BioWare’s latest ‘Mass Effect’ franchise release struggles to find its way as a galactic exploration adventure.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: March 21st, 2017
NOTE: This was played on the PlayStation 4 Pro. Review Code Provided.
The human desire to search for the depths of unknown space is a familiar drive that has motivated crews in numerous science fiction franchises. Mass Effect, a role-playing game, started its own journey as an Xbox 360 exclusive back in 2007. Almost immediately, the game became a hit, filled with the studios’ trademark interesting characters and storylines. When Electronic Arts purchased BioWare, the series shed the trappings of role-playing games and leaned instead for the action/third-person shooter genres. The characters we still loved made it until the end of Mass Effect 3 when one of three endings decided the fate of the Milky Way Galaxy.
That was four years ago – after five years of development time, BioWare’s next title in the series, Mass Effect: Andromeda, seeks to build on that legacy. At times, however, their effort gets lost in space.
Mass Effect: Andromeda, like the title implies, is about the journey through the mysterious territory of the Andromeda Galaxy. You no longer take the role of Commander Shepard or interact with any of the old crew. Andromeda stars a female or male Ryder lying dormant in stasis with 20,000 other people for 600 years as part of the Andromeda Initiative: a privately funded program that seeks to colonize the unknown galaxy. There’s a ship for humans and three other alien races from the original trilogy: the Salarians, the Asari and the Turians, based on their position in the council. Many of the other races in the lore are written out so you’ll mainly be dealing with those three.
The story begins with your custom-made Ryder, following in the footsteps of your father - Alec Ryder. Alec Ryder is a Pathfinder – one of the select few to make crucial life-changing decisions about how planets are colonized and who gets to leave stasis in what order. He also has the notable ability of choosing which powers, known as profiles, he gets to use at will. Your Ryder later becomes the Pathfinder and so the fate of the Andromeda Initiative is in your hands. Alien forces – known simply as the Kett – are in no mood to talk or negotiate with you and would rather shoot you on sight. Their goals are mostly devoted to trying to learn and understand an ancient race of aliens’ technology and forming an oligarchy. If that sounds like a page from Halo’s playbook, that’s because it is.
The story in Mass Effect: Andromeda never measures up, and instead borrows heavily from other science-fiction stories. It will even liberally poach story elements from other Mass Effect games as you progress through the story, making the whole affair very predictable. Though every story needs a great villain, the Kett and the Archon never develop past their initial first contact encounters and never become any more interesting than the Collectors from Mass Effect 2, which only developed importance because of a pre-existing lore convenience and were never compelling on their own. From beginning to end, the story feels like one of the more recent Star Trek films, for better or worse.
The comparisons to Star Trek don’t end at the story. Ryder, Male or Female, is entirely too light hearted for such an important job as the Pathfinder. Say what you want about how wooden Commander Shepard was or how he was a complete cypher for the player’s actions, but he knew when to joke and when to shut up. Because of how the game is written, your Ryder can joke and kid with the best of them. But you wouldn’t be entirely wrong in thinking that you’re playing an Uncharted game, especially if you’re playing as the default male Ryder, who sounds almost exactly like the plucky adventurer. Accidental or not, it is entirely too distracting. The rest of the voice-actors do an admirable job but some of the delivery falls flat, which is to be expected with a game of this scale.
The supporting cast in Andromeda does a little better than the characters in Mass Effect 1 (I’m not comparing characters we just met in Andromeda to characters we’ve spent an entire trilogy with) but you have to grow to love them. In Mass Effect 1, I was immediately enthralled with Garrus, Wrex and Ashely Williams because of their backstories and design. Andromeda must try a little harder because we’ve seen these designs for three games now and the only new character that stuck out to me is Drack – a Krogan grandfather archetype that has spent the last couple thousand years in constant combat. He’ll joke and call you kid and everyone will have a good laugh. Another notable mention is Cora Harper as the “Pathfinder to be” who takes things in stride and lets you run the show. Having been an Asari Commando – an elite fighting force known throughout the galaxy - doesn’t hurt either. The few new species, including the Kett, are not interesting and lean too heavily on the well-used tall, muscular, humanoid bi-pedal design.
For all my gloom and doom about Andromeda, there are good aspects as well. Combat in Andromeda has been refined and is faster with more options based on the player’s choice. No longer are you restricted by your class and what powers you can use. Now you can navigate freely between powers and abilities during combat. Even with the open-ended combat, you will most likely lean towards biotics as the physics engine and Frostbite take advantage of the ragdoll physics to hilarious effect. Exploring planets combines aspects from the prior Mass Effect games as well as BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition. The planets are more open with more things to see and do and tons of side-quests, although much like in Inquisition, the quests are designed as: “go here, investigate, retrieve this, and then profit.” Saving is an integral part of any game and Andromeda elects to not allow saving in the story missions. Why it was designed this way, with the potential to rob players of 30 minutes or more playtime, reeks of poor design.
Combat finesse is highlighted directly in the game’s multiplayer mode. No longer tied to the ending as it was in Mass Effect 3, multiplayer sees 4-players combating 7 waves of enemy troops. You get your initial human characters to play as but as you continue to unlock the boxes – through the game’s currency or micro-transactions – you can play as the beefy Krogans or the sneaky Asari. Each new character you unlock has its own abilities and traits that make playing on the same map enjoyable enough. The maps are well designed but the online connection leaves much to be desired. While I was trying to play with one other friend, the game constantly kicked me out, making it that much more arduous. Multiplayer ties in with the main story through APEX missions as completing those yields other bonuses. But it’s not much to write home about and feels like a lazy in-universe tie-in to tie it into the lore.
Like Batman: Arkham Origins and Gears of War: Judgment before it, Mass Effect: Andromeda feels off. Questionable design decisions and poor writing with a dash of hilarious animations that the Internet has taken and run with it makes this a Mass Effect game geared mostly for die-hard fans that have been chomping at the bit for another entry in the series. This is a different BioWare studio in an entirely different part of the world (Montreal as opposed to Edmonton) with different mindsets and ideologies. So, for everyone else, it’s hard to recommend to a casual observer when the Original Trilogy is still readily available and sold on the PC and last generation hardware.