Game Review: Mass Effect Andromeda (spoiler-free)

I know I've never reviewed a game before -- on this blog, anyway -- but since the Mass Effect franchise has had a reasonable impact on my writing and on the world of storytelling in general, I figured, "Hey, why not?" And my tagline says Author. Artist. Gamer. Nerd. after all.

Note: all images included in this post are my own screenshots.

Note: all images included in this post are my own screenshots.

Quick note in case people don't make it to the end of this post, which became lengthier than I'd planned: the majority of the side quests aren't required, but if you were forced to pick 2 to focus on, you should pick Movie Night and Ryder Family Secrets. Both involve a good bit of running around, and both end up spanning almost the entire game because they consist of smaller pieces that only become available when triggered by other events, but they're both SO worth it. Movie Night is purely for entertainment value, but Ryder Family Secrets packs an emotional punch that fans of the main series should enjoy very much. I was in tears by the end of it, because this franchise has destroyed me.

Anyway, where do I even begin? If you can believe it, this was actually the very first time I'd ever been able to play a game immediately upon its release. I think the closest I'd ever come before was Assassin's Creed: Black Flag when I bought it as a birthday present to myself but then didn't play for another month or so because I was still in the middle of AC3. On Andromeda's release day, I sat at work all day watching the UPS tracking info like a hawk, ran home during my lunch break to start the installation, and then was able to start the game after work that evening. I think that's part of what made it fun.

Someone asked me how it compared to the original trilogy (Is that what we're calling it? Makes me feel a little funny...) but honestly, I don't think it's fair to even make that kind of comparison. I read somewhere that Andromeda was originally slated to be a reboot of the trilogy but ended up going a different direction later in development; I could definitely see some parallels in the story and structure, especially in the beginning, but for the most part, you're dealing with two entirely different realms. And I'm not just talking about Milky Way galaxy vs. Andromeda galaxy. The original trilogy had such heavy military themes. Commander Shepard was a classic soldier, as badass as they come. While Ryder is still plenty capable of handling herself (I'm just going to stick with female since that's how I played) in combat, Andromeda's themes were more along the lines of exploration and discovery. It wasn't nearly as gritty as the original games. Part of that might have had to do with how far the graphics have come in the past 5 - 10 years (yeah, can you believe ME1 will be 10 years old this fall?) but the story itself also didn't seem as dark as before. So, no, I don't think it's even possible to make a comparison, and if it was, I don't think I could personally do it. I can't tell you, "Sure, it was on par with ME2" because it's a different thing entirely. Apples and oranges. It's like asking how The Force Awakens stacks up against the original Star Wars trilogy. 

But, if it helps, I'll give it an 8.5 / 10. I didn't reach that number via any math or calculations. I'm saying that, while there were things BioWare could have done better, I enjoyed it very much, had a lot of fun playing, and am super bummed it's over...as I am when I finish any good story, be it in book, game, TV, or movie form.

THE WORLD OF ANDROMEDA

Although it had a different feel than the original games, there were enough familiar elements that I felt at home after almost no time at all. The Frostbite engine gave everything just a slightly different look, so I remember feeling like the krogan and turians looked a little strange in the beginning, but by the time I was done, I couldn't even remember what had felt off about them. All the salarian characters looked great from the beginning. But I never could get over the asari and the fact that they all had the same face, with the exception of Peebee. Apparently this was the case in the original games too (except for the more prominent characters like Liara, Samara, Aria, etc.) but it must have been a much more generic face because I never really noticed. It was painfully obvious in Andromeda

I did enjoy getting to see more female characters in any given species. The only female krogan we'd ever seen was Eve / Bakara, and the only female turian we'd ever seen was Nyreen (and that was only if you had the Omega DLC). In Andromeda, we not only got a female turian squad mate, but we saw many others throughout the story. Female krogan played prominent roles, and we even got to see some female salarians. It gave everything a lot more depth. 

It was also fun when you found out how certain characters in this game were related to familiar characters from the Milky Way. I absolutely eat up Easter eggs like that.

CHARACTER CREATION AND ANIMATIONS

Not gonna lie -- character creation was a disappointment. Unless I was realllllly missing something, you were basically forced to choose one of the preset faces and could only make changes to the already-existing features. Even in the original Mass Effect, you could select a preset face but then cycle through a variety of noses, mouths, eyes, etc. and mix and match features (and frankly, that's the only time I ever did it since I always imported my Sheps into ME2 and ME3). I never found a way to change eyebrow color to match the hair, so if you wanted a dark-haired Ryder, you had to choose one of the presets that already had dark hair so it would have dark brows too. 

What's more, there were vast differences between how your character looked during creation and how they looked in-game. I ended up going through character creation 4 different times before I managed to get something I was at least relatively pleased with. My first Ryder had a very square jaw, and I brought the brows way down in hopes of creating kind of a perpetual scowl. She looked reasonable during creation, but ended up looking scrunched and miserable in-game (see below). 

I ended up discovering that the trick was to space all of her features out -- particularly nose and mouth -- just enough that they looked the slightest bit unnatural during creation, and then they turned out much more proportionate in the actual game. She still wasn't 100% what I'd hoped for, but she looked 800% better than the first couple of attempts. Her eyeliner turned out way too dark though because I couldn't see it during creation and made the mistake of turning the opacity up all the way. 

I know there were a lot of early complaints about the facial animations, but frankly, I didn't think they were any worse than some of the weird stuff we've seen in the original games. Granted, at this point I can't really tell the difference between what the patch(es) actually fixed and what I simply got used to as I was playing. There were certain parts where I was really impressed with the animations and the way a character's eyes were actually displaying emotion or surprise. My theory is simply that, having 5 years of animation improvements to play with, people expected the dev teams to do better, and that's where all the rage is / was coming from. Personally, I didn't find it that disappointing.

I do look forward to playing again sometime when there have been further updates that allow for more customization options during character creation. I did enjoy the fact that you could also customize your sibling, and it was cool how Alec Ryder's appearance was based on that of the twins.

COMBAT AND MOVEMENT

I thought the combat interface and general navigation had more of a Bethesda feel than before, which I'm certainly not complaining about. I spent months playing Fallout 4 before jumping back into another playthrough of all three Mass Effect games immediately before Andromeda's release, so anything that smacks of Fallout-meets-Mass-Effect is a win for me. Instead of some sort of small map in the bottom corner, we just had the navigation bar at the top of the screen, showing the usual red blips for enemies and a big marker indicating the direction of the active quest. The health bars and weapon / power info all looked very familiar at the base of the screen, but overall, I thought the interface changes made everything feel more open and clear.

Despite the fact that I played almost the entire game as an Infiltrator, I absolutely loved having access to powers and skills from every class. It gave you options to adapt depending on what a situation or your environment called for. At one point, I was trying to jump across a gap to another tall rock, but the basic jump jet + evade combo wasn't getting me far enough, even with a running start. I simply switched to my saved Vanguard profile, because apparently biotics gave all of your jumps a slight boost. That did the trick.

I loved the way cover was more dynamic than ever before, and being able to shoot blindly from cover was cool, albeit kind of useless since it killed your accuracy. The dynamic cover gave you more options when it came to approaching a combat area. If I was out driving around and came upon a group of enemies, I'd almost always start by using the Nomad itself as cover and move closer when it was clear.

And I absolutely loved having the jump jet. Transitioning from Fallout 4 (where you can pretty much move however and wherever you want) to ME1 (where you're restricted to predetermined paths and can't jump) was tough, so the jump jet definitely allowed for more freedom of movement. I rarely used it in combat for aerial shooting, but it was always crazy fun to sprint toward an enemy and use it for a power melee attack. 

I didn't like the fact that you had no control over your squadmates' powers. I suppose the whole point of doing that before was to use your squad's abilities to augment Shepard's, and since Ryder had access to all the powers and skills, that functionality was rendered virtually useless. Still, it felt like something was missing during combat.

TRAVEL AND OTHER SYSTEMS

When driving around on a planet's surface, the forward stations were a lifesaver. That was always something I hated about the Mako in the original game -- if you were returning to a planet for any reason, there was no way to fast travel from the drop site to the point of interest you were trying to reach. I loved that Andromeda gave you that option, or at least the option to travel closer to your desired point of interest. I would have liked to see fast travel options on the Nexus though, rather than having to run back and forth from the tram station whenever I needed to get anywhere else. I was also irritated by the travel setup on Kadara, because while you could fast travel back to the slums, you still had to go back to the elevator in order to get up to the port and the Tempest. As far as I could tell, you couldn't access that upper-level stuff straight from layers on the map like you could on some of the other worlds. It was especially annoying if someone from the port had given you a quest out in the badlands and you had to go out, come all the way back in to report to the person, and then -- heaven forbid -- go all the way back out to do an additional task. Of course, most people might say "Just don't do the quest then" but I'm a fanatical completionist and can't help myself. 

The first patch that allowed you to skip the little flying cutscene between planets while exploring systems was also a lifesaver. Those scenes were cool the first couple of times, but it made exploring a system take 10x longer than necessary.

I also loved the research and development systems. It was only later that I discovered you could actually buy almost all the same items from stores, but it was both cost-efficient and fun to be able to create all my own weapons and armor. I wasted no time in researching and developing the Black Widow sniper rifle, my absolute favorite weapon from the original games (or game, I guess, considering it only appears in ME3). I switched armor approximately 5000 times throughout the game, but I stuck with the same loadout almost the entire time: Infiltrator profile with incinerate, overload, and concussive shot, with the Black Widow and a classic Carnifex pistol. I researched as much as humanly possible and enjoyed having the ability to customize weapons and armor more than ever before.

#SQUAD

As with the original games, there was nobody in the squad I particularly disliked but I certainly had my favorites. Drack was probably my overall favorite just because I've always had a soft spot for krogan, but Vetra and Liam were always my second picks. I tried to mix and match my squad so I could hear banter between all the possible pairs at least once, but I probably used Drack and Liam most often. I'd swap Drack for Vetra on missions that I felt required more stealth and subtlety, even though it was all in my head and there was no actual difference in the mission structure. Jaal was fun and it was hilarious to listen to him try to learn things from the rest of the squad, but I didn't end up taking him on that many missions. Call me petty, but I absolutely hated his poncho thing and didn't like looking at it (on that note, I was disappointed there weren't alternate outfits for all the squad members like there used to be). Cora was fine in combat, but I swear you couldn't get through a single conversation without her mentioning something about asari commandos and I found it really grating. I've known people in real life who do that with their own past experiences and it's the most annoying thing. If I had to pick a least favorite, it would be Peebee. For some reason I just found her really obnoxious. I by no means hated her though; I just always ended up using the professional dialogue options with her in an attempt to counteract her abrasiveness. 

I'm positive the more I play it, the more everyone will grow on me. When I played through the trilogy again before starting this game, it was my 5th time, and I was still discovering new things about the characters I'd never noticed before. 

STORY

Oh right, the story. If I'm being honest, I had a little bit of a hard time following it, mostly because I have a bad habit of always avoiding the main story missions as long as possible when I'm playing games so I can drag everything out and savor it. I would sometimes go for days without actually progressing the storyline, and when I finally did, I couldn't remember exactly what I was supposed to be doing so I'd just follow the prompts and call it good. 

But, from what I was able to follow, I thought the story did a really good job of sticking with the exploration / discovery theme. Regardless of what kind of trouble the characters found themselves in or what kind of adversaries they were facing, the focus was always still on finding and creating a new home. And even though that story reached a conclusion, there's obviously still room for more. The question isn't if it's coming, but when, considering all the changes BioWare is currently undergoing. I personally was left with some nagging questions at the end of the game, some of which might be due to things I missed in the story, but many of which I believe will be answered in future installments. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

So is it worth it? Definitely. I think this game was even designed so that people who hadn't ever played the main games could get through it without being too lost, but of course it's that much sweeter if you're a long-time fan of the trilogy. 

I ended up logging a total of 101 hours and ended at 99% completion because there were a few unmarked sidequests I was too lazy to finish (and one that glitched and wouldn't let me finish). I was glad I took my time though because it meant I got to reap the benefits of both patches that have been released so far. I wasn't hating the game by any means before, but those updates certainly improved things.

Go forth and play, Mass Effect fans, and do those two side quests I mentioned.