Bringing Mass Effect to a new galaxy isn’t quite the shot in the arm the series needed.
Seeking out new life and new civilizations to shoot and have sex with, Mass Effect: Andromeda creatively sidesteps the limitations of Mass Effect 3’s ending by launching a group of pioneers into a whole new galaxy. What they find there is a vast and sometimes exciting action role-playing game that kept me engaged, but after the outstanding trilogy that created this universe, Andromeda is a disappointing follow up with some significant technical issues on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
From the opening moments, there’s an immediate sense of mystery and peril as the human colony ship encounters a massive, world-ruining space anomaly that throws their plans into disarray, and a new hostile alien race led by a threatening villain attacks on sight. The quest to find a habitable and safe new home for tens of thousands of frozen colonists and form a functioning independent government along with colonists from the krogan, salarian, turian, and asari ships is an interesting struggle that sets this Mass Effect apart from the establishments of previous games. At the same time, Andromeda just can’t stop itself from retreading some major plot ideas from the original trilogy, including another long-dead civilization that’s left advanced technology lying around.
What’s bizarre is that BioWare went to the trouble of shipping us 2.5 million light years away to introduce only two new alien races (plus some robots) over more than 50 hours of campaign and major side missions, and only one local joins your crew. Given that the original games have multiple background races like elcor, drell, vorcha, batarians, and more to add diversity and the sense that we were living in a universe full of different peoples, the Andromeda galaxy seems practically barren of intelligent life by comparison.
Ryder is a likable and well-acted character who can carry the story.
Our new customizable protagonist, Ryder, quickly finds himself thrust into the leadership role of Pathfinder and placed in command of a ship, the Tempest. (As with Shepard, Ryder can be either a man or a woman, but because my first playthrough was as a guy named Biff with a large ginger afro and a scar that looked as though he’d been hit in the face with a hot waffle iron, I’m going to refer to him as male in this review.) On the whole, Ryder is a likable and well-acted character who can carry the story, and the idea of having the alternate-gender version of your character play a role in the story as a twin sibling is a novel idea and used to good effect. It can also be ridiculous if you choose to use the character creator to make the twins appear as completely different races – or just freakishly deformed, tattooed, and scarred.
Most of the early dialogue choices we have to shape our version of Ryder are about how we want him to cope with this harrowing situation, and the options are usually either cocky overconfidence or self-doubt and pity without a lot in between. But eventually it evens out, and we get to choose between idealistic Ryder and pragmatic Ryder as we resolve conflicts throughout the region. The choices are rarely as high-contrast as the original trilogy’s Paragon/Renegade moments, and they’re more about deciding whether you want him to be an all-business logical type or a goofball with a self-deprecating sense of humor and cheesy jokes.
Your crew, meanwhile, is a fairly generic band made up almost entirely of existing Mass Effect humans and aliens, which despite their fairly deep and enjoyable backstories, always gave me feelings of deja vu. After all, how many times can we be introduced to a gruff new krogan warrior or an eyepiece-wearing turian? There’s nothing really wrong with them, but none struck me as memorable stars like Garrus, Tali, or Mordin. Peebee is probably the best of the cast thanks to her quirky humor and tendency to bicker with her fellow asari, Lexi. But the rest seem too comfortable with each other to be all that interesting in the way we saw with Wrex threatening to tear the team apart in the original Mass Effect. Everyone getting along, for the most part, is a little boring, regardless of how flirty and naked they get.
And my stars, do they ever get naked.
And my stars, do they ever get naked. I’m not just talking about Liam’s apparent allergy to shirts, here. You have plenty of romance options for either gender, including same-sex and interspecies, and when you’ve gone out of your way to talk to them and run errands for them (which often involve blowing up robots or killing outlaws) to kindle the flames of your budding relationship, you’re treated to a full-on R-rated sex scene the likes of which the Mass Effect series has never seen before. My wife’s reaction as I sealed the deal with human biotic commando Cora was to state, matter-of-factly, that, “This is porn. And it looks weird.” She’s not wrong on either count – especially since male Ryder appears to have painstakingly removed every hair on his body below the neck – but I’d call it tasteful porn thanks to the context of the conversations leading up to it.
Voice acting is almost universally strong enough that I quickly stopped noticing the generally sub-par human facial animations. Could they be better? Absolutely – a lot of games, such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, have done significantly better in that department and in giving characters hair that doesn’t look like solid plastic. But some weird expressions didn’t ruin Mass Effect: Andromeda for me any more than they did virtually every RPG for the past three decades. I’m much more distracted by the texture pop-in that happens during conversations, where a character’s face will go from looking like a blurry mess to having visible pores midway through a sentence.
On that note, Mass Effect: Andromeda is more than a little rough in the technical sense. On PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (I’ve yet to spend significant time with the PC version), it’s prone to major frame rate drops and hitches regardless of what’s happening on screen. I’ve seen it drop to slideshow levels when simply walking around the Nexus (the Citadel-like seat of government), driving through a flat wasteland, and fighting in a dense jungle. Animation glitches seem more common than in previous games. And, though some bugs are to be expected in a game of this scale, between myself and a few other players at IGN we’ve seen a fair share of broken quests. (BioWare has been aggressively issuing patches in response to our reports and claims to have resolved at least some of the problems already.)
Those moments are right up there with the toughest head-scratchers of the original trilogy.
Overall, though, the inconsistent writing is what makes this Mass Effect a rollercoaster of ups and downs. Occasionally, we’re confronted with excellent morally gray questions where both options have compelling logic and terrible consequences, where you’re forced to pick between, for instance, a long-term greater good or saving lives. Those are some of the best moments in all of Mass Effect: Andromeda and they’re right up there with the toughest head-scratchers of the original trilogy. I’d have loved to have seen more of them. There are also some respectable quests, such as discovering the truth behind the first murder in Andromeda using your Batman-style scanner on your wrist-mounted Omnitool and then deciding what to do with the results of your investigation. Having finished the campaign, however, very few of these no-win choices have come back to haunt me in the ways I’d hoped for.
In between those decisions are a large number of filler fetch and kill quests set up by stilted conversations, and those can become tedious as you try to fill up the viability percentages of the planets you visit. Plus, flying around in the Tempest and scanning uninhabited planets for resources is as dull a task as it’s been in any of the original trilogy games – and that’s saying a lot. But at least this time they’re over quickly; extracting resources is a two-button job, and if there’s nothing to be found you’ll know right away, without needing to waste time searching. Because of the semi-open structure of the campaign, it’s more or less up to us to do different things in order to keep things fresh.