Mass Effect Andromeda: it gets better.
Mass Effect Andromeda is like a cake baked by an inexperienced chef. Failing to account for the delicate chemistry of baking, they've tripled the ingredients and chucked it in the oven for three times as long. The outside is a burnt crust and the inside is a gooey mess, and putting it back in the oven is not going to resolve things; on the other hand, there's a narrow band of perfectly baked cake you can pick out if you're determined.
For the first hour, I loved it. Then I hated it for nine hours. After that I started to love it again, but now we're now locked in an uncomfortable homeostasis, swinging back between and forth between the frustration and boredom I endure waiting for the good bits, and the brief frenzy of passion when said good bits crop up.
Thanks to the EA Access trial period, it’s no secret that Mass Effect Andromeda has been in what might be called a bit of a state during the review period, which certainly hasn't helped. In an earlier draft of this article, I reluctantly listed off an enormous number of bugs and issues I’d encountered (far more than Alex saw, despite also running the PC build), but a late patch has made a significant difference to many of these problems, for me at least. Perhaps we can thank feedback from the early access trial for this.
Prior to this latest patch Mass Effect Andromeda was a worse experience than BioWare's previous Frostbite effort Dragon Age Inquisition, which is awkward for everyone involved. Although I didn’t spend enough time with the latest update to give an unreserved recommendation, I feel confident enough now to say this isn't the egregiously broken affair it was for the first week I spent with it - but that's not to say it's two unqualified thumbs up from me, either. There are other issues to consider.
Mass Effect Andromeda features all the usual excellent BioWare highlights of likeable characters, interesting scenarios and witty banter – but they’re delivered poorly, in ways that feel exasperating in 2017.
By now you will have seen the GIFs and videos showing off the facial animation problems in Mass Effect Andromeda, and I don’t feel we can write this off as “bugs”, because it’s present on and off throughout the entire game. Ryder’s face going through convulsions in a single scene is easy to put down to an error, but the terrifying way Cora’s eyes show too much white and fixate somewhere on your chin at all times is not.
Later content is much more polished, so that you’re less likely to want to push your squadmates out an airlock rather than bond with them.
Bizarre, jerky posture and walking animations abound, even when things seem to be working well, so that it’s a great relief to get in among non-human characters where you don’t feel the awkwardness dragging against your perception. The good news is that later content is much more polished in this regard, so that when you start doing the loyalty missions you’re less likely to want to push your squadmates out an airlock rather than bond with them.
There are timing issues in a lot of cut and dialogue scenes in Mass Effect Andromeda, so that good writing and voice acting fall spectacularly flat, and well short of their potential. You don’t have to be a comedy genius or cinematic master to spot hundreds of instances where a tiny tweak of timing – removing the second of silence between a character cutting off and the event that supposedly interrupted them, or inserting a beat before a punch line – would have made things so much better. Again, later content seems to be better in this regard.
It’s remarkable how little respect Mass Effect Andromeda has for its own strengths, too. Squad banter, whether it’s ambient or mission-based, often just cuts out part way through because you pass over some invisible threshold, or because the game wants to tell you something it’s told you a dozen times in the past few minutes, or for no discernible reason. While it’s frustrating to hear all those sweet bantz cut out part way through, you can also miss critical story and mission information this way, which is a real problem.
This is something other developers have solved, but here we are in 2017 and every time someone talks in Mass Effect Andromeda you have to drop the controls and hope the game finishes playback of the five minute dialogue someone has decided to place in a ten second corridor, or the ten second dialogue in the five minute room ahead will override it. This does not improve as the game progresses, unfortunately.
Bad animations, timing and dialogue cutting out dogged BioWare through the past generation and it’s frustrating to see no improvement in Mass Effect Andromeda. Perhaps we cooed too much over the studio’s strengths over the past years and didn’t offer enough constructive criticism? Well, here it is, overdue but issued sternly: BioWare, you are undercutting your own work by not raising the bar on this stuff.
Before I give over on the story, writing and voice actors side of things, I have three complaints. The first is that Mass Effect Andromeda follows Dragon Age Inquisition’s formula of having its protagonist thrust into a position of authority for absolutely nonsense reasons, but in a science fiction context it’s much harder to accept everyone just going along with it.
There’s little to differentiate “your” Ryder; no matter which of the four tones you choose in dialogue, Ryder comes off as a jokey, friendly goof. Dialogue choices feels far less meaningful than the Paragon Renegade binary did.
The second is that there’s little to differentiate “your” Ryder; no matter which of the four tones you choose in dialogue, Ryder comes off as a jokey, friendly goof. This is fine, and is clearly meant to distinguish them from consummate badass Shepard, but dialogue choices feels far less meaningful than the Paragon Renegade binary did, and less differentiated than previous BioWare games with the tone system like Dragon Age 2 and Inquisition. (On the other hand, the two Ryders are themselves somewhat different; Sara is the dorkier of the two, especially when it comes to flirting.)
The third complaint is that the early hours of the game are stuffed with wince-worthy moments, which, again, you’ve probably seen GIFs and videos of (“my face is tired” and the floating rocks, for example). I don’t think it’s good enough to say “it gets better after ten hours” when it comes to video games, but for the record: it does, mostly.
Right, let’s talk about gameplay, which breaks down roughly into combat and everything else.
Combat is rapid and mobile, but ultimately shallow and repetitive. You know how Mass Effect 3 multiplayer sort of slimmed down the core game’s combat systems, limiting your character to a small set of powers but giving you loads of classes to play with? Mass Effect Andromeda trims the fat even further, so that you can only ever carry three powers into combat, but can change profiles to load up a different set at any time.
In theory this means you’ll be juggling heaps of different abilities mid-combat. But since you are limited to a certain number of delineated presets and changing them involves going into the pause menu, in practice you won’t do it much. Additionally, it makes no sense to invest in additional profiles and powers; doing so just prevents you reaching the most powerful extremes of any specific set of skills.
On top of that, you have very limited squad control – much less than in previous Mass Effect games. You can order your squad to attack a specific target or to stand in a particular spot, and that’s it: you can't make them use powers, you can’t issue orders while action is suspended by a quick menu. When ordered to a position, squaddies become useless, often gormlessly facing away from enemies attacking them from flanks or behind.
If you’re a Mass Effect veteran you probably grok what all this adds up to: you can’t reliably perform combos with your squaddies, and you can’t use your pals to control territory in a tactical way. Combat is pretty much all on you.
On the one hand, this forces you to focus your build very closely so you can set up and execute combos independently and rapidly, and be the driving force in each encounter. This is something previous Mass Effects didn’t necessarily highlight as well as they could have, since loads of people played them as straight third-person cover shooters, and it’s really satisfying to get it right.
On the other hand, it limits viable playstyles, and all of them feel largely the same – pop combo, duck into cover if necessary, rinse, repeat.
When it works, it feels pretty good. You can do some amazing things by combining powers, weapons, melee, dodges and jumpjets, and the combat animations are much better than others in Mass Effect Andromeda. But it gets repetitive fast, just spamming the same three powers over and over again, even if they are very cool, and switching profiles just means you commit to spamming a different set.
Enemies take a heck of a beating – even grunts need a couple of blasts of a shotgun or a combo to put down – and both bosses and bigger enemies are just bullet sponges, even if you bother to change profiles and use consumables appropriately.
Doing the same things over and over again is a real theme of Mass Effect Andromeda. BioWare talked a good talk about quality side content, but even a few hours in the journal bristles with boring fetch quests which seem designed both to pad out the game by a couple of dozen hours and to sell the official guide; many of them have no map tracking at all, and the environments are huge. Popping a bit of dialogue at either end of a frustrating and thankless scanning quest is simply not enough.
You can’t fault BioWare on the whole “content” front; if you want a game with hundreds of hours of things to do, regardless of whether those things are fun, Mass Effect Andromeda has you covered. It’s kind of boggling how big it is if you want to go for true 100% completion – which you shouldn’t, by the way, as the afore-mentioned fetch quests are not needed to reach full viability and offer little meaningful reward. It feels like someone made the decision to pack in as much as possible, right up to the last minute, instead of knuckling down to make a smaller amount of game a better overall experience.
Main quest content and the more substantial or story-driven side quests like loyalty missions are a real mixed bag. Some of it is just great, driving you from tense encounter to tense encounter and rewarding you with beat after beat of dramatic story shifts. Other parts are clearly designed to push you to the whole open world thing, and drag along dully as you fill in checklists so you can move on to the stuff you want to do. Why BioWare chose to put some of the dullest parts right at the start where you’re most likely to give up in disgust, and to lock great quests behind collectibles, is a mystery for the ages.
Oh, I should probably mention you can unlock perks and send AI squads on missions, in both cases similarly to Dragon Age Inquisition, and that’s all fine. The crafting system also leans on Inquisition, but if that’s not your bag you can mostly ignore the whole thing once you finish kitting out the Nomad. But while we’re talking about systems in common from Inquisition, the menus are an appalling mess, cluttered by unnecessary notifications that you have collected a new type of useless junk or whatever, which are very hard to clear.
The cluttered, unintuitive and crankily navigated menus are baffling, and unless you've come from Mass Effect 3 multiplayer and Dragon Age Inquisition it'll take you ages to make head or tail of them, let alone start putting together useful builds and equipment from them. That's just another reason why the opening hours are so painful. BioWare: I love you, but this UI nonsense has to stop.
Mass Effect Andromeda is very far from perfect, and its problems feel very last generation. At first glance, and even after longer examination, it suffers greatly by comparison with other recent releases.
And yet, at the end of the day, this is a Mass Effect game. It has what you probably came for: the characters talk to you, and to each other, in ways that make you want to be a part of their world.
It feels off to write so much about what’s wrong with Mass Effect Andromeda when what’s right with it can be summed up so succinctly, but I think that’s the conversation we need to have if BioWare is ever going to pull it socks up and get better at wrapping its talents up in functional and worthwhile games.
In the interest of injecting just a little balance, though: yes, there were moments that made me laugh, that melted my heart, that filled me with sorrow or anger. I don’t want to spoil any of them. Most of them happen beyond the first ten hours. Possibly a desire not to spoil these moments is why BioWare front-loaded Mass Effect Andromeda with the utter tosh of the opening quests.
Dig further in, and the BioWare magic is intact in Mass Effect Andromeda. It’s up to you how much raw batter and burnt edges you can stomach to get at that delicious cake.