A rather well-known Chinese proverb translates into English as “may it be your fate to live in interesting times”. Even though this proverb was probably intended more as a curse rather than a wish (with the “interesting times” being the cause of anxiety, uncertainty, conflict and decline, in contrast to the peace, prosperity and tranquility a “boring” life would entail), I can’t help but think about it in the last few days. How interesting, indeed, are the times we live in, when a well-established and famous (especially as far as “mainstream” audiences are concerned) company like BioWare, the force behind several of the most recognizable gaming franchises of our times, nears completion of one of the most anticipated games in recent years after ample development time and a high budget… and in the end their product’s image is savagely, brutally and irreversibly damaged due to… memes.
The memes that were produced in response to the… unfortunate (to put it mildly) facial and body animations encountered and reported by early players of Mass Effect: Andromeda went viral to such an extent that they negatively predisposed large parts of the game’s audience even before it was officially released. When someone tries to write a review for Andromeda amidst this (for the most part, completely justifiable) controversy, he might find it difficult to be completely objective – at the same time, however, it is extremely easy to climb aboard the hate train and start bashing the game solely because of the animations, just because “all the cool kids of the internet are doing it”. And I’m pretty sure that many reviewers or gamers that ended up attacking Andromeda would have expressed completely different opinions if the internet consensus hadn’t been negatively influenced to such a great extent beforehand.
“So you’re basically telling us that the only real negative Andromeda has are the mediocre Animations, and other than that we’re talking about a flawless all-time classic game?”
No. GODS NO. But let’s take things from the top.In the heart of ME:A’s storyline lies a private inter-species endeavour called the Andromeda Initiative, whose aim is to gather representatives from all the major species of the Milky Way, put them in cryogenic stasis inside huge Ark Ships, and send them to the far-away galaxy of Andromeda in order to establish new colonies and to do all kinds of scientific research (during the course of the game we discover that the Initiative had another, hidden and more urgent agenda, but players of the original ME trilogy can probably guess what that’s all about). The Initiative received funding from declared or “hidden” benefactors, after years of preparations everything is set and the 4 Ark Ships start their journey to Andromeda (a 5th Ark Ship suffers technical issues just before take-off so its departure is postponed – IS THAT DLC I SMELL?) in the year 2185 (that’s just before or after the events of Mass Effect 2 start), a journey that is expected to last more than 600 years.
The game’s main story begins in the year 2819, when the human Ark Ship Hyperion reaches Andromeda’s Heleus Cluster after a journey of 634 years, right when the Player Character, a guy (or gal, if the player so choses) named Ryder, wakes up from his cryogenic freezing. Soon we discover that, to no-one’s surprise, NOTHING is going according to plan: the planets that were the Initiative’s main candidates for colonization (and designated as “Golden Worlds”) are discovered to be partially or completely uninhabitable (things changed in the 600 YEARS between the Initiative’s first distant observations and its arrival to Andromeda – truly unexpected indeed), and our first contact with intelligent alien life in Andromeda (a mysterious race of anthropomorphous beings that we start calling Kett for some reason) results in a shoot-out and open hostilities.Right after the events of the game’s prologue, Ryder is given the title of Pathfinder – the military, scientific and exploration leader of the human Ark Ship, and thus begins our grand colonial adventure. Our job: to explore unknown planets, to meet friendly or hostile new civilizations, to collect scientific data and, in the end, to help humanity and its allies find a home in the distant and full of dangers galaxy of Andromeda.
The game’s story is introduced a bit “clumsily” and abruptly, with the prologue attempting to familiarize the player with large amounts of information and developments regarding the main storyline in a very short amount of time, but without always providing us with a plausible explanation, motive or logic for what’s happening other than “that’s the way things are, accept it and let’s just move on”. Things fare a bit better in that regard after the first hours of the game, with the flow towards the (rather predictable) ending being more smooth and “logical”, but without introducing any real innovation or ground-breaking quality. I guess the same can be said for all 3 of the past Mass Effect games as well, but that shouldn’t have prevented Andromeda from trying to break at least some new ground and escape from the company’s established cliches.
Speaking of cliches, it soon becomes more than obvious that our character doesn’t deviate AT ALL from the typical BioWare cliche of “character of humble origins that is placed in a position of power due to dramatic events beyond his control, and who must now save the world”. And not only that, but for some reason it seems like the game’s writers actively tried to promote the Pathfinder as a religious, almost messianic figure in the game’s world (on more than one occasion we end up meeting NPCs that greet us with lines such as “Are you… The Pathfinder? I can’t believe it! Thank God, we’re saved! Please, help us, Pathfinder!” etc), but without establishing a proper explanation or in-game “build-up” as to why our character is perceived like that from random NPCs, other than “the AI in your brain can interact with some plot-critical alien ruins” (more on that later).
This cliche tsunami also sweeps up the game’s sorry bunch of companion NPCs, whose lowest-quality writing and unimpressive personality give off the impression that their sole reason of existence is to fill some archetypical BioWare-Mass Effect character molds (“the battle-hardened Krogan warrior”, “the angsty, edgy and quirky biotic Asari scientist that just doesn’t fit in anywhere”, “the noble and brave local alien with the heart of gold” etc) and to provide the player with the equally cliche and badly-written romances. Indeed, the game’s romance dialogues are so childish and badly-written that they end up resembling fan fiction written by a person who learned the secrets of love and human attraction from watching Japanese porn or studying the Anakin-Padme romance in Attack of the Clones.Andromeda fares a bit better in the “galaxy exploration” department, which functions well enough as a framing device for the story. Planetary exploration and colonization are at the core of the Initiative’s mandate, so during the game we end up visiting 7 different planets (1 during the prologue, 5 while following the main storyline, and 1 that only contains optional side-quests), most of them vast and beautifully illustrated, filled with main and secondary missions that the Pathfinder and his crew must undertake. Most missions we complete award Viability Points for each individual planet (and for the Initiative in general), which affect the game’s colonization meta-game that revolves around making all former “Golden Worlds” 100% habitable (and unlocking various bonuses and extra choices in the process).
Planetside exploration is conducted mainly via the Nomad, a vehicle similar to ME1’s Mako except for the fact that it doesn’t come with any sort of weaponry, so it’s more of an all-terrain transport rather than a “tank”. The Nomad is also used for the game’s Mining aspect, which is sort of like a combination of the mining systems seen in ME1 and ME2. While exploring a planet, we get rough estimates of areas rich with minerals, which we then should pinpoint by driving around in the Nomad with our mining interface open. Once the interface detects a particular mineral, its indicator line starts to fluctuate (in similar fashion to ME2’s mineral scanning mode), and as soon as we detect a “sweet spot” we can summon a probe that starts mining the minerals and placing them directly in our inventory, simply by pressing a button.Of course, even the planetary exploration aspect is marred by the existence of many uninspired and completely boring fetch quests (“scan 10 minerals”, “gather 10 plants”, “pick up some seeds from a merchant and return them to me” etc), many of which are also inter-planetary, forcing us to hop around more than one planets in order to complete them. Such quests might have some reason for existing within the game’s logic of discovering new plant life in the galaxy or gathering minerals of a new colony, but it remains a boring FETCH QUEST in an Open-World game of the post-Witcher 3 era – I believe nothing more should be said on the matter.
One might also express dissatisfaction with the rather repetitive nature of the quests regarding “planetary restoration”. As mentioned above, each planet in Andromeda houses (conveniently) a mysterious alien installation called a “Vault”, which has the magic ability to fix whatever environmental hazards each planet suffers from (high radiation, toxic water, hostile plantlife, extremely high or low temperatures). Thus, no matter what planet we end up on, we have to follow pretty much the same steps in order to “activate” each Vault and heal the planet with the power of space magic (since Arnold did it in Total Recall, I guess the logic must be sound), steps which include solving Space Sudoku (no kidding, this is EXACTLY what it’s like) and… Jumping Puzzles.For the purposes of Andromedan exploration, the game also introduces a new Scanning feature. By pressing “G” we enter “Scanning Mode“, and inspecting our surroundings will highlight certain “hot spots” (plants, minerals, various pieces of technology, enemies living or dead, possible clues that might help us with a quest we’re currently on, and more) which we can scan in order to receive information by our AI, along with the occasional acquisition of Research Points, which are used in Crafting.
The basic principle of Crafting is this: when scanning, we are awarded three different kinds of points depending on the nature of the item we’ve scanned (so there’s “Milky Way” points, “Heleus Cluster” points, and “Remnant” points), which we use in order to research one of the Blueprints (weapons, armor or mods) that are available in our Research Station. After we’ve researched a Blueprint by spending the necessary amounts of Research points, we go to our separate Development tab where we spend resources in order to craft the item we’ve researched. It sounds rather simple and straightforward in principle, and this system could provide quite unique options to whomever is interested in crafting – alas, it too is marred by the awfully-designed menus and submenus of the game’s UI, which make the whole process unnecessarily clumsy and disorganized due to their inability to properly sort out and project the necessary information.Of course, apart from planetary exploration, we also have space. After the game’s prologue we gain access to our own personal starship, the Tempest, which is essentially a smaller version of the good-old Normandy and, following in the same spirit, serves as our mobile headquarters and main means of space travel and exploration. Andromeda does away with the “Arcade-like” space movement of ME2 and ME3 – we just have to open our Galaxy Map on the Tempest, select the star system or planet we wish to visit, and after a sequence of cutscenes we arrive there. Like in the series’ past games, we can right-click to search for “Anomalies”, which we can explore by dispatching a probe using the left mouse button (Anomalies usually provide us with cash, minerals or research point awards).
The issue that arises here is that all cutscenes that revolve around travelling in the Tempest are completely unskippable. No matter how beautifully designed the space environments are, having to watch the extremely slow animations again and again and again whenever we want to travel from one planet to the other gets irritating really fast, and delays the action for no reason at all.
To better understand what I’m talking about, here’s a sample video where I scan 2 planets before heading to land on the human colony that’s been established on planet Eos. After a certain point, the mere thought of having to experience this slowness every time you want to explore space deters you and forces you to just stick to the absolutely necessary amount of space travel. A completely baffling design choice, without a doubt.Perhaps the game’s feature that drew the least amount of ire is the character development system. Instead of selecting a distinct character class at the beginning of the game and having to move forward using the specific set of skills each class offers, now all skills are completely “open” and divided among three categories (Combat, Biotics and Tech). By earning XP and increasing our Level, we are awarded character points that we use to level whichever skill we want (each individual skill also has 6 ranks, which offer increasingly more powerful bonuses as they are unlocked with points), essentially allowing us to create characters that adapt to our distinct playstyles and weapons of choice. Naturally, there’s also the choice to “reset” our character points from a console inside our starship’s medbay, in case we change our minds and want to spec towards another character build.
The comment above regarding ire cannot be said for the game’s combat too, unfortunately. Even though the introduction of the Jetpack attempts to break the traditional cover-based motif of combat in the Mass Effect series and create more action-packed and fast-paced sequences, our enemies’ AI essentially makes them seek cover and stay there almost indefinitely, thus forcing us to either just wait till they pop their head out and be headshotted, or to run/fly around and flank them. In addition to that, due to the removal of squad orders (except for the one which tells our companions to run towards a specific area), Andromeda pretty much eliminates the last elements of the Tactical Combat ME1 tried to introduce.It’s clear that Andromeda offers a wide array of features, gimmicks and various activities as part of its Open-World status and as a game within an established Sci-fi Action-RPG series. It also occasionally pays fitting tribute to the series’ past via specific quests, dialogues and other voice or text samples we find around the world, and in general it will completely satisfy whomever is simply looking for a lenghty, light-hearted space adventure (doing the Main Quest, companion Loyalty quests and some of the most interesting sidequests took me about 60 hours, but a completionist playthrough could take as many as 100 hours to pull off) set in the wider Mass Effect game universe.
However, it is also clear that one could point out small or serious issues in almost half the individual elements that comprise the game. And, while most of these issues are more a result of poor implementation rather than bad core game principles (funky animations, clunky UI and the unskippable space travel cutscenes come to mind) meaning that they could, theoretically, be fixed with a bit of tweaking and patching, there are also issues which are rotten to the core and unfortunately integral parts of the game that we must learn to live with (a wise man once said, “bugs can be fixed, but shitty design is forever” – truer words have rarely been spoken). The dominant issue here is, of course, the wider writing element of the game, be it dialogue or quests or NPC design.Sure, nobody expected that Andromeda would be the Iliad of our times, or that BioWare would suddenly learn how to approach certain issues that can be explored within its game in a more “mature” way. But the writing in this game stands out like a sore thumb when compared to other AAA Open-World RPG games of recent years (I don’t have to reference the Witcher 3 again, do I?) or even when compared to the series’ past games (I can clearly remember the chats I’ve had with Wrex, Garrus or Mordin Solus as Shepard, but I honestly have trouble remembering even the names of my companion NPCs in Andromeda despite finishing the game a couple of days ago). Only now do we realise the “damage” Witcher 3 has done to the industry – it opened the eyes of many and it raised the bar for “mainstream” AAA Open-World RPG productions to such a level that mediocrity in such games is now more easy to spot, and elements that in normal circumstances would be ignored or passed-over (or even praised, in some cases) are now reviewed in a much more critical manner.
If Andromeda had been released 3-4 years ago, it might have received our sympathy for being a “fun little space B-Movie game that offers lots of hours of gameplay”. Now, I look at it and see something that is a mile wide but an inch deep, and filled with so much unreached potential: we have a whole new galaxy, we essentially play with no established rules, the only limit is our imagination, we have so many possible issues to explore (weird and wonderful new creatures, xenophobia and racism towards both the local civilizations and the Initiative, cruel power plays between the Initiative’s leaders, alien diseases, even plotlines that could spring from the Pathfinder being a selfish and power-hungry bastard rather than Space Jesus – the possibilities are literally infinite)… and in the end we get the typical BioWare cliches, typical bipedal ape-like enemies, cute and cuddly pink-purple friendly aliens, and the writers’ zeal is spent on “Stephen that became Hainley and this feels good, feels right” or on lore-breaking lines about “Asari gravitating towards male or gender-neutral pronouns”. And all this took 5 years and 40 million dollars to create. No, just no.
Coming back to the Chinese proverb mentioned in this review’s opening… I guess they really are interesting times: even huge, multi-million game companies are finally learning the hard way that they should no longer aim for “mediocrity”, that they should try to take a few more risks now and then, that making something “Open-World!!!” is not a guarantee that it will be excellent or critically-acclaimed by default, that they should always try to raise the bar of the gaming medium and provoke thought and contemplation in their audience rather than hiring 20-year-old writers from Tumblr whose sole worry is how to shove their social agendas into their games.
At least Andromeda made me appreciate more certain aspects of the first Mass Effect games that I hadn’t really enjoyed back in the day. So something good came out of that whole story, after all.
We thank Namco Bandai Hellas for providing us with the review code for this game.
- Beautiful planet and space enviroments, courtesy of Frostbite Engine.
- Many, many secondary quests, that increase the hours one can put into the game.
- “Free” character development system, that adjusts to our desires.
- The Jetpack attempts to break the cover-based monotony of the series’ combat.
- The option to keep on playing after the main storyline’s ending.
- Rather fun PVE Multiplayer feature, that ties into the game’s story while remaining completely optional.
- A few well-written tributes to the events of Mass Effect 1 and 2.
- Cliche story, cliche dialogue, cliche NPCs.
- Shallow writing, that doesn’t take advantage of the setting’s potential.
- Romances that are an insult to 200,000 years of Homo Sapiens existence and reproduction on Earth.
- Clunky UI and unskippable space cutscenes, design choices that we hope will be fixed in the future.
- Fetch Quests in a 2017 game. Dear Lord.
- Occasionally funky animations that we wouldn’t see even in a 2003 game.