You awaken in a new galaxy, expecting to find a lush, verdant paradise after spending 600 years in cryogenic slumber. However, what awaits is death, destruction, disappointment, and quite possibly the adventure of lifetime. That is both the narrative of Mass Effect: Andromeda and an apt description of what it has felt like playing the game. Five years after Mass Effect 3, BioWare has assembled a new entry in its mega-popular action RPG series, and it feels like a labor of love with an expansive world to explore, compelling combat, and a memorable cast of characters. However, the sweeping space opera is prevented from being truly great thanks to a host of technical glitches, frustrating UI design, and deeply wonky AI.
After spending 20-plus hours playing the game, I am nowhere close to being done with it, which is good news for those among us who are driven by a burning desire to speak with every NPC, complete every side quest, and investigate every point of interest on the map. That said, this will be considered a review in progress and will be updated accordingly.
To quote Detective Rust Cohle from True Detective, time is a flat circle, and that feels especially true for Mass Effect: Andromeda. Humanity travels through space and time in the hopes of colonizing a promising-looking new galaxy only to find a warlike race of aliens that look like the bastard children of the Protheans and the Vorcha waiting for them. Longtime players of the series will find a lot of familiar elements in Andromeda despite it taking place in an entirely new galaxy.
You play as either Scott or Sara Ryder, an inexperienced recruit of the Andromeda Initiative who is part of the Pathfinder team designated with exploring Andromeda and finding suitable settlement sites for the colonists waiting aboard the Nexus, the massive hub-like space station that serves as a base of operations. After a series of unfortunate events, you find yourself in charge of the Pathfinder team and must assemble a motley crew of disparate specialists to aid you in your quest to prevent the Initiative from failing, and humanity from dying along with it. It isn't the most inspired set-up in the world, and some of the dialogue is egregiously bad, but nevertheless I have found myself sucked into Andromeda's sprawling universe of intrigue and intergalactic conflict.
By and large, the supporting cast of Andromeda is a charming bunch. Each member brings their own emotional baggage for you to unpack and help them process during your many hours spent sojourning across the galaxy together. Andromeda offers six different recruitable squadmates who will join you on missions: Cora, the no-nonsense human biotics specialist who studied abroad as an asari commando; Liam, the human crisis specialist with a pathological aversion to wearing shirts; Drack, the surly krogan mercenary with a healthy appetite for murder; Vetra, the Turian smuggler who you just wish would say "calibrating" already; Peebee, the freewheeling asari academic who is doing a super casual Tris from Blade Runner cosplay; and Jaal, the contemplative soldier who hails from the newly introduced angaran race. Much like the game is slow to start, it takes a little while to warm up to the crew of the Tempest, but the more I have played, the more I've found myself growing to love this gang of goobers, thanks in no small part to the game's revamped dialogue system.
In the grand tradition of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mass Effect: Andromeda is much harder than I anticipated it would be. While your weapons won't be breaking every five seconds, your shields will if you don't take cover and keep moving around the battlefield to avoid being flanked by the game's aggressive enemy AI. There is a huge emphasis placed on mobility this time around, and the game expects you to constantly readjust your positioning so you can get the drop on the enemy. The cover system takes some getting used to, as well. There is no button to press; when your weapon is drawn and you are pressed against a wall, you will automatically take cover--and believe me when I say you're going to need it.
Whether you're facing waves of enemies trying to trap you in a pincer or you find yourself squaring off with a screen-filling boss monster, Andromeda wants you to stay on the move in battle, both horizontally and verticality. You are now equipped with jump-jets and a combat dodge ability to ensure you'll survive the onslaught of plasma projectiles. You'll need every skill in your arsenal to survive, too, and BioWare has made it easy to adjust your gameplay style on the fly with a variety of combat profiles. At any time, the player can open up a menu, swap their combat profile (e.g. from the weapon-focused Soldier to the biotic power-wielding Adept to the tech-manipulating Engineer, for example) on the fly, and change their abilities to best suit their situation. Since I'm not locked into a specific character class, I've found myself experimenting with a greater variety of skills and abilities, trying to find unique and devastating combos to unleash on my unwitting opponents. Sadly, the ability to issue specific ability commands to your teammates is now gone, replaced by a simpler system of issuing basic orders to move, attack, or defend. It's a small detail, but given the emphasis the game places on setting up and detonating ability-based combos, it would have been nice to have an increased level of control over my squadmates.
Players with a knack for communication can overcome those hurdles by setting up killer combos in the game's robust multiplayer mode. With Andromeda, BioWare took an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to its multiplayer, offering the same addictive co-op survival mode it introduced in Mass Effect 3. With a variety of mission types and maps, players can compete in teams of four to earn credits and experience points to upgrade their loadouts and unlockable new playable character classes. Unlike Mass Effect 3 though, players don't need to play Andromeda's multiplayer to advance its single-player campaign. You can earn credits, consumables, and other items for your single-player campaign, though, so it won't be totally in a vacuum.
In its current iteration, Mass Effect: Andromeda is an incredibly addictive, compelling action RPG. It is also deeply flawed in a way that goes beyond the sometimes wonky character animations and technical glitches that worm their way into expansive, open-world AAA titles nowadays. Much hay has been made about Andromeda's character animations and odd lighting, and rightly so. While there is a lot to love about Andromeda, these seemingly small details wind up breaking the immersion and distracting from the game's storytelling potential.
From wooden character models to dead android eyes, the animations in Andromeda feel as though they were an afterthought. Some characters look like they have space rickets when the walk, others seem as though they're experiencing constant tremors, and some suddenly appear in front of me thanks to shoddy draw distance issues on the PS4 version. In one horrifying case, the game glitched and created two Nakmor Dracks standing on top of one another in the kitchen of my spaceship. Fingers crossed that BioWare can identify and issue a patch that will smooth out some of these issues post-release.
In spite of all my complaints, Mass Effect: Andromeda has consumed my every waking thought since I first booted it up. BioWare's signature blend of deep character customization, thoughtful writing, and polished action RPG mechanics are all present in Andromeda, and I can easily see myself playing the campaign for well over a hundred hours. After five long years, it feels incredibly satisfying to be playing a new story set in the Mass Effect universe. While outdoing its predecessors may seem like a Sisyphean task, Andromeda offers lots to love and a seemingly endless amount of stuff to do. I look forward to discovering its myriad secrets and seeing where this twisting, turning story takes me. If you're able to look past its blemishes and performance issues, Andromeda is well worth your time. If not, then now seems like an awfully good time to replay the original trilogy.
Rating: 3 out of 5 burritos
Mass Effect: Andromeda is available on March 21, 2017 for PS4, Xbox One, and Windows PC.
Editor's note: This review was written using a PS4 copy of Mass Effect: Andromeda provided by Electronic Arts and BioWare.
How every biotic power works, according to science: