Despite Pre-Release Concerns, ‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ Is Worth Playing

As a longtime fan of Mass Effect, a series of video games set among the stars in the distant, intergalactic future, the weeks leading up to the release of the newest game in the critically acclaimed series were particularly nerve-wracking. Article after article bemoaned the game’s animation, or writing, or any of a number of technical complaints. Driven in part by the piecemeal review embargo placed on the game, players were fed a trickle of information that seemed to indicate the game might be going the way of so many ambitious sequels before it: downhill.

After a good number of hours with the game, my fears of a completely bungled sequel have been, for the most part, assuaged. The first thing the player understands after booting up “Andromeda” is that the game is absolutely giant. You play as Ryder, daughter or son of the Pathfinder aboard one of several Arks sent out from Earth to the Andromeda systems to colonize the galaxy. Within the first ten hours, you have taken on the mantle of Pathfinder and are gallivanting across alien planets in search of viable homes for your people. Not only are the environments large enough in scope and scale to be imposing—more importantly, the game will require a lot of your time.

While the main storyline might take a mere sixteen hours or so on average to complete—not a lot for a full-price, AAA title—early reports from players indicate a fully finished game might require an average of just over 81 hours. That’s a lot of hours, to be sure, but only completionists are likely to spend that kind of time on a single playthrough. The practical longevity of “Andromeda” is somewhat undercut by its own genre. As anyone familiar with the standard role-playing or massively multiplayer online game will know, many of these hours will follow largely the same structure. Despite genuine attempts by the developers to dress up humdrum fetch quests or “kill x many of y creature” tasks, there’s only so much creativity allowed in the limited format.

The developers have gone back, in some ways, to the greater focus on role-playing featured in “Mass Effect,” which was rolled back in favor of more straightforward combat through the second and third games. This means a couple of things, both good and bad. First and foremost, it means you should expect to spend a lot of time in this game: a lot of time thinking about what abilities you want, and a lot of time getting the experience needed to level up and acquire them. In earlier Mass Effect titles, you were pretty much locked into your abilities once you picked them. This didn’t mean much to hardcore players who’d done their research, but it could make the games well-nigh unplayable for the novice just picking abilities that sounded cool without considering effective combinations. It also meant that you couldn’t reinvent your character: if you wanted to shift from a focus on combat to a focus on team support, your only real option was to start a new game. To its credit, each level you gain in “Andromeda” provides enough points that you can try almost all of the abilities within the first ten hours of the game, and you can refund your ability points to change up your play style much more easily and frequently than in previous games.

But make no mistake: “Andromeda” is nothing like the arcade style of Call of Duty or Halo, where you can just drop into the game for a half hour or so and have a good time. This is a game that’s been designed around the idea that you’ll want to take your time and explore a new universe. If you decide to play this game, be prepared to put in a number of hours.

And you’ll need to, if you’re playing for the story. BioWare prides itself on great stories, and often the most interesting components of their narratives are the characters you meet along the way. “Andromeda” really pushes this emphasis on characters to the extreme, with hundreds more voiced characters than the previous games. Unfortunately, their commitment to story hasn’t made them any better at introductions. Characters will often cross the player’s path at convenient plot points or agree to join your team after almost no persuasion. Once they’re on your ship and you’re getting to know them, the writing ranges from passable to excellent, as is standard for BioWare games.

This isn’t necessarily a departure from form—many of the most beloved characters of the original series were introduced in a similarly awkward fashion, and it took players time to come around to and eventually cherish them. A revamped conversation system that does away with the binary good-or-evil conversation options of the previous games makes these interactions much more interesting and responsive than before, although it doesn’t allow for the same level of ‘badass pragmatic asshole’ dialogue you could squeeze out of an ‘evil’ playthrough in the first three games.

The game as a whole is much the same as its predecessors in thematic ways—interesting characters, an emphasis on player choice, and a solid combat system—while adding a great number of technical improvements. It’s graphically on an entirely different playing field than the first games. (Animations, however, are still a bit wooden.) The addition of the jetpack and dodge features make combat more fluid and movement more fun, and the Nomad is surprisingly fun to drive around on a variety of planets.

These are welcome changes which enhance the feeling of exploration that the original games attempted to create, changes which are helped along by the shakeup of your character’s position and mission. In the first three games, you were a highly trained special operations soldier tasked with protecting the Milky Way from a race of super-powerful space squid-robots bent on destroying all sentient life, so it didn’t make a ton of sense that you had time to help find lost jewelry or help someone run an errand. In “Andromeda,” however, your mission is to explore, and there’s no existential danger that would reasonably require a short timeframe. You are (very occasionally) reminded that there are still people in cryogenic pods who need safe planets to live on, but the game doesn’t go out of its way to do so. For the most part, the story leaves you free to do side quests or main story missions alike at your own pace and in whatever combination you wish.

Ultimately, “Andromeda” is a great game that improves in almost every way on its predecessors. Is it perfect? Absolutely not, and no game ever is. “Andromeda” is a bit rough around the edges in some respects, but let’s remember that many of these same issues were present in the original “Mass Effect,” which grew into a monstrously successful trilogy. This game provides a solid foundation for future games to build on, while being a great game in its own right.

—Staff writer Noah F. Houghton can be reached at noah.houghton@thecrimson.com.

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