 2’s planet scanning. Traveling from planet to planet and system to system takes too long and most of that time is taken up with unnecessary camera sweeps and wasted scanning efforts (you won’t know if a planet in system has an anomaly until you travel to it).
To balance out my animosity, I’m happy to say that the combat in Andromeda is the best it’s ever been (though that might disappoint those who lamented the departure of the RPG leaning combat of the original Mass Effect). The cover system is fantastic, instantly snapping Ryder into position as long as her weapon is out. Putting experience points into Combat, Tech, and Biotics grant additional special abilities such as automated turrets, grenades, and familiar Biotic skills like throw, pull, and shockwave. If there was one thing I didn’t like about the gameplay, it’s the Mass Effect 1 style of poor inventory management. I pined for the simplicity of the other games which did a great job tidying up the inventory interface and brought order to a chaotic list of gear. By the end of the game, my cup overfloweth with shotguns, pistols, sniper rifles, and assault rifles (alongside helmets, chest, leg, and arm armor) that I never used. The combat system translates perfectly to the game’s multiplayer Apex missions in which you and three other players survive enemies in a wave based horse mode.
Another great thing about Mass Effect Andromeda is the tech running it. The Frostbite engine is in top form, rendering gorgeous alien landscapes and stunningly detailed technology. While I eventually grew bored with the story, I got into the habit taking screenshots and found it hard to take a bad picture. I loved exploring the ice world of Voeld and the Arrakis-like Elaaden because of how the snow and sand would cling to everyone’s armor, giving it a great sense of place and the characters physical connection to it. Frostbite isn’t perfect, twilight. As I encountered several glitches and quest bugs that required me to reload a save. It didn’t happen often but it was notable when it did.
Much like its core conceit, Mass Effect Andromeda held the promise of taking the classic Bioware franchise to a whole new world. Unfortunately, it feels like there was little faith in a Mass Effect game without Shepherd and in the end, what you have is an adventure that’s too familiar. There is very little originality to the story and it’s characters. It would have been more interesting if you played as a salarian or turian in this new galaxy. Instead, it’s once again up to humans to save the day. By the end of the game, I felt uncertain for the future of this new series. Then again, I think back to how much Mass Effect 2 was an improvmemt. If there is to be a Andromeda sequel, one would hope it could leave its past behind.
Title: Mass Effect Andromeda
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform: PlayStation 4
Media: Digital Download
Genre: Science Fiction, Action, Adventure, Open World, Shooter
Release Date: 03/21/2017
Purchased Or Received For Review? Purchased
Where to buy: Amazon, PlayStation Store