Mass Effect: Andromeda was my first experience with the legendary franchise. EA Games' decision to forego the characters and dynamic of the original trilogy, Mass Effect: Andromeda (ME:A) provided a unique opportunity to cover the newest chapter with a fresh perspective. Even hugely successful franchises need to remain newcomer-friendly, and although I have naturally heard many things about the original three games , I was excited to see what all the fuss is about.
If I could have approached this review experience as a 'blind taste test,' I would have, but the knowledge that this title has the Mass Effect label slapped on it heightened the anticipation. However, while ME:A is a strong Sci-Fi, RPG-Action hybrid in its own right, I didn't encounter as much of the genre-defining, legacy-creating elements as I had hoped.
So, for the sake of argument, let's forget for a moment that this is a Mass Effect title at all
Mass Effect: Andromeda begins with a routine storyline about wayward space explorers looking for a new home, whose timeline has been compromised by unexpected complications. Within the first hour, I encountered a disaster with a Cyro Pod, a new race of hostile aliens contesting our arrival on a planet, and plenty of other Sci-Fi tropes. The horrific character animations have been discussed [Tyler Wilde. Ex-BioWare animator responds to Mass Effect: Andromeda’s animation woes. PC Gamer.] at length, but otherwise, the setting is beautiful. The details on the ships, the excellent atmosphere with a spark of outer-space, the tactile elements on planet surfaces: BioWare excellently portrays an exciting world for the player to discover. Details like churning dirt under wheels and murky, foreboding bodies of water encountered by the protagonist and the crew when they are out exploring help to create vivid, intriguing locations, and I continuously looked forward to my next ground mission.
Speaking of our hero, ME:A returns to the previous formula of having Ryder available as either a male or female character (Scott or Sara), complete with appearance customization per EA's usual limitations. Ryder is a young explorer thrust into the limelight and a position of authority — as "Pathfinder," the go-to person in charge of securing a new home, in a nutshell — and she struggles to play catch-up. I was relieved to see other characters in the Mass Effect universe responding to Ryder's hasty promotion with a healthy amount of distrust, disbelief, and dismissal. Considering the story thread around Ryder's transition to Pathfinder — and the giant plot hole big enough to hide a spaceship in — these critical reactions helped not only to stem my disbelief but also to make me more optimistic about our hero's character development.
ME:A truly shines in the extensive flexibility in supported playstyles
Players choose an initial Training style [Josh Hawkins. Mass Effect: Andromeda – Best Training for Your Playstyle. Prima Games.] from a list of six, which determines starter abilities and bonuses. However, the implementation of Profiles [BioWare. Profiles and Squads in Mass Effect: Andromeda. Mass Effect Official Website.] allows for swapping between combat styles at will, once players have met all the required skill purchases. I love a game that doesn't limit me to playing in just one particular manner or area of expertise, and the variety available — from Mage-like Biotic to assassin-worthy Operative, or even a weapons expert as the Security style — makes for a refreshing level of versatility. Not to mention it adds yet another layer of depth to configuring your squad layout as you add more AI characters along the journey. You start with Cora and Liam, whose abilities you prioritize and level-up along with your own, without having to monitor their inventory and equipment.
The high level of style customization only enhances an already dynamic, exciting combat system, which creates plenty of frenzied, exhilarating moments while on the ground. Players can choose between five difficulty settings, from what is essentially an "I'm just here for the story" mode, to "I want combat to make me cry." Normal is a great baseline for players with experience in Shooters and squad combat. As a newcomer to the franchise I ultimately opted for Easy during my initial play-through, and although the difficulty scaled as I went along, the combat was just challenging enough to be fun (and to make me feel like a bad ass with my sniper rifle and headshots).
All of these things blend to create a solid, fun Sci-Fi adventure full of excellent skill flexibility, combat finesse, and lovely planets waiting for exploration -- basically, everything we could want in this style of video game. It doesn't need to have the Mass Effect name included on the label, especially since the storyline and world within are over 600 years after the events of the original trilogy. Sure, there are familiar alien species, and no doubt some plot elements akin to those in the first three games, but Mass Effect: Andromeda proves that you don't need to be able to go home again if you can create something new that's high quality.
So, What Goes Wrong?
I intentionally avoided any reviews, previews, or rants about ME: A before getting my hands on the game and trying it for myself. Given my limited knowledge of the elements in the first trilogy, the only key features that seem to be lacking — to me, a newcomer — are the significant, emotionally-charged character interactions synonymous with the first trio of titles, and things like the Renegade/Paragon system. In Andromeda, players can still pursue various love interests [Staff. Mass Effect Andromeda romance guide: from casual banging to winning hearts. VG24/7.] — of both genders — so Ryder can knock boots or put a ring on it, depending on who she prefers along the cast. I was disappointed to discover that Gil would have preferred my twin brother, Scott, but that meant my time was free to woo the fiery Scottish pilot, Suvi. EA's inclusion of more than just heterosexual relationships has been applauded in the past, and I'm glad to see that was one aspect from the Commander Shepard era that transitioned into the latest chapter.
Andromeda includes a Multiplayer feature that is separate from the single-player narrative. I choose to start with this mode to log some first-hand experience with Mass Effect's combat style and training types. Players team up with friends or strangers to form a squad and then encounter waves of enemies in an arena-style environment. There are objectives in addition to "kill all the things," and it's fast-paced, chaotic fun worthy of addition to any library of co-op, arena titles. The gameplay is smooth, and leveling-up allows players to gain access to an even bigger roster of characters (each with a set of skills in their individual load-outs). But, once again, I can't see where the Mass Effect world is represented here beyond encountering enemies that exist in the single-player adventure, and the abilities, weapons, and combat styles are taken from there. It's a fun, polished add-on to the core story focus, and certainly something I intend to return to with friends in the future, though it wouldn't influence me to buy Mass Effect: Andromeda for the multiplayer experience alone.
In a nutshell, regarding the scandal and negativity that has surrounded Mass Effect: Andromeda's release — not the franchise in general — I don't see what's the big deal. For my first taste of the Mass Effect world, Andromeda hits the spot, even though it doesn't quite live up to the hype that has surrounded the original trilogy for years.
It's a solid Sci-Fi RPG, with enough action and adventure to spice up the gameplay beyond the fairly cliché plotlines. I enjoyed Ryder's journey and choosing how She responded to other characters; the dialog choices, [Brenna Hillier. Mass Effect Andromeda conversation options guide: what those dialogue icons mean. VG24/7.] from emotionally-charged reactions to casual, even flippant retorts, are just another way that ME:A allows for diversity in play style. I was surprised to see myself choosing the more logical and professional replies to most conversations, and I loved the opportunities to make a story choice that would influence my experience down the road. I have kept the details of the story vague to avoid spoilers, but although the prologue and first two chapters were relatively routine and uninspired, the creative momentum built slowly over time, ignite intrigue for grander discoveries yet.
If you are a diehard fan of the Mass Effect universe and its original story, you may want to wait until some of the technical bugs are patched, and the purchase price comes down. As a newcomer, ME:A whet my appetite for more, and once again I'm tempted to go back and see what I've been missing by neglecting to play Shepard's story. Andromeda is robust and delivers effectively on the key elements it advertises, and then goes above and beyond regarding play style tailoring and experienceable customization. While the characters may look more appropriate for The Sims 3 era, and the character dialog fails to be more than lackluster — or cringe-worthy at times — I consider Mass Effect: Andromeda a quality example of its genres. I hope, mimicking the pattern first established in the original Mass Effect series, that this release has laid the groundwork for another Mass Effect trilogy which will continue to improve thanks to a sound foundation.