After what felt like an eternity, but in reality was a mere five years, the next installment in the Mass Effect saga, Mass Effect: Andromeda, is finally upon us. Unless you have lived under a rock for the past few weeks, you know the torrent of bad press that BioWare’s new space opera received, when the game became available for a 10 hour demo through Origin and EA access, on PC and Xbox One respectively. If you have in fact lived under a rock, I will touch upon those issues briefly as I go along. This is merely a first look and some spoilers are coming up, so if you haven’t played the game or haven’t quite built your first outpost yet, proceed with caution. I only had a chance to play around 30 hours and I feel like I have barely scratched the surface.
First of all, although my setup is not up to snuff anymore, I decided to opt for the PC version over a console copy, and this translates into how the game plays for me. Believe it or not, as long as you have a decent video card (Radeon R9 380) and enough RAM (8gig), your processor is not going to prevent you from enjoying the game. My system still runs on a processor far below minimum specs for Andromeda, and the game not only runs, but runs at between 20 and 30 fps with relatively high graphics settings. It may sound like really low in the world of 4k 60fps games, but try to understand what I’m working with here. For a game this new, that’s rather impressive. Anyone looking to play on a good spec PC, or console, should expect no performance issues with Andromeda.
Mass Effect Andromeda, as the name suggests, takes place in the Andromeda galaxy, completely disconnecting itself from Commander Shepard’s trilogy. You take the role of one of the Ryder twins, young explorers who embarked on the greatest adventure of their lives, exploring an entirely new galaxy along with tens of thousands of hopeful colonists. But, as you soon find out, life on the frontier is no sunshine and butterflies, with all plans going to hell literally from the very first moment your ships enter this uncharted territory. Through these circumstances, the player is thrown into a role of a Pathfinder, a role they were not meant to take in the first place but now they have no choice and need to make the best out of a bad situation.
The story clearly doesn’t wait on your as in the very first moments, your ship is disabled, your shuttle crashes and you have your first brush with death as your helmet cracks, forcing you to briefly breathe the toxic atmosphere of the first planet in Andromeda you set your foot on. Then it gets worse. From that moment on, I was already hooked on the game, and needed to know how the rest of the expedition is going to go if the start was this rocky.
Interaction between characters is exactly what you’d expect from a BioWare game. There is a ton of dialogue, everyone has an opinion, and through your interactions with them, you will be able to change their opinions of you as a pathfinder (or prove them correct, since their opinion of you is pretty low from the get go). Throughout my playthrough, I haven’t yet had much chance to fully experience the interactions between my squad, but I have already started developing attachments to certain members of the crew, not to mention lying to my brother Scott because I felt that truth may be too painful given his condition at the time. It is moments like these, when you catch yourself pause and really consider what you are going to say next that sets BioWare RPG games apart from competition. The personal and emotional involvement of the player is unlike any other experience and Andromeda proudly continues in this tradition.
Unlike Commander Shepard who was already a veteran of many wars and a proven leader, the Ryders are complete rookies and it shows, both in their facial expressions and the voice acting. The uncertainty is palpable at first, even flirting is really awkward. Over time though, Ryder gains in confidence, showing character growth that is rarely seen in video games, and certainly not in a protagonist.
I can’t really say too much about graphics quality, given my personal system, but even for me, the game is gorgeous (and it can only get better on higher end systems). Texture quality is top notch and environments are simply breathtaking. Keeping with their tradition, BioWare redesigned some of the species of the Mass Effect universe (you may remember the drastic change elves underwent in their Dragon Age franchise). Salarians got taller and slimmer, Asari faces changed from more oval to somewhat more rounded, which you may have already read many critics decrying as “ugly”. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder though and they are certainly still the same Asari. The Turians and Krogan remained relatively untouched by a redesign and the new species you meet are easy to tell apart.
Animations look great, and a definite improvement from Shepards awkward half run half walk. Ryder moves with a purpose, and appears far more dynamic in combat. Criticism about facial animations, especially of human characters, can be easily found around the internet, and yet in my time spent in the game, I barely noticed any issues. For one, I am having too much fun to focus on every tiniest detail and every twitch of an eye, and even when I made sure to specifically look for any awkward animations I found them exactly where I would expect awkward facial expressions to appear on somebody’s face in reality. In one scene, an NPC ask Ryder a question to which only one response came to my mind. “Did you really just ask me that?”, and Ryder’s face is a perfect “wtf?” stare, ideally reflecting my thoughts at that specific moment. Yet, if a screenshot were to be taken of that exact frame, with no context given, it would certainly look very awkward. Overall, animations are at least as good, and often much better, than in the previous Mass Effect games.
Gameplay is also an improvement. The addition of jump jet was a great move on BioWare’s part, opening up new avenues of vertical play, allowing Ryder to swoop down on her enemies, dodge out of cover through jump jet use, and even temporarily hover in the air while raining death down on their enemies. Enemies themselves are also much smarter than before, and will actively seek paths to surround the player, to flush them out of cover and use abilities like grenades, or suppressing fire to either deprive the player of a defensive position, or to keep them hunkered down, unable to safely return fire. I myself play on the Insanity difficulty, and even as a sniper I need to frequently move from cover to cover to avoid getting surrounded and trapped, which would force me to abandon cover, and run as fast as I can to withdraw from my position, often with disastrous effects.
Where Andromeda falls short, is where nearly every previous BioWare game did, is inventory management. Lists upon lists of items, hard to compare between one another, making it difficult to figure out the best gear for your build. While research of new equipment is interesting and can definitely enrich your experience, figuring out the system takes a little bit of effort and can be at times rather frustrating. Many times I found myself wondering: should I research the Milky Way tech? How are Milky Way weapons different from Heleus ones? What about the remnant tech? With no way to easily compare these different branches of development I have made a few mistakes that resulted in equipment that didn’t serve the purpose I envisioned for it (hint: Don’t make plasma/Heleus sniper rifles…they will not do a good job as a sniper rifle…maybe I should try the seeking plasma augment).
And let’s not start on character creation options! While you can create some really gorgeous characters, BioWare again didn’t deliver quite the plethora of choices that character creators in many other modern games give you access to. Still, these are rather minor issues relative to the grand scale of the game. Inventory and crafting management can be figured out, and the Ryders are made once so take your time with the creator and make sure you are satisfied with the look. Even if you are forced to play the game with reduced settings, turn them up to maximum while making your Ryder. You will not regret it.
If you enjoyed Shepard’s trilogy and were looking forward to Andromeda, you will not be disappointed. The game keeps the Mass Effect feel very well and after a little while I accepted the fact that this wasn’t Shepard’s story anymore. This was something new, an adventure into the unknown and an opportunity to carve out a new home for the people of Milky Way. If you enjoy science fiction, deep mysteries, and old histories, you will definitely not be disappointed. For me, Mass Effect Andromeda is a hit and Ryder twins are worthy successors for Commander Shepard.