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Mass Effect: Andromeda is a thrilling sci-fi drama stuck to a boring game

All I wanted was some popcorn.

Gil, a key member of the small but tight-knit crew aboard my starship, was worried about morale, and thought a movie night could lift spirits. I agreed, and set out to download a library of movies from a nearby space station. But that was far from the end of it. What started out as a tiny side mission ballooned into a seemingly never-ending quest to please everyone on the ship. I had to fly to distant planets and far-flung cities to gather specific snacks, drinks, and other creature comforts. The tedious process took hours to complete, sandwiched in between other more pressing issues, and I almost gave up partway through due to sheer boredom.

But, as with the rest of Mass Effect: Andromeda, I pressed on — not because of the thrill of adventure, but because of the people involved. I wanted my crew to have that special night together. I wanted to share it with them. And the resulting evening full of smiling faces and cheeky jokes almost made it worth it. Almost.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is the fourth game in the long-running role-playing series, but it kicks off a brand-new story set in a separate corner of the universe. Despite the new setting, Andromeda hews very closely to its predecessors, in particular the original Mass Effect. The plot is epic in scale — you’re on a quest to help humanity thrive in a new region — while grounded in drama, letting you form deep personal connections with many of its human and alien characters. The storytelling and role playing are as good as they’ve ever been, and they’re what kept me going for close to 50 hours.

The rest of the experience isn’t nearly as interesting. Andromeda is a massive game with so much to do, remarkably little of which is fun. It’s often a bland and tedious game to play, mercifully punctuated by endearing narrative moments. Your enjoyment will depend on how much you like chatting with blue aliens.

Andromeda takes place 600 years after the original Mass Effect trilogy. The game is centered around the Andromeda Initiative, a project to colonize the Andromeda galaxy and turn it into a new home for humans and the other residents of the Milky Way, like the charming and long-lived Asari or the gruff warrior Krogan. You play as either Sara or Alec Ryder who, like the rest of the initiative, have spent the past six centuries in cryosleep during the long trip to your future home. It’s a clever setup that helps tie the game back to the rest of the series, while also making a fresh start for those who are new to Mass Effect.

Of course, this being a video game, things go wrong almost immediately. While original intel suggested there would be multiple habitable worlds to colonize, what you find instead are a series of dangerous and mostly barren planets. To make matters worse, several arks — huge ships carrying 20,000 or so representatives of each Milky Way species — have gone missing, taking a huge chunk of the potential population with them. Oh, and there’s a new evil threat to deal with: an alien race of violent religious zealots called the Kett.

All of this falls on you, as your character is thrust early on into the role of Pathfinder, a de facto leader and envoy for the initiative. The long list of things you’re responsible for includes making planets suitable for colonization, initiating first contact with new aliens, investigating the remnants of an advanced ancient civilization, and finding a way to keep the Kett from ruining everything.

It’s typical space opera stuff, and ensures there’s always some pressing issue in need of your attention. The original Mass Effect trilogy was often compared to Star Wars for its epic scale, but for me Andromeda has much more of a Star Trek vibe. As soon as I got my ship — a sleek and gorgeous craft called the Tempest — and a small crew, I began to feel like a Starfleet captain. I was like Janeway navigating the perilous unknown with trusted friends by my side. I was forced to deal with issues both major and minor, facing challenging decisions that would alter the fate of thousands, while negotiating personal squabbles among my team.

As with all BioWare games — in addition to Mass Effect, the developer is also behind role-playing series like Dragon Age and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic — the key to this character development is dialogue. A good percentage of Andromeda is spent chatting with politicians, subordinates, hostile aliens, friends, criminals, and more. Conversation feels more natural, with a range of responses that go beyond the good / bad paradigm of previous games. You can choose to say things based on emotion or logic, to act like a jerk or a compassionate friend. The result is a system where I almost always found a choice that suited what I really wanted to say, or at least a close approximation.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

The dialogue is important, not just because there’s a lot of it but because it ties into the most satisfying part of Andromeda: the relationships. This is especially true of the Tempest’s crew, who you’ll be spending a lot of time with over the course of the game. Each member of the team feels like a real person (or alien) with their own history and personal quirks. And the relationships are forged in large part by what you say; a character may confide in you or become distant or maybe even fall in love based on the way you communicate. Relationships build in a steady, natural fashion. After a few conversations you can flirt with someone, but the resulting dialogue is delightfully awkward. It takes time before something deeper comes from chitchat. It wasn’t until 30 hours into the game that my hero got their first kiss.

The story also benefits from novel supplemental things to do. It may sound crazy, but I absolutely loved returning to my ship after a long mission to… check my email. Often I’d receive a message from someone I helped, or a just a joke sent by a friend. In an attempt to cheer me up, the grizzled Krogan Drack once sent me 37 different pictures of shotguns. The background dialogue and texts do a great job of further fleshing out these characters, and their relationships with each other. As I’d walk around the ship I’d hear the doctor chastising someone for missing a physical, or a veteran mercenary imparting words of wisdom.

Whether or not engaging characters is enough to keep you invested in the game depends on your tolerance for tedium. Because for all of its storytelling and role-playing prowess, Andromeda is remarkably poor as a video game. The biggest offender is the quests. While they can be narratively interesting, the missions are almost universally boring. Many are simple fetch quests, tasking you with going from one area to another to collect an item or push a button. Often when you get where you’ve been directed, you’ll find you have to then go somewhere else, and so on, ad nauseam.

Missions are structured to be both repetitive and predictable, and they feel especially dated if you’ve played other modern large-scale role-playing games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or Horizon Zero Dawn. If the missions aren’t fetch quests, they’re battles, turning Andromeda from a role-playing experience into a drab, below-average shooter. The combat does get slightly more interesting as you unlock new abilities — I especially liked the autonomous drone that would help in battle — but it never manages to be surprising or all that thrilling. You also always know when a firefight is about to happen, because the Andromeda galaxy is full of rooms designed with cover-based shootouts in mind.

This repetition extends to everything from the dungeons to the puzzles. The alien vaults on each planet, which serve as the game’s dungeons, are nearly identical in terms of both layout and presentation. You’ll be solving the same kind of puzzles throughout the game, all of which are very simple, and fighting enemies that act the same whether they’re Kett soldiers or sentient robots. Over the course of the game, I battled the exact same boss at least a half dozen times. Repetition isn’t inherently a bad thing; games like Destiny and Overwatch work because they’re built upon a rock-solid shooting foundation that’s fun, moment-to-moment. It’s an experience you want to repeat. Andromeda, on the other hand, is a bland cover-based shooter. Its combat is not nearly strong enough to carry the experience.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

The underwhelming gameplay is confounded by some baffling design choices. Andromeda’s menus are an absolute mess, burying important aspects like your squad’s skill tree or the option to craft new gear. Many of its features are largely unexplained, forcing you to hunt — or, in my case, stumble upon — them yourself. At times, the game feels downright antagonistic. Multiple puzzles will punish you for getting them wrong, sending a new wave of enemies after you should you make an error.

Then there are the plentiful technical issues. Most are purely cosmetic: animations or sound effects that are strange but don’t hinder the gameplay, per se. One time I respawned in a cramped dungeon inside of my giant car that was supposed to be waiting outside; it was funny but not game breaking. But other problems are more bothersome. I was forced to reload an old save multiple times after the game froze or dropped my character into a seemingly never-ending abyss. Once I spent 10 minutes talking to a crewmate only to find myself completely stuck behind a potted plant when the chat was done. I had to reload and run through the entire conversation again.

For many players, these myriad issues may understandably be a deal-breaker. Mass Effect: Andromeda is largely not a fun game to play. The missions are boring, the action repetitive. But for a certain kind of person — and I count myself among them, for better and for worse — the story is just enough to merit the investment. Completing a boring mission might bring you closer to a character you’re really attached to, or, on a grander scale, you might see the world evolve in fascinating ways. I loved watching the various colonies grow from tiny settlements into thriving communities over the course of the game — even if nudging this progress felt like checking off my chores.

When the epic finale was over, and the credits rolled, I wasn’t thinking about all of the tedious things Andromeda forced me to do. I’d mostly forgotten about the long, aimless drives through the desert and the hundreds of robots I had to shoot. Instead, I remembered the time Peebee, the aloof archaeologist, finally agreed to go on a date with my hero in zero gravity, and the deep religious conversations had with Suvi, the ship’s science officer, over tea. You’ll have to put up with a lot to experience these moments, but they’re sweet and memorable.

But you’re forgiven if you’d rather not travel across the universe to get a few smiles at movie night.

Mass Effect: Andromeda launches March 21st on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.


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