Five of us at PC Gamer have been playing Mass Effect: Andromeda pretty much non-stop for the past week. We’ll publish our review on Monday, but until then we’re limited to only discussing the very beginning of BioWare’s new space opera, which is what Origin Access subscribers will be able to play starting Thursday. We’ve gathered all our players to talk about what we think so far—expect spoilers for the very beginning of the game, and some fiery takes because, so far, none of us fully agree with each other.
Tyler Wilde: We’re only allowed to talk about the first couple missions in Andromeda right now, and I think we all agree that’s a mistake on EA’s part. The opening moments are not the highlight of Andromeda at all. James and I are still forming opinions, but I think Tim hates it at this point. Chris has played further and likes it much more—but again we can’t say why until our review on Monday. So with that in mind, what do we all think of Andromeda’s introduction?
It's fine, but not as in-depth as we'd hoped. Read our complete thoughts and see it in action.
James Davenport: Andromeda starts off in the worst way possible, barely introducing you to a brother and father you’re supposed to care about before putting them in grave danger, then handing you the Pathfinder torch in typical Bioware ‘you’re the chosen one’ fashion. First contact devolves into a gunfight within seconds, and the big alien threat are goofy rock-faced bad guys who we know next to nothing about other than their ships are big and make scary sounds. On top of it, the first real mission in distant space takes place on a planet that could pass for Arizona at a glance. There’s ancient alien technology there. It’s big, angular, and requires solving Sudoku puzzles to interact with. At four or so hours in, Andromeda hasn’t given me a single reason to keep playing. Where are the interesting characters? The intriguing side quests and story bits? So far, it feels like Mass Effect fan fiction. Even so, I want to keep going. Bioware tends to stumble with their beginnings, so I’m hoping everything eventually congeals in a way that finally hooks me.
Chris Thursten: I will say this: calling Ryder's story a typical 'Chosen One' deal doesn't quite fit. I mean, you literally are chosen, in the game's first hour, to be the Pathfinder. But it's a person who makes that choice, not destiny or—as in Shepard's case—a magic space monolith. And the special powers that being a Pathfinder grants are tied into the game's existing fiction, a reasonably important part of the story, and a link back to one of the original trilogy's key themes. All RPG protagonists are special in one way or another: One of the things that stands out to me about the early parts of Ryder's journey is, in fact, how little fate seems to favour them. Ryder is quickly established as young, fallible, and widely underestimated by her peers—that makes for quite a nice break from Shepard, in my experience.
Tim Clark: Last week I wrote that I’d be fine if “Andromeda ends up being just quite a good Mass Effect game”, but today even that feels like a distant dream. I’ll caveat what I’m about to say by noting I’m only six hours in, but right now I’m not sure I even want to play much more, and that hurts given how much I was looking forward to this. Wait until you hear some of the writing, which is regularly straight up asinine. At one point I ran a group of Kett over in the Nomad and Ryder shouted out triumphantly: “Speedbump!” Ugh, ugh, ugh.
Chris: I do agree that it's a weak opening. There's a lot to take in all at once, and the strange experience of encountering the familiar—arks full of turians, salarians, asari, krogan and so on—while being asked to take in a lot of new story very quickly via heavy-handed exposition doesn't work as well as it could.
Watch us play through the first hours of Mass Effect: Andromeda.
Tyler: I don’t really mind the exposition, where characters become information bots—I could criticize the great Torment: Tides of Numenera for the same thing. But as Tim says, when Ryder tries to be tough or funny or flirty she can sound like a 20-year-old’s snarky quote tweet. She’s the text above a reaction gif. I’m not saying it’s always like that. It’s just here and there that I swear I can hear the writers grinning at themselves for Ryder’s epic retorts. (By the way, I’m super cool and all of my tweets are funny.)
Tim: One of the things that’s really bumming me out so far is I just don’t seem to like any of the companions. Before it was a real Sophie’s choice who to take on a mission, because you wouldn’t want to miss out on bonding with Garrus, or Legion being all robo awkward. But in Andromeda, eesh. They all say such dumb stuff in combat too. Liam, in particular, is an absolute shuttle crash of a character.
Tyler: There’s always going to be one, though, right? We knew there’d be a new Kaiden.
James: I’m with Tim, it’s the companion conversations that I can’t stand. Maybe they’ve always been this way, but so often you’ll just stumble into someone’s room, ask them a simple question, and get their entire life’s Sparknotes in a long winded anecdote. I’d rather the characters didn’t straight up tell me their history and how they felt about X thing at Y time, and instead expressed more of that through behavior and performance. There’s nothing subtle about them so far. I’m hoping that changes in the companion quests though.
Tim: Returning to the set up, because that’s all we’re allowed to talk about, it blows my mind how clumsily the story is introduced. [Spoiler warning.] In the very first scene you wake to find your sibling is stuck in cold storage, and may never wake up. But because you’ve never seen the Ryder twins interact, and so have no investment in their relationship, it’s completely inert dramatically. The same goes for the antagonists, the Kett. You understand they’re bad simply because they shoot at you on sight, but I feel no actual antipathy for them. I laughed out loud when the big bad did his “grr, I’m pissed” face after he couldn’t open a monolith. That’s it? That’s what we’re given to glean from his character notes? The colonists they’ve massacred exist only as the very occasional body the away team stumbles across, so I also don’t care about them. BioWare, so often lauded for storytelling, seems to have settled on neither showing or telling, but just assuming we’ll accept these guys as some sort of rent-a-nemesis.
Which isn’t to say there’s no story. What there is, still, is the exact same dialogue system, doling out vast amounts of exposition in the form of five wedges of selectable speech at a time. Only now stripped of even the semi-interesting Paragon/Renegade options. How can they honestly have had this much time between Mass Effect 3 and Andromeda and not come up with a more elegant solution for characters to talk to each other. Presumably most players painstakingly work our way through all the options anyway, so you might as well shove them into a VLC playlist and let me listen while doing something else. So much of these systems are just plain badly designed, as is the nested quest UI, and why I’m skeptical that much of it will improve. In one instance early on Eos, my team triggered the release or arrival of some sort of space beast, and reacted in panic. But I couldn’t see what they saw, so it left me absolutely bemused by what was happening. That’s just inept direction.
James: Guys, the planet scanning is awful. How did they make the planet scanning actively worse than Mass Effect 2? And even then, it was just spherical acupuncture, a pretty mindless minigame where you move a reticle around an orb until it vibrates. Now, moving between planets requires watching a slow first-person travel animation from the perspective of the Tempest. Getting between planets can take 10 to 15 seconds and most of the planets are completely devoid of resources. The ones that have anything just take a single click to suck up everything they’ve got, and just shows up as a tiny indication of the left side of the screen. +159 Iron or 50 Milky Way Research points or something. At least flash that stuff on the screen in big letters to tell me what a good space explorer I am. Even if it just gets me enough junk to buy one gun, I need to feel like all that time slowly crawling between empty planets was worth it.
Tim: Seriously, many of the systems feel like they don’t just fail to improve on the old games, but are actually worse. The highfalutin new planet scanning James called out is absolutely tedious the first time you do it, so I can’t imagine how it’s going to feel on your dozenth, still portentously slow flight from one planet which might have a satellite orbiting to it to another which might have an aluminium deposit on it. And don’t start me on the Nomad mining. It beggars belief that anyone thought plopping out probes in order to see ore occasionally tick up in a spreadsheet window was going to be fun. No one is going to leave Eos thinking “hoo boy, I mined the shit of that place and it was awesome.”
Chris: I like the planet scanning, for what it's worth. It looks lovely and each new world or object is fully-rendered, meaning you can disconnect from the galaxy map and look out of it out of the Tempest's bay windows. It's a small detail, but I appreciate it. And if you don't want to slowly drag a cursor over a load of made-up planets, I honestly don't know why you're playing Mass Effect.
Tim: Because I fell in love with the grand sweep of being the last space gang in town, that town being the universe, and facing off against a vast, implacable, kinda cool-looking alien threat. I don’t seem to have got to that bit yet in Andromeda.
Tyler: I do love seeing the planet I’m orbiting out the windows. A big part of Mass Effect’s appeal for me is that it’s cool to have a spaceship. That’s it. I like exploring my ship and chatting with my crew. And this has that! But speaking of rendering, before we close out let’s hear from Jarred, who’s been focused on the technical aspects.
Jarred Walton: Mass Effect has never been a series to push the technology of game engines. The first three games all used DirectX 9, for example, even though DX10 and later DX11 were widely available. Andromeda makes a change from Unreal Engine 3 to DICE's Frostbite 3 engine, bringing it up to snuff in terms of technological features.
Frostbite 3 supports DirectX 12 as well, but MEA skips that aspect. I don't necessarily blame them, because it's one more thing to worry about, but don't go hoping for a boost in performance from the low-level API. I'm working on a full performance analysis right now, and at higher quality settings the game will definitely tax mainstream GPUs. Also, multi-GPU tanked performance right now, though Nvidia is promising a driver update with an SLI profile before the game launches.
Tyler: It’s been running OK for me on an original GTX Titan—so that’s a 700-series card—though definitely below 60 fps at 2560x1080. I’d say more like 30-50 depending on what I’m doing. I have it turned up to Ultra, though, and I’m sure I could get it running better if I dropped it to High or Medium.
Jarred: Getting into the graphics settings, there are also some serious annoyances, starting with the consolized interface. Press space to select things, not enter. Ugh. Even worse, if you select the high or medium graphics presets, you'll find medium enables 900p scaling and high enables 1080p scaling. The only way to turn off scaling is to choose the custom preset, or just go for ultra quality. But ultra quality even at 1080p will often fall well below 60 fps, unless you have a GTX 1070 or faster GPU.
Tyler: As far as how it looks, I do think the environments look great. And we’ve seen that in Battlefield and Battlefront. But, uh, who’s the person at BioWare who insists on lighting their characters in the least flattering way possible? ‘Hey everyone, can we make sure the shadows really hug everyone’s jowls? The characters are looking far too attractive in this scene.’
Tim: Explore these amazing worlds! Uh, not that bit, that’s super irradiated. And no, not that bit. OK, how about just these small bubbles in between… Honestly, why even make it open world?
Jarred: I've gotta be honest, the characters look ugly. Those eyes… don't look into their dead, lifeless eyes. I'm not even convinced the worlds in general look much better than the last two Mass Effect games. Maybe I'm just jaded, but this is the same engine that powers the amazing looking Battlefield 1, only it runs significantly worse.
Tyler: No way, the worlds look much better, and as for Tim’s remark, well, maybe it didn’t need to be open world but again this is only the beginning of the game. And the characters do look better. If you go look at Mass Effect 3, and put them side-by-side, it’s an obvious improvement. It is disappointing because I had hoped for better, but I’ve pretty much gotten over it because I’m focused in on what’s going on. The lip-syncing isn’t perfect—mouths are a constant problem for animators handling this much dialogue—but I’m not usually staring at someone’s mouth when they’re speaking, you know?
Jarred: Still, from a graphics and technology perspective, Mass Effect Andromeda (or at least the characters) looks and feels like it's already outdated to me. Thank goodness for the ATM (All Terrain Mode) option on the Nomad vehicle, switching between 4-wheel and 6-wheel modes. Right-clicking to shift between 'climbing hills' mode and 'going fast' mode is a huge game changer. It's almost as good as Cookie Clicker.
Tim: Jarred, I am so glad you said this. What does switching Nomad drive modes even add? Not skill, and certainly not fun. Just another bizarre piece of busywork micromanagement.
Tyler: As much as we’re criticizing it here, I’m enjoying the game, really. It’s this huge construct of characters and combat and to-do lists and each part can be picked to death by even the softest critical eye, but I still enjoy existing in the world and waiting for the little moments of humor (when it actually lands and isn’t stupid) that attach me to these characters. Maybe I’m just more forgiving than Tim, but I think if we went back to Mass Effect 3, or Mass Effect 2, or even Mass Effect, we could apply a lot of the same criticisms—and we still like those games.
Tim: Guys, someone talk to me about the checkpoint system. When you die in combat, it will routinely make you repeat a couple of minutes worth of scanning or whatever to re-trigger the combat sequence. How in the name of all the stars in space did that make it through testing. It’s utterly onerous, and like so much of what I’ve seen in these first few hours, feels like it’s been beamed in from a game years ago. Which I guess maybe it has.
Tyler: OK, yeah, that’s bad. I’ve started manually saving before combat.
James: Always be saving, always be flirting. Still waiting on that good, good alien love-making by the way. I anticipate a lot of waiting too, because Andromeda feels like a huge, incomprehensible mess right now. And I think that’s why I still find it so fascinating. It’s an ambitious thing that has been far more disappointing than surprising so far. But I have faith that somewhere in the next 50 hours, Bioware will do a few cool space things.
Chris: More than anything else, my early experience of Andromeda was defined by just how closely it mirrors the first game. This is a spiritual successor to the first Mass Effect in many ways, ignoring or undoing many of the ways the original series changed in its sequels. It's an RPG with shooter elements, not a shooter with RPG elements. It has free roaming elements and driving. And it closely mirrors the pace of ME1's opening, too, from the stakes-setting first mission to the extended space station walk-and-talk section to the first, introductory, relatively linear objective that you're given. The details are different but the rhythms are the same—so similar, in fact, that I think it's a fair criticism to say that BioWare is rolling out a structure of play that has had ten years to become overfamiliar.
Yet it's not a dealbreaker, simply because, y'know, every BioWare game is like this. They all start slow and hit their stride at different junctures. Andromeda is slow but I'd argue that it gets to the point faster than Inquisition. These clunky intros aren't a new phenomenon: I'd like to see BioWare shake up the formula, but their failure to do so doesn't fill me with dread.
Tyler: I’m on Team Chris. I’m having fun.
Jarred: I haven't had time to have fun. I'm running benchmarks. It's about as good as some of the sidequests though, right?