It’s curious how the popularity of games genres can wax and wane: real-time strategy games, for example, were huge in the 1990s but nowadays only command a niche audience. However, action-RPGs have been hugely popular for decades, and the competition among their developers to be perceived as top dog is fierce. Those engaged in that battle for supremacy include Bethesda, with the Elder Scrolls games; From Software, with Dark Souls; CD Projekt with The Witcher; and BioWare, with Dragon Age and, especially Mass Effect.
So the arrival of Mass Effect: Andromeda – the first Mass Effect game created for the current generation of consoles, and the first to use EA’s Frostbite engine which powered Battlefield 1 so impressively – is a very big deal indeed. The good news is that, as far as the bits of it which matter are concerned, it’s absolutely epic, and a shoo-in contender for Game of the Year nominations. But unfortunately, this time around, it comes with huge, unexpected caveats which sadly go a long way towards dampening the vast amount of enjoyment it would otherwise provide to lovers of action-RPGs.
To put it bluntly, it’s as buggy as hell – unacceptably so, in this day and age. Nobody expects games with the sheer scope and ambition of Mass Effect: Andromeda to be entirely glitch-free. But it’s fair to expect that even in such a game, you won’t have to keep on shutting it down, restarting and loading a recent save with uneasy regularity. And there’s another problem, again caused by BioWare’s sheer ambition: the game’s facial animations – a key aspect, as ever, given the way it allows you to form soap opera-style relationships with a huge cast of characters human and alien – have reached Uncanny Valley territory, in which they are a tiny bit too close to realism, yet slightly off, which creates an unnerving effect.
A new beginning
You actually get used to the facial animations pretty quickly, and the Uncanny Valley effect, strikingly, doesn’t afflict the alien characters so badly. If you can get beyond that and the glitchiness, you’ll find that Mass Effect: Andromeda is a vast repository of gaming pleasure. It’s something of a franchise reboot: original protagonist Captain Shepard has been retired, for a very good reason: the action takes place in 2819, over 600 years after the events of Mass Effect 3. As ever, you can choose to play a male or female character except this time, you must pick one of the twins Scott and Sara Ryder.
And the action takes place in a whole new galaxy: Andromeda. Mass Effect: Andromeda’s initial stages will feel a bit weird for fans of the franchises, but it soon transpires that you’re playing through a scene-setting prologue. As Scott/Sara Ryder, you’re awakened from your 635-year stasis to find you’ve reached the Andromeda galaxy from the Milky Way, but things are somewhat awry. Your ship, the Hyperion – carrying 20,000 settlers from Earth and one of a fleet of Andromeda Initiative settler arks – has crashed into a dark energy field. But you’re at the designated “Golden World” which will hopefully become your new home.
Your father, Alec Ryder, is the Hyperion’s Pathfinder: the leader tasked with securing a new world. So you head down to the surface of the planet which, it quickly becomes clear, is unfit for habitation. Alien contact is made, but those aliens aren’t friendly, so all peaceful Andromeda Initiative protocols go out of the window. The planet is riven with lightning and floating rocks, but you come across an alien structure, with which Alec Ryder is able to interface, which seems to have some connection to weather-control. But Alec is killed in an accident, and when you wake up back on board the Hyperion, you find you’ve become the new Pathfinder.
Settling a new galaxy
After that preamble, proceedings settle into a much more familiar form for anyone who has played a Mass Effect game before. Once again – as a very green, inexperienced Pathfinder with everything to prove – everybody’s hopes rest on you. The Asari, Turian and Salarian arks are all missing, and when you get to the Nexus – Andromeda’s equivalent to the Milky Way’s Citadel – it’s barely functional and reeling from the aftermath of a mutiny.
So there’s a lot to do, ranging from dealing with Nexus bureaucrats to finding planets to settle and fighting the Kett – the aggressive aliens you encountered in the prologue. Luckily, the job of Pathfinder comes with an AI implanted in Ryder’s brain, called SAM, which is great at overriding locked doors, complex calculations and the like.
New aliens, epic story
All the planets you visit present pretty hostile environments weather-wise, but you soon discover alien monoliths made by a robotic race dubbed the Remnant which, when activated, offer climate-control. Via SAM, Ryder is the only person who can get them going, which brings him/her favour with a new alien race called the Angarans, particularly when he/she rescues their leader, the Moshae.
But the Kett’s leader, the Archon, is after the Remnant technology (for a very fascistic reason), so a series of epic encounters between him and Ryder ensue. Mass Effect: Andromeda’s main storyline is as epic and intricate as you would expect, containing the requisite twists and featuring some decent boss-Ketts. The Remnant also supply some decent third-person shooting, as well as some great puzzle action.
New systems go beyond the main story
But perhaps the most fun to be had in Mass Effect: Andromeda lies beyond the main story, and is partly generated by some gameplay systems which are new to Mass Effect. The key one being AVP, or Andromeda Viability Points. This measures how habitable planets are, and as you establish outposts, eliminate Kett, place forward stations (handy spawn-points that enable you to fast-travel and change your loadout) and power up Remnant Monoliths and Vaults (which involves much platforming and a form of alien Sudoku), people can be woken up from their Cryo Pods and become settlers. Levelling up your AVP brings Cryo Pod rewards, which prove very handy indeed.
Plus, of course, there are countless missions of varying levels of triviality which emerge as you work your magic, ranging from basic errands to full-blown boss-battles, and tracking down the missing Andromeda Intiative arks. You get a ship, the rather swanky Tempest, and a crew of eccentric characters with varied fighting skills – combat, tech and biotics, as before. No Mass Effect game would be worth its salt without the possibility of relationships with characters of either sex, and all your crew members have loyalty missions, which unlock their most exotic abilities when you level them up. The old planet-mining system has been considerably simplified – anomalies such as mineral deposits are identified much quicker, but many more planets yield nothing. We preferred the old system but there’s so much more to do in Andromeda that it doesn’t really matter.
Scanning alien artefacts, flora and fauna, as well as satellites and debris when you’re on the Tempest, earns research points for the convoluted but excellent crafting system (with separate trees for Milky Way, Heleus (the Andromeda cluster in which the game takes place) and Remnant technology) – this time around, you can make some insanely powerful weaponry and some great armour.
And there are Strike Team Missions – side missions which you can send teams of bots out to complete, or you can play yourself, co-operatively, with another human.
More thought-provoking than ever
Mass Effect: Andromeda’s planet-settling theme – which adds a No Man’s Sky-type vibe to Mass Effect’s traditional sci-fi feel – allows BioWare to explore all manner of thought-provoking subjects. Ryder often has to make moral choices (such as deciding whether the first settlement should be populated with scientists or military types). The theme of muscling in on a race’s territory as an alien is cleverly explored, as is the idea and implications of melding human brains with AI augmentation.
If you ignore the crashes, and once you get past the initially unsettling facial animation, you will find that Mass Effect: Andromeda is a tour de force. It really makes you feel like a hero, in the biggest, most rambling space-opera of all time. It has plenty of humour and largely manages to avoid the cheesiness that afflicts its television equivalents, and generally offers one of the most escapist means of burying everyday woes we’ve ever come across. Plus it’s fiercely addictive – be warned, it will decimate your social life.
But surely, given its buggy state – it’s infinitely buggier than anything BioWare has put out in the past – it would have benefitted from some sort of delayed release? Sure, the patches will come, but Mass Effect: Andromeda will always stand as a cautionary tale about the pressures of putting out a game in this day and age, with marketing campaigns tied to a specific release date. When all those bugs are fixed, it will deserve to win awards, so let’s hope that happens soon.