I’m climbing a mountain in an overcast, barren, frozen wasteland. This is Voeld, the third of the Heleus Cluster planets that I’m exploring in my pathfinding mission. It’s a dangerous planet, like many others, and its environment is slowly killing me with its harsh winds and below fifty Celsius weather. This part of the mountain couldn’t be climbed with the NOMAD vehicle, and I had to proceed with my jump-jets to climb.
The environmental life support shields are going down as I continue to jump the mountain. It’s already gone by the time I reached the top, and the weather is now chipping away at my combat shields – in just a few seconds, it’s going to slowly decrease my health bar.
I’m going to die soon if I don’t get back to the car, I think, but I keep climbing anyway.
If there’s any moment in the game that encapsulates the Mass Effect: Andromeda experience in my playthrough, it’s that. In its very essence, Andromeda is a very frustrating game. This game is the most fun I’ve had this year, while also simultaneously killing me very, very slowly.
This game is the fourth of BioWare’s critically acclaimed Mass Effect series, taking place 600 years after Mass Effect 3, in an all-new galaxy. You play as Ryder, a spacefaring explorer designated as a Pathfinder, one of four leaders in ark that’s part of the Andromeda Initiative, a multi-species colonizing endeavour from the original series’ four races plus a Krogan contingent. The Initiative is sending these colonists into “Golden Worlds”, habitable planets chosen before the Initiative’s massive arks set off from the Milky Way galaxy.
Things quickly go awry as the Initiative’s crew members find these Golden Worlds aren’t what there were promised to be. Soon enough, our crew is embroiled in a conflict with a hostile alien species called the Kett, whose motives soon threaten the safety of the Initiative’s future in the Andromeda galaxy.
It’s a fun set-up, and while criticisms of similarities to the first game are understandable, it’s delivered in a way that’s very fresh and exciting both for newcomers and for long-time fans. Its Star Wars: The Force Awakens via Mass Effect – taking familiar cues of the original, to essentially recapture a similar wonder for new audiences. Some of these exciting changes me from the new, ambitious, mechanics the game introduces to the existing property – and it is here that the game really shines.
Like the premise, one of the key mechanics in the game is exploration. For an action-RPG, Andromeda does this really, really well. So far in my playthrough, I have been to three worlds, and all of them are very different to each other in terms of the sandbox we get to play in. These planets are well-designed virtual spaces with each planet translating its visual ubiquity to real gameplay effects. Tatooine-lite planet Eos, for example, has high radiation levels that damage you over time, influencing where you can or cannot explore its mountainous Mars-like deserts. But don’t think that you’ll be bored in its expanse – while it’s certainly not Skyrim level – side-quests triggered by your helpful on-board AI, SAM, at different spots in the map should keep your focus in-game while you’re exploring every nook and cranny of each planet’s vast sandbox.
Of course, you will most probably meet enemy combatants that try to impede your journey. Let me tell you now, combat has never been so fun in Bioware game. Gone are the days of shoot-walk-shoot of old Commander Shepard. As Ryder, you’re equipped with jump-jets that let you zip, dodge and jump away in combat zones (no fall damage too!). It’s a real interesting mechanic that gives flexibility to the way you approach combat in the game, with the z-axis injecting a real three-dimensional combat stage to an IP that was always felt quite linear. Of course, the real hero in the new combat mechanics would have to go to the new skill tree system. The mechanic enables you to cherry-pick a wide variety of combat abilities that suit your unique playstyle. Really like to get in their faces? Why not pick biotic teleporting abilities combined with an ironclad health and shield buff from your combat tree? Prefer to hit them from afar? Upgrade the sniper rifle skill tree and set yourself up with a tech turret. It’s a welcome departure from the previous game’s narrow combat profiles, and its variability gives a physical aspect to how your own Ryder grows within the narrative.
Combat is also supported by a genuinely fun research and development mechanic that replaces equipment procurement from the traditional games. While you can still buy things from shops, your main producer of new weapons and armour will be the various scavenged items and minerals you find around the world or from the remains of your enemies. You can also gain research points by scanning lore-expanding objects while on the go, points that can be spent buying better armour and weaponry in-game. Not really the type to scavenge and meticulously scan? Don’t worry! Your trusty AI will point out anything scannable as you walk past it with a slight vibration to your controller – an elegant solution that doesn’t bother your gaming experience as you blast through enemy waves (anyone remember Navi from Ocarina?).
From the above, you probably think that Andromeda plays really, really well – and don’t get me wrong – it does. But its major problem lies in how it ties in all these mechanics together, and from here we start to see where Andromeda really falls apart.
Animation quality has been the most touted problem with this game, but in truth, the hilarious graphical glitches that permeate Youtube right now very rarely happens in-game. It’s actually a quite trivial problem, and is taking away attention from Andromeda’s most fatal design flaw.
While the mechanics introduced in-game are very much innovative additions, the user interface that links them all together is the most confusing interface design that has possibly ever come from a triple-A studio title. UI is an unusual thing to get wrong, as most games do them very by-the-book. While you may think that minor things like a menu screens or waypoints are trivial in the long run, playing through Andromeda is a case study in exactly why you want to get these interfaces exactly right.
Experiences vary from disappearing NPC and side-quest vocal triggers that doesn’t appear on the map to an absolute slog of an unskippable cutscene every time your ship travels to and fro other planets (I’ll take the normal loading screen anytime thank-you-very-much!). It was a minor inconvenience at first, but as I progressed further through the game, it became a constant annoyance that is, sometimes, genuinely game-breaking and simultaneously mindboggling. The biggest sin of the game’s UI so far is the main menu and how separate it feels like to the flexibility and quick-whip action of the game. For example, quest tracking involves tasking three different menus that you have to wander into, and is honestly so draining that you have to eventually note-take mentally all the quests you take in the game to efficiently complete them during your exploration.
Narratively, Andromeda is, at times, very uneven in its delivery. Plot-wise, Andromeda still has a very solid premise, but the character writing at times was a bit jarring, not carrying through plot points forward emotionally to its characters.
To illustrate, there is a priority mission in Voeld that’s very emotional, one of few moments where gameplay and plot intersected as combat difficulty was wholly supported by narrative desperation. Considering the narrative blow, its closest throwback to past games would be the Sur’kesh level in ME3 or Virmire on ME1. The level was a definite narrative highpoint for me, transforming the nature of the Initiative’s conflict with the Kett. Cut soon to home base Tempest and suddenly dialogue was stilted and uneven from differing characters, the mission clearly shook the squadmembers I brought with me – but it seemed like the other crewmates in the Tempest so far has lacked that the moral togetherness that made the NPCs of old Normandy or Skyhold such an effective cast of characters.
The inherent disappointments in-game are such a shame because, truly, the game is such a wonder to play. But as said above, the game isn’t without its high points, and it’s never not fun enough to proceed. In the end, if you can get over the annoyances, it’s really about how you connect with Ryder and how much you buy into their growth along with the rest of the cast moving forward.
So far, my Ryder is pretty agreeable and unique on her own, and I look forward to how much she’s going to grow within the narrative. Right now, even though she’s dying climbing this mountain, she’ll have a full view of a Kett base down below. A quick jump, a vertical shockwave drop and about 13 dead Kett soldiers later – it felt as though like it was definitely worth the climb.