Mass Effect: Andromeda Review

It has always been my belief that speculative fiction has the opportunity -- if not the mission -- to imagine worlds and technologies unbounded by the familiar, while in some form illuminating some facet of our everyday, mundane existence. A great example of this is the film Arrival, which uses its alien race as a vehicle for a meditation on time, loss, love, and the meaning of language. A far less successful example is Mass Effect: Andromeda, which transports its characters and story hundreds of years in the future and to an entirely new galaxy, then populates every frame with overly-familiar character types and poorly written conflicts, starring a cast of tepid antagonists and compatriots who fail to excite the imagination or stir the emotions. It's like traveling to a foreign country and being greeted by Starbucks and Burger King on every street corner.

With a couple of standout exceptions, Mass Effect: Andromeda is a significant downward step from the franchise's first trilogy. The happy news first: exteriors and alien landscapes look good, thanks to the switch to the Frostbite engine. That being said, there is still a distinct lack of real imagination or a sense of wonder at play in the planetary design. There are sprawling masses of geography to explore but too often seem oddly familiar, based as they are on iconic desert landscapes, snowy ice fields and other staples of popular sci-fi film, games, and literature.

While the geography often visually impresses, the human and alien races fare far less well, with facial animations and expressions that are far worse than the industry standard for this level of game, and worse than the previous entry in the series. Eyes are dead and seem to peer into the mid-distance and the lip syncing is atrocious. Characters in the background act like over-caffeinated puppets and seemingly never stand still.

Mass Effect: Andromeda continues the series' trend towards being action focused and thankfully, the game does get combat right. Weapons are varied and punchy, highly customizable, and thanks to a handy jet pack, characters have much more freedom of movement. Vertical spaces now matter and firefights are more dynamic, though the cover system is frustrating and imprecise. Unlike the snap-to cover systems of most shooters, there is little sense of confidence that the cover is working, and for good reason. It often isn't. While some systems have been streamlined from previous games, others have actually become more cumbersome. Planetary travel is excruciatingly slow and crafting is a multi-menu affair. Conversations options have been paired down and lost much of their complexity and impact.

Most gamers and especially, Mass Effect devotees probably value character, writing, and story over photo-realistic graphics but these aspects of the Andromeda experience are the most disappointing. From the opening minutes through dozens of hours of gameplay, the writing rarely rises above workmanlike and quite often descends into the worst space opera cliches, with characters speaking dialogue that must have truly pained the generally excellent voice actors. Perhaps every galaxy in the universe is actually filled with one-dimensional tyrants hungry for power, but Andromeda's central story arc is cobbled together from the lowest hanging fruit imaginable with little respect for the intelligence of its audience. Fans of previous Mass Effect games (especially the first two) still have fond memories of their crew members and the relationships that developed between Shepard and the other characters. Andromeda's supporting players aren't terrible, just terribly bland, and only one new race is introduced--two, if you count the main antagonists. 

Andromeda's main story can be completed in twenty hours or so, but the wealth of side quests and missions add dozens of hours or more to the game. Although they eventually start to feel samey and repetitive, the side quests often contain more interesting characters and offer additional motivation for exploration and combat. 

Much has been written about Andromeda's sorry technical state, and it's no exaggeration to say that this is one of the buggiest and broken high-profile games released in the past several years, with an impressive laundry list of issues, from broken quests to disembodied heads appearing in scenes, from characters randomly spawning into other characters to dialogue that has no relation to the situation. No doubt that a steady stream of patches and fixes will improve things but the game at launch was shockingly in disrepair.

Having said all those negative and disappointing things, the fact remains that there is still within Mass Effect: Andromeda an ambitious core and a vast amount of content, some of it very entertaining, if not the major leap forward or surprising change of direction that fans were hoping for. The first trilogy had its issues to be sure, but the games were beloved for their stories and characters. It's doubtful that players will keep returning to Andromeda. Aside from the tepid characters and rote story, its biggest failure is a lack of imagination. It somehow takes us to a whole new galaxy but makes us feel like we never left home.