Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

I remember the first time I played MASS EFFECT. I remember the little hairs standing up on the back of my neck when that beautiful, haunting score came drifting through my speakers. I remember the surge of exhilaration I felt as I traveled to strange, new worlds across the Milky Way. I remember the chills that crept along my spine with every twist and turn of this enthralling tale. I remember being completely and utterly engrossed.

These are feelings that Bioware hoped to reignite with their latest installment of the franchise, MASS EFFECT: ANDROMEDA. Sadly, they didn’t quite succeed. While there is a great deal of fun to be had in MEA, the game lacks that certain magic which made the original title so special. What do I mean by this? Well, for a better understanding, we’ll need to take a closer look at this Sci-Fi adventure, examining everything that the game gets right, as well all the areas in which it falls short.

Glitches, Awkward Animations, and Funny Faces

Before we delve any deeper, we must address the empty-eyed elephant in the room. MASS EFFECT: ANDROMEDA has received a tremendous amount of ridicule for its numerous technical issues, and this criticism is not without merit. During my play through, I came across several glitches: texture pop-ins, imperfect lip-syncing, constant frame rate drops, enemies who float in mid-air, and countless twitchy character animations (once, my protagonist attempted to crack his neck and ended up twisting his head around like an owl).

Then, of course, there are the facial animations. From time to time, the player will strike up conversations with NPCs whose facial expressions come off as emotionless and robotic. While this is an annoying issue, it has been blown way out of proportion. This problem only occurs once in a while, with Director Addison (the “my face is tired” lady) being the worst perpetrator. In every conversation – regardless of tone or topic – her expression remains the same: her mouth is fixed in a stiff frown, and her wide, vapid eyes dart around the room frantically.

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Moments like these are bizarre and often humorous, but they aren’t any worse than the slew of stilted conversations that litter Bethesda games. Don’t get me wrong; there is no excuse for top-tier developers releasing sloppy games. Even though BioWare has released a patch to fix many of these problems, it doesn’t excuse the fact that these bugs were able to slip through QA testing. A game should be completed before it hits shelves. However, if you’re willing to overlook the same issues in FALLOUT and ELDER SCROLLS, then you must be willing to forgive MEA.

Glitches and bugs abound in the Andromeda Galaxy, but this collection of technical mishaps causes little more than some minor irritation. Even before the patch was released, not a single problem I encountered rendered MEA unplayable. MASS EFFECT: ANDROMEDA may be an unfinished game, but it’s far from broken. In fact, there are many areas in which this game succeeds.

Expanding Horizons

The primary goal in ANDROMEDA is to terraform dangerous planets and establish outposts for your fellow pioneers. MEA offers six main worlds, each represented by a large chunk of terrain which you are free to explore and colonize. Each location offers dozens of NPCs with whom you can converse, a slew of side quests for you to tackle or ignore entirely, and unique environmental hazards that will kill you if you’re not careful.

Come in peace, leave in pieces

The sense of discovery is one of the reasons I fell in love with the original MASS EFFECT, and I’m glad to see open exploration return to the franchise. Not since ME1 have players been given the option to explore alien worlds freely. Back then they were forced to do so behind the wheel of the dreaded Mako: An “all-terrain” tank that handled like a clumsy toddler on an oil-slicked slip-n-slide made of discarded banana peels. ANDROMEDA ditches this six-wheeled nightmare for the Nomad. This new and improved model operates like an actual vehicle, which makes traversing these worlds a fun and relatively smooth task.

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However, the world of MEA isn’t without its flaws. First off, this map does not compare to the likes of GTA 5 or THE WITCHER 3. These games threw players into wide expanses, filled to the brim with compelling characters, interesting side quests and fascinating mysteries just waiting to be unraveled. Sadly, I can’t say the same for ANDROMEDA. Despite its unique environments and gorgeous vistas, there’s no compelling reason to stray from the beaten path.

Aside from the three basic enemy types (outlaws, aliens, and robots), only five forms of wildlife populate these planets: acid-spitting bugs, rabid lizard dogs, raptor-like creatures, miniature rankors, and medium sized rankors (I guess evolution is a rather derivative system). To make matters worse, MEA’s worlds are polluted with some truly boring side quests. With only a handful of exceptions, the majority of non-story missions consist of mind-numbing fetch-quests, frustrating runarounds, and worst of all, collectathons.

So much to do, such little interest

Let me give you an example. One of the most interesting subplots in the entire game involves uncovering your deceased father’s encrypted memories. This story line offers the most significant character development in the game, allowing you to explore the protagonist’s estranged relationship with their emotionally distant father, and it even offers some fascinating surprises that add layers to the overall narrative.

Sounds interesting, right? Well too bad, because it can only be experienced if the player is willing to collect a bunch of Memory Triggers: glowing orbs that somehow unlock your dad’s memories but are scattered across planets that he never even visited. And how does MEA explain these magic memory balls? No, I’m asking. I honestly do not know because it’s never explained in the game.

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To be fair, there are a few side quests that are both fun and compelling, but too many of MEA’s optional missions feel like chores for only the most hardcore completionists to see through.  Even objectives that start out interesting have a tendency to devolve into tedious, repetitive slogs. Take terraforming for example. This quest plays out the same way on every single planet: drive to a monolith, shoot robots, look for graffiti, finish Sudoku puzzle, rinse and repeat. Thankfully, the fantastic combat system helps spice up some of these redundant tasks.

A Giant Leap for Combat Mechanics

With every installment in the franchise, Bioware has attempted to build upon MASS EFFECT’s combat mechanics, and ANDROMEDA is no exception. In this area, the game truly shines, thanks in large part to the introduction of the jump pack. Now you can zip, leap, and boost around the battlefield. This welcome addition makes every firefight feel fast-paced and incredibly fun. But this newfound mobility isn’t the only major change that ANDROMEDA brings to the MASS EFFECT formula.

Perhaps the biggest alteration is the elimination of the class system. In the original games, you would pick from a character class that specialized in combat, tech, or biotics (aka space magic). In ANDROMEDA, players have access to all skill categories, with the freedom to combine abilities from each class. The catch is that you can only have three abilities in your load out at one time. This is where profiles come in.

Profiles are similar to classes, except that they can be changed at will (even in the midst of a firefight). Each profile offers bonuses to combat or powers. You can save up to four profiles in your “favorites” list, and each of them can be assigned their own unique loadout. This means you can have up to 12 different powers to choose from in any given fight, allowing you to change tactics whenever the need arises.

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For example, you could have an offensive profile, using an omni grenade to blast apart a group of enemies, charge to get up close and personal, and flame thrower to set those pesky stragglers ablaze. When you start taking damage, you can change to a defensive profile, using a tactical cloak to hide from sight while your shields recharge, an assault turret to watch your back, and backlash to soak up enemy fire.

The Back Lash ability: Good for blocking bullets, lasers, and laser bullets.

With countless possibilities, this new system gives players the freedom to approach each combat scenario in a number of different ways. Personally, I had a blast experimenting with profiles and load outs. I can’t describe how rewarding it feels once you find the combination that perfectly suits your play style and begin dominating the battlefield like an all-powerful God. But, no matter how fun the combat is (and it is a ton of fun), it doesn’t make up for the game’s most glaring flaw: the story.

Meh Effect

Aside from the whole “Star Child” debacle, the original ME trilogy delivered a phenomenal story. It created a rich, detailed world populated with compelling characters, and it was all wrapped up in one of the greatest space operas ever told. I wanted to uncover Saren’s treacherous plot. I was determined to stop Collector abductions. I needed to turn every single Reaper into a pile of radioactive dust. I was compelled to see how this epic tale unfolded. However, there was nothing about ANDROMEDA’s story that drew me in. Almost everything about is just so… cliche.

MEA borrows so much from other Sci-Fi stories but brings nothing new to the table. It even cannibalizes its own franchise, regurgitating concepts that have already been explored in previous titles. Does any of this sound familiar? The plot revolves around mysterious technology left behind by some advanced, ancient race. The main antagonists are a group of aliens who perform genetic experiments on other races to create mindless abominations. Honestly, it feels as though BioWare paraphrased their earlier work just enough to avoid plagiarism. I might be able to forgive this recycling of ideas if the story was compelling. However, that is not the case. The entire narrative is just a collection of bland tropes.

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With millions of light years and a couple of centuries separating it from the original trilogy, BioWare had a chance at a fresh start. They had the opportunity to do something new and exciting, but they wasted it by delivering more of the same. The game takes place in an entirely new galaxy, but most of the conflict revolves around Milky Way Races. For crying out loud, there are only two new species – the Angara and the Kett – and only one of them is interesting. The other is just a bland, mustache-twirly enemy.

Honestly, I don’t know why I expected anything different. With every new installment, the MASS EFFECT franchise has grown more and more streamlined. The developers are trying to make a game that anyone can pick up and play. Their focus has shifted towards combat and multiplayer as other aspects have fallen to the wayside. The RPG elements have been simplified, the dialog choices have been scaled back, and now the story has become a secondary concern.

Imagine science fiction stories on a spectrum. At one end is STAR WARS: fun, action-packed, simple stories with broad appeal. At other end is STAR TREK: thought-provoking concepts that explore heavy themes, a focus on story over action. Now there’s nothing wrong with either approach. I love both of these franchises, but I love them for different reasons. MASS EFFECT started closer to STAR TREK, but little by little it’s crept down towards the STAR WARS side. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with what MASS EFFECT has become. It just isn’t the same game I fell in love with.

What does the future hold for MASS EFFECT? I’m not sure. I can’t imagine the series returning entirely to its roots, but there’s still hope for this once fantastic franchise. Who knows? The next installment could be great. It wouldn’t be the first time BioWare recovered from a terrible misstep. Just compare the incredibly disappointing  DRAGON AGE 2 with its vastly superior follow-up, INQUISITION. Maybe BioWare’s golden age is long gone, or maybe this is just a bump in the road. Personally, I hope that someday they’ll be able to recapture the magic of the original MASS EFFECT.

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