I’m not a good media critic. I’m not even decent; my takeaway when I saw the Marvel movie Logan was how much my heart was breaking. I was able to pick out the movie’s flaws only after discussing them with my boyfriend. Nevertheless, I promised a few folks I would write a review of the latest BioWare video game, Mass Effect: Andromeda. In fact, I decided I’ll do better than that: I’ll write my first impressions after roughly 20 hours of gameplay, then when I finally finish the game, I’ll compare how I felt initially with how I feel having completed it.

So here I am, 25 hours into Andromeda and full of opinions.

As a side note — I have zero qualms about the ending of Mass Effect 3. I understand that many disliked it, citing that the final revelation was bullshit or that, in the end, their story choices hadn’t really mattered. Whatever. I liked the story BioWare wanted to tell. It wasn’t the story I would have told (my Shepard would have married Tali and moved to Rannoch!), but the notion of who “owns” the story in a video game about choice is a discussion for another time.

Anyway, back to Andromeda. This is a spoiler-free review.

USER INTERFACE – 2/5

UI might not seem like a big deal, but for me, it can make or break a video game. Unfortunately, Mass Effect: Andromeda continues a recent trend I’ve experienced in AAA games of an awkward keyboard + mouse UI. I feel like I have to click on too many menu options to get where I want to go, and sometimes I even have to double-click something that shouldn’t sensibly require a double-click. It’s clear that the UI was made with a controller in mind — maybe even optimized for one.

This trend began with The Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim and resurfaced in Dragon Age: Inquisition. The flow of the UI of both games was better with an Xbox controller, but I can’t do the same with Mass Effect: Andromeda. I suck at first person shooters if I use a controller, but I’m not too shabby if I use a mouse. Ultimately, though, the UI awkwardness is not enough to make me switch or stop playing entirely.

GAMEPLAY – 4/5

I know that one of the biggest complaints about Mass Effect: Andromeda is that players can get too caught up in the openness of the world and lose traction on the main quests. In a sense, it is a bit like the beginning of Dragon Age: Inquisition. Knowing this to be the case in Andromeda as well, I was able to find a balance between following the main quest and doing side quests along the way. After some hustling and getting all of the squad members, I was content to slow down and take my time completing the planets I had already visited. It really helps to unlock points across the map called “forward stations” that allow fast travel outside of combat.

The quests themselves are straightforward enough without being tedious. I don’t get the sense that I’m doing the same kinds of side quests over and over again. They are all more or less well-integrated into the world, making it feel alive and vibrant. You do have to fly across the galaxy for quite a number of them, but I just do all of the quests in one area before moving on, and it’s worked so far for me. Again, forward stations are a godsend.

As for combat, I really have no right to review it. I play on Casual mode because I don’t play video games to sweat vigorously through a firefight while my shields are gone and both my health and ammo are low. Nah. I like to sucker punch aliens with my biotics and one-shot my enemies with my omni-blade. I will say, at the very least, that combat is extremely fun. The bosses and challenges are mechanically unique (so far, anyway) and just difficult enough to make me feel satisfied, not frustrated, when I beat them. And I’m thoroughly enjoying the image of my tiny Pathfinder mowing through tides of enemies with a couple of pistols and suped up biotics as a Rank 4 Vanguard. (I know a shotgun is better, but I’ve been having bad luck with shotguns lately. Mostly, they all look horrendous.)

As for how intuitive the gameplay is, the developers included helpful GUI tips as well as tutorials that you can revisit anytime you need a refresher, which I like. The map is easy enough to read, and the controls for the six-wheel, all-terrain exploration vehicle are sensible enough that I quickly committed them to muscle memory. There are, however, five different keys used to control the thing, so it takes fifteen minutes of driving off cliffs before you get used to them. Also, jumping around with your jet pack (or, in my case, BIOTICS!!!) is so fun that you forget you have a separate button just for climbing.

On the downside, three particular features stick out to me as not being intuitive at all. First, the “interact” button requires a long-press before your action goes through; at first, I thought it was stupid, but later, I found myself powering down a shield generator in the middle of combat. The game forced me to long-press that “interact” button for a good 10-15 seconds while my squad provided cover fire. I got anxious waiting for the blue “interact” gauge to fill up, which was entirely the point.

The second feature that wasn’t immediately obvious was how to get more ammunition. In Mass Effect: Andromeda, there are crates with colorful icons hovering above them. I had no idea these were ammo, shield, and health restores for nearly the entire first mission. There was no helpful GUI tip, no comment from a squadmate or your AI companion — nothing. I expected having to manually loot ammunition and health (medi-gel packs) from containers, but in Andromeda, you merely have to walk past one of these ammo / health / shield crates and you will auto-pickup whatever you need. On one hand, that’s useful when you’re running frantically in the middle of combat; on the other hand, I wish someone had told me before I only had four bullets left in my starter pistol and no other weapon on-hand.

And finally, scanning the galaxy really threw me for a loop, and I didn’t figure out how to get 100% in a solar system until my fourth or fifth attempt. It’s explained on a very basic level through the available commands while orbiting a planet, but I kept hitting 83%, 75%, 90%, etc. without any indication of how to get that last percentage. Scanning while exploring on foot, on the other hand, is ridiculously simple because the game alerts you when it’s time to scan for something. It might be too simple. But that’s not a concern for me; I’ve just gotten into the habit of scanning every room I enter for those sweet Research & Development points.

WRITING & VOICE ACTING – 4/5

I’m lumping these two otherwise separate categories together because I haven’t progressed far enough in the plot to really comment on its writing. I do like what I have played, however. The NPC characterization is varied and believable; I already dislike some characters merely because of their personalities. And even though I haven’t had many deep conversations with my squad or the Tempest‘s crew, I have enjoyed the interactions so far. I like Lexi, Liam, Kallo, Gil, Suvi, and Vetra a lot more than I expected. Cora is surprisingly multifaceted, even though her voice acting isn’t convincing. Peebee is… Peebee, and I’m pleased that Drack is as riotously fun as I expected him to be. Jaal is not what I expected at all, but in this case, I’m excited about it. But my favorite character so far is definitely the Pathfinder! The writing for Ryder — especially for the emotional and casual dialogue options — is hilarious and witty, and at least for Sara, the voice acting really fits. They’re great when she’s serious and threatening, too. I love it, and I love my Pathfinder so much!

Admittedly, there are some writing gaffes. It’s obvious that references were not at all consulted for Hainly Abrams, a random NPC scientist who happens to be a transwoman. Compared with the writing for Krem in Dragon Age: Inquisition, BioWare’s attempt at writing Hainly was a complete disaster. But that’s a conversation for another time.

GRAPHICS – 3/5

Ah, one of the big complaints of Early Access players. Yes, the facial animation can be stiff. It’s mostly fine, especially since half of the NPCs are aliens anyway, and who knows how they are supposed to emote? It’s only really noticeable when you talk to Cora. No matter what she’s talking about, she always seems to be smiling. It’s really strange, especially when she’s talking about things she probably shouldn’t be smiling about. It’s also obvious that minor NPCs, like the ones on the Nexus, were not a high priority in the animation department.

Graphically, the clipping can be pretty bad. I don’t recall clipping being a major issue in the previous installments of Mass Effect, but here… yeah, I do feel that the development team could have paid better attention to it. Sometimes Ryder’s shoulder clips through her jacket while I talk to folks on my ship, and that’s super distracting. Kallo is not always sitting on his chair, but in his chair. I’ve also stumbled across a few graphical glitches: a vein of raw platinum hovering in the air, Gil hovering in the air, Jaal stuck in a pose during a cutscene… It doesn’t happen often, and I usually brush it off with a chuckle, but it’s pretty bad for a company like BioWare.

All that aside, Mass Effect: Andromeda is gorgeous. It feels appropriately cinematic, and the planets provide unique, varied landscapes that showcase the game’s graphical capabilities. I’m untrained in professional art, so I can’t comment on things like art direction or color theory. However, I can say for certain that the designs for the new aliens’ weapons, armor, clothing, and architecture succeed in conveying a sense of cultural cohesion. At the same time, the familiar Mass Effect vibe persists, resulting in a game that is both nostalgic and new.

CONCLUSION

Heck yeah, I’m going to play another 40+ hours.

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