Ask a Mass Effect fan what they like most about the series and it's doubtful that any of them will call out the Mako. The first game's rover was charming but awkward as hell to drive, its sequences tending to devolve into pure frustration amid awkward controls and unfortunate run-ins with Geth Collossi. Any love the Mako received was usually down to admiration for the first game's ambition. Nevertheless, the Mako makes its triumphant return in Mass Effect: Andromeda, which is keen to evoke the feel of the first Mass Effect, if not its substance. Like so many other big-budget games these days, Mass Effect: Andromeda is now more or less an open-world game, with the Nomad standing in for your trusty steed. But where the Mako was emblematic of the original game's massive ambition and flawed execution, the Nomad highlights Andromeda's relative lack of substance.
To be sure, Mass Effect: Andromeda still feels like a proper Mass Effect game. As in the original trilogy, you gather together a crew of misfits to take on highly dangerous missions around the stars. There are big decisions to make, aliens to romance... all the ingredients are pretty much there. But Mass Effect Andromeda is missing the boldness that defined much of the original trilogy, which is disappointing given its promising premise.
The Andromedan Reset Switch
In effect, Mass Effect: Andromeda is a soft reboot designed to distance the series from the original trilogy's war epic and build up a new setting. You can pick Shepard's gender in the character customization, but otherwise they're pretty much never mentioned. Instead, you play as a man or a woman named Ryder—one of a pair of fraternal twins who have set out to help humanity settle the Andromeda galaxy. Ryder winds up taking on the role of Pathfinder, a special agent tasked with helping humanity, and everyone else, find a new home.
While this is an interesting idea, it takes a while to get going as Andromeda painstakingly introduces you to the mechanics of exploration in a drawn-out tutorial sequence. I'm on record as saying that I'm not a big fan of the opening, and I stand by that judgment here: It's ponderous, poorly acted, and dominated by a boring trek between three alien monoliths to hunt for glyphs and solve sudokus (this element is mercifully optional on later planets). It also marks the first appearance of the kett, Andromeda's rather underwhelming villains. They're intended to be mysterious and threatening, but their garish design reminds me of the bad guys from GalaxyQuest, who are meant to mock the various Star Trek villains of the '90s.
Given the limitless potential of Andromeda's new setting, the kett are disappointing, to say the least. Why even bother setting the story in a new galaxy if you're just going to feature more of the same? After three games of fighting evil aliens, it would have been nice for Andromeda's villains to be more complicated, even borderline sympathetic. There's certainly nothing as interesting as the krogan genophage, which was a moral problem that resulted in many of the original trilogy's best moments. Instead we get Star Trek rejects, and they wind up dragging down the entire game.
The story does make up for its lack of an interesting villain in other ways. A fair amount of time is spent on the motivations for leaving behind everything to go to Andromeda—a pertinent question given that in real-life we're prepping people to make a permanent move to Mars—and the traditional conflicts between Mass Effect's original species are always interesting. It also introduces a few interesting philosophical questions through the Remnant—yet another forerunner species—though it doesn't explore them in any real depth.
All of these threads take a backseat to the existential threat posed by the kett, but they succeed in adding color to an otherwise drab story. And happily, things pick up a bit once you're through the tutorial. Handed the keys to the Tempest, you are left to travel around the Heleus Cluster at your leisure as your pursue a variety of quests, many of which are much more interesting than the main storyline. It's here that you start to get to know your crew: a motley collection consisting of the likes of Nakmor Drack, a crusty krogan, and the cheeky asari, Peebee—both BioWare achetypes. The Tempest is also home to no fewer than three humans with British accents, the strongest of which belongs to Katy Townsend's Suvi, who plays up her Scottish accent to the point of putting Jimmy Doohan to shame. At first blush, it's an underwhelming bunch, but I found myself warming to them amid the customary BioWare banter, even striking up a rather adorable relationship with Suvi (who apparently wants to name her dog "Rabbit").
As you might expect, pretty much all of them have individual storylines, most of which culminate in a multi-part loyalty mission. These missions seem to bring out the best in Andromeda's designers, which is reflected in more complicated setpieces, one of which involves a battle with a kett battleship from inside a hangar bay. They even intertwine a bit with the main storyline, giving you even greater impetus to pay attention to your crewmembers. None of this is exactly new, but it's nevertheless comforting to see it competently executed.
When you're not running errands for your crewmembers, your main task is to evaluate planets for settlement, which amounts to landing on a little more than a half-dozen worlds and completing their various quests. Doing so will raise their viability, eventually enabling you to put down a proper colony. If you're impatient and have a strong tolerance for tedious busywork, you can also accelerate the process by visiting the planet's monoliths and solving their sudokus, which will unlock the ability to found a settlement much more quickly.
All of this makes Andromeda's settlements sound more important than they actually are. Once they're founded, there's little incentive to go back and visit them. Mostly, they're resource farms, their presence serving to unlock perks that earn you minerals, credits, and other useful items. They figure into a handful of quests—including one where you draw out a renegade scientist by planting trackers at all of your settlements—but otherwise their implementation is fairly shallow. I rarely felt compelled to actually go out of my way to build a settlement, ostensibly the Pathfinder's main task, except to advance the storyline.
Mostly, I noodled around the galaxy in the Tempest, chewing through quests and hitting on every crewmember I could. When I arrived on a planet, I would hop in the Nomad and drive around looking for quests, which proved to be a relaxing if not overwhelmingly interesting way to pass time. Andromeda's planets all fit neatly into various archetypes—jungle planet, desert planet, ice planet—but they're all pretty scenic, with a couple even being legitimately great. My favorite, actually, was a cracked, irradiated moonscape on which I couldn't even leave the Nomad. There was little to do other than hunt raiders lurking in mining domes, but it was still fun to bounce from hill to hill in low gravity.
Activities like these comprise a large chunk of Mass Effect: Andromeda, and they prove pretty enjoyable. Playing normally, it's actually pretty easy to ignore the main storyline and just pursue the numerous sidequests, which can last dozens of hours or more. I'd even recommend it. Happily, BioWare seems to have learned their lesson from Dragon Age Inquisition and have deemphasized collect-a-thon quests, focusing instead on meatier, more story-driven objectives like the whereabouts of the various alien arks. As a result, I found myself straying from the critical path more than normal—always a good sign in an RPG like this.
But as I alluded to earlier, Mass Effect: Andromeda is kind of a buffet of open-world and RPG elements—big and filling, but not necessarily nourishing. At first glance, it's much more complicated and interesting than the previous games in the series: every ability has a mini-skill tree, all of the character classes can be leveled up, and there's a fairly complicated crafting system. But upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the systems are actually fairly shallow, and that they only seem complex because the interface is unneccessarily busy and complicated.
With only three ability slots, your options are extremely constrained, limiting the ability to mix and match skills. Two of my slots were taken up by a tech power combo that I leaned on for pretty much the entire game, leaving only one slot available for experimentation. I ended up going with a turret and sticking with it for pretty much the entire game.
The crafting system is better, but its hampered by the wide array of ingredients needed to build even the most basic weapons. It took me more than half the game to accrue enough materials to take advantage of the system, by which time I had already found better equipment just from random drops. Still, it was fun to use augments to change shotguns into grenade launchers and assault rifles into beam rifles, which encouraged me to play around in an effort to build the best items possible with the help of mods. But it loses its appeal when you realize that you can't outfit your companions with new gear.
Beyond that, I loved the mobility afforded by Ryder's jetpack, which makes it easy to reach previously inaccessible floors, but the actual encounters subscribe to the philosophy of difficulty by sheer numbers, compensating for your powerful abilities by inundating you with wave after wave of enemies. Andromeda also does the thing I hate where it introduces a powerful enemy as a boss, then proceeds to spam them in every encounter that follows. The net effect is that Andromeda's battles are time-consuming, wave-based affairs largely bereft of creativity, and filled to the brim with repetitive enemies—particularly the kett.
Perhaps my biggest problem with it, though, is that it deemphasizes Mass Effect's traditional dialogue choices to the point of being nearly meaningless. I'm not advocating a return to the contrived renegade and paragon system, but Andromeda's distinct lack of consequences make a lot of the choices feel superfluous. Often, you'll make a big choice, one character or another will hate you for a bit, then everything will be fine. With a couple exceptions, that makes it easy to brush off the politics of dealing with the council (yep, that's back), lessening their impact overall. More broadly, the lack of interesting dialogue options makes for less complex scenarios overall, with the result being that most quests are resolved by fighting. Andromeda still has a few interesting choices to make about the future of the Heleus Cluster, but the dialogue is still a net negative.
Mass Effect Andromeda's various shortcomings culminate in a boilerplate finale that leans heavily on action game cliches—a far cry from the days when you could talk the final boss into committing suicide. It goes without saying that the main quest is pretty much Mass Effect: Andromeda's weakest element, fronted by a very boring Big Bad with only the shallowest, most mustache-twirling motivations. The Archon is meant to be the antithesis of your mission—death and slavery against life and freedom—but he struggles to differentiate himself from any other videogame villain.
The weak main quest was much on my mind while I was deciding how to score Mass Effect: Andromeda, as were the comparatively shallow mechanics and repetitive enemies. Even the much ballyhooed planets offer comparatively little to discover outside of pretty scenery, resources, and bandit camps (happily, there are so many quests that you rarely notice). The character models and animation, obviously, were a factor as well, though they weren't as noticeably bad in my playthrough as the hype would suggest. The vast, rather beautiful landscapes definitely helped.
All of these issues keep Andromeda from reaching its full potential, and it's a shame to see BioWare play it so safe with such a rich setting. But I still managed to mostly enjoy my time with Andromeda, and I may even go back to completing some stray quests once this review is live. There's an overwhelming amount to do in this game, and I'm still invested enough in the setting to want to continue visiting it.
In that, I suppose, Mass Effect: Andromeda does its job as a soft reboot for a new series. It certainly doesn't hit the highs of its predecessors, but it still feels nice to be back in the Mass Effect universe, which is richer and more interesting than I remembered, kett or no kett. I just hope that the inevitable sequel is a step forward rather than another step back.
Mass Effect Andromeda's messy interface makes everything feel more complicated than it should be. Taking cover can occasionally be a pain as your character refuses to duck.
The soundtrack isn't as rich as it is in previous games, but Mass Effect's familiar ambient synth is still there, and it's still pretty good.
Mass Effect Andromeda's visual flaws are already well-documented, if a little overblown. Yes, the characters are a little too cartoonish for their own good at times, but the scenery is excellent. It's fine.
Mass Effect Andromeda falls short of its predecessors, but it's still a competently executed open-world action RPG with an interesting world and tons of quests to complete. Its biggest shame is that it doesn't make better use of its setting, opting instead to go with more of the same. Hopefully BioWare will be more ambitious when it comes time for the inevitable sequel.