Early Impressions – Mass Effect: Andromeda

So Mass Effect: Andromeda has some problems.

I’m far from the first to say this. The internet is abuzz with fans and critics picking apart every last bit of stilted dialogue and shoddy animation. Andromeda has become the latest high profile release that’s hip to rag on.

I initially planned to wait out the launch window storm of early impressions and play a few months later, after the inevitable string of bug fixes and balance patches. But despite all the negativity, the reception around Andromeda hasn’t been entirely unanimous. It’s one of those special releases where fans and newcomers alike have an experience anywhere from great to terrible. It’s a game that piques the interest of curious players like me, and I had to know how I would respond.

At around 20 hours in, I still have mixed feelings overall. The combat dynamic flows successfully between combo primers, detonators, and cover-based shooting, differentiating the ability based gameplay from more generic third person shooters. And the art design of the different planets mesh well with the overall vibe of the universe. It’s just a shame that the level design of those worlds and most combat encounters oftentimes hampers the fluidity of both combat and exploration. And it doesn’t help that the main story and side mission narratives are clunkers. Still, while I don’t think there are many more surprises left for me in the later parts, I’m driven to want to see the game through to the end.

Some quick personal background: I’m a fan of the series, especially ME2, which I played through some 4 or 5 times. The third game didn’t click with me as much; while it was nice to join Shepard on his or her space-opera-like final hurrah, the all-too-convenient storytelling was enough to simmer my adoration of the lore. I was, however, happily surprised by the multiplayer. I love the designs of the alien species, and the co-op wave based missions provided an outlet to role play as the different creatures that the single player did not.

I see the same trends from ME2 to ME3 as I see from ME3 to Andromeda. In an effort to create a grander experience, the separate elements of the game drift further apart. While the ‘fun’ factor of the combat and sheer number of quests and locations increases, the universe starts to feel less connected, and the seams tying it all together show even more. Those bad facial animations are much more noticeable when you run across yet another NPC who has four or five dialogue options to justify the fetch quest they are about to send you on. And the awe from the beautifully rendered planets dissipates quickly after multiple failed attempts to jump across a chasm or some clumsy animations of a character attempting to climb around on a cluster of rocks.

The addition of the dash and jump to movement can almost be exciting. The momentum is snappy and bouncy, and you get a sense of gravity as the character hangs at the apex of a jump. But the camera stutters just enough during dashes, as if it is struggling to keep up. During combat, the sudden movement becomes disorienting, and I often find myself overshooting or undershooting the next bit of cover I’m trying to get to. And while exploring, I can’t consistently get my avatar to clamber up a structure. These issues create a divide between the geometry of a level and my ability to navigate it, leaving the abilities seeming not finely tuned.

I could overlook many of these quirks if the narrative was engaging, but so far, the game has been light on the main story and heavy on the proper nouns and lore. The story is basically this: your father was the Pathfinder (read: space superhero), who had the task of locating planets that are safe to inhabit for what remains of humanity. He sacrificed himself and passed his abilities onto you in the all-too-brief opening sequence. Now, your job is to locate ancient alien technologies on different planets that can make the atmosphere stable to live on. But an evil alien race is trying to use that technology as well, probably to some nefarious ends.

Compared to the original games, Shepard’s tale was focused. As the first human Spectre agent, my moral decisions felt like they reflected the nature of the human race and impacted my relationship with the those around me. In Andromeda, the Pathfinder is an established role that the characters I encounter know more about than I do. And while the game tries to insist that as Pathfinder, I will be making big decisions, they so far haven’t felt like much more than different branches of some unlocks.

The side missions are lacking in depth, as well; there has only been one mission so far – where a rouge hacker group tries to disable the robot AI in the main character’s brain – with any semblance of an interesting story to tell. Most other quests amount to an NPC detailing their history and giving you a point on your map to go and scan for resources. And there is an overabundance of these types of quests to do.

While I’m not passionately invested in the trials that await me and my crew, the gameplay loop does come together efficiently every so often. And when it does, that Mass Effect magic ignites inside me again. Suddenly, I’m back on my ship, chatting with my crew, checking email, romancing that special alien in my life. And I get invested again, and I worry about which characters I’ll bring along to the next adventure. We land, and I slowly pan the camera across the unexplored terrain. And then I fall between some rocks in the geometry and get stuck in some accidental crevasse and have to reload an old save. That magic is still in there; it’s just buried further down than before.

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