It's been a week and I already barely remember Mass Effect Andromeda. It feels strange that a 50 hour game would leave so little impression on me, but that's the case with BioWare's latest, which is just sort of... there. In five years I doubt I'll even remember reviewing it.
To me, that's much more damning than silly animations. I've loved a lot of games with bad framerates and terrible animations because they've executed well elsewhere. Dark Souls is the ur-example of a janky game that nevertheless managed to be completely amazing. Seriously, remember Blighttown?
We ultimately loved Dark Souls because it brought so many new and interesting ideas to the table; because the combat was immensely satisfying, and because it had some of the most memorable level design and boss fights ever. Mass Effect: Andromeda has none of those things. Putting aside its reliance on bland, time-tested fare, it has no verve. It has no spark or personality. It's Pirates of the Caribbean 4—the obligatory sequel that tries to hit the right notes but mostly just feels stale.
It sets the tone for what it's to come with an especially drab opening. Your big 600 year plan is going horribly wrong and your brother is in a coma, but there's somehow absolutely no urgency. The odd pacing, stilted dialogue, and lack of a memorable soundtrack combine to make the intro feel flaccid and uninteresting. Everyone just seems to be going through the motions as they first deal with the disaster, then move to the Nexus, which tries to be creepy but is somehow completely lacking in atmosphere. You then head to Eos, which—as someone observed—looks less like a exotic alien planet than Arizona.
After the protracted opening, Andromeda settles into the familiar and comfortable routine of a Mass Effect game. You meet Cora and Liam—the archetypal Tough Lady and Quirky Guy with a British Accent—as well as Peebee and Drack, who quickly fall into the role of being BioWare Party Members. Peebee is the sexy and energetic character, while Drack is the bitter old bastard. They aren't exactly awful, but neither do they manage to stand out in any meaningful way.
Once you're set free to explore, things start to pick up a bit. You're almost immediately inundanted with story-driven quests to take on, which make for a nice distraction from the main story. You get to go to harsh and forbidding planets like Voeld—a planet that is more or less Hoth but manages to get by because it feels hostile and dangerous to explore. You tool around the Nomad a bit and bounce across the interesting terrain. It gets to be kind of okay.
But Andromeda's lingering issues with execution remain. The encounter design is just the worst, leaning hard on concepts that were cliché as far back as 2011. There aren't enough interesting enemies to fight, and the more powerful bad guys rely on hoary game tropes like Shoot the Rotating Orb Until the Shield Drops. As I said in my review, Andromeda's difficulty mostly stems from the fact that it spams waves of enemies, not the fact that it has any interesting enemies to fight.
Funnily enough, Andromeda's heightened mobility might actually be an enemy in that regard. As Rowan Kaiser observed during the most recent episode of Axe of the Blood God, it removes the more deliberate pacing that defined Mass Effect 2 and 3 and encourages you to use whatever your best attack is ad nauseum. That doesn't excuse the generally poor enemy design, but it does have a notable impact on the encounters. In the end, most of the setpieces simply lack much imagination.
The same can be said for Andromeda itself. Outside of maybe the asteroid, none of the planets have much imagination. For heaven's sake, there are two desert planets to explore. Who wants to hang out on a glorified Tatooine anyway?
There are also the angara and the kett, who are only notable in the sense of how forgettable they are. The big reveal for the kett is that they are a religious fanatic version of the Borg—villains who go around assimilating other races and incorporating them into their army. The first moment you see an angaran get turned into a kett is supposed to be horrifying, but it ends up feeling a little too similar to the modus operandi of Mass Effect 2's Collectors, who also have a penchant for kidnapping other races and doing terrible things to them (mainly turning them into protein sludge).
As for the angara, most of their development takes place through Jaal, the tactiturn angaran representative who joins your party not long into the story. Their main reveal is that they were actually genetically engineered by the Remnant—Andromeda's equivalent of the Protheans. It's an interesting idea, one reminiscent of some of the ideas explored in Prometheus, but ultimately has little bearing on the story. At best, the characters kind of say, "So the angarans were genetically engineered, huh? That's kind of messed up." Then everyone moves on with their lives.
It all culminates in a non-interactive space battle, a stakes-free race on the Nomad, and an incredible gamey final fight in which you leap from platform to platform hitting switches and battling waves of enemies. Even without the excellent finales of Mass Effect 1 and 2 looming over everything, it would have been disappointing; but in the context of its predecessors, it's even worse. More than almost anything else, it highlights Andromeda's profound lack of imagination.
A Lack of Ideas
That brings me back to probably my biggest problem with Mass Effect Andromeda: It just doesn't have many interesting ideas. It feels like BioWare has no inkling what to do with its setting other than to have you drive around on planets. As a result, the few original elements in Andromeda are massively overshadowed by the races and conflicts from the previous games, who take center stage early on and never relinquish it.
In that, it feels more like an exercise in catering to the fans than an attempt to move the series forward in any meaningful way. You can almost see the wheels turning behind the scenes with this game: "Okay, you want more RPG elements, you've got them. You want open-ended relationships? Sure. You want exploration? We'll give you the Mako back and let you drive around vast, empty planets." In that, it's a decent approximation of a scaled up Mass Effect, but it also feels hollow and uninteresting. Whatever flare the original series had, it's long gone.
The thing is, I think Andromeda's lack of inspiration could have been forgiven with better ideas. Given better pacing, better encounter designs, and frankly, better music, it might have made a much better impression. Instead, it mostly feels like a ham-fisted attempt to keep the series going, the areas where it succeeds being overshadowed by how boring and gamey everything is. I haven't even gotten around to the Remnant sections, which by every measure are the goddamned worst.
That's why it's so funny to me that everyone is so fixated on Mass Effect: Andromeda's tech problems. Putting aside that they are kind of overblown—a slew of out-of-context gifs that encourage people to pile on it—they are seriously the least of its problems. Its bigger sin is that it leans too heavily on its source material in an effort to appease fans while being kind of boring in the process. It's blandly inoffensive, but not memorable in the least. And in a month like this, that's a death sentence.