Andromeda should have been a smart new chapter for the Mass Effect series. As far as the story goes, it is. 634 years since setting off into deep space, a colony of ships from the Milky Way - representing most of the major species from our galaxy - arrives in the Andromeda galaxy looking to settle it as a new home. Quick warning: there are a few minor spoilers in this intro for the opening hour, which has already been extensively covered in previews, but... Your character, either Sara or Scott Ryder, is woken from stasis to find their Ark caught in a mysterious space-web called The Scourge, and the ‘golden world’ they’re to colonise is a poisoned and hostile planet. Not the greatest of starts, and one that’s only made worse when your sibling’s stasis pod is damaged, sending him/her into a coma, and your father is killed. Oh, and daddy was the Pathfinder - a leader of the human colonists - and before he dies, Alec Ryder transfers Pathfinder status and the all stresses of strains of the job onto you.
Which is why it’s very jarring to hear Ryder cracking so many jokes early on, the gravity of the impressive set-up somewhat diluted by a bunch of lame one-liners and dismissive dialogue. Hey, good RPGs always mix the furrowed-brow seriousness with some light-hearted banter, but with his/her constant wise-cracking from the start, Ryder comes across as a bit of a jackass. For me, this immediately rang alarm bells. Commander Shepard, in the original trilogy, had that neat balance between being his/her own character and leaving enough of him/herself blank for players to imprint their own personality. Ryder already feels fully formed, taking much of that all-important narrative blank-canvas away from the player. In other words, you play as Scott or Sara Ryder - not yourself. Given that Mass Effect Andromeda is such a massive game, this definitely isn’t a good thing.
There’s a general lack of subtlety and finesse to this game’s storytelling, and much of it feels like it missed the point about what made the original trilogy such a success. It’s like the kid who copies his friend’s homework, changes it to make it feel ‘new’, but isn’t necessarily smart enough to understand what he’s saying. Most of the elements here are recognisably Mass Effect, but Andromeda fails to create the same sense of place and time. The world is built by either vague, broad strokes or via very niche, very intricate technical language - it's the result of a creative tension between wanting and needing to explain the massive amount of stuff in Andromeda, and trying to make the game accessible to newcomers or more casual fans.
The tedious mission design really doesn’t help matters. Most quests here follow the same pattern: speak to person, go where person tells you to go, shoot some aliens, scan some objects, return to person. Frustratingly, many early missions just send you from point A to B to C to D and so on without asking you to do anything more than show up and interact with an object. There’s so much busywork here, padding out an already substantial world into something that feels hugely bloated. Combine that with the constant stream of techno-jargon, fresh (bizarrely named) characters introduced at a rapid pace, and a ponderous exploration system, and it can feel like you’re simply bumbling through load-screens and travel animations with little clue about why you’re there or what you’re meant to be doing. The first ten or so hours of the game are bewildering and often very dull, which is a shame, because the story and characterisation really picks up in the latter half. Unfortunately, many will have cried off by then.
The game seems to delight in punishing players by repeatedly making them do the least enjoyable things. Here the main offender is the Remnant glyph system, used to unlock vaults on each planet to make that world habitable. The Pathfinder's reason for existing is to provide colonies with new worlds to live on, and these ancient Remnant structures are the key to doing that, so they’re really important. Problem is, activating them is teeth-grindingly frustrating. To access a vault you need to active three monoliths on a planet. Ok, first you travel to them, then scan the area to find hidden glyphs (dull, but doesn’t take too long), and then… you play Sudoku. Yes. Each monolith is activated via a Sudoku puzzle that uses glyphs instead of numbers. Fail the puzzle, and your progress is completely reset AND you’re attacked by a wave of enemies. To reiterate: three monoliths per planet, plus a vault. That’s four Sudoku puzzles on each world. It’s little fun, and you need to do it again and again and again.
Andromeda’s supporting cast - the lifeblood of any Mass Effect game - are a mixed bunch, but generally entertaining. Peebee and Liam are perhaps the stand-outs. The former is a rogue Asari scientist who thinks and acts at 100mph, making her tough to read and fascinating to chat to. The latter is a sensitive soldier type who relishes the chance to make peace and understand the races he meets in Andromeda. You’ll remember some of the choice encounters you have with them, likely more for their novelty value rather than on any kind of deep emotional level, but the point is that they do add much needed substance to the game. In other words, they’re fun to be around, but you’re unlikely to get too attached. Each of your crew mates have stand-out moments, for sure - I really enjoyed the outcome of romancing human commando Cora, because it was a sweet, touching moment that comes after she loses a significant amount of her faith. They’re not always a pleasure to be around, though, and sometimes you’ll struggle to really care about their stories, and won’t feel compelled to finish loyalty missions until you absolutely want to unlock their final-tier skills.
The new race (no spoilers here) is imaginatively introduced, but not as culturally rich and memorable as many of the Milky Way species, and the Kett - Andromeda’s baddies - are suitably villainous if a little lacking in depth. Their leader starts off comedically evil and stern, but later in the game reveals more interesting flaws and character traits, showing smart parallels between the Kett and the newly arrived colonists. It seems everyone’s struggling to make sense of the Andromeda galaxy.
And ok, let’s talk about, er, talking. In Andromeda, the voice acting and animations are… not great. At best, conversations are slightly awkward, either because they don’t quite flow properly or because Ryder’s response is too creepy, or cheesy, or plain weird. At worst, dialogue is immersion-breaking, as the camera totally focuses on the wrong person, or a character’s eyes shift manically from side-to-side as if they’re expecting to be attacked while they’re drinking space-coffee and chatting to you about their family. Main character speech is generally fine, but some minor character dialogue sounds like it has been read directly off a script by a random passer-by in the street. One early conversation with Colonial Director Addison is so poorly delivered and filled with techno-babble, I genuinely struggled to understand what she was talking about. There are unfortunate continuity errors too - having spoken to Turian rogue Vetra for about five minutes about her extensive back-story, I then walked out of the room and found she’d mysteriously teleported into the area I’d just entered. A cut-scene triggered where she scolded me because “we haven’t spoken in ages”. Hmmm…
It’s easy to criticise, though, and imperfect as they are Mass Effect does have an extensive array of conversations and characters. If you’re into the universe (and there is knowledge to discover in this game) and the set-up, there’s a whole lot of game to eat here. It’s a whopper, and each planet you visit quickly fills up with stuff to do and people to meet. Travelling around each world in the Nomad vehicle is fairly dull, though, as you’ll often spend ages driving through vast expanses of wasteland to complete a single objective, or discover a new point on the map. There is, mercifully, a decent fast-travel system, though. Some planets are more lively and interesting to visit - there’s one set on a giant meteor that lets you bounce around in low-gravity, and other worlds more densely packed and imaginative than ‘token desert planet’ and ‘routine ice world’.
The galaxy map too, looks pretty scant at the start, but by the end of Andromeda it’s packed with things to see and do. If you’re a fan of quantity over quality Mass Effect does not disappoint.
There is, however, another real problem with the game: combat. You do a lot of shooting and space-magic in Andromeda, and much of it fails to satisfy. Weapon variety is surprisingly good - all sub-classes of armaments have pleasingly different guns - and Biotic / Tech powers do add some spice to each encounter, even if most of these abilities feel very samey. However, actually shooting and blasting stuff with powers feels very loose. Aiming is twitchy, and moving around the battlefield with your jetpack over-complicates the already chaotic combat. What’s more, keeping track of your squadmates and actually using their powers effectively in a fight is like trying to direct a pair of petulant toddlers through a sweet-shop.
Enemies aren’t too smart, nor are they particularly varied - this game simply ramps up the difficulty by throwing more bad-guys at you. And there’s a special place in hell reserved for the Kett boss types, who can only be damaged once you’ve destroyed the tiny orb that rotates around them. Which regenerates. And they can one-hit kill you. It all adds up to a combat system that - while not disastrous - offers little entertainment or joy. It’s just functional, once you get the hang of it.
In fact, the same can be said for much of Mass Effect Andromeda. Once you become accustomed to the annoyances and idiosyncrasies of its world, the game starts to be a little more fun but only within its own weird boundaries. Take the crafting system for example. It’s split into Research (that’s where you create blueprints), and Development (where you use the blueprints to make actual things). There are three different types of Research you can perform, and each one has a different ‘currency’ for creating blueprints. Within these types, you can choose to develop guns, armour, or mods… please, try to keep up. Now, once you’ve Researched an item, you can then develop it, but this requires different crafting materials that you mine from planets. And you can modify crafted weapons. It’s so, so over-complicated. There’s a definite pleasure that comes from researching and building, for example, some N7 armour to make Ryder look like Shepard, but it’s not until you’re about 25 hours into the game that you’ll understand the system well enough AND have the materials to actually achieve it. So much of Andromeda’s true beauty is buried behind layers of complex nonsense and unnecessary jargon. This game needs an editor.
With a little more focus, Andromeda could have been a great game. The premise of exploring a new frontier in space is exciting and original, and the cast of characters inhabiting this new world - be they the fresh races, or the people you’ve dragged with you from the Milky Way - are more interesting than not. Some of the worlds have a real beauty, and the main narrative itself is compelling enough to carry you happily to the end. But there’s too much quest padding. Too much technical jargon. Too much fighting for a game with a poor fighting system. Too many clever little animations and quest-steps in between the stuff that’s actually fun to do. Place the resulting experience next to infinitely more finessed open-world games like The Witcher 3, Horizon: Zero Dawn - or even the original trilogy - and Andromeda compares very poorly indeed. Not a disaster, but definitely not the fresh start this series needed, or the one fans have been waiting patiently for.