Over six hundred years after he first crawled into the cryotube, David Ryder snaps awake and sits up. His face is twisted into an inhuman rictus of confusion. The smirk he gives one of the attendants helps to explain his confusion: Ryder is a douchebag. Now he’s not a douchebag by game design – he’s a douchebag by my own design. My viewers and readers know I have a hell of an addiction to Mystery Science Theater 3000 and one of my all-time favorite episodes is “Space Mutiny.” In that movie the “hero” is a douchy muscle-bound moron played by Reb Brown. His name is David Ryder.
When I found out that Mass Effect Andromeda’s characters had the surname of Ryder, I knew I had but one option: to remake him in-game and play him as if he was the impetuous, emotional, chunk head found in that movie.
But his goofy facial expressions are not a product of my design. They are an accident of what is quite possibly the worst offense this game perpetrates upon its players: horrible animations and textures for human characters. The aliens are great. The terrain is amazing. The humans look and act like they were ported from a game made a decade or more in the past, not the latest offering from AAA developer and king of action RPGs, Bioware.
With that in mind, let’s get in-depth into our review of the “Mass Effect: Andromeda” demo.
The demo was a ten hour affair that gives access to the first major planetary mission (Eos) as well as the primary hub (Nexus), the galaxy map, your ship, and multiplayer. Most of my play was single-player. The review will be focused on that. A separate review of the multiplayer game will likely come after release and I can spend more time exploring that aspect of the game. For all intents and purposes, the 10 hour preview is the completed game – so I am treating this as a review of a feature complete game, but with two caveats: 1) game-ready drivers have not been deployed yet and 2) there is a supposed 2+gb day-one patch coming on release day. So it is possible some of the issues encountered will be fixed with those two additions to the game.
Since I opened with the animations, let us start by talking about the first impression everyone gets from a game: its graphics.
Graphics, Animations, and Characters:
On our review scale here at TESTGaming.TV, graphics fall into one of five categories:
- Graphics are terrible for the genre/style
- Graphics are bad and/or glitchy
- Graphics are average
- Graphics are above average
- Graphics are amazing/mind-blowing/a new industry standard
I’m having a tough time explaining this one. On one hand, the human characters are bad. It’s not just the facial animations either – the character creation screen only allows for a very limited amount of variation in comparison with any other Bioware game. And then when you get in game most of the humans you encounter look like a bad batch of clones. The facial textures and shading simply look flat and unrealistic. This is unacceptable for any game of 2017, but especially so for a game made in the vaunted Frostbite Engine. You have to try to make anything in that engine look ugly. Somehow, Bioware found a way.
Several players have already pointed out that there are some simple fixes to this problem. One is that there is no proper lighting or shadow shading on the human faces. This could be a bug – something that may get patched with the day-one drivers or day-one patch. Others pointed out that the makeup they put on nearly every human character is gaudy and looks less like something an average person would wear and more like a clown’s daily attentions.
If I was to judge the graphics based on the human characters alone I would give this a 2 – they are bad and/or glitchy. However, the rest of the Andromeda universe is beautiful. Gorgeous terrain textures with amazing detail. Beautiful lighting and shadows. Even the aliens look great. The rest of the game takes glorious advantage of Frostbite’s power.
With that in mind, I put the score at a 2 – graphics are bad and/or glitchy. I was tempted to give it a 3, but I cannot ignore the horror of the animations and the human faces.
Let us continue with the first visceral impressions we get from a game. The sound design in Andromeda is good, sometimes even great. Some have complained about the voice acting but I didn’t notice it. There were one or two line reads that sounded more like community theater than professional voice acting, but for the most part I think the issues with the voice acting is less the voice and more the writing. Andromeda’s characters love cheesy cliches, tropes, and one-liners, and they can make even the most seasoned MST3K fan cringe when delivered.
The music is exactly what you expect from a Mass Effect game: sometimes beautiful, sometimes haunting, almost always perfect for the scenario. The rest of the sound design – the environment and ambiance – fits the game. Nothing was bad, nothing was out of place. Good environmental sound design means you often don’t notice it. You will notice the absence of it, just as you will notice if something is wrong.
With that in mind, I give the sound design a 3 – average for the genre.
It is difficult to review a story as potentially complex and branching as this one with only ten hours of gameplay under your belt. However, I can say that from the start it grabbed my attention. I felt compelled to move forward with both the primary quest and the mini-quests to see how they unfold. It isn’t a masterpiece, as I noted in the comments about sound design. Tropes and cliches are the order of the day – but that is to be expected from any action/adventure property. It’s what happens outside of those offenders that I look for. And I found it compelling. I won’t get into too much spoiler territory, save I will say I am eagerly awaiting the unlock of the game so I can see what happens next.
For that, I give the story a 4 – it is compelling.
Fun Factor and Gameplay:
Now this is where “Mass Effect Andromeda” shines. The movement, exploration, and combat elements of this game are smooth, sleek, and fun. Combat especially is a blast. The jetpack, the procedural cover system, being able to do things like swap hands when holding weapons to aim from behind cover – all of these blend into combat that is fun and engaging. And the enemy AI seems hard to predict. I often found myself surprised by a flanking enemy. Instead of being just bullet sponges, like previous Mass Effect games, the enemies in Andromeda behave smarter and it equates to a far more difficult battle than simply making them hard to kill.
The exploration mechanic is also fun. Vehicle driving on Eos, a desert planet, was reminiscent of “Mad Max” the game for me. A large map with various waypoints and points of interest to drive to, get out of the vehicle, fight, explore, scan, and collect. And space exploration is a compromise between the “Mass Effect 2” scan and probe system and the “Mass Effect 3” fly and ping. It isn’t as arduous as the former, but has more options than the latter. A nice compromise, in my opinion.
And the introduction of the jetpack fundamentally changed the Mass Effect formula. More than just giving you access to vertical levels it also plays an important role in combat. The jetpack provides a quick way to get out of sticky situations. You can combine it with biotic powers to take out an enemy below you. You can hover and fire at an enemy who was otherwise in cover. In short, it adds a breath of fresh air to what could have been a stale gameplay mechanic.
Overall, I give the fun factor and gameplay a 4 out of 5.
This, of course, is next-to-impossible to gauge with only a ten hour demo. I will say this: previous Mass Effect games have suffered from interminable tutorial and introduction sections.
Andromeda does not feel that way. In very short time you find yourself in action via a tutorial mission that is branching and semi-open world. And when that is done you essentially have the choice of going right back into action on a new planet or exploring the Nexus Hub and doing side quests.
With that in mind, I can say I would gladly replay the first ten hours of the game more than once.
And, if Andromeda is anything like its predecessors, the entire game will be replayable multiple times over.
So for that, I give the score a tentative 4 out of 5, with an option to change this after more time in the full game.
Our scoring system for optimization is simple: if you get a stable X amount of FPS on your machine, it gets a certain score. The test rig was an i7-4790k, oc’d to 4.7ghz, a GTX 970 and 16gb DDR-2133 RAM, graphics on High.
Unfortunately, scoring this is not as simple as the system allows. For everything but Eos I retained a steady 60fps average on 1080p. On Eos, 30 fps was my average. What was weird about this was that the draw on my CPU and GPU was no different, according to MSI Afterburner, on Eos than it was anywhere else. So what was it about that map that halved my frames? I assume it is a bug, and hope that it will be fixed with drivers/patches.
But, because of that, I can only give optimization a 3 out 5 for now.
PC Gaming Quality of Life Features:
These are a series of features that most PC gamers will tell you are “essential” to PC gaming. Configurable FOV and graphics options, controls, the ability to choose between Fullscreen or Borderless Window mode, mouse smoothing/acceleration toggles, the ability to alt-tab without crashing the game, and no artificial locks on FPS.
I am happy to say that Andromeda has all of these features. There is one other feature that I consider Quality of Life for Bioware games and RPGs in general that is missing, though: a quicksave function. However, the developers have stated that they plan on adding this in the future – just not on launch day.
This is another simple method of assigning a score. A “100%” on overall value means that for every American dollar spent, you got an hour of good gameplay. For the ten hour demo I spent five dollars – and played all ten hours, enjoying myself. Since I barely cracked one of seven primary planets and who knows how many smaller quests in that time, I can assume that 60 hours for 60 dollars full price is easily attainable. Using either metric – $5 for 10 hours or a possible $60 for 60+ hours gives us a 100% score on that.
Quality of Game Design Score:
Fun Factor and Gameplay: 4
Sound Design: 3
Total: 23/30 – 77%
Quality of Life Score:
Overall Value: 100%
FOV Slider: 100%
Graphics and Sound Options: 100%
Control Options: 100%
Mouse Smoothing Controls: 100%
Alt-Tab Possible: 100%
Unlocked FPS: 100%
Total: 800/800 – 100%
Final Score: 88% – AA quality in our ratings system, almost a AAA-quality game. Fix those graphics bugs and it would be. Basically, despite its flaws, “Mass Effect Andromeda” stands to be a game that will grab your attention and keep you interested for many, many, many hours. A worthy, if somewhat buggy and underwhelming, addition to the series.