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Mass Effect: Andromeda review

I really like Mass Effect: Andromeda, but I don’t know that you will.

Mass Effect has a passionate following, but you’d be hard-pressed to find just one reason for that passion. Some people love the characters; others, the sci-fi world it creates. Others loved the RPG systems of the first or the power-based combat of the second, or the cooperative multiplayer of the third. Change has been a constant, and in that respect, Mass Effect: Andromeda has shifted more than its predecessors in the five years since the series’ last installment.

That change hasn’t been an entirely smooth one, though. Mass Effect: Andromeda is a game with problems, both lightly floating on the surface and, sometimes, deeper, and they get in the way of different things it does well to varying degrees. But what Andromeda succeeds at, it does very well — maybe as well as the series has ever done.

The original Mass Effect trilogy told the story of Commander Shepard and their crew’s attempt to save the Milky Way galaxy from genocide at the hands of the Reapers, averting a recurring cycle of death that played out every 50,000 years.

Exactly how that turned out depended somewhat on decisions you might have made over the course of the three games as a player, which means the actual, "canonical" ending of Mass Effect 3 doesn’t necessarily exist. Mass Effect: Andromeda neatly sidesteps the nebulous end-state possible in those games via its premise: In 2185, after the events of the original game but before Mass Effect 2, the Andromeda Initiative sends 100,000 cryogenically frozen crew composed of a host of alien species aboard massive "Arks" through dark space. Their destination? The galaxy Andromeda, which is home to multiple "golden worlds" — planets capable of sustaining life.

The (mostly) human Ark, the Hyperion, is jolted awake to a different-than-expected reality, and it’s up to you as the newly minted Pathfinder Ryder — a brother or sister, depending on the gender you select, both of which are more customizable than ever — to find out what’s gone wrong, and, more importantly, to find a new home for the thousands still asleep.

It’s an elegant concept, but Mass Effect: Andromeda stumbles in its opening hours. Each previous game had its own hook — a new fictional world, returning from the dead, the invasion of Earth — and each succeeded reasonably well at getting its premise off the ground. But Andromeda leans immediately on character relationships that it doesn’t spend nearly enough time establishing. The result is "heavy" moments without a lot of punch, and a lot of time spent on story and hand-holding tutorials to Mass Effect: Andromeda’s systems before you can really see much of what the game has to offer.

A lot of the weakest parts are very front-loaded as well. Andromeda is littered with some vestigial bits of Mass Effect tradition that are sloppily implemented here. The inventory system is still a disaster, with dozens of types of weapons and armor with additional tiers (I-VI) applied to them, along with weapon and armor modifications. Each of these can be found, bought or crafted, but crafting takes research and development separately, which require different resources ...

Does this sound like a mess? Because its a total goddamned mess. This isn’t helped by a UI that feels poorly equipped for the task at hand, along with some truly confusing design decisions. For example, you can’t change your gear unless you’re at a loadout station, which means no equipping that new sniper rifle or changing your weapons to something better suited to the task until you’re no longer in a mission. Flipping between your ability profiles requires pausing the game, picking the profiles option and making a selection, which is an awful lot of menus down for something you’ll probably want to do in the heat of the moment. You can also only have three abilities equipped at a time, and changing them out once again requires digging into a menu.

This all sucks. It’s cumbersome and slow, and discourages the use of some gameplay elements that are given fairly prominent placement. But the most emblematic example of mind-bogglingly bad implementation goes to planet scanning, which remains in Mass Effect: Andromeda despite an apparent lack of any good gameplay-related reason for it being there. You still navigate the galaxy via a (visually stunning) virtual map on the deck of your ship, the Tempest, and each system will likely have half a dozen or so planets in addition to whatever objective you’re looking for.

But moving from one system to another requires a good 10-15 seconds of unskippable animation as your ship travels through space to get there. And once you’re in a system, your ship goes through another 10- to 15-second animation hopping from planet to planet. And unless there’s a colony present on that planet, you can only look at it and read a small bit of fiction related to the world in question. You can still scan for "anomalies" ... which are basically good for bits of crafting materials or research points.

Even if you don’t have the need to check off every planet in the galaxy — and if you don’t, what’s wrong with you? — just going from one place to another can take a lot longer than it seems like it should. There’s a huge amount of friction early in the game that kept me from getting into things.

Once I did actually get to play the game, rather than struggle with a fair bit of extemporaneous build-up, things improved.

Mechanically speaking, there has been some simplification. Mass Effect: Andromeda is, like its predecessors, a combination of third-person shooting and exploratory, action RPG elements. The companion characters you’ll spend the game with have their own abilities, but unlike in previous games, you don’t really have much control over what your teammates do in battle, or the weapons or equipment they take with them. You can decide how to level them, and what powers they’ll have available, but otherwise, it’s a mostly hands-off situation.

This is a bit of a letdown, as combining different abilities between characters has been a big part of the fun in the series’ encounters. Andromeda moves this sense of experimentation entirely to your Ryder’s shoulders. The class system of previous games has been broken down a great deal. Instead, you select abilities from one of three trees: combat, biotics (think telekinesis-based powers) and technology-driven skills. As you spend points in these trees, you’ll unlock profiles that can be changed at will, offering you different bonuses. These are available both purely to augment the three ability types and in ways that mix them together — and it’s where players of previous Mass Effect games will find their Vanguard, Soldier, Adept and other recognizable class breakdowns.

The practical rub of all this is that you can make the Ryder you want to, with the abilities you feel like taking. There aren’t any requirements or prerequisites. My fate felt a little less predetermined, even as I focused primarily on biotic abilities to throw gravity-flipping black holes and seeking balls of telekinetic force to go along with my shotgun and assault rifle combo. These abilities mesh together in ways that yield additional rewards as you play with them and level them up, and by the end of the game, I was like a force of nature.

Andromeda has also added the ability to jump and boost in any direction, which lends a sense of momentum and versatility to the game’s combat. This mostly compensates for the "auto-cover" system, which, ostensibly, makes your Ryder take cover behind any object that should provide it when their weapon is drawn. In practice, this ... mostly works, though I had the most problems when I could least afford them, and I desperately missed the ability to select discrete safe points to hide behind.

Ultimately, I found Andromeda’s combat changes to be for the better — previous games, at best, felt functional mechanically, and the additional versatility on hand now makes for something that felt much more capable, especially as I found more powerful weapons.

However, if the most immediately apparent changes to Mass Effect made by Andromeda are in its basic moment-to-moment mechanics, it’s the big structural departures that make for a much different game.

Where Mass Effect 2 and 3 drove things down an increasingly linear path, Andromeda is primarily set in very large open spaces, spaces so big you need an all-terrain vehicle to drive across them. These worlds are full of things to see and do, littered with pieces of the greater mysteries of the Andromeda galaxy. There are some more isolated spaces that play out like traditional action-game levels, but they’re fairly uncommon. Instead, the bulk of the game comprises several big, open worlds that feel genuinely explorable.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a game full of small things to fixate on. This can cut both ways — many side missions are multi-system chores, for lack of a better term. Tasks that seem like they should be relatively simple become minor odysseys, and this would be about 10 times more infuriating if the payoff wasn’t frequently pretty great.

Mass Effect: Andromeda’s most effective weapon is discovery. This works both as a mechanic, as you guide your Ryder through the Andromeda galaxy, and as a reward. These games have always theoretically been built around the idea of discovery, and the new frontier of space, but Andromeda is the first of them that feels especially oriented around these concepts. You’re not a Council special operative here, looking for a threat to civilization; you’re a pathfinder, charged with finding a home for the intelligent species of the Ark. It’s a different kind of pressure that drives the game, but with it, a different, more positive kind of hope.

That shines through in the worlds you explore, which are frequently stunning, but it’s also clearest in the people you meet and interact with via Mass Effect: Andromeda’s conversation system and decision tracking. In Mass Effect tradition, you’ll have to decide how to react to the world around you — now with more granular detail than the previous Paragon/Renegade split — and, often, decide who lives and who dies. This only succeeds as well as it does because of the copious amounts of character development Andromeda undertakes. And, arguably more than any previous BioWare game, Andromeda provides opportunity after opportunity to invest in its characters actively.

I don’t want to dive into them here out of sensitivity to spoilers, but I loved most of Andromeda’s cast. They provided some new twists on my expectations of series staple alien races like the Krogan, Turians and Asari (and unsurprisingly, I was the least moved by human companions). In general, Andromeda’s characters feel less concept-driven — the repentant alien assassin, the biotic experiment gone awry — and more organic in their development. They’re parents and grandparents and children and friends and orphans, with very different views of the world they find themselves in — a world 600 years apart from the lives they’ve left behind.

Andromeda’s relationships also feel less binary, less make-or-break than they have before. I angered my companions on several occasions, prompting extended cold shoulders, but there were so many opportunities to further develop those relationships that I never felt on the precipice of total fracture. But I could see where the fault lines ran, where it seemed possible that things could fall apart.

I appreciated this because I felt like I could try to navigate complex situations without the overly petty politics of a less complicated system of social interactions, though this could just be the illusion of pretty good writing on BioWare’s part. Or maybe it’s just because, in a sea of games that feel determined to provide believable opportunities to see new planets and explore worlds, Mass Effect: Andromeda feels singular in the opportunities it offers to care about a group of characters.

The loyalty missions from Mass Effect 2 have returned, after a fashion, and they’re almost uniformly great, buddy-cop episodes breaking off from the main arc of the game. These are missions you’ll work toward over dozens of hours, and they feel appropriately climactic. They tended to be where relationships with characters reached their (non-sexual) culmination before, but loyalty missions are now supplemented by several additional opportunities to spend quiet time with them. One character wants you to meet their extended family; another to meet their platonic lifemate. Other crew are fixated on your team as a whole, on ensuring that your group becomes closer as the stakes become higher.

There’s a greater breadth of attachment present here. There’s love and lust, sure, just like in every other Mass Effect, but there’s also much more tangible platonic intimacy (which includes an almost taboo exploration of platonic male intimacy). It’s a crew of people that do things together, and grow to care deeply about each other across lines of race, gender, sexual identity and, since this is science fiction, species, in a way few games allow.

That caring is the thing that pulled me along arguably as much as anything. The story in Andromeda is pretty good, with a number of mysteries on the critical path and some really interesting optional content that can often shed an enormous amount of light on the politics of the Initiative and the Andromeda galaxy (I strongly advise you collect/complete the Memories tasks, for example). It’s also a game that doesn’t feel like it’s missing key pieces of narrative, and I really wanted to see how things would shake out. And Andromeda strikes a pretty great balance between answering enough of the questions it poses while still leaving threads hanging for the inevitable sequels.

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