Tl;dr: 5 out of 10. Mediocre game with some awful animations, repetitious elements, and a lack of “grandness” to the game. Hardcore fans of the series will be the most disappointed, while newer players might be ok with some of the lack of continuity with the main “Shepard” plot.
Long Review, Spoilers, obviously:
The elephant in the room is the departed Bioware Montreal’s staff. Amongst those, company’s Manveer Heir. Frankly, this is a guy who shouldn’t be allowed to work at Wal-mart, but was given work at Bioware. After being employed there, he then went on to trash the company, as well as trashing other company’s like the team of Deus Ex.
In addition, the new staff that they picked were almost all underwhelmingly unqualified. Their animators had no animator experience, their developers hadn’t coded in years, and they admitted this stuff proudly. The common denominator in all this? All of these under-qualified staff members were either women or minorities.
Now, it could be the case that Bioware simply couldn’t find the talent they needed after their main staff left, but it does make people very suspicious that all of these woefully underqualified staff members look like quota hires. Some of this is borne out in the tale of amazing mismanagement, at least a dozen of the senior people on the project left to work at other studios, leaving Bioware Montreal scrambling to fill in those roles.
They had five years to make the game, but it was apparently plagued by internal problems, with the majority of the game being finalized in the last 18 months. Reading the autopsy of the game, it looks a lot like the problems that plagued Duke Nukem for fourteen years before it was finally, (and unfortunately), released.
Compounding that problem is that Bioware has regularly taken to lecturing its own fans whenever they complain about shortcomings. Calling the people who buy your content for 60 dollars “entitled” when they complain about the horrible ending in Mass Effect 3, that’s not a good tactic.
They’ve also applied what I call the “Ghostbusters Reboot” strategy for dealing with criticism, mainly ignore all criticism and paint all critics as misogynistic and bigoted, and to use game media outlets to repeat this narrative. A winning strategy this is not, as seen by both the failure of the Ghostbusters reboot and the closing of Bioware Montreal.
A comparison can be made to CD Projekt Red and the Witcher. Roach is a notoriously glitchy horse, and CD Projekt Red acknowledged it by fixing the bugs and even acknowledging it in their artwork.
Thus Bioware suffered on multiple fronts. From a marketing standpoint, constantly haranguing your fan base is a recipe for disaster. Because once you do that, each minor problem in a videogame or movie becomes massively amplified, as fans that you’ve insulted are going to look for some payback.
Reading the autopsy, the idea that Bioware specifically chose a Social Justice Warrior platform to make women look ugly and avoid the male gaze is not likely. Mainly I say that because the female bodies are still modelesque, Mass Effect Andromeda suffers from “Butterface” syndrome all over the place.
The decision to hire underqualified personnel seems to be less driven by an agenda than by the fact that the company was internally imploding and all of the best and brightest realized it early on, and moved onto greener pastures as soon as they possibly could. Meanwhile, the less talented have a harder time finding new employment, a typical “Brain Drain” situation, and Bioware had to compensate by hiring people who weren’t qualified for the roles they were undertaking.
The result? A messy, underwhelming, glitchy, and uneven experience.
Moving aside, here’s the problems:
1.) The plot. The plot is that at the end of Mass Effect 1, Shepard finds out that an alien civilization called the Reapers is planning on invading the entire galaxy and wiping them out. The Geth, a synthetic AI race, are attempting to bring the Reapers into this galaxy, believing the Reapers to be an advanced form of AI. Shepard explains that the Reapers are real and that the Geth were acting on this information, but the ruling council doesn’t believe him.
Shepard gets sent on a secret mission to find out where the Geth are staging this attack from, but gets killed during the mission by an advanced scouting part of Reapers. His body is reanimated by the Cerberus and the Elusive Man, and he’s given advanced technology to repeat his original mission and hunt down the Reapers.
This entire thing was kept hush-hush, and it’s only at the end of Mass Effect 2 that other civilizations learn that the Reapers are real and start conquering alien and human planets, with Mass Effect 3 picking up there.
But in the plotline for Andromeda, the council suddenly believes Shepard and convince numerous corporations to ship people off to Andromeda, which is 600 years of travel away to potentially hospitable planets. This is distinct from the original trilogy, where the Council, no matter what happens, believe only a few rogue AIs are responsible for the destruction of the Citadel.
None of this really makes any sense. If you believe in the Reapers, then you know that they wipe out all civilizations. So trying to escape to a more distant galaxy doesn’t do any good. Then the costs of sending out this massive number of people, ships, etc. for a situation only a handful of people know about is dubious. Also, since the Reaper invasion was listed by Sovereign when he talked to Shepard as “imminent”, and we know the Reapers arrive in 3 years time from the first game, the new colonists would only be a few years away from the Reapers when they start purging the galaxy.
When these new colonists arrive in 600 years, they are surprised that the galaxies are both already inhabited, (which is weird because aliens are all over the place), and that the planets don’t look like what they were originally seen as, which isn’t surprising given that what we view through a telescope has no relation to what might actually be out there, even accounting for the six hundred year time period gap.
Even according to the autopsy, this aspect of the game was worked out early on. And it sucks. When you start off by not understanding the cannon of the previous entries in a series, it’s a bad sign for things to come.
2.) Character Design. The character designs are awful, particularly the women. Oh god, the women in this game are the ugliest creatures ever seen. They all look like someone took Australopithecus and turned them into women. Meanwhile, the men all look like Twinks and male models, even though they still suffer from horrible animation that results in a character saying, “My face is tired.”
Now, this could be a design choice, but you could pick women in the real World who are strong. Let’s say you picked women who were MMA fighters, power lifters, discus throwers, and other women who are generally more badass looking but maybe not conventionally attractive. Instead, they took Jayde Rossi, one of the most gorgeous women alive, and turned her into a Cro-Magnon.
And she has a strangely weak looking body, as does the main male version protagonist. Male Shepard looks like a badass. Just compare:
One of these is the badass savior of the galaxy. The other two are eating ice cream and watching Friends reruns.
I certainly don’t look like a heroic badass to any degree, but when I’m roleplaying a character, I want to feel like that character. Feeling like an unemotional, wimpy fratboy is not the reason I play video games.
3.) Companions and Main Character. Your ship starts off by running into a gigantic dark matter cloud that’s the size of a galaxy, and no one in the ship’s crew noticed it until you ran right through it. Not even the ship’s AI.
This is one of the key differences between Mass Effect Andromeda and the original trilogy. In the beloved trilogy, it was always shown that Shepard commanded an army of fellow badasses worthy of respect. Joker might be crippled, but he is the best pilot in the galaxy. Liara is a top scientist who has studied the Protheans her whole life. Wrex is a krogan leader. Everyone on the crew is the best of the best, and the game series highlights this several times.
In contrast, Mass Effect Andromeda makes all of the other people look useless or pathetic. This is what I mean by the game feels unheroic. When you command the best of the best, that means that you are worthy of their respect. They think of you as the leader, which means you must be someone extra special. By contrast, when you’re leading people who are bumbling idiots around, you don’t feel very heroic, you feel like a kindergarten teacher forced into a field trip.
This is highlighted in the “Loyalty” missions. Almost all of the loyalty missions can be summarized as follows: Your companion has screwed up, you need to fix it. Rinse and repeat. The Ryder’s Block youtube video goes into this in more detail and I won’t repeat it, but it again creates this impression that you’re a glorified janitor rather than a hero.
The first mission, after you crash into a planet, is that your Dad thinks that the big towers in the sky can be used to turn off the planetary alignment fields that are causing things to go weird. He is right, but how does he know this? Doesn’t matter. Your dad uses his armband and this mystically fixes the planet, but not after shattering your own helmet. Your dad gives up his helmet to you to keep you from dying. Instead of switching the helmet back and forth, which is seems pretty clear that you can survive on the planet for at least a while before dying, he just simply gives you the helmet and dies.
So, what is your character’s reaction to your Dad dying? Meh. What a great lead. Your main character’s lack of emotional connection to other characters mirrors what you feel as a player. A void.
This flat, emotionless state pervades the entire game in the animations, the dialogue, and the voice acting. If the lifeless voice of Peter Dinklage in Destiny upset you, then this game is Destiny voice acting on steroids.
4.) Originality. The complete lack of originality shines throughout the game. The nexus replaces the Citadel. The Tempest replaces the Normandy. Being a pathfinder replaces being a Spectre. The bad guys are discount Protheans. The Mako is called the Nomad. There’s literally not a single original idea in it, and all it does is make you wish you were playing the original games.
5.) Companions and a lack of originality or plot cohension. Each of your side characters is a watered down version of other, better characters that you played in the original trilogy. They are all devoid of personality, exacerbated by the awful dialogue, lack of facial animations, and bad voice acting. I can’t recall any of them and I didn’t care about any of them.
You then meet the “good” aliens, who are a rip off combination of the Turians and the Asari. Despite this being first contact, they speak perfect English and immediately know that you’re a Pathfinder.
6.) Main character and lack of purpose. This creates another problem with the non-heroic nature of your main character. Your Dad was a pathfinder because he earned it. You don’t. You’re just given the title literally because you’re Dad dies, and everyone respects you for it. Shepard actually had to earn it, twice, because he has to get it reinstated after he dies and comes back to life.
7.) Antagonists and lack of purpose. The bad guys have no motivation. In the original, there are two bad guys. The first is Saren, a Turian who fought against humans in the First Contact War and is deeply suspicious of them. He becomes indoctrinated by having first contact with the Reapers. He realizes how much more powerful they are than the other life forms, and thinks that only by allowing them through the Citadel’s portal and aligning with them will he be able to prevent the destruction of all organic life. You don’t agree with what he does, obviously, but you understand why he did it.
The Illusive Man is the opposite, he believes that the Reapers can be destroyed, but only by assuming control over all of their technology and by advancing human technology and civilization by any means necessary, which means experimenting on humans and other life forms. The Reapers manipulate his manic need for control into becoming indoctrinated, believing he can control the Reapers and refusing to see that he himself is the one controlled.
Again, you get the motivations and the reasoning. The motivation of the bad guys in Andromeda? None given. This is also a problem because you are technically the bad guy, an invading alien species looking to colonize planets.
8.) Gameplay: The exploration mechanics don’t add anything new or useful to the game. They’re the typical “Go fetch” quests. You have no input into what Ryder does, the choices don’t matter. If you were angry about the dumbing down of Mass Effect 3s decision trees or angry about Fallout 4 doing that, then prepare for more dumbing down of RPGs.
The jetpacks are cool, but not that useful, since you can only use them once in an all or nothing fashion. The cover system is broken, you have to try humping the wall or rock to get it to go into cover, and you have no idea how to make it work. So you end up randomly jumping around and humping walls and boxes, trying to figure out where the gaps are so that your character can get their shields back.
The improvements of Mass Effect 3 on gameplay are removed, no melee over containers, controlling other characters, none of it. The melee is useless in this game. You can’t control the other characters at all, or customize them in any way, so they usually feel like dead weight. You can tell them to go somewhere, but they just ignore it and do whatever they want anyway.
There are a handful of interesting locations, but the majority are lackluster and boring. Side missions don’t add anything to it.
The soundtrack is balls or doesn’t exist. There are no good or memorable soundtracks, and for the most part, there is no music.
This isn’t an RPG, in the same way that Fallout 4 isn’t an RPG. Fallout 4 at least added other mechanics to make up for the loss of RPG elements like town building, but there’s nothing added at all in this game. It’s a cover-based shooter with exploration elements. The story is awful, the plot is awful, the acting is horrendous, the animations are stilted, it’s a mess.
That said, it isn’t the worst game ever or whatever other hyperbolic terms people use. It has a few gorgeous places and the main mechanic is functional. But it’s incredibly mediocre, and if you’re a hardcore fan of the original trilogy, you’ll be absolutely insulted by this game.
Lessons for Writers:
- Give your protagonist a reason for their powers/responsibilities. Several LitRPG novels have a plotline where the MC is overpowered, and the reasoning behind it is, “Well, they were born.” A protagonist who has a bunch of powers in a game for no obvious reason and having done nothing to earn them is boring.I talked about this in the Final Fantasy review as well, but there at least, the story revolved around the idea that great power requires great sacrifice, and the most powerful characters in the game, the Dad, the love interest, the villain, the protagonist, all die because of their power. Here, the MC is given responsibilities because his Dad was special. It’s not a compelling protagonist.
- Give readers a reason to care. The way a character is known is through their moral compass. What will they do and for what reasons will they do it? This is why I don’t like LitRPGs where the plot can be summarized as “Level up and get more powerful.” That’s fine as a side goal, but that really does nothing for us as readers to know that character.
- Put characters in danger. Andromeda undercuts all tension by letting you know early on that no character is ever in any danger, regardless of what you do or do not do. This gives no weight to any choices, since it will all work out in the end.
- Inappropriate humor and emotions. I see many novice authors use humor at a time where a character in that situation would not find the situation humorous. This undercuts the tension of the scene.
- Pointless side quests. Some novels overuse quests as a way of giving the characters something to do rather than advancing the plot, a syndrome I call “Does Anyone Remember What I’m Doing?“