About half an hour into our Mass Effect: Andromeda playthrough, squadmate and cocky Londoner Liam snapped into a t-pose – arms in the air as if he was being crucified – and refused to come out of it until we reloaded our game. We had heard that BioWare's latest was buggy, but we couldn't have imagined just how buggy it actually is. To be frank, the sci-fi release is currently a bit of mess on PlayStation 4.
Andromeda doesn't make the greatest of first impressions. A far cry from Mass Effect 2's harrowing opening in which Commander Shepard is unapologetically killed and then rebuilt in a suspicious laboratory, the first hour or so of this new entry sees you crash land on the surface of an alien world as the game dishes out brief tutorials on its mechanics and systems. It also has you make first contact with an entirely new intergalactic race known as the kett – and this encounter immediately sets a somewhat disappointing tone. There are no weighty dialogue choices here – right off the bat, it's shoot them before they shoot you.
By and large, it feels like the subtlety of past Mass Effect games has been lost. Shepard's trilogy had an underlying grittiness to it that kept it grounded, despite the fact that much of it was cheesy as heck. Andromeda, meanwhile, wears its cheesiness on its sleeve like a badge of pride. Terrible one-liners are abundant, as if someone sat down with the script and decided that they needed to add an offhand joke after every second line of dialogue. It's no longer about a bunch of space soldiers hellbent on saving the galaxy – it's about a plucky team of explorers who gleefully exclaim "speedbump!" when they drive over an enemy. It's Mass Effect for all the family.
But then, Andromeda is very much a fresh start from a mostly new studio, so you can forgive its crystal clear desire to differentiate itself from its predecessors. As its name suggests, the game takes place in the Andromeda galaxy, where the Reaper threat doesn't exist and we can just pretend like the original trilogy never happened. Conveniently waking up from cryosleep 624 years after leaving the Milky Way, you assume the role of Ryder, who's quickly tasked with finding humanity a new home in this uncharted stretch of space. Much like Shepard, Ryder can be male or female, and you're free to customise his or her face and hair. Unfortunately, the character creation system is a bitter disappointment. The presets available to you all look like dodgy waxworks; there are hardly any interesting options to tinker with, and it takes a good chunk of time to sculpt a mug that looks remotely attractive.
Even if you do manage to create a passable Ryder, Andromeda does its best to make him or her look like a freak right from the very first cutscene. Facial animations, particularly of the human variety, are embarrassingly bad – and that's not ideal when the act of engaging in conversation is a fundamental part of the game. Everyone looks like they have to make an effort to blink, eyes shift from side to side in a creepily unrealistic way, and mouths flap and pucker like they're constantly trying to escape. We daresay that you eventually get used to it, but when you're not even in the same league as the janky Dragon Age: Inquisition or the rubbery Fallout 4, you know something's gone horribly wrong.
The bottom line is that Mass Effect: Andromeda is an easy target: you could play this game for hours and pick out nothing but flaws with a suitably cynical eye. With that in mind, we could quite easily spend this whole review tearing the game to shreds – but our predicament is that underneath all of the crap, there's a genuinely good Mass Effect title here. It may have a different tone and its writing certainly isn't as strong as it should be, but despite its obvious flaws, Andromeda gets a lot of things right.
Let's start with the characters. A key component of any BioWare game, the cast has to carry the experience – at least to some extent. Their tales are the reason you return to your ship after a long day of shooting aliens, and as you progress, you gradually learn more and more about what makes your crew tick. Initially, those aboard the Tempest – your slick spaceship and de facto hub area - come off as either bland or one dimensional. However, as things start to pick up pace and you unlock more conversations with them, your ragtag group of allies do begin to blossom. We're not quite sure any of them measure up to the likes of Garrus or Wrex, but they're an endearing bunch – you just need to make sure that you lend them an ear or two.
Of course, your buddies are also keen to prove their worth on the battlefield, and perhaps surprisingly, this is actually an area where Andromeda shines. Combat is light years ahead of the clunky cover-based shooting that the trilogy offered. Guns have way more punch to them, and the sound design is spot on. Movement has seen a significant overhaul, too. Since every shooter under the sun apparently has to have some form of increased mobility, Andromeda goes for good old fashioned jump jets. Your boosters add verticality and speed to firefights – master this newfound agility and you'll appreciate how dynamic even the most standard of skirmishes can become.
Meanwhile, powers make a return and add that extra kick. From simple grenades to gravity-defying biotics – essentially space magic – powers open up a wealth of possibilities during battle, and unleashing them feels snappy and intuitive. The twist here is that Ryder isn't stuck with one specific fighting style – you can branch out into as many different skills as you want, provided you have enough skill points to do so. What's more, the favourites system allows you to save a particular skill set – you can only have three skills equipped at any one time – and switch to it on the fly. As you'd expect, this introduces some strategic depth, as you're able to change your approach depending on the kind of enemies that you're up against. Transforming Ryder into a force to be reckoned with is a very rewarding process.
Not so rewarding is the crafting system, which is needlessly time consuming. Handled across four separate steps, it acts as a layer of fluff that Andromeda doesn't really need. Indeed, we got by rather comfortably using weapons and armour that we either found as loot or bought with credits. Plus, carefully scanning the surfaces of planets for materials is just another tedious job that no one really wants to do.
And yes, Andromeda is stuffed with tedious jobs. Your quest journal is broken down into different folders, and the one titled 'tasks' may as well just be called 'open world guff'. The game features multiple planets that you're free to explore – providing the environmental hazards don't kill you too quickly – and although most of them are pleasant to look at and hide plenty of interesting secrets, driving from one side of the map to the other, regularly stopping to investigate big orange objective markers, can seriously sap away any sense of adventure. Proceedings can all too easily devolve into checking off a list of fetch quests, and that just isn't what Mass Effect should be about.
Fortunately, the main story missions fare much better – and for the most part, you can simply ignore the filler and follow the critical path. In fact, if you're looking for a more traditional Mass Effect experience – tightly designed missions bookended by lengthy stints of dialogue – we'd highly recommend skipping as much of the optional stuff as you can. Stumble into an objective marker rabbit hole and you'll soon find that the main story becomes increasingly disjointed.
Speaking of tampering with tried and tested formulas, Andromeda's conversation system has been largely reworked. Paragon and Renegade persuasions are gone, replaced with a slightly more nuanced, natural range of dialogue choices that represent Ryder's personality. You can be casual, logical, comedic, or professional with your responses, and on paper, it works out nicely. In practice, however, Ryder will – ninety-nine per cent of the time – have to make do with just two options that range from easygoing to emotionless. For example, if asked whether they want to have steamy alien sex, Ryder will either say "hell yes!" or "I wouldn't mind". It's the same response, just coloured differently – and this is what the vast majority of dialogue amounts to throughout the game. Admittedly, it's not that different to what Shepard had to work with, but it would have been nice to see a little more depth.
Again, though, you can look past many of these relatively minor issues when you've just taken part in an exciting main story mission or you've just had a lovely chat with your favourite character. In that sense, we'd be tempted to say that Andromeda is, at its core, a good game, but there's one thing that we can't ignore, and that's technical performance. On a standard PlayStation 4, it loves to drop frames, dipping during big fights and when you're navigating detailed environments – even cutscenes can chug wildly, which rips you out of the moment. The kicker is that the game doesn't even look that great – aside from some sprawling vistas and some attractive art design, it's all pretty standard stuff.
Mass Effect deserves better than Andromeda. The series has stumbled into a new generation, weighed down by tedious open world tropes and a catalogue of performance issues on the PS4. That said, it's not quite the disaster that some would have you believe. There really is a good Mass Effect game here, complete with endearing characters and great combat, but it's buried beneath a mountain of unnecessary clutter. In time, patches may sort many of its problems out, but until then, we can only recommend Andromeda to the BioWare faithful.