If you like videogames filled with stars, spacecraft, scintillating sexual encounters and stacks of stuff to shoot then Mass Effect: Andromeda is here to fill the black hole in your life.
BioWare’s original epic space-roaming RPG trilogy has more than its fair share of fans across the cosmos. Many argue that the second instalment was the supreme iteration, a point I agree with wholeheartedly, but despite its occasional failings Mass Effect proved itself to be one of the best trilogies of all time. Varied dialogue paths, multi-tiered narratives and solid combat helped to lay the foundations for many-an-escapade and it was hardly surprising that the expectations for this spiritual successor were rather high. Well, practically interstellar. Whether you were a fan of the originals or not it has been practically impossible in the past few months to avoid the all-encompassing power of the hype train. Now the game has finally landed on terra firma, we have to ponder the key question: Have EA and BioWare delivered the goods or is the gaming section of humanity destined to drift in a black abyss of sci-fi despair?
We’ll get to the answer to that question relatively soon, but first it’s worth noting that If you’ve never played the original trilogy, then there is nothing to fear – this requires no actual prior knowledge for you to jump into a ship and enjoy some extensive exploration. At the start you are given the choice of either a male or female character, whom you can customize to your heart’s content (well, almost) and then you get to experience their awakening from hyper-sleep as they come to realize that the fate of 20,000 fellow passengers rests in their inexperienced hands. I’m not one for spoilers, so let’s just say that your initial foray into the vast expanse of space leaves you with plenty of questions which you then go about attempting to answer.
Depending on how careful you are when it comes to customizing your avatar, you may well find that they look a bit odd when the game gets underway. This is not to say that the graphics are not great, but once you start tweaking the depth of people’s eyes , ears and nose (and mouth) and then layer it over a pre-designed animated facial skeleton which has been built to look good for a specific model the results are sometimes a little bit terrifying. In all honesty, I found myself staring at my slack-jawed, wide-eyed freak of a character in disbelief when he first interacted with another person and thought for a moment about rebooting and starting anew. I didn’t, but I certainly felt like it. Over time my initial sense of horror began to wane and I grew increasingly attached to his visual quirks as the game progressed.
At this stage I just want to make something clear: the internet is often an angry place which seeks out any chance to ridicule and poke fun with little regard for the positives in life. With this in mind, I would like to state that, in my humble opinion, the issues with the graphics in Andromeda have been massively overstated. Firstly, the environments are really, really, ridiculously good looking (sic). Wandering around the different planets and space stations feels totally engrossing and leaves more than enough room for you to capture some nice screenshots for posterity. Secondly, the combat starts off a little unwieldy but soon becomes immensely satisfying as you upgrade and develop your tech and powers. Add to this a great musical score and immersive incidental sound effects that are utilized to solidify every environment and you know that there is a lot to look forward to. Yes, admittedly, sometimes it can be a bit clunky. Yes, the textures sometimes go a bit weird. Yes, the hair looks like it was made by a 12-year-old with a PlayDoh fetish…but this is an RPG. It’s as though people are quick to forget that role-playing games on the whole have a history of being a little bit sub-par in the graphics department. But this doesn’t automatically make for a bad game; quite the opposite. But, anyway, I digress…
Now, the game is initially a bit of a slow-burner. There’s no getting away from this. It opens dramatically, grabs your attention, doesn’t do very much to explain itself and then stalls and stumbles a short way in. Don’t let this put you off: it stops holding your hand quite quickly simply to let you find your own two feet. The main narrative is engaging, intriguing and exciting on the whole in spite of the fact that some of the key scenes weren’t the most amazing thing I have ever played in a Mass Effect game. On the flip side of this is one of the biggest improvements and something which truly boosts this game’s credibility: the sense of scale and exploration.
Whenever you step off your trusty ship, the Tempest, you will find that you simply have to stand for a moment as you take in the view. Not only are the locations beautiful to look at, they also feel like living, breathing ecosystems which have a life of their own. Every planet you visit is immaculately designed and full to the brim with opportunities to discover something hidden away, from mining deposits to subterranean ecosystems, and this is truly a world of adventure that rewards players who wander off the beaten path. Initially these environments are often limited by environmental hazards, but as you progress these become spaces that evolve and develop into established worlds as a result of your actions. Each new planet gives you the chance to choose how it should be developed (military base, research outpost etc.) and this allows you to carve out your role as the forerunner for humanity in any way that suits you. Rarely does a game offer such satisfaction in seeing the results of your endeavors. It is surprisingly humbling at times.
Once the game gets underway it becomes apparent that, as is in this type of game, you can spend your time aimlessly wandering around doing side quests or dive head-first into the main narrative missions. I always try to stick to the main missions to drive the game forward, yet it doesn’t usually take me long to get distracted…and then it takes me a long time to get back on track. A long time. Some people might criticize Andromeda for its more boring ‘find and return’ missions, but they are only there if you want to complete them for the most part. Furthermore, some of the random side quests turn into epic odysseys which feel completely organic. Yes, some of them are a bit of a ball-ache but you never know what you might get in return for a random act of kindness. Not that bothered about helping some random stranger? Don’t bother. Maybe it would have led you onto something significant, maybe it wouldn’t. The fun comes from approaching it all with an open mind and no expectations and then finding out for yourself. There is a fair amount of mundanity on offer, but that’s life.
Coupled with this style of mission delivery is a strong sense of familiarity for returning players in terms of the way that you can interact with other characters and the amended dialogue system gives more options to the player than in the previous three games. Chatting to your crewmates and residents of the various places you visit is something you can choose to largely ignore but I tend to ‘adopt my role’ when I get my head stuck into a game and my new job as ‘Pathfinder’ meant that I felt like I had to grease the wheels a little in the hope that it would pay off in the long run. If you choose to just push on and ignore your friends then you are sort of missing the point. In a weird way, I felt like BioWare wanted me to be ‘more human’ in this game than in the older iterations. For those of you who like to socialize there is more than ample opportunity for you to build some strong relationships and the way that your seemingly irreverent chats can deepen your sense of camaraderie is truly something to behold. Plus you can have special ‘relations’ with anybody you fancy (accompanied by surprisingly raunchy cut scenes – NSFW) if that’s the way you want to go about your business.
It’s difficult to go into too much more without ruining the surprises along the way but I feel that I should make a couple of things clear before I set off to start my second playthrough.
This is a game which will go on to be recognized as a true classic. It may not seem like it to everyone right now, but we need to look past the surface and see that BioWare have delivered something which they should be immensely proud of. Beyond the sometimes slightly irritating voice acting lies a game which is far more subtle and nuanced than its predecessors in terms of its scope and scale and when people take the time to play through with no prior expectations they will find that there is a brave new world waiting for them when they come out of hyper sleep. Add to this the fact that they could potentially iron out the bugs with a little bit of patching over time and I think you’ll find that you thoroughly enjoy this ride, Pathfinder.
Overall: A thoroughly enjoyable sci-fi adventure with plenty to get your teeth into. Look past its faults and you’ll find a rare mineral hidden beneath its jagged exterior.
4.5/5 – Reviewed on Xbox One