I wish there were more games like Mass Effect.
The core of it is really cool when you think about it: You zip around a distant star cluster on your sweet spaceship, exploring planets and romancing every alien you can find. You're a regular Captain Kirk.
As a sci-fi nut, I find that hook compelling as hell. I've always wanted a game where I could actually command my own starship, and Mass Effect is still about as close as I can get to realizing that dream.
Mass Effect: Andromeda returns with most of those elements intact. You still have your cool ship, and you're still making interesting decisions, and those elements work. Its negative word-of-mouth is owed in large part to the new stuff not working very well, particularly the setting. Moreover, it struggles with a lot of the little details like pop-in, weak character customization, and a messy UI, which suggests that it could have done with another round of polish. These issues are real, but Mass Effect: Andromeda still manages to get a few crucial things right.
The Old Conflicts
When Mass Effect: Andromeda works, it's mostly because of the tried and true material from the previous games. When I first started playing, I was disappointed that the turians, asari, salarians, and krogan all came along for the ride when humanity set out for Andromeda, feeling like they were just a crutch in case the new races didn't work out. To some extent, I still feel that way. But as I progressed further into the game, I was reminded again and again that the dynamic between these races is what helps Mass Effect partly (but not completely) transcend the boilerplate sci-fi upon which it is based.
As usual, the krogan are the most interesting of the bunch. Suspicious, cranky, and perpetually bitter about how they were screwed by the rest of the races, the krogan are walking balls of conflict. In Andromeda, you encounter an entire colony of separatist krogan that have broken away, and you are given the opportunity to either reintegrate them into the bold or push them away forever. The decision, ultimately, is pretty easy, but that doesn't change the fact that the krogan have a point: everyone kind of does have it out for them, mostly because there was a point where the krogan were on the verge of destroying the galaxy.
The krogan figure into a couple more of Andromeda's interesting decisions, including one where you're forced to choose between a heroic (and rather cool) salarian and a handful of captured krogan. In the end, I went with the salarian because I liked them and wanted them to live, rightfully pissing off the krogan. This was one of the few instances in Andromeda where it felt like my choices had consequences, and it left me feeling surprisingly guilty.
The original races tend to figure most heavily in the sidequests; which, coincidentally, happen to be the best parts of the game. After leaning heavily on fetch quests and collect-a-thons in Dragon Age Inquisition, BioWare wisely changed things up and went with a more story-focused approach this time around, with several quests working multiple parts. There's a Han Solo-like character that you can team up with and even romance; arks to hunt across multiple planets, and a multi-part quest arc concerning the history of the Ryder family and the Andromeda Initiative (if you care to discover it).
Most of the best sidequests are bound up in the game's loyalty quests, which serves to elevate the otherwise bland crew of the Tempest. The quest chains for Drack and Cora contain some of the best setpieces in the game, and the latter even manages to fit in a semi-interesting decision, even if it doesn't have a huge impact on how the story ultimately unfolds. Not coincidentally, Drack, Cora, and to a lesser extent, Peebee, are probably my favorite characters in Andromeda. Suvi is alright, too, if only because she's so unabashedly cute.
The deeper, more story-driven quests make it that much easier to get lost in Andromeda's world and ignore the elements that don't work particularly well, like most of the main quest. They make the world feel alive and interesting, and your actions consequential. In that respect, Mass Effect: Andromeda more than lives up to its legacy.
Strange New Worlds
Outside of that, of course, Andromeda falls apart a bit. As I discussed in my review, BioWare really doesn't do enough to earn its setting. It leans much too heavily on what's come before.
But it's not all bad. This morning, I hopped back into Andromeda to help with some of the guides, and I was struck by just how pretty some of the planets really are. The snow drifts on Voeld, the jungles of Havarl, and the dunes of Elaaden are all striking to behold, and it's often fun and relaxing to just drive around them in the Nomad.
Andromeda's other new element, the jetpack, likewise adds considerably to the combat, making it much easier to reach certain ledges and dodge out of harm's way. It's a smart addition; and even if Andromeda winds up abusing it a bit too much in the course of its mind-numbing monolith puzzles, I'm glad it's there.
It's never easy following on from a popular trilogy—just ask 343 Industries—and Mass Effect: Andromeda definitely stumbles in its attempts to establish a new setting. But the core of what I originally liked about Mass Effect is still there: the cool ship, the banter between your crewmembers, the willingness to tackle interesting questions like, "If you're settling a new planet hundreds of light years away, what do you do when someone commits a murder?" It remains one of the few videogame settings with a sense of weight and consequence behind it, serving to heighen your investment in the story.
In the end, it could have been executed better, but it did manage to accomplish one important thing: It reminded me why I liked Mass Effect in the first place.