I've been writing about Mass Effect: Andromeda for quite some time, chronicling its progress throughout the years. So it's a very strange and almost disappointing feeling playing it today, simply because it feels so...unfinished. This is a game BioWare should've delayed, and here are my first impressions.
Mass Effect: Andromeda should've been delayed. It absolutely feels unfinished. The environments are absolutely incredible and breathtaking in their visual fidelity and sci-fi feel--the Nexus' on-ship habitats are amazing, and deep-space exploration looks great.
But for every step taken forward by the game's graphics, it takes two steps back in terms of UI and basic features. As I predicted way back in my "Why I'm worried about ME: Andromeda" opinion piece, this is a heavily casualized Mass Effect meant to penetrate the mainstream market and be more accessible than the other games.
Here's the weird part: Mass Effect: Andromeda features quite a bit of talking and RPG-style progression. Yes, the progression is less defined and more broadened, but the dialog-heavy experience is still there. So Bioware crafted a game that's both casualized in terms of dialing back many of the features, content, and basic functionality found in the original games, but also kept in the niche-style engagement with dialogs, backstories, side quests, etc.
It makes for a bizarre formula that somewhat betrays the original series' roots while forging tighter action-based interactions for mainstream gamers.
Note: The following impressions are based on a PlayStation 4 version of the game which was provided by EA. I'm playing on a stock 2013 launch PS4.
"A delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever."
― Shigeru Miyamoto
Immersion interruption: Andromeda's terrible faces and beautiful places
Interactions in this game fall flat on their bad faces. I've only ever enjoyed talking to aliens in this game, and my actual player character, Sara Ryder, is quite cringeworthy. She has such a ridiculous devil-may-care attitude
Yes, the facial animations are bad. They're really as bad as we--and countless others--have reported. After a while you kind of learn to roll with it, but it does severely hamper immersion. If I can't look at someone without laughing or being appalled (seriously, this is a triple-A game made in 2017 on one of the most powerful engines in the industry) I can't care about them.
Sadly, I found myself not caring about Sara Ryder simply because of her face. It's such a weird thing to write, but there it is. There's a severe disconnect with the actual human character models, and the animations genuinely are awkward and the faces themselves look unfinished. Her voice doesn't match her face whatsoever, and when her voice takes on certain tones, her face doesn't follow suit.
This completely interrupts the immersion and brings us swirling back into the present. This is the exact opposite effect you want in a game like this.
The eyes are soulless and blank. There's no emotion, and barely any actual facial movement. The NPCs can't cry or show any kind of realistic human expressions, and it makes for a supremely awkward experience.
You'd think a game with such heavy emphasis on dialog and exposition that they'd put a lot of effort into the faces. Mass Effect 1-3 didn't have amazing facial animations, of course, but they were actually better than this because of specific lighting. There was a unique ambiance to the original trilogy that actually made up for the animations, so you weren't seeing everything. Shadows and blurs kind of masked the expressions and animations, giving them a softer appearance.
Mass Effect: Andromeda shines a spotlight on its faces and completely exposes the weirdness therein.
When NPCs blink, they look even more robotic. The eyelashes look painted on, and the faces have a strange dichotomy going on: they look both high resolution and terrible at the same time, especially in light. These faces are just unfinished and should've been repolished with another delay.
Remember that Dragon Age: Inquisition used DICE's Frostbite 3 engine, which is the same engine used by Mass Effect: Andromeda. Even back in 2014 DA:I looked quite good in terms of facial animations. No, they're not as great as Horizon: Zero Dawn, but they're a far cry from the Pingu-style awkwardness that is ME: Andromeda.
The actual environments are incredible. Every planet is striking and realistic, providing an eye-boggling backdrop for your adventures. You generally feel like you're exploring some strange alien world filled with bizarre flora and fauna.
The galaxy map exploration looks amazing as well. Of course mechanically it's not so fun as BioWare brought back the planet scanning stuff. But the actual visuals completely smashes No Man's Sky and it looks and feels real. Celestial bodies swirl in the firmament, stars twinkle, suns revolve and cast their light on brilliant gassy giants and nebula glow beautifully in the void of space.
But the mesmerizing environments and planets actually work against the game, and serve as a massive disconnect that fractures immersion in its own way.
The beautiful environments directly clash with the faces and character models, as if BioWare put most of its emphasis on the backgrounds instead of the actual characters. Everything about the in-game areas is great: lighting, shadows, dynamic weather effects, you name it, it all looks great.
This skewed ratio only serves as a stark reminder that the game should've been delayed for more polish. There's definitely an imbalance going on here, and if I had to put it in a percentage ratio, I'd say faces took about 15% importance where environments are at 85%.
Repeating Dragon Age: Inquisition's mistakes
BioWare says it's learned a lot from Dragon Age: Inquisition, but in reality they've simply repeated the same mistakes. So far the worlds in Mass Effect: Andromeda, while beautiful, feel rather empty. The in-game map screen is peppered with icons and quest markers to explore, with the quests being cataloged in an all-too-familiar linear list that makes tasks feel less like experiences and more like items to cross out on a list.
There's an emphasis on scanning environments to build up research resources (Dragon Age: Inquisition had its own scanning ability to locate nearby mats) and collecting materials on nearby alien flora to buff up weapons and armor (again, just like Dragon Age: Inquisition). I'm constantly trying to scan objects to grind out materials...and honestly it's tedious. I feel like the worlds are just vehicles for materials and quests rather than stages for a grand intergalactic space opera built upon exploration and mystery.
Sometimes I do feel like a space-age Sherlock Holmes thanks to my scanner tool, and I admit it is interesting using it to trace clues and the like. But mostly you're dragging its orange beam of light across every surface in the hope you glean some more resource points to spend on items.
The worlds don't feel interactive outside of specific weather effects, and BioWare falls into the same trap as most devs when making open world games. While ME: Andromeda isn't open-world, it uses the same tired formula as other games in the genre.
Is Mass Effect: Andromeda as bad as Dragon Age: Inquisition in terms of pointless exploration? No. But it's still in the same vein and repeats the same mistakes, but only on a smaller scale.
Now I have been told that the worlds will grow and prosper as you build up bases and make areas more viable for habitation. I haven't gotten that far yet, but based on what I've experienced so far, this might not make much difference.
So let's talk about the UI a bit.
The UI is weird and clunky, and the compass bar is terrible.
I love minimaps in my games, and compass bars just fill me with frustration, especially since I can barely see it in this game. That's right, the compass bar is almost an opaque white and outside of the main orange indicator, I can't see anything. I can't see what direction I'm going in half the time because the cardinal directions are invisible against the bright environments.
This is a problem, and one that BioWare doesn't want to fix.
As for the map...it's pretty much like a mix of Dragon Age: Inquisition's optional quests and whatnot, with a peppering of icons throughout, and Mass Effect's normal style map. It's a weird amalgamation that doesn't work cohesively well with the the compass bar, and I simply wish I could replace it with something useful (like a mini-map).
In-game subtitles are also white (of course) and you can't always see them, making certain interactions even more frustration.
The actual menu UI is minmalist and, well, very linear. I personally find it to be too scarce and it genuinely feels like something you'd see in an alpha build; very bland list-style formats and a card-like scheme for weapon loadouts. It lacks personality, style, or pzazz.
You can't manually save your game during certain parts of the game, including main missions.
You can't skip certain cutscenes either, and I even found that the game refuses to pause itself in certain areas when I return to the PS4's home screen. Every game I've ever played on the console so far always pauses itself when I go to the PS4 home menu--this is how I "pause" games like Bloodborne and Nioh.
Skills and powers
Now let's talk about the skill trees and how BioWare managed to mess up one of the most crucial things in the game.
The most important thing in any game that has a skill tree is showing the benefits of successive skills. Mass Effect: Andromeda simply doesn't give you enough information to make an informed decision on the skill upgrade paths, and this is unacceptable to say the least.
Every skill has its own tree of nodes that provide passive or active benefits and boosts. The passive abilities are cumulative and the boosts will stack upon each other. In some bizarre twist of fate that goes against any RPG game, the game literally doesn't list all the cumulative boosts you've acquired as you further upgrade your abilities.
There's no "current skill power" and "skill power after upgrade" comparison. So if you upgrade a skill with a bunch of nodes, those passive boosts aren't listed in a successive handy catalog--they're just separated despite the fact that the passives are all activated.
Let's say you unlock the Pull ability in the Biotic tree. You spend 1 point to unlock it and get the basic power to use in combat.
Then you're interested in upgrading Pull with another skill point, pushing it up to Pull Rank 2. This improved ranking boosts Pull's recharge speed by 20%.
Let's further say you want to see how this 20% will affect Pull's recharge speed without having to actually spend your points, so you select the upgrade and lock it to preview how the power changes after the upgrade.
But the problem here is the boosts don't factor in with the actual power's new stats.
The game literally doesn't show you how the upgrades change your current skills. If you buy Pull Rank 2, you don't get any information on how the base Pull ability's recharge speed has changed--there's no newer updated recharge speed value listed.
Hell, the default ability starter node doesn't even change! You simply don't know how much your skills have changed with the new boosts applied.
So essentially the game doesn't really let you preview the upgrade boosts in the skill trees, making leveling up needlessly awkward and full of guesswork. You basically have to make the calculations yourself.
The game really does toss you a bunch of skill points to spend on abilities, but you'll soon realize just how casualized and how many pieces are missing from this game when you navigate the trees themselves.
This is absolutely unacceptable and needs to be changed right away.
Combat is actually quite nice in this game, and is generally more fast-paced. The jump-jet is quite fun and adds a new level of verticality to the game; you're free to fly in the air, or jump and dash to evade enemies or obstacles.
But you only get to use three powers at any time--basically two at the beginning--that are discharged by pressing R1 and L1 respectively. This both keeps things balanced but also gets in the way of the fun--luckily you can mix and match weapons, melee strikes, jumps and dashes to kick some serious alien ass.
The power combos are back and they're quite fun. However I do think the actual combos are less dynamic than, say, Dragon Age: Inquisition, but I'm not sure just yet. The game only tells us about "primers" and "detonators," and doesn't discuss explicit effects or debuffs applied by mixing and matching certain skills.
You don't control what weapons your team uses, and they're quite awkward. The AI isn't always so great either and I've died a few times due to simple NPC negligence.
All in all I'm disappointed and impressed with Mass Effect: Andromeda. It has lots (and I mean lots) of little problems that add up fast, but it also has its redeeming factors.
If you squint, it looks and feels like Mass Effect, but it does feel quite off. It generally feels unfinished and three quarters of the way done, as if BioWare had to pull its punches and ship something early.
Weird faces cont. and terrible customization options
You can't customize Sara or Scott Ryder's preset face.
Any custom characters you create aren't stored on your actual console. Instead, EA has you upload them to their network. The problem here is that the import/export feature just doesn't work--I've tried it three times and it never once worked, and I had all three custom characters marked as "import character".
So let's say you spend about 20 minutes customizing your character's face because you find Sara Ryder quite terrifying. You lock in your face, put the finishing touches on, and bam, you have your character.
But you mess up and pick the wrong starting skill and decide to restart.
The custom face you just made isn't saved on your console. It just disappears. It's not like Bloodborne or Dark Souls where you can save a customized character face to your favorites bar.
If EA's import/export feature doesn't work for you, then you just lose everything.
The character face presets are mostly hideous and require meticulous customization.
And by meticulous I mean scouting through the game's abysmally small customization options to see which work best: high cheekbones and low brow, adjust the nose the bit, give the eyes more color (but there's nothing you can do to make them less soulless). This process is meticulous because the faces are so awkward that you have to literally keep tweaking and mixing and matching until you're satisfied.
The hair presets are bad, the colors are even worse (there's only two shades of red, both of which are an obnoxious neon-style dye that looks at home in Borderlands, not a Mass Effect game) and, of course, the facial accenting, facial hair, tattoos, and everything else is just lackluster.
Essentially BioWare gives you the tools to create freakish and macabre monstrosities rather than an epic star-hopper who's searching for humanity's future home.
Should you buy it?
I can't really answer that confidently right now as I need more time with the game. But if I had to give you an answer, it would be conditional on how much you liked the older games.
In my opinion, this isn't a game made for old Mass Effect fans.
This isn't a game made for old BioWare fans.
This is a game that's meant to cater to the lowest common denominator in terms of accessibility; it's a mainstream watered-down experience that puts more emphasis on basic features and action rather than RPG mechanics.
Specific RPG features are dialed back and stripped, which is the basic hallmark of casualization. But at the same time BioWare keeps specific features in to create the semblance of a Mass Effect game...but it all comes off as an imitation.
I wouldn't say this is a bad game, it's just not what we expected. Not what I expected. So far it feels rushed and half-baked, and about 75% completed.
I've heard this game gets better the more you play it, and I sure hope that's correct. I want to like this one, and I do feel some of the charm oozing through the weirdness and clunky mechanics, but it's marred by so many little things that it's hard to feel confident about the experience.
We'll have our official review out shortly so keep a look out for the verdict.