Andromeda's Funny Faces Don't Ruin a Great Sci-Fi Adventure

By Rich Stanton on at

The modern games industry has various problems, and one of them is a lack of understanding among the audience about how games are made. As soon as Mass Effect: Andromeda was in the wild, people immediately (and rightly) picked up on how weirdly parts of the animation system have turned out - there’s no denying that some of the faces in here are hilarious, and not in a good way. So far, so funny.

Most people are happy to just have a laugh at stuff like this and move on. Certain elements of the gaming community, on the other hand, fixated on the game’s problems in this area and targeted a specific individual - who needless to say was female. It got bad enough Bioware had to issue a statement, but the whole premise is ridiculous. Andromeda was made by a team of hundreds, and the idea any outsider (or even insider!) could identify one individual as responsible for such issues betrays a complete ignorance of modern development. Andromeda should absolutely be criticised for failings in its animation system. The idea this extends to targeting individuals involved in its production is repugnant.

I mention this because it’s the context to what is happening right now, which is that Andromeda is getting an extremely bumpy ride and the atmosphere around it stinks, with those animations public enemy number one. I’ve played around 15 hours of the singleplayer campaign, and can confirm that there are some truly wacky sights in this regard: fixed faces with lips flapping, protruding brows vibrating ever-so-slightly, odd little eye jerks over milliseconds. I gave my galaxy-saving hero, Corbyn Ryder, a bright white afro with a black forehead tattoo underneath, the latter of which clips through the former in most cutscenes - while his poor eyes seem ready to pop out of their sockets at certain moments.

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With the animations you have to make a decision, as a player, about whether they ruin the game to a degree that you can’t possibly enjoy it - and, you know, for me they’ve never come close to that. Absolutely they’re a flaw, and this is a game where a large part of it is talking to people. And we’re not even done, in that regard, because Andromeda also features a script of wildly-varying quality - it contains some moments of quite exquisite beauty, set off with a great line or two, and then a whole bunch of clanging lines turn up all over the place. Needless to say, only the latter get mentioned, but they’re there.

Despite all this, Andromeda is working for me in a way that the previous Mass Effect games never did. I respect that for some the original Mass Effect trilogy is a classic, but it never fired my imagination - I always thought Shepherd was a bit of a cold fish, never liked the combat until the sequel, and found its overarching plotline a rather monotonously grim affair. I’m having a great time in Andromeda, and this is a game with so much to recommend it outside of the flaws.

I suppose it comes down to what you want from a game like this. I love science fiction and what I want from Mass Effect is a grand adventure across space: I want to meet alien races, search star clusters, and see things you people wouldn’t believe. I want to see bizarre technology and architecture on a scale that isn’t human, and ‘discover’ it with human eyes. I want an epic made with laser beams.

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This is Andromeda. The game’s setup is essentially that you play a Pathfinder, the human responsible for finding new homes for hundreds of thousands of colonists who have travelled 600 light years to an unknown system. The main questline focuses on this job and, after an hour or two of introductory missions, you acquire your own ship and crew and the journey proper begins. This is not a freeform exploration game, but here the sense of exploration enters: there’s a starmap, there are places of interest, and where next is up to you.

Andromeda’s best moments by far are here, and on a scale that the previous Mass Effect games never approached. It’s hard to be specific without spoiling some nice surprises, so I’ll settle for a general description of one of the first missions: skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid it. You land and begin exploring a giant alien planet, first on foot and then by vehicle over the desert, fighting hostile forces and eventually interfacing with three key pieces of alien technology. When all three are activated you descend beneath the planet’s surface and find an extraordinary underground complex, crafted by unknown hands to unknown ends, and after finding what looks like a control system, activate it. Something then happens that means you and your team have to run for your lives back to the surface. It’s just a fantastic level, moving from small-scale engagements and scenarios into a giant, gorgeous mystery that lets you get close - before you have to run away with more questions than answers.

The obvious corollary being that Andromeda has a much more enjoyable combat system than previous entries in the series (as you might expect, to be fair), which is layered with a new and much-superior style of progression. Moment-to-moment this is evidenced in the automatic cover system, which works very smoothly, and the combination of a floaty boost-jump with a snappy boost-dodge - moving Ryder around in combat is a joy, and the inspiration here is a surprising one.

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Play Andromeda in multiplayer and it soon feels like, with certain classes such as Vanguard at least, Bioware has been taking inspiration from Shinji Mikami’s peerless Vanquish. I don’t mean this combat system quite hits the super-polished, refined heights of a dedicated action title from Platinum Games, but in the speed at which Ryder moves and the various ways you can chain powers together, there’s some familiar hint. And this is an expansive Space RPG. More on the 4-player co-op multiplayer soon, but it’s where you feel how far Mass Effect’s combat has come.

By this point in Andromeda I have dozens of subquests, several operational colonies, and a giant crew that I’m still trying to work out. At the point where most games would be rolling the end credits I’ve still got a whole galaxy to explore and, despite the scale and intensity of what I’ve done so far, feel like I’ve been noodling around in one tiny corner.

Who knows where it will go from here, but I’ll be sticking around to find out. Here’s the thing I really like about Andromeda: this galaxy has an exciting atmosphere, and as Corbyn Ryder I do feel like a bit of a hero. I’m not chasing down aliens to blast them, even though that’s an occupational hazard. I’m a pioneer, pushing out into unknown space to find homes for people, trying to make friends, and checking out anything that looks interesting. I'm right at the start of a new civilisation, a new chapter for humanity.

None of this means we should disregard Andromeda's problems. The game clearly has technical issues in some areas, and it would be better if it didn’t. For me, they’re ultimately a minor distraction in this grandiose vision of the future. Some players won’t be able to see the galaxy for the nebulae, and that’s fine. But some of us are looking at the stars.