It would be a significant understatement to define the original Mass Effect trilogy as anything shy of a masterpiece, and at the risk of sounding biased, one must acknowledge the fact that BioWare managed to set the bar so unimaginably high for themselves, almost to the point of being insurmountable. Mass Effect: Andromeda does not surpass its predecessors — nor did I expect it to — no matter how hard it clearly tried, but it does do solid work of standing on its own two feet at times and offers a memorable experience, even if some key aspects of it were truly forgettable.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is not an experience that can or will hold a unanimous consensus, or anything close to it, as it is one that will be loved or hated without leaving much room for in-between feelings. While it is truly a recipe that produces a quality end result, some of the ingredients involved may be hard on the palette, differing from player to player. With that being said, it is remarkably obvious that Mass Effect: Andromeda, at times, tries too hard to earn the same critical acclaim as its predecessors that it almost loses its own identity in the process.
With the original Mass Effect trilogy, we experienced the story of Commander Shepard and their crew’s efforts to save the Milky Way galaxy from genocide at the hands of the Reapers, a highly-advanced machine race of synthetic-organic starships, to harvest the galaxy’s sentient life in a repeating cycle of purges that occurs every 50,000 years. Every player’s experience with the original trilogy was different depending on choices made within each game, and as such, a canonical ending does not exist. Mass Effect: Andromeda sidesteps any complications with its plot taking place after the events of Mass Effect, but before the events of Mass Effect 2.
In 2185, the Andromeda Initiative sends hundreds of thousands of cryogenically frozen colonists on massive flagships called “arks” into the Andromeda Galaxy in the search of “golden worlds” — planets that are able to sustain life. The journey into Andromeda takes approximately 600 years, by which point, the cryogenically frozen colonists have no knowledge of the goings on back in the Milky Way. The human ark, Hyperion, is awakened to their plans gone awry and as the player character, Ryder, becomes Pathfinder, they and their crew are responsible for finding a new home for the colonists still asleep in cryo. The Pathfinder and their crew are up against a new alien species that poses a legitimate threat — the Andromeda galaxy may not have the Collectors or the Reapers, but they have the Kett; a hostile race of insectoid-looking, genocidal beings that increase their numbers through exaltation — turning other species like Salarians, Krogan, Turian, and Human, for instance, into Kett.
Mass Effect: Andromeda starts strong and holds a consistent level of quality for some time before beginning to falter with repetitive and redundant quests, both primary and secondary, before returning to its consistency. It isn’t inherently as rich as its predecessors, but manages to serve as a meaty experience that successfully immerses players in its atmosphere. In the early hours, Mass Effect: Andromeda offers a lot of hand-holding before giving the player true open-world freedom and allowing us to take full control of our decision-making and mission execution. It’s almost overwhelming at times to the point where getting through tutorials and explanations are more tedious than educational, but once Andromeda opens up, it’s a significantly better experience overall. We’re propelled into cinematic action sequences and familiar gameplay, which honestly seems to have been extracted from all three previous Mass Effect games and fused together in Andromeda, as elements from the Commander Shepard trilogy are evident.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is made up of several key components for gameplay: main quests, exploration and side quests (the former usually leads to the latter), and outpost development. The Pathfinder’s primary mission is to discover a new home for humanity and to do so, the Pathfinder and their crew must visit planets and determine their viability, often undertaking secondary missions to increase it. Varied methods of increasing viability are available, depending on the planet — someone may give the Pathfinder a task to decontaminate the natural water resources or strategically place seismic hammers to tap into the underground water supply; others may provide the locations of Kett facilities to eradicate the hostile threat and in turn, gain access to viable locations. The main method is to reach each planet’s “vault” which are central control points created by the Remnant, an advanced synthetic race of machines that have been dated back a minimum 400 years; though the Remnant technology is less advanced than that of the Protheans back in the Milky Way galaxy. The Remnant vaults essentially control the atmosphere and general viability of the planet surface and it would appear that every planet sustaining some sort of life has a vault. By accessing the vault and activating the purification field, the overall planet’s viability will increase dramatically and tremendously reduce any negative elements — though accessing the vault is a challenge as they are well guarded by Remnant and glyph puzzles.
Accessing Remnant vaults are an integral part of the main story and are ludicrously redundant. Every Remnant vault feels like a copy and paste job with some subtle changes here and there, but the overall layout for each vault is on-the-whole identical. After the third, I had to keep questioning whether or not I was in the same vault on Kadara as I was on Eos — it legitimately gets hard to tell. As redundant as they are, navigating the vault and solving the puzzles are rather enjoyable and interesting, albeit frustrating at times. You must start with three monoliths, scattered on the planet — after locating appropriate glyphs on the monoliths themselves, you must then solve a Sudoku-themed puzzle to activate the monolith. Once all three are activated, it highlights the location of the vault and raises the underground access point to the surface. Once you figure out what vaults look like from the outside, you’ll find yourself stumbling upon them while exploring other planets — make a mental note of it to backtrack later, or just use the objective marker provided when activating the final monolith. I enjoyed feeling like Lara Croft by figuring it out myself, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
Exploration in Mass Effect: Andromeda is rewarded in many different ways, with some being immediate rewards, while others are long-term payoffs. Players will find that through exploration, additional quests will be discovered, more opportunities to help NPCs and earn more rewards will appear, as well as acquiring minerals for crafting. While exploration is not inherently necessary, it would be rather foolish to opt in to an open world experience such as Andromeda and not see everything it has to offer. Admittedly, some planets are more interesting than others, especially the low-gravity stunt paradise of H-047c. One of the seemingly more important aspects comes by way of mineral drilling for crafting purposes, though when it comes down to it, it’s not entirely necessary and can be downright nonsensical.
Mass Effect: Andromeda features a Research and Development component (let’s call it R&D going forward) that allows players to research weapons, armor, modifications, and boosters and then develop them for use in the field. Earning research points are as easy as using Ryder’s scanning feature on their omni-tool and scanning literally anything and everything eligible to be scanned. Lifeforms, structures, inanimate objects, etc. and that will yield a minor amount of research points to be applied toward researching projects. When it comes down to development, weapons and armor are ranked in tiers depending on the player’s level. For example, each tier offers better statistics for the item in question (I – X) and the improvements level-to-level are minimum. However, comparing the early levels (I, II, III) to the later levels (VIII, IX, X) will yield substantial differences. Development can be rather tedious because in order to develop a weapon or piece of armor in a top-tier rank, the previous ranks must be researched first, burning through the player’s research points rather quickly; that means if you want to research and develop the Carnifex pistol in Tier X, you’ll need to research (development not required) ranks I through IX first. A more sensible option is to simply visit the Nexus (Andromeda’s Citadel) and check what the merchants have in stock — level Ryder up enough and it’s almost guaranteed that merchants will have leveled weapons and armor available to you. In my case, just as I was about to research and develop N7 armor, I stopped by the armor merchant on the Nexus and that wonderful Turian had a full and inexpensive set of N7 armor at the IX tier and saved me several hundred research points. Naturally it would render the research and development rather useless — in my game, I reserved the R&D feature for modifications and boosters, as nothing else was truly worth it.
Speaking of senseless additions, the crew aboard the Tempest, Pathfinder Ryder’s ship, leave a lot to be desired. One cannot help but compare them to Commander Shepard’s crew, as it is painfully obvious that BioWare tried to recreate the camaraderie from the beginning and expected us to truly care about these characters before we even got to really know them. With the original Mass Effect trilogy, we had plenty of time to grow fond of recurring characters — and even managed to become attached to some in simply the first game — and it was easy, as the supporting characters were unique and interesting.
In Mass Effect: Andromeda, it almost feels as though they were trying to cram three games’ worth of emotion into a single experience and expect us to love the new squadmates in a shorter period of time. While it was rather easy to truly appreciate some of them early on — in my case, Peebee, Vetra, and Jaal — by the end of the game, there were some I really wanted to punch in the face. I’m looking at you, Liam Kosta. I can’t really be upset, because my distaste for Liam mirrors my initial distaste for Ashley Williams and Kaiden Alenko for the first Mass Effect game and by the end of Mass Effect 2, I had a newfound appreciation for them. Either way, my disinterest in either of them did not lessen the impact of the events on Virmire. A redeeming factor about building relationships with your squadmates is that you never really feel like you’re on the edge of no return. I’ve disagreed with and royally annoyed some squadmates in my what-I-think-is-right decision making, and rectified the disagreement later because our viewpoints realigned — but I never once felt like they were going to hate me indefinitely. It was realistic and enjoyable as I didn’t have to worry about intergalactic ruin by angering an Angara with petty squabble. Friendships with your squadmates are more complex and dynamic than before and it works wonderfully.
Unfortunately, intimacy with eligible squadmates can prove rather lackluster. BioWare have promised an update to rectify this, but in their efforts to include non-traditional romance such as interspecies, it was subpar by comparison to say, Scott Ryder and Cora Harper, or Sara Ryder and Liam Kosta. Just as well, homosexual relationships were essentially swept under the rug and masked by fade-outs and camera panning, almost as if they were ashamed of it, by comparison to heterosexual relationships. None of that makes contextual sense as homosexual relationships in another BioWare game, Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example, were not minimized. Romance arcs can be on two opposite ends of the spectrum — dynamic and complex paths or direct, depending on which squadmate Ryder is romancing, with the homosexual relationships proving less dynamic than the heterosexual ones. There’s no complex dynamic, there’s no intimate dialogue and deep conversation; just flirting and eventual intercourse, then a minor yet heartwarming conclusion at the game’s finale, and it is drastically disappointing.
Overall, despite the evident shortcomings of Mass Effect: Andromeda, it quickly earned a place in my top favorites as I was able to appreciate it for what it is and minimize comparisons to the original Mass Effect trilogy. BioWare have been working on several updates to improve the game based on consumer feedback and there have already been some noticeable improvements such as character facial details and animations and it does make a world of a difference, despite Andromeda being perfectly playable in its launch state. It suffered from some glitches and bugs — none of which were gamebreaking at all — and one needs to remember that games of this size and scope are absolutely prone to it; Elder Scrolls and Fallout are no exception, but seem to continuously receive a free pass to dodge criticism. Mass Effect: Andromeda is an absolutely solid galactic experience and I’m looking forward to seeing how BioWare improves it further and where the next adventure takes us.