Video Games Review: Mass Effect: Andromeda (PS4, 2016) isn’t great, it’s just good and that’s okay

Mass Effect has been a series on my personal review Bucket List for quite some time. I wasn’t yet working as a journalist and critic when Mass Effect 3 was released in 2012 and so Bioware’s big post-Shepard return to the series, Mass Effect: Andromeda, was in my sights. Having finally crossed this particular item off my bucket list, I wish I had nicer things to say about it. I have some nice things to say about it, just not as many as I would like. Mass Effect: Andromeda is uneven in some respects, downright disappointing in others and a real triumph in others still. After a five year wait, it’s hard to admit that it’s merely good, not great. But that’s okay, and I want to talk about why it’s okay.

I began to feel a general uneasiness about the state of Mass Effect: Andromeda back in November when, after five years of near-uninterrupted silence from Bioware on the game, the marketing floodgates abruptly opened and trailers began to rain like manna from heaven. As media, we ride the wake of marketing campaigns every day for content. Even if you have no formal experience in marketing per se, you come to recognise the ebb and flow of these things, the way the marketing is designed to curate a gradual increase in hype leading up to launch. The Andromeda campaign had none of that. It was all what we expect to see in the late stages of a campaign when hype should be at a fever pitch. It bore the hallmarks of a game that was out of time, whose publisher had reached the limit of what they were prepared to sink into the project without seeing a return. Actually playing Mass Effect: Andromeda feels like it confirms this outsider’s assessment.

Mass Effect: Andromeda fits into the series timeline immediately following the events of Mass Effect 2. A group of brave explorers comprised of many different Milky Way races have departed on a 600-year journey to Andromeda, our nearest neighbouring galaxy. The goal is simple: find a new home away from home, somewhere we can all start to build a new life together. The conclusion of Mass Effect 2, of course, sees the deadly Reapers invading the Milky Way galaxy and so Mass Effect: Andromeda plays out with everyone unaware of the catastrophe that unfolded right after they left home (a conflict now concluded centuries ago).

By now, we’ve all seen the tidal wave of YouTube videos highlighting the game’s clearly unfinished facial animations, bugs and odd walk cycles, narrated with the breathless, hysterical intensity of people who feel as though they have been wronged on a spiritual level.

I have my own problems with the game, to be sure. The writing and quest design, particularly in the early part of the game, is woefully undercooked and well below the standard Bioware set in the original Mass Effect trilogy. There’s a lot of dialogue that feels hamfisted, your squadmates shout cringey fanfic catchphrases during combat and none of it is helped by the characters’ frequently vacant facial expressions.

The early quests are little more than “Go here, hold triangle while a radial bar fills up green, listen to some chatter, now go here, repeat several more times.” The game goes on and on and on about the great work you’re doing making its first planet, Eos, ripe for habitation but I felt like I was accomplishing nothing of value at all.

All of this rests on top of a user interface that makes me want to pull my hair out. It reminds me of the menus from the original Mass Effect, which were also an unintelligible garbage fire. I can’t tell how anything is supposed to work. Who designed the quest log? Send them to my office for a paddling because this shit is unacceptable. The only area that is given any kind of sorting treatment is your ship the Tempest and the Nexus, which is Andromeda‘s answer to The Citadel from the original trilogy, a sprawling alien construct and launch pad. It dumps every other quest, no matter where in the galaxy it is situated, into one of two menus — Priority Ops and Additional Tasks — without any option to sort by destination. You just have to pick a quest and then see where it takes you. This means its hard to do things in a run when you want to — “I’m on Eos now, I should try to chain together as many quests as I possibly can while I’m here. Oh wait, I don’t possess an eidetic memory and so have no way of knowing where any of these quests will take me.”

It took me a full twelve hours of gritting my teeth and wondering how the hell Bioware had managed to produce a swing-and-a-miss this spectacular before anything approaching a game in which fun could be had began to appear.

The writing began to improve. The bugs and frame rate hitches began to feel less intrusive. I even became inured to the thousand-yard-stares of my crew. At a certain point, my Ryder’s story (her name is Amelia, she’s a diplomat and a natural empath, but impulsive) became a love story about her unrequited crush on Cora, her second-in-command and the increasingly brazen things she would do get her attention. All for naught, of course. Cora, as it turns out, can only be romanced by the male Ryder and I’m still in a mood about it.

This is what I come to a Mass Effect game for! I love being drawn into the lives and backgrounds of these characters, feeling them out, teasing little shards of information from them in an effort to piece together who they are. It took me a while to find that aspect of the game in Andromeda, and I wasn’t always happy with the writing, but it is there and I’m grateful for that.

One area of Mass Effect: Andromeda that is solid from the jump is its shooting. The Mass Effect series has leant further and further into third-person shooter tropes and here Bioware finally goes for broke. All of the guns feel good, the damage they deal is satisfyingly meaty and they all come with righteous science fiction sound effects.

There is a problem with the shooting though and that’s the game’s “cover” system. Theoretically, when you want to take cover you just waddle your Ryder into cover and push them up against a wall using the control stick. They then put their back to it and you can fire blind or down the scope/iron sights using L2. Sounds great! Except it rarely works like that. Frequently I’d be under intense incoming fire and try to throw Ryder into cover only to find her standing in full view of the enemy, refusing to bob down. It feels like, rather than taking a context sensitive approach to cover, just having a “take cover” button would have been more reliable and satisfying for players.

There’s a lot of just these kinds of dualities to be found throughout Andromeda. For everything the game gets right, there is another, often directly related, part that misfires. Cruising around the galaxy in your shiny new ship is cool, but it requires watching the same 20-second cutscene as you jump from planet-to-planet or system-to-system. Getting to take your ship down to a planet, deploy a vehicle and explore Dragon Age: Inquisition-esque  maps for loot and quests is fun, but its hard to know which  quests you’ve already picked up are on this planet without cycling through them one by one. The game looks a million bucks a lot of the time, but when driving around on planetary surfaces the game will frequently hang for a moment or the frame rate will drop unexpectedly which shouldn’t be happening on a machine of the PlayStation 4 Pro’s raw grunt. Upgrading your suits and weapons is cool, but the menus are laid in such a way that what appears to be a crafting station is actually just used for assembling an item blueprint. Crafting is located in a second, wholly different menu that uses its own mineral economy. Having a booster jet on your Pathfinder suit is cool because now you can jump really high and dash short distances (or cloak if you’d prefer the sneaky approach), but this ability to jump has led someone on the Andromeda team to think that jumping puzzles would be a good idea and now they’re everywhere.

At the beginning of this review, I said that I didn’t think Mass Effect: Andromeda was as bad as some have made it out to be and, having complained about the things that annoyed me, I want to address that.

There is much about Mass Effect: Andromeda that feels unbecoming of a developer of Bioware’s experience and pedigree. In the hands of a less high-profile dev, removed from a brand this beloved, would the game would have attracted the same level of internet vitriol? I mean, I suppose it’s possible, but the sting of our current collective disappointment is exaggerated by the long wait and our own, perhaps unrealistic, expectations. I find my annoyance levels when playing rather elevated and when I try to drill down on precisely why I’m so aggravated, it comes back to a single sentiment — “it should have been better than this.” I can’t see myself thinking that way about a game with a lower profile.

Perhaps with another six months added to the development cycle, Bioware could have ironed out the game’s many current technical issues, but this wouldn’t change the fact that the quest design and overall writing seem to sit well below the Bioware standard. Even if the team had had the time they needed to finish the things that still need finishing, its entirely probable that the creaky pillars of the game’s story would have remained unchanged.

I’ve played a lot of games that are better than Mass Effect: Andromeda, its own franchise stablemates included. But I’ve also played a lot of games that are far, far worse and that’s where the wild criticism online starts to leave me behind. It could have been a much better game than it currently is, though by how much I am not sure. I’m keen to see what it will look like once Bioware’s post-launch patches start rolling off the production line.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is guilty of the greatest cardinal sin a AAA video game in the internet age can commit — it is merely good instead of great and for that it is reviled. For all its faults, I have loved being back in the Mass Effect universe and have grown rather attached to my Ryder and her motley crew. I certainly hope it doesn’t take another five years before we see the series back again because this is a shared universe I want to be lost in for as long as I can pick up a controller.

Score: 7.5 out of 10
Highlights: Visually beautiful beyond the hitches; wonderful environment design; top shelf voice talent
Lowlights: Surprisingly weak script; uninspired quest design; god awful UI design
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: March 23, 2017
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.