By guest columnist Rich Kuhaupt.
So, full disclosure, I am a massive Mass Effect fan. Since it was announced that there would, in fact, be a fourth installment of Bioware’s benchmark space RPG series, I became infocidal for any news, rumors or telepathically transmitted information about “don’t call itMass Effect 4.” Now that I’ve had a chance to actually play Mass Effect Andromeda (about 40 hrs) I thought I would offer my initial impressions of the latest offering of my favorite video game franchise and address some of the early issues and bad reviews. Minor spoilers are likely.
Mass Effect Andromeda (MEA) is what you might call a divergent sequel to the first three games, which were centered around the legendary Commander Shepard and his/her battle to save the galaxy from the genocidal Reapers, an ancient race of artificial intelligence machines the size of skyscrapers.
Canon-wise, MEA begins during the events of Mass Effect 2. As Commander Shepard allies with Cerberus to battle the Collectors (pawns of the Reapers), the shadowy Andromeda Initiative organization prepares to depart the Milky Way for the Andromeda galaxy; a journey that will take over 600 years to complete.
Your adventure begins as you wake up from cryo sleep as either Scott or Sara Ryder. You are a young, unproven explorer until unexpected events propel you into the leadership role for the entire Initiative with lives in the balance as you search for a new home for humanity. Many fans had hoped for the option to play as one of the beloved alien species from the earlier games, much like Dragon Age Inquisition’s character creator where you can play as a human, elf, qunari, or dwarf, but that was not to be.
Early access to ten hours of gameplay was available to EA Origins subscribers and it didn’t take long for the criticism to start. Games so highly anticipated rarely live up to the hype, for a variety of reasons, and Andromeda is no exception. Faults were found with the character creation, the look and animation of NPCs, substandard dialog, and uninspired storytelling. Not to mention the inevitable bugs, although I’ve found Andromeda to be much less buggy than patched versions of Skyrim, Fallout 4, or Dragon Age Inquisition. Within a week of the release of Andromeda, Bioware offered a patch which largely addressed the “deer in the headlights” look of many of the NPCs. Animation and bug fixes as well as a bunch of smaller, balancing fixes give MEA an even more finished look and feel.
Mass Effect Andromeda had several factors beyond their control that put them on an uphill battle before the first bit of code was written. One, the success and originality of new IPs such as Horizon Zero Dawn and a revitalized Witcher title set high benchmarks for gameplay and storytelling; two, it’s kind of a rule that sequels are never better than the original. There are rare exceptions but you can never replicate that feeling of seeing Star Wars for the first time or meeting your first Reaper in Mass Effect. Many are disappointed that MEA has failed to instantly wow them enough to compete with their cherished memories of an entire series. And three, the sheer size of the game means there is a lot of content which can dilute an otherwise tight storyline. There is something to be said for a shorter game with a condensed and intense story.
By now you’re probably thinking “OMG, Andromeda sounds like a terrible game!” Relax. Nothing could be further from the truth (even if it is coming from a ginormous Mass Effect fan).
Invoking the spirit of exploration so prevalent in ME1, Andromeda is about exploring dozens of planets spanning the Andromeda galaxy, all with stunning vistas and environments. You will have to forge new alliances and battle new enemies while you work to build a home for humanity in the Andromeda galaxy.
Your chariot between planets and the Nexus (the Citadel-sized home base) is the Tempest. This ship is very well designed without a single elevator in sight, unlike the previous games’ Normandy SR1 and Normandy SR2 that had doors and elevators and made you feel like you were waiting in line for a DisneyWorld ride. A classic ritual for all ME players is talking frequently with the crew for any new dialog or missions and with the Tempest being so well laid out it’s much less of a grid to catch up with everyone. An abundance of windows take advantage of those amazing views of the galaxy. I could write an entire article just on the Tempest, that’s how amazing it is.
Your ground vehicle on most explorable planets is a revamped and rebranded Mako in the six-wheeled Nomad. The only thing missing is a mounted gun but that’s nitpicking. Bioware got help with the Nomad mechanics by the same team behind the Need For Speed series and it shows in its ease of use and logical controls.The Nomad is also used to deploy probes in mining zones when you’re planet side which is almost fun (less of a grind) when compared to previous mining methods in the earlier games. The best upgrades for the Nomad come in the form of about a dozen different paint schemes.
Andromeda gets very high marks for the combat mechanics which are smooth, responsive and just plain fun. I didn’t think I would like the passive cover system but quickly got used to it and like that I can run up to cover and concentrate on actual combat without having to pause for that faction of a second to crouch or stand up and especially those instances where I would accidentally double tap the crouch button and end up taking a missile to the face. Add in an amazing variety of combat and power skill sets that you can change on the fly, oh, and how about a short duration jet pack that will have you looking for fights to practice your hovering headshots. Previous ME games limited you to one class, basically combat, tech or biotic. Andromeda offers the same three classes but adds so much variety by allowing you to choose from any class which, on the down side, can make it pretty easy to spread your skill points too thin. Better to pick a few favored skills to max out instead of having a lot of low-level skills. When you find a skill setup you like you can save them (up to four setups) which you can swap anytime, even in the middle of combat. Trust me, very handy.
Weapons and armors offer just as much variety in type and accompanying mods and augmentations. As with skills, concentrate on a few favorites and level those up first. Crafting is your basic three-step process; resources (raw materials), research (plans), and development (crafting). In order to craft weapons or armors you need to mine, buy, or find raw materials, Pretty standard stuff for most RPGs with crafting options. Research is where you purchase weapon and armor plans using XP earned from scanning plants, minerals, and technology. I know it sounds complicated (and I guess it is) but it really doesn’t take long to get the hang of and before long your only problem will be choosing what to craft.
Story and character (collectively responsible for the feels) are the main reasons people are fans of the Mass Effect series. There is an epic scale to the storylines and the characters were memorable with clearly defined and distinct personalities. Dialog and voice acting from the Mass Effect series have become the stuff of meme legend. Andromeda continues that tradition with memorable characters and interesting storylines. Andromeda’s exploration-based story tells its tales on a grand scale which is a bit different from the epic tale of Commander Shepard.
Time will tell how the story of the Pathfinder and the Andromeda galaxy will be remembered but, as a fan, I have to say I like this new direction. I had heard all the criticism and was worried I would be disappointed by a game that was too different, that tried to “improve” too many things. However, from the beginning, Andromeda made me feel like I was back in the Mass Effect universe. Sure, there were the scary-eyed NPCs and some truly head scratching dialog but I was home. The galaxy is new, the ship and crew are new, the story is new, and yet, it’s all so familiar.
And I haven’t even mentioned the Easter eggs. Mass Effect Andromeda has some of the best Easter eggs I’ve ever seen in a video game, from references to the previous Mass Effect games to real life references and one from the Plants vs. Zombies franchise. If you’re a fan of RPGs, of space-based, character driven stories or third-person shooters, you would be hard pressed to find a better game than Mass Effect Andromeda.
This is my favorite game on the Citadel and I should go.
Rich Kuhaupt is an artist, a writer, and a gamer. Go say hi at @richzilla_blue.
Images courtesy of masseffect.com.