Normally I don’t talk about video games very often on this blog. The main reason is that my game playing has slowed in the last few years. But I’ve enjoyed video games since I was 6. I think that was the year I received my first game system, the Nintendo Game Boy, for Christmas. I still have that Game Boy, and it still works too.
My favourite game trilogy from the previous generation is Mass Effect. It’s a science fiction Third Person Shooter with heavy RPG elements. You play as Commander Shepard, a human in a galaxy where the human race has only recently joined galactic civilization. Over the course of the series, you learn a lot about the galaxy’s politics, the criminal underworld, and the different species that inhabit the Milky Way. Oh, and you also try to fight off an ancient power that’s been wiping out all advanced life every 50,000 years or so.
I first played through Mass Effect about a month after Mass Effect 2 came out, and I enjoyed it enough to play through both games (about 30 hours long each) within a week. I’ve played through both games at least 5 times each, and Mass Effect 3 three times. Why the third game only 3 times? Mostly because that’s around the time I got into comics. Not too long after that, I took an extended break from video games. Ever since, I’ve wanted to play through the trilogy again. More so now than before.
I even defended the controversial Mass Effect 3 ending when it first came out. I don’t stand by everything in that blog post – in fact there are a number of reasons I rarely link to my old blog. I do agree that the ending has its flaws, but I would still defend the extended ending Bioware offered as free DLC.
Since I enjoyed Mass Effect that much, you’d think I’d play Mass Effect: Andromeda sooner. But for some reason, I just couldn’t get that excited for the newest chapter in the franchise. Something about the advertisement sounded intriguing, but it felt off as well. All the bad publicity from the game’s technical problems didn’t help. Still, I bought it earlier this month and played through it over the last couple of weeks. Here are my thoughts.
Mass Effect Andromeda is a weird cross between a prequel, a midquel and a sequel to the original trilogy. You play as one of the Ryder siblings (you choose whether you play the brother or sister at the start of the game), a member of the Andromeda Initiative. It’s a multi species journey through dark space to the Andromeda Galaxy to find a new home. It’s an intriguing idea, exploring an entirely new galaxy with a bunch of other courageous explorers. Toward the end of the game, it feels like you leave the Milky Way Galaxy at some point during Mass Effect 1, or slightly after. That’s how it feels like a midquel. But at the same time, the journey to Andromeda takes 600 years. By the time you arrive, the events of the original trilogy ended centuries ago. And yes, the people in charge know that something terrible happened, giving them the feeling that even if they wanted to, they can never return home.
Along the way you meet the Angara, a space faring species native to the Helios cluster (where you spend the entire game). You fight the Kett, a conquering species from somewhere else in the galaxy. You also discover secrets of Remnant technology left behind by a very advanced race. There are a lot of great ideas and concepts in this game, but it’s certainly not without problems.
Here are 4 things that are really good about the game, and 4 things that … aren’t so good.
1 – Exploration. The thing that made the first Mass Effect such a great experience is the feeling of discovery. You spend the entire game learning about the huge galactic civilization. Mass Effect Andromeda takes that aspect and expands on it. There are 5 worlds to explore in detail, each with a partially open world setup. How much exploring you do is up to you. You can just focus on the main story and be done with the game in 9 hours or so, or you can spend time setting up outposts on 4 worlds and figure out ways to make them more habitable. Each world is unique in its own way, with strange plant life, some worlds with occupants that you need to negotiate with before you set up an outpost, and a number of missions on each one.
2 – The graphics. Say what you will about the animation problems (we’ll get into that later), but the graphics themselves are brilliant. Every character model is deeply detailed. The environments are vast, with great use of weather effects, energy fields and the ways that biotic powers create waves in the air. From that perspective, this is a very good looking game.
3 – The combat mechanics. My biggest complaint about the original trilogy would be the combat mechanics. By no means are they bad, but both of the first two games have problems. The first game moves way too slow at times, with enemies having so much health that it slows down the game’s pacing. Mass Effect 2 sped things up greatly, but at the same time your options felt limited compared to the original. Mass Effect 3 found a good balance between the two. Andromeda heads a bit more in the first game’s direction by opening things up again, but it still feels fast like 2 and 3. Your jet pack jumping, dodging and being able to mix and match different kinds of abilities help keep the gameplay dynamic. In general, this game has the best combat mechanics of the franchise. That’s not to say it’s perfect (I’ll get into my complaints later), but as a whole the combat is fantastic.
4 – The concepts. There are a lot of great concepts in this game that are worth exploring further. The Angara start off the game as this species that seemed to have lost most of their history and possibly some of their technology. It’s fascinating to helping them rediscover their past along with them … after gaining their trust first of course. It’s also fun exploring how the initiative came together, along with some of its own dirty secrets.
With all that said, this game is certainly not without problems. I’m limiting it to four, but there are more.
1 – Limits. As much as the exploration element is mostly well done, this game also feels very limiting in several ways. Despite exploring an entirely new galaxy, you only meet two alien races. The Angara become friends over time, while the Kett are evil. Compare that to Mass Effect, where you meet Turians, Salarians, Asari, Krogan, Quarians, Geth, Hanar, Volas and the Elcore in the first game. Mass Effect 2 introduces at least half a dozen more, plus it expands on all the ones you’ve already met. Introducing only two species makes the Andromeda galaxy feel tiny as a result, and it’s a galaxy with almost twice as many stars as our own. As big as the open environments are in the 5 planets you explore, you don’t see too many places besides those. By comparison, you can see at least a dozen planets in each of the Mass Effect trilogy games, and that’s without counting the DLC. There also isn’t all that much variety in the enemies you face. After a while enemies get stale, and by the end of the game, you’ll half ignore them unless you’re forced to kill all of them to complete an objective.
And as much as you can train yourself in pretty much any ability you want, you’re limited to using three abilities at a time. To use other abilities, you need to switch them in the menus, and then you’ll need to wait for those abilities to recharge before you can use them once. You also can’t tell your squad mates when they use their abilities, something you could do in all of the previous Mass Effect games. Why take that out?
2 – The animation. Anyone who pays close attention to gaming news and memes already know about Mass Effect Andromeda’s animation problems. Although they’ve since made vast improvements with patches (part of the reason I waited), there are still some serious problems. I ran into a couple strange glitches, like characters suffering seizure like spasms when I revived them, one squad mate walking through a wall on the Tempest (the ship you fly in the game) and frequently bizarre facial expressions. Here’s an entertaining video showcasing some of the game’s early animation problems.
3 – The gameplay mechanics. I praised the combat earlier, and I stick by that. However, there are a lot of other mechanics that don’t work so well. First off, the level design. Most of the gameplay can be summed up by saying “flip that switch, then flip the next switch before you can move on”. There’s one particular point where to proceed, you need to activate this one console to open up a bunch of hanger bays, and then destroy the platforms to limit the Kett’s ability to fight. But to destroy the platforms, you need to activate a console for each one. Before you can do that, you need to activate another console to decrypt them. It’s so tedious. Even the final boss is a matter of activating three consoles, and then he’s dead. Besides that, there are way too many fetch quests.
4 – The writing. There are some clever lines of dialogue, and at times the game succeeds at being intentionally funny. But as a whole, the writing in Mass Effect Andromeda is vastly inferior to the spectacular writing of the original trilogy. Most of the time, nobody takes dangerous situations seriously. There are too many awkward conversations with people not talking like real people. If you only play the main story, you’re never given a reason to care about anyone in your squad. Most of them become more interesting if you play their loyalty missions (easily the best parts of the game), but otherwise they’re boring. There’s this thing called the scourge that’s negatively affecting how safe space travel is and how habitable planets can be. It’s a major part of the story, yet you hardly learn anything about it. Sure, there were a lot of questions unanswered in Mass Effect 1, but you still learned a lot about the Reapers, the Geth, and everything that had a major effect on the story. It felt like you knew enough in Mass Effect. There’s so much sequel baiting and unanswered questions in Mass Effect Andromeda that it’s ridiculous.
I’ve been harsh on Andromeda in this post, and it deserves a lot of criticism, but Andromeda isn’t a bad game. It’s inferior to the original trilogy in every way that matters, but it’s still an overall enjoyable experience. The exploration aspect, despite its limits, is still worth taking part in. There are some great lines of dialogue here and there, and the writing feels like it gets better later in the game. Do I plan on playing this again? Not any time soon. But I would like to see the Andromeda story continue, just with better writing, better level design and more variety in general. If you’re a Mass Effect fan, this is still worth checking out. Just don’t expect the original trilogy … and wait until it’s around $30 or so if it’s not already. If you haven’t played any Mass Effect games, then I highly recommend that you check out the original trilogy.
I’ll give the game this much – it makes me want to replay the original trilogy all that much more.