It's certainly been a long time coming. Five years have passed since the last Mass Effect game hit the shelves - and if that doesn't make you feel old, nothing will. With the epic sci-fi trilogy kind of wrapped up in the last game, the time had come to explore a different kind of story in the Mass Effect universe - and so, the long road to Andromeda began.
Set in between the events of Mass Effect 2 and 3, Mass Effect Andromeda is a sci-fi role playing game that tells the tale of a group of pioneers, and their search for a new home. Part of the titular Andromeda Initiative, some 20,000 volunteers made the brave, if slightly crazy choice to be frozen in cryosleep and blasted far beyond the Milky Way, on a journey to the Andromeda Galaxy that took more than 600 years. Searching for a collection of planets known as golden worlds - planets that appeared, on scans, to have the perfect conditions to support human life - the crew of the Ark Hyperion soon get a nasty awakening, as they come to to realise that the golden worlds they were promised are anything but. With thousands of people that need somewhere to live - and a way to survive - it falls to you, as the son/daughter of the Pathfinder, to find them a new home.
As far as concepts go, Mass Effect Andromeda's is pretty cool. Rather than just pootling around the known universe, Andromeda pushes you out to the far corners of the galaxy, as you make first contact with alien races, discover new technology, and set foot on planets no human has ever been on before. You aren't a soldier - you're an explorer, and that gives the story here a very different feel. As a pillar of hope for the 20,000 humans that are just coming through from their long nap, it falls to you to become a leader, a diplomat, and combat veteran capable of handling yourself, as you lead your small team around the galaxy.
As you'd probably expect, too, it doesn't take long before your search for a new home ruffles some alien feathers, and a new race of alien baddies, known as the Kett, pop up to make things awkward. For reasons that are initially unclear, the Kett seem incredibly interested in a collection of strange alien monoliths that appear to be scattered around the planets in the Andromeda sector - and it's up to you to figure out their secrets before they do.
As with prior Mass Effect games, Andromeda is a game that's all about the quests, whether they're of the main story variety, or the many, many side quests and tasks the folks you meet will ask for your help with. While some will involve combat, not all do, and as with the games before it, Andromeda even includes a "narrative" difficulty mode, designed for those who just want to experience the story. Making combat a lot easier, with incredibly weedy enemies, and weapons that actually feel like they pack a punch, this is by far our preferred difficulty.
As an important explorer, and a new arrival to most places, many people seem to trust you as an independent adjudicator of sorts, which often sees you being asked to resolve some rather tricky situations. Whether you're trying to get to the bottom of a series of sabotages on board a space station; investigating a murder case on behalf of a man who's trying to prove his innocence; or deciding whether or not to use your influence to get someone out of cryosleep quicker, there's a lot of talking to be done, and tricky decisions to be made.
A game of choices and tones, you'll always have access to several dialogue options during conversations, and can choose how you want your character to respond. Rather than a binary good/bad choice, though, you now have access to up to four different categories of response - emotional, logical, casual, and professional - which both gives you a lot more room for subtlety, and plenty of room for things to go wrong. Through the choices you make in game, characters will begin to respond to you in different ways - if you're a sarcastic bad guy, your reputation will begin to precede you - and many a character will let you know if they think you've made the wrong choice, in their eyes.
However, as with prior Mass Effect games, rather than being able to see what you're actually going to say, each dialogue choice will only give you a short sentence in an attempt to sum up where your character's going to go with their reply. That'd be fine if these were always accurate - but as with every single previous Mass Effect game, sometimes, these snippets don't match the tone or context of what your character actually says at all. While most at least let you guess at what's going to happen, misleading options still pop up too often for our liking, and it's no fun at all picking a dialogue option, thinking it sounds great, only to have your character deliver a sarky response when you were expecting it to be friendly. Needless to say, it's hard to have a role playing game where you can't play a role, because your character has a mind of their own.
Still, for the most part, it's the quests that give Mass Effect life, and before too long, you'll be hopping into your very own spaceship, and exploring the galaxy. While even this isn't as good as it should be - the game insists on showing you lengthy transition animations as you click on the map to fly from planet to planet, making everything take at least 10x as long as it really should (all it really had to do was move a marker) - exploring the few planets you can land on is much more fun. With a new, six wheel all terrain vehicle to get to grips with - the Nomad - you can get around with at least relative ease, especially with the vehicle's six-wheel drive mode, and there's plenty to see and do. From outposts to discover to minerals that can be mined, each planet itself is usually home to at least a handful of quests to complete, giving you that extra reason to explore every last nook and cranny.
While we mentioned the combat and narrative mode earlier, it's probably worth coming back to it, as combat does still play a key role in Mass Effect Andromeda - even if you'll often wish it didn't. Even on normal difficulty, you'll find yourself regularly getting into lengthy bouts of combat with enemies, as the game essentially transforms into a third person shooter. You'll duck into cover, pop up to fire off a few quick bursts, and occasionally mix things up with any special powers you have, whether biotic (letting you throw people around), or tech (letting you send off flying sentry drones) in battles that wouldn't feel out of place in any other shooter.
However, the problem is that at times, Mass Effect Andromeda can feel like a role playing game that's trying too hard to be a shooter - perhaps in an ill fated attempt to win over the shooter crowd - and it doesn't work. Even on normal, enemies are complete damage sponges, easily taking 20, 40, or sometimes even more shots - regardless of where you shoot - before they go down. Meanwhile, you, as chief explorer, are a veritable weed. Add in the fact it can be tricky to tell where you're being shot at from - and equally tough to actually spot enemies - and you've got a recipe for frustration. That's what makes narrative difficulty such a God send, because it makes the battles tolerable - and the game as a whole a lot more fun.
Speaking of combat, Andromeda does also come complete with a multiplayer mode - however, being as it focusses entirely around the worst part of the game (combat), you can imagine how little fun this is. With a co-op, wave based set up, you and up to three friends can form a four-person group to take on wave after wave of enemies in a variety of generic settings - but the issues here would take a whole other article to really do justice to. There's no effort to adjust the challenge to the number of people playing, so two players will face off against the same crazy numbers of enemies as a group of four; you can't actually edit how your character looks; there's no way to adjust the difficulty level you're playing on until you've failed at that level at least once (per session. When we first played, we were both level 1, and the game defaulted to Silver difficulty, intended for level 10. You can imagine how well that worked); and the entire mode seems to be an exercise in squeezing as much money as possible out of Mass Effect fans through obnoxious micro-transactions, which are the only reliable way to get pretty much essential kit, like first aid packs. Seeing as it's about time developers stopped spending so much time and effort trying to suck every last penny out of their fan base, we'd advise you ignore the multiplayer mode completely - and whatever you do, don't spend any money on it. You'll only encourage it.
In terms of accessibility, Andromeda is a bit of a mixed bag, too. Some much loved features return, like the ability to auto-level your character, letting the game choose where you should spend those all important ability points, and the best way to make your character stronger. As we all know, trawling through character sheets is never anything less than intimidating, so it's great the game gives newcomers the option of handling it for you. Yet in other areas, the game falls flat on its face - not least when it comes to getting around. With only a traditional horizontal style compass to go by (just look at any of the screenshots), figuring out where you actually need to go is often not all that easy - with cliffs, corridors, or even entire floors in between you and your destination, it's all too easy to get lost. While many other games will happily draw you a route to your destination (including other role playing games), this is yet another problem that's plagued almost every BioWare game since day one.
There's also a really strange, auto-contrast/HDR style thing going on here, where the game seems to tweak the colour levels - and go way too far. We don't know the technical term for it, but essentially, if there's ever so much as a moderately light object on screen, the game will dim almost everything but it. When you're exploring a cave, or trudging around an alien planet, that's pretty much the least helpful thing it can do, and no amount of tweaking the various graphical settings can fix it. Again, it's not the first time BioWare have fiddled round with the graphics only to make it worse (remember the "film grain?") - but we wish they'd learn their lesson!
But while we may have had plenty to rant about, it's important not to get the wrong impression. We like Mass Effect Andromeda, and there's certainly an interesting universe to lose yourself in here - it's just nothing feels quite as good as the games that have come before it, particularly the character designs and animation. When half your crew look like someone's just whacked "random" on the character creator, and your primary female love interest looks like she's had an accident with a shaver, while strutting around like a gorilla (no, really), you've got to wonder quite what the folks at BioWare have been spending all their time doing - polishing the game to make it as good as it could be? Or ticking boxes?
It's when the game gets back to basics - jumping over dunes on a desert planet, solving tricky quests with your quick tongue, and the many, many spectacular set pieces the game offers that it really comes into its own, with the story here being well worth seeing through to the end. It's just so very frustrating to see BioWare making all the same mistakes, game after game, year after year, when they're stopping the game being anywhere near as good as it should be.
While it may not be the role playing game of the year (that honour's probably going to go to Torment: Tides of Numernera - a game where your choices actually matter), Andromeda is still a space opera worth taking part in - just make sure you turn the difficulty down, and avoid the multiplayer like the plague, and you'll be sure of a good time.