In fiction, mankind has a propensity for packing it up and heading to space when things go sour on Earth — but what happens when our galaxy isn’t the brave new frontier we had hoped it would be? The original Mass Effect trilogy depicted a vibrant and detailed vision of the Milky Way; it was a place where humans and aliens coexisted in something a few steps shy of harmony, their destinies forcibly entwined by the common threat of a machine race hell-bent on eradicating all life in the galaxy. One group of would-be pioneers, meanwhile, envisioned a new life somewhere else in the distant cosmos, and it is there that the story of the Andromeda Initiative begins. It’s a story that speaks to the resilient spirit of humanity, but also one that runs uncannily parallel to the Mass Effects of days past, proving that people are the same pretty much everywhere — in the hands of certain writers, at the very least.
It feels joyless, even cruel, to dismiss Mass Effect: Andromeda as creatively bankrupt, and yet it is undeniably crafted from the same mold as its predecessors. To be plain, the Heleus Cluster of Andromeda, the people who inhabit it, and the events that transpire there differ little from their Milky Way analogues on a fundamental level. The central conflict in Andromeda revolves around a hostile alien race who seeks to control mysterious ancient technology, which impedes the central character (a “Pathfinder”) on his or her quest to find a habitable new world for humanity. The details are different, but Andromeda treads the same narrative ground, right down to individual characters that eerily resemble their Mass Effect trilogy counterparts: hardened soldier Cora is a less snooty Miranda, Drack is a more affable Wrex, Vetra is…well, I’d call her a female Garrus, but she’s way cooler than that. Vetra can hang.
So while the moment-to-moment story is different, it’s hard to shake the feeling that everything in Mass Effect: Andromeda has been done before. But for all its familiarity, the game still has fantastic character moments. Checking in at the Pathfinder’s email terminal, for instance, reveals some legitimately hilarious and heartfelt messages from the colonization team. Drack is apparently the alien equivalent of a Facebook uncle who won’t stop posting low-resolution photos of his gun collection.
Each member of the crew has a complete story arc to untangle, and the player can develop their Pathfinder’s personality through the tone they select at dialogue prompts. Romance, a Mass Effect staple, makes a return, and BioWare should be commended for their commitment to LGBT inclusivity. As a gay man, it means a lot for me to see myself reflected in the media I consume, and Andromeda has a gay character who actually addresses the elephant in the room: What place do people like us have on a one-way mission to another galaxy when our explicit objective is to survive and procreate? It’s refreshing to see more mainstream developers unafraid of tackling these sorts of complex themes, even if not every line of dialogue is superbly written. The game ends with something of a whimper, too, although it does give sufficient closure to the tale at hand while leaving the door open for more stories in this universe.
Another area where Andromeda excels is in the visual design of its environments. In a game so focused on exploration, it is imperative that there be areas worth exploring, and Andromeda mostly succeeds in this regard. The planets of the Heleus Cluster are saturated in vibrant color, dotted with flora and fauna that sing with rich purples, greens, and blues. The lighting in particular is absolutely stunning, especially as the sun descends over some alien mountain ridge, or filters through the trees of a bizarre jungle. Character models, on the other hand, somehow ended up at the opposite end of the spectrum; they have awkward facial and limb animations, and frequently glitch as a result of slow-loading objects and textures. Some are just dreadfully ugly. (Sorry, Suvi.) I’m sure you’ve seen the GIFs. It stands to reason that these issues can be ironed out with updates down the line, and I do genuinely feel for the development team, as I imagine it hurts to see the game getting so much flack right at release. It’s a shame, because they’ve proven they can do better.
Andromeda’s most significant overhauls are in combat and resource management. The player is no longer confined to a single “class” when customizing their character; instead, they can freely allocate points into three skill groups (combat, tech, and biotics) to build a totally unique Pathfinder. It’s possible to set up to four loadouts of three abilities each, as well as swap between stances that confer passive bonuses, like making tech constructs more durable or granting the ability to see through walls when using a weapon scope. This makes for a more flexible combat system, especially combined with a new jump jet that adds a good sense of verticality to skirmishes. Enemy variety is lacking, particularly in the underwhelming final sequence of the game, but this is the pinnacle of Mass Effect combat.
Exploring the Heleus Cluster and completing side quests awards the player a currency called “Andromeda Viability Points.” These AVP can be used to wake settlers up from cryostasis and add their expertise to the colonization effort. In practical terms, each group of settlers unlocks a special bonus; scientists might provide regular supply drops of materials used to craft new weapons, while traders can improve the player’s maximum carrying capacity for items. There are special perks for maxing the viability of specific planets (i.e. completing every quest there), which further incentivizes adopting a completionist mindset. It’s unfortunate that so many quests involve using the lousy new scanning tool to hunt the environment for objects, because nothing breaks immersion quite like slowing to a crawl and pixel-hunting for some engineer’s missing omni-tool. Worse are glyph puzzles that require the player to track underground power conduits and then play the equivalent of alien sudoku. It’s fine the first time. It’s terrible the next ten times. The Andromeda experience is defined by these mixed occurrences.
Mass Effect: Andromeda presents plenty of great ideas, but these tend to be either aped too closely from its predecessors or buried under issues that are surmountable, yet frustrating all the same. It excels most keenly at crafting environments that drip with atmosphere, suffused with rich color and ambient, spacey sound. Though this new setting lacks the depth and texture of BioWare’s Milky Way, would-be explorers and romantics will find their odyssey to Andromeda sufficiently enjoyable.