I have to temper this review with an admission; Mass Effect is my favourite game series. As such, my impartiality is severely compromised and so when I tell you that this is a truly fantastic game with many caveats, you’re probably not going to believe me.
But it is. It really is. Let’s start at the beginning.
How the fuck is it possible to travel across Andromeda without the Mass Relays that were so important in the original trilogy?!
Okay fine, on with the review.
Mass Effect Andromeda (ME:A)’s pretext is quite comical; humanity is literally bricking it that giant, ancient, all-powerful machines are going to kill everyone so they decide to pile into a giant ship and unceremoniously do one to another galaxy. Presumably hoping for more places to live and fewer killer robot squids.
Leaving aside what a complete lack of faith in the heroes of the original trilogy this plan represents, it’s not a terrible idea. There are however huge logistical issues in travelling such a distance. First and foremost it takes a really long time and human beings have a tendency to die after like 80 years. So the crew of The Hyperion (AKA the USS GTFO) are frozen in cyrosleep for 6oo hundred years.
Now, this wouldn’t be much of a video game if they woke up at their destination and everything was fine. And it isn’t. In fact it’s severely fucked. The Hyperion crashes into a space cloud and forces those aboard to get their act together lickity-split as the realisation dawns that their current situation is not sustainable. Compounding the issue further is the fact that the death cloud is actually related to the banjaxed planet they were supposed to call New Earth, and is symptomatic of a much larger shitshow that is happening on its surface.
Time is running out, things are going wrong and there’s precious little hope. Enter Ryder. You choose one of a pair of siblings, boy Ryder or girl Ryder. The other will still exist in the game but to say much more is spoiler territory. It is your job to find your crew a new home, and you better get it sorted quickly.
True sci-fi is built on three pillars; reality re-envisioned, humanity examined and possibilities explored. Mass Effect: Andromeda nails 2 out of 3 and does a damn good job with the remainder. So I’ll break it up into the three constituent parts and explain why they are so bloody brilliant.
It may raise an eyebrow to suggest that transplanting the games environment from the Milky Way to the Andromeda galaxy represents a newly realised reality. After all, we haven’t been further than the moon in real life, so what actual difference does this make?! My point is that within the context of Mass Effect, we have seen the Milky Way. We have navigated Citadel space, survived the Terminus Systems and travelled into the galactic core. In other words, been there and done that. Time for a new start.
Setting sail for Andromeda changes the rules. The Milky Way as depicted in Mass Effect is one that has been settled, for the most part. There are dangerous parts where only the brave or the foolish would dare to tread but the player was always stepping into a community that predates them. Intriguing as these communities were, they were established. Andromeda on the other hand is unchartered space. You are true explorers, reaching out into the stars with little more than hope and enthusiasm in a world where literally anything is possible, going where no man has gone before. Only the particularly jaded could object to this premise.
There is an odd narrative quirk in ME:A; the Citadel races all sent Arks to Andromeda but a large portion of the on-screen discourse centres on the idea that this is a new start for humanity. This left me feeling a little odd, I must admit. What I loved about the original was the idea of Humanity lending to something larger than itself, proving that it could contribute at the highest level. It’s also why in ME2 it felt so good to tell Cerberus, the human-centric extremist group to shove their Illusive Man up their xenophobic Normandy knock-off.
In ME:A all the great Citadel races, the Asari, Turians, Krogans and Salarians are turning to the human contingent to bail them out of the tricky situation they find themselves in and it’s not entirely explained why. In the original trilogy, certainly around the time of Andromeda exodus, the other species were largely mistrustful of humans who they viewed as recklessly ambitious, naïve and irreverent. So when Ryder cuts about shouting YAHOO and shooting up the place like some kind of mad space cowboy it would have been consistent if that made everyone else very nervous. Instead his behaviour is rewarded, admired and encouraged. In terms of impact on the game, it would have made the central hubs where you interact most with the administration staff of the initiative a lot more nuanced.
That being said, there is no denying the very human element of Ryders story. He (and I say he now because mine was male) starts off as visibly insecure, uncertain and overwhelmed by the task bestowed upon him. This makes a very refreshing break from the usual hero of overwhelming self-righteous conviction, who always knows the best thing to do no matter what. Nobody listens to him, despite his position as Pathfinder (chosen one) and his attempts at corralling his squad mates into a plan of action often leads to fractious arguments. He can feign confidence and overcompensate with needlessly unilateral decisions but this too can be self-destructive. As the game progresses, and Ryder is able to prove himself, he begins to assert his position as leader, and commands the respect of his team. It is rare for the player character to undergo this much progression over time and is accomplished well, if not expertly.
This is perhaps the weakest part of the game’s architecture and it is here where I must temper my overall enthusiasm for both the series and this iteration with some genuine criticism. ME:A had a wonderful remit to provide players with the opportunity to settle a new galaxy. A galaxy that should have been teeming with stars, planets, life and danger. Instead we have; the cold planet, the hot planet, the jungle planet etc etc. This is something that drives me mad about science fiction. Earth is not defined by one topographical feature, so why limit yourselves when designing planets for a video game?!
Without spoiling too much there is an opportunity to visit the capital city of a native Andromadonian species and it’s wonderfully realised. Yet it’s a hub planet, not one for exploration. The real detail, the intrigue and the propensity for discovery should have been reserved for the so called ‘golden worlds’ we were supposed to colonise. That would have made each new landfall an exciting adventure, rather than a chore. There are pockets of interest dotted around each landscape but they’re largely and unnecessarily barren. Its Assassin’s Creed 3 syndrome; plenty of space with fuck all to do.
When there is a pocket of civilisation notched out of the samey scene, it is usually underdeveloped and sparse. There is almost always a leader with problems, a faction who aren’t happy and a few hapless individuals who have lost someone/something and are making very little in the way of attempts to find them short of waiting for you to come along and save the day. These are not issues specific to ME:A but given its development length and the capacity of new generation consoles, it would have been nice to see a few steps toward cracking these old issues.
When you do the necessary to make each planet viable it provides new resources which lead to more research and development. In a nutshell; more stuff make guns go extra shooty-shooty. It’s the foremost convoluted crafting system in video game history but at least it makes sense. There’s also the supplementary feeling that you are colonising a galaxy with human life but in real terms, this has precious little impact on the game other than being something everyone is tremendously excited about.
I hate to end on a games weaknesses but they are not inconsiderable. This is a deeply flawed game, from its janky animations to its par-for-the-course plotline. They did manage to actually figure out and implement some competent combat mechanics, though they won’t do anything to impress 3rd person shooter genre fans and can hardly be considered a selling point. Overall this game is a wonderful exercise in experimentation; what they get wrong may be glaring and obvious but what they get right is auspicious and astonishing.