I started Mass Effect: Andromeda last Friday with every intention of finishing it, or at least finishing the majority of it, by Sunday night. Based on my experience with other Bioware RPGs this seemed perfectly doable; my completion times for all three previous Mass Effects clock in at under 20 hours and I had nothing else to do that weekend, and they’d all at least been fun enough for me to blitz through them in a similar timeframe. It’s not Bioware, but when Alpha Protocol came out I completed it three times in a single week1. What I’m trying to say here is that I have absolutely no problem smashing my way through an RPG in a very short space of time, and I’ll usually enjoy doing it unless the RPG in question is Dragon Age 2.
On Sunday morning, faced with the choice between playing more Mass Effect: Andromeda and doing literally anything else with my time, I instead elected to clean my fridge. I took all of the shelves out, washed them in the sink, dried them, thoroughly wiped down the inside of the fridge to remove some pretty gnarly hidden stains, replaced everything, and then went on to clean the microwave and the easy parts of the oven for good measure. Doing a proper job of it meant enduring a couple of hours of the sort of mild intellectual tedium that accompanies all housework, but you know what? It was an infinitely, infinitely more thrilling and satisfying experience than playing Mass Effect: Andromeda.
Playing Andromeda has made me more than a little bit weary. It’s yet another unfinished AAA game that’s been rushed out the door long before it was ready, and those are becoming less and less fun to encounter with every successive one I play. I can usually derive some level of enjoyment — or at least interest — from playing a game that’s just bad, or which has very questionable design elements, because I think that seeing an example of how not to do something is almost as important as seeing it done right – after all, how can you identify right without the context of wrong? In the case of games like Andromeda, though, I’m struggling to see what lessons could possibly be learned other than “Don’t release unfinished games.” Perhaps “Don’t hire the Halo 4 writer because he’ll just vomit out the same garbage-tier story tropes all over again” could have been one key takeaway, but I think Halo 4 itself was a sufficient argument for that. And perhaps another would be “If you’re moving the setting to a whole other galaxy, maybe actually have some elements of the game that are little bit new and alien rather than importing all of the same sodding races we’ve seen in the previous three titles”, but I also think that one is just plain common sense. This is Andromeda’s crime: it’s not just that it’s bad — although it is — but it fails to even be interestingly bad, to make mistakes that could be learned from in future games. It’s just overwhelmingly shallow and tiresome to play, a pale imitation of the original trilogy that, at its best, is still somehow less enjoyable as an experience than staring mouth agape at the fucking space ghost from the third installment.
Still. I’ve spent 35 hours slogging through to the end of the game, and I’m sat down in front of my computer with a Google doc window open. Let’s see if I can find it in me to spend just a couple more hours bashing out a review that bashes Andromeda.
The premise of Andromeda is that the various Milky Way civilizations fired off a bunch of colony ships towards the Andromeda galaxy just after the events of the first Mass Effect (so before the Reaper apocalypse had really hit full swing). Six hundred years later they arrive. You play a Pathfinder – no, you’re not a Spectre in this one, the fact that Pathfinders are functionally identical is purely a coincidence – tasked with finding habitable worlds for the Andromeda colonists to, well, colonise. Exactly why a hundred thousand colonists require so much lebensraum is never explained, especially when their prospective new homes are littered with strange ruins and homicidal robots left behind by an ancient alien civilization — Protheans? No, no, these are the Remnant, they’re totally different. Your base of operations is a huge space station called the Nexus — SHUT UP IT’S NOT THE CITADEL, just look at it, it might be the same size and shape but it doesn’t have nearly enough glowy lights — that the Milky Way colonists have somehow constructed in just a couple of years despite the Citadel being plainly described as beyond the engineering capabilities of the races living on it. Your expansion efforts are opposed by the Kett, who are a race of Andromeda natives that have conveniently followed a line of parallel evolution into cover shooter baddies, and who are very interested in kidnapping other races for their genetic material – they’re NOT Collectors, we swear. Shortly after the game begins your Chosen One character gets the ability to do the Special Thing with the alien ruins — ah, but it’s not at all like Commander Shepard and the Prothean beacons because there’s an AI involved! — and starts turning on a network of rather convenient terraforming monoliths, but also attracts the attention of the two-dimensional Kett Archon, a villain who shows up maybe four times in the whole story (and at least two of those times are to mwa-ha-ha at you over the holophone about how the last two hours of gameplay has been entirely according to his design, which is a really easy way to identify Lazy Writing) and consequently has even less relevance to the game than the nobody antagonist from Dragon Age: Inquisition.
This is, for me, probably the most infuriating thing about Andromeda. I’m not going to pretend that Bioware moved the story to a different galaxy because they in any way wanted to do anything particularly new with it; it was a move born out of necessity after the Milky Way setting was effectively blown up at the end of Mass Effect 3. The amount of repetition going on is absolutely incredible, however, like they’re students who have copied and pasted an article from Wikipedia and are hoping it’ll pass muster as an essay if they just change some of the words around. There are all of two new alien races in the game: the Angara, whose defining trait appears to be that they speak with Australian accents and who are absolutely indistinguishable from humans in every single way save for their physical appearance, and the aforementioned Kett, who might have been moderately interesting if your interactions with them extended beyond shooting a couple of thousand of them in the face. The Andromeda races are outnumbered two to one by existing races imported from the Milky Way: the Asari, Turians, Salarians and — bafflingly — the Krogan2 all made the trip over, but even these have been diluted down to the point where they’re now just funny-looking humans (in particular every single Asari in this game acts like a moody teenager, which is pretty much the opposite of how they’re supposed to be). Anyway, the Arks containing the majority of the alien populations got conveniently lost on the trip over so that in practice you spend most of the game looking at the awfully-rendered faces of your fellow human beings. Despite the premise, Andromeda is definitively not a game about exploration; its obsessive focus on retreading old ground means there’s scant attention given to creating anything genuinely new for the player to discover.
Case in point: the star map. Just like every previous Mass Effect, Andromeda has a star map that you can use to travel to a host of star systems. In the first Mass Effect you could physically land on many of the planets found within these systems in the Mako; the surface of any planet not directly related to the main plotline was always procedurally generated gumpf with nothing of interest on it, but an effort had at least been made to promote the concept of exploring the unknown. Mass Effect 2’s implementation was both better and worse; you now scanned planets from orbit to find points of interest, but visiting them was still worthwhile as there’d usually be some cool piece of lore or backstory to uncover in the planet description3. Mass Effect 3 kept the scanning but added Reaper fleets that’d chase you if you scanned too much, which didn’t have much to do with exploration but was at least in keeping with the theme of the game. The series has never quite managed to nail this mechanic, but there’s always been enough that was worthwhile about it for me to never fully resent it no matter how tedious it got.
Andromeda’s star map, by contrast, is some unholy amalgam of the worst elements of every previous iteration of the star map with additional time-wasting injected into it. The star map is closest to 2’s implementation, in that you’re scanning planets from orbit and launching probes, except every single planet you scan is an incredibly dull list of environmental factors that present as the writers desperately trying to explain why you can’t build a colony there. There’s no cool lore snippets, no backstory and no standout planets to discover; they’re just points on a map that Bioware would very much like you to scan so that you can get the progression counter at the top of the screen to 100%. Anomalies that you find are all the same 4-5 things repeated over and over again: a satellite, an asteroid, a rich seam of ore on the planet surface etc. etc. If I were part of the colonist team I’d be pretty damn outraged to have spent 600 years travelling to the Andromeda galaxy only for it to turn out to be even duller than the one I just left. And worst of all is the travel time, as any time you do anything on the star map you have to sit through a 10-15 second first-person sequence where your ship zooms along to your new destination. As Andromeda’s quest structure absolutely loves making you revisit places you’ve already been to on multiple separate occasions you will find yourself staring at this sequence a lot even if you outright ignore all of the pointless fluff; I would calculate how much of my life I wasted staring at the zoomy ship screen but I’d just get even more depressed with the game than I already am. It’s not even like they can make the excuse that it’s hiding a loading screen, because:
- Those are distinct things that you still have to sit through any time you elect to actually land on a planet.
- It’s a two-dimensional star map with individual not-very-detailed 3D planet models. It shouldn’t need a loading screen, and certainly not 200 of them.
I can’t conclusively rule it out, however, because Andromeda in general is a bug-ridden, poorly-coded mess with rock-bottom production values. You will have no doubt already heard many terrible things about Mass Effect: Andromeda’s animations and lack of polish, and I would just like to take a moment to confirm that everything you’ve heard is absolutely true. I don’t know if it’s the switch to the Frostbite engine that’s done it, or just everyone who was previously responsible for the character animation at Bioware upping and leaving, but aside from raw texture quality and lighting effects (some of the environments are quite pretty) Andromeda looks like a game released ten years ago. To be precise it looks like Mass Effect 1, and I know this because after finishing Andromeda I booted up the first installment to see how they compared — and ME1 actually came off better in several areas such as overall visual design and facial animation. Don’t believe any stills you see from this game: go on Youtube and watch it in motion and you’ll quickly see what I mean. Coupled with some truly awful voice performances that I can only assume were completely undirected (such as the infamous “My face is tired…” scene”) and which sound like the voice actor is reading them off paper for the first time and making their best guess at intonation and general mood, and the overall impression you get of the Andromeda Initiative is that it’s populated solely by a collection of robots on Xanax.
The general low quality of the visuals and audio goes hand in hand with a startlingly rough gameplay experience. There’s pop-in absolutely everywhere, and I once got imprisoned by a trio of NPCs who loaded around me three seconds after I walked into a room. Enemies get stuck on (or sometimes inside) scenery with depressing regularity. There were a couple of fights where they were flat out invisible (and I don’t mean that they were cloaked). Andromeda has stolen the Destiny thing of having enemies be transported in by dropship — and relies on it to the point of absurdity, so that you’ll be driving around a planet and three dropships will fly in and drop off troops near to your location in the space of thirty seconds — but if you’re in an environment where it can’t rely on this, such as the interior of a building or a ship, it has absolutely no qualms about spawning them out of thin air right in front of you. The scripting for the final bossfight broke no less than three times, forcing three separate restarts. Finally, the game itself crashes at the drop of a hat; my friends get consistent crashes during multiplayer, I had two soft crashes back to the system menu in single-player, and — worst of all — my PS4 hard crashed and had to spend five minutes checking disk integrity and rebooting after one particularly badly glitched cutscene. This is supposed to be a triple-A game, and I am amazed it got through whatever passes for Sony’s console cert.
So the premise is terrible and breaks the universe’s own internal fiction, the game doesn’t play to the supposed themes of the new setting in the slightest, and the general production values are so low (for what was previously the premier sci-fi RPG series) that they’re on the verge of tunnelling into the Earth’s molten core. This is usually the part where I’d say “But at least the combat and characters are okay” because those are the parts that Mass Effect normally manages to get right, but I’m not so sure that’s true of Andromeda. Plentiful bugs aside the combat is okay, just so long as you’re the melee-focused Vanguard class; I suspect I would have been far more frustrated with it had I not been able to recharge my shields by punching people in the face. The problem with it is that — as with so much of the game — it gets ridiculously repetitive; there are three sets of enemies and you’ll have fought all of them by the time you get to the second planet, and then Andromeda fails to introduce any new variants for the next twenty-five hours. Even the final bossfight doesn’t actually have a boss in it, it’s just you shooting wave after wave of the same goddamn enemies while a timer ticks up. There is precisely one enemy in the game that hasn’t been designed around the wave-based multiplayer mode, and there’s next to no coordinating design in the combat encounters themselves; enemies are just spawned and left to get on with it, and then when you’ve sent their corpses ragdolling over the horizon you move on to the next room or location and the next enemy spawn.
Then we have the characters, and… hoo boy, I really don’t want to get into the characters, largely because I’ve managed to go 3000 words so far without mentioning The Witcher 3 and I don’t want to be constantly comparing the two. Suffice to say, though, that Witcher 3 raised the bar in just about every single area for both AAA RPGs and videogames in general. It wasn’t achieved without effort. CD Projekt poured a ridiculous amount of money and manpower into it, and even if the Bioware of 10 years ago were still around and developing on an engine they knew they’d still have trouble matching it in many areas; it’s a little unfair to hold every subsequent RPG up next to The Witcher 3 since they’ll almost always come off worse thanks to having fewer resources to play with. However, the thing Bioware are known for, first and foremost, is the quality of their writing; this is the one area where I’d expect them to look at what The Witcher 3 achieved with questlines such as the Bloody Baron and Heart of Stone and substantially up their game in response.
Instead, Bioware have simply doubled down on having all of their characters making lighthearted quips at the slightest provocation. There is clearly somebody on the writing team at that studio who has seen far too much Buffy The Vampire Slayer and fancies themselves as the next Joss Whedon, except they completely forgot to include even the ridiculously overblown drama of Buffy4 as a counterbalancing force. The result is that everybody in Andromeda comes across as either a childish buffoon or an unlikeable asshole, like the initiative to colonise Andromeda was secretly an effort to get rid of the Milky Way’s most unwanted inhabitants. The Krogan companion Drack is about the only character for whom the self-referential writing works because he’s a thousand years old and really has seen it all before; everyone else appears completely incapable of taking anything seriously, and this robs the storyline of what little weight it has because there’s absolutely no sense of the value of the stakes involved. Characters have conversations about the wholesale slaughter of colonists as casually as they would talk about what they had for breakfast that morning; life-or-death situations are faced with the same robotically-smirking expression and sarcastic comments as the rest of the game, and are totally robbed of any consequence as a result. Thanks to both the lackadaisical writing and the low production values ensuring that all too often we’re told about things happening in lieu of actually being shown them happening, there’s absolutely no emotional depth to anything that happens in Andromeda. Even Dragon Age 2 didn’t sink this low.
Speaking of Dragon Age 2, I got a very similar vibe from Andromeda, especially in the latter stages of the game. Development of the game was underway for five years so it probably went through several different iterations as new mechanics, worlds and storylines were developed and then later discarded, and what I think happened was that at some point last year Bioware were told enough was enough and that they had to release it before the end of the 2016 financial year or else. This is because Andromeda plays like a game stitched together out of several parts that were made more-or-less in isolation, regardless of how well they actually fit into the game; this is particularly obvious with the final pair of worlds that you unlock, as they have practically no worthwhile content in them and appear to have been included largely because the surface map for the planet was complete and it let them pad out the running time of the game. The finale is an incoherent mess that feels like it’s been ripped out of a completely different game (called Halo 4), while spaceship interiors are reused again and again in a similar manner to Dragon Age 2’s dungeons; the Ark interiors in particular are recycled on four separate occasions5. The whole thing starts to feel like an episode of Babylon 5, where they had a single apartment set that they redressed for each individual ambassador’s quarters – except this isn’t a relatively low-budget mid-90s sci-fi show, it’s a modern triple-A video game that’s had millions of dollars of development money thrown at it.
Impressively I think the damage Andromeda does to the Mass Effect franchise might actually exceed that inflicted by Mass Effect 3’s ending. That might have been catastrophically bad, but it was at least one specific point in what was otherwise quite a good game (and quite a good trilogy) rather than this sustained background noise of nobody giving a fuck. I’m struggling to think of a single thing about it that I unambiguously like; even its best planet, the ice world Voeld, wouldn’t even register as mediocre if inserted into any of the previous games. With a game this poor, and a reception this bad, I think there’s a fairly good chance the Andromeda setting will be abandoned – after all, it’s hardly a rich and fertile ground for new storytelling when the inception is this horrendous. But then if they do that, how do they make another Mass Effect game? Because I guarantee you they will try, so given how the storyline of the original trilogy panned out Bioware have three options:
- Grit their teeth and make another game set in Andromeda. The problem with this is that I wouldn’t buy it, and I’ve bought every single game they’ve ever made6. Thanks to Mass Effect: Andromeda they’ll effectively be releasing to a hostile audience if they do this.
- Retcon the ending of the original trilogy so that they can make more games set in the Milky Way. This would be exceedingly ill-advised since it would engender previously unheard-of levels of fanboy rage.
- Make a prequel to the original trilogy. Probably the outcome with the least chance of crashing headfirst into a brick wall, but the problem here is that unless Bioware crafted a personal tale with smaller stakes (something which I think they’re now completely incapable of doing) we’d already know the end point to it.
So from where I’m sitting, Andromeda is not only a terrible Mass Effect game, it also dooms the next iteration of the Mass Effect franchise to also being terrible. Perhaps that was already a foregone conclusion given the current state of Bioware, but I liked to think there was at least a chance they’d pull their heads out of their collective asses and turn it around; Andromeda effectively guarantees the opposite. Probably don’t expect great things out of the franchise any time soon, eh?
- Ah, the things you can achieve when you don’t have a job. ↩
- If their intent was to colonise new lands, why on Earth did they bring the species that’s crippled by genetic infertility? ↩
- Like the planet with the destroyed moon that turns out to be the result of a dead civilization’s last-ditch attempt to fight off the Reapers. ↩
- For the record Buffy The Vampire Slayer is still one of my favourite TV shows, but since I’m sadly neither a teenager nor a young adult any more some of the storylines in it that seemed very profound and important at the time now come off as laughably superficial. ↩
- To be clear, the issue isn’t that they reuse environments. All games reuse environments. The issue is how often they do it, and how obvious it is; recycling a set piece environment like the Ark interior is way more obvious than Generic Planet Habitat #3. ↩
- Except for the shitty Sonic DS game. ↩