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'Mass Effect: Andromeda' review: A sprawling space drama that struggles to stay on target

Mass Effect Andromeda screen.
‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ invites you to strap in for another space opera.

“Space is big,” beloved author and interdimensional traveler Douglas Adams noted in his seminal towel-seller, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big,” he wrote, hammering home the point that when it comes to bigness, even our new president has nothing on the universe.

That size presents quite a challenge to game makers, but few have hacked away at the quandary with as much gusto as developer Bioware. The team behind the blockbuster “Mass Effect” trilogy managed to capture the epic scope of the big unknown while keeping our eyes trained on the intimate interactions between characters, a space opera in its truest — and, in terms of video games, among its best — form. So when they announced a return to their beautifully realized universe with “Mass Effect: Andromeda” ($60 for Xbox One, PS4, PC), we all got very excited indeed.

But a great deal has happened since 2012’s “Mass Effect 3” simultaneously wowed and enraged gamers; namely, “The Witcher 3,” “Fallout 4,” Bioware’s own “Dragon Age: Inquisition” and a host of other genre-blending RPGs (you could arguably toss recent greats “Horizon: Zero Dawn” and “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” into that mix, too). Big-budget role-playing games have blossomed in the past five years.

Mass Effect Andromeda has issues.
‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ has the makings of a great game, but misses the mark with a number of missteps.

And unfortunately, “Mass Effect: Andromeda” picked up some unwelcome visitors on its long journey to your gaming machine. Though it has some stellar moments, “Andromeda” tries to cram too many ideas into one package, turning its obsession with the bigness of space into a crutch for uncharacteristically shoddy workmanship.

The (next) final frontier

To answer your most obvious question: no, you do not need to have played the prior “Mass Effect” games to understand what the hell is happening here. “Andromeda” tells a self-contained story featuring entirely new characters, planets and star systems, though references to elements from the original trilogy (the Citadel, the Geth, Spectre, etc.) do occasionally pop up.

The game is set roughly 600 years after the events of the original trilogy. Just as things were heating up in the Milky Way (around the “Mass Effect 2” timeframe), several giant Ark ships were launched towards the faraway heart of the Andromeda galaxy. Snuggled in cryo beds and dreaming of a new life, the adventurous souls aboard these vessels were hoping to discover habitable new worlds and plant some flags.

Mass Effect Andromeda story information
‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ sees you exploring the Andromeda galaxy for a new home. But – spoiler alert – things go very wrong.

Naturally, things go sideways. You play as either Scott or Sara Ryder, a twin thrust into the role of ‘Pathfinder’ and tasked with guiding a ragtag group of aliens in a quest to find a new home. It’s all pretty standard sci-fi stuff — a bite of “Star Trek,” a nibble of “Battlestar” — but Bioware crafts a well-told tale that rises above its derivative vibe to keep you, um, engaged throughout.

Mostly, that’s done though a tweaked version of the branching narrative structure Bioware is known for. Conversation options have expanded beyond the binary Paragon/Renegade of prior games, adding flexibility and giving you a bit more agency over your particular Ryder. Despite some nasty bad guys and extremely high stakes, it’s also significantly more lighthearted than the trilogy’s dour doomsday scenario. Regardless of how you play Ryder, he (or she) is quick to joke and seems intent on keeping the joy of discovery intact.

The dialogue system isn’t as thrilling as it used to be, however. Other franchises have taken the cue and built branching narratives with greater emotional value. “The Witcher 3,” “Life is Strange” — heck, the entire Telltale Games catalog (whose Season 1 of “The Walking Dead” bested “Mass Effect 3” in most 2012 Game of the Year Awards) have pushed the envelope of branching narrative design, making each choice feel impactful. Though your tone changes based on your responses in “Andromeda,” Ryder’s playful, at time snarky attitude takes some of the gravitas out of the decision-making. You rarely break a sweat.

Mass Effect Andromeda's dialogue system
‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’s’ dialogue system lacks the kind of gravitas that makes games like ‘The Witcher 3’ so addictive and powerful.

Still, developing relationships, opening/closing paths, trying to get busy with a blue lady — it’s all here, and thanks to an interesting story, likable characters and great voicework by both male and female Ryders, “Andromeda” does a convincing job of turning you into Captain Kirk.

A downright uncanny job, you might say.

Valley of the Dolls

Unless you’ve been avoiding the internet for the last week, you’ve likely caught wind that gamers are, to put it mildly, displeased with the “Andromeda’s” animations, particularly its facial close-ups. And, well, yeah, the facial animations aren’t great. The game doesn’t just glide over the uncanny valley, it builds a big space house and moves right in.

I typically don’t put too much stock in this; plenty of outstanding games are kind of ugly up close (I’m looking into your lifeless eyes, “Fallout 4”). What makes it so rough here is the amount of time you spend staring at close-ups. A good third of the game is spent chatting with people and developing relationships, but when they look like broken robots, it breaks the spell. About halfway through the game, my Ryder inexplicably developed two wicked lazy eyes that lasted for a good 10 hours.

Mass Effect Andromeda Ryder.
‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’s’ human characters look like dead-eyed androids.

Perhaps the increased power of modern consoles/PCs (I played on PS4) is the culprit — as the theory goes, the closer you get to reality, the deeper the valley. But as ugly as it gets for humankind, the power leads to some amazing aliens. The brutish, dinosaur-like Krogans have never looked better, and jittery eyes and smooth skin give the amphibious Salerians incredible life. I relished every chance to chat with non-humans, both to bask in Bioware’s great work and as a respite from the mannequin onslaught.

This sort of uneven delivery extends to the rest of the game’s graphics. The art design is triumphant – Issac Asimov would commend the look and feel of the game’s colorful terrain, sweeping interstellar views and massive starships – but technical glitches abound. Flickering textures are common, load times are excessive and occasional pop-in mars the stunning planetside vistas. These sorts of glitches aren’t game-breaking, but they speak to a project struggling to bear its own weight.

Mass Effect: Andromeda alien.
Humans might not look good in ‘Mass Effect: Andromeda,’ but the aliens are gorgeous.

Galaxy quest

And make no mistake: “Andromeda’s” scope is massive.

Much of the game takes place on explorable planets that are significantly bigger than the regions found in “Dragon Age: Inquisition.” You can spend hours scouring the nooks and crannies of each location from the comfort of your Nomad rover. And as you find ways to make life more hospitable, the areas open up even further.

Mass Effect: Andromeda planet exploration.
‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’s’ worlds are vast and beautiful.

A star map gives you free reign to explore the Heleus cluster of the Andromeda galaxy. You can only land on and explore a handful of planets, but you rarely feel hemmed in, and the desire to build outposts pushes you to approach Andromeda like a real pioneer. It’s a good hook.

But this goal is quickly buried beneath a ridiculous number of less essential Things to Do. Some are classic “Mass Effect” – your shipmates have needs, and if you want to unlock their highest-level abilities or get them into bed (perv), you’ll need to attend to those — but you pick up other, seemingly unwanted side quests with alarming ease.

Checking in on an outpost? Be careful who you talk to, because apparently every single life form in the galaxy is incapable of handling their own business. Even if they don’t have a gigantic exclamation point on their head, they’ll probably ask you to shuttle something somewhere or look into a mild, pointless drama. And you’ll feel pressed to track down every one, because you never know which insignificant-sounding rabbit hole will yield some legit XP or loot.

Mass Effect Andromeda quest organization.
‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ piles on the quests like every other RPG, but organizes them poorly.

This is fairly common to RPGs, but “Andromeda’s” flood of quests is compounded by terrible quest tracking. A Journal ostensibly keeps tabs on them, but inexplicably lists them based on where you picked them up rather than where they are located in the world. It’s a crazy way to organize quests; land on a planet and you’ll have to either scour dots on the map or rummage through your Journal to figure out what, if anything, you’re supposed to do there.

This alone drove me nuts. I may be a real-world organizational disaster (I am a writer, after all) but this is definitely a trait I don’t want to carry into my sci-fi power fantasy.

Laser tag

On the other hand, I did get to carry lots of guns. And this is one area where “Andromeda” really fixes something.

The game does a fine job of improving and even amping up “Mass Effect’s” combat. Jump jets and a handy dash make you far more maneuverable, which is a boon since you contend with enemies in open-world locations. Skills and proficiencies can totally alter the way you play. Focus on Combat to be a Rambo, invest in Biotics to be a Jedi, stick with Tech to hurl fire and ice, or spread the wealth and be a bit of each. Deep but approachable, the system serves as a solid backend for the on-the-field action.

Mass Effect Andromeda combat system
If there’s one thing Bioware improved for ‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ it’s the game’s combat.

I forgot exactly how shooty “Mass Effect” was, and once you get used to the fact that you’re not playing a game quite as refined as the “Halos” and “Horizons” it attempts to ape, it falls into a pleasant rhythm. Nice touches abound, like jumping and pausing in the air for a few seconds while aiming down your sights. Experimenting with different abilities is also a snap thanks to a handy respec option, quelling the FOMO that rules most games that force to to stick with one class. It’s flexible and fun. Bioware upped their game here, for sure.

But it isn’t perfect. The wide-open universe only yields a handful of enemy types, and none of them are particularly exciting. You have little control over your two fellow squadmates, and the weak enemy A.I. means you never need to think strategically when deciding which companions to bring into battle. I mostly stuck with the Krogan warrior because he looks cool. A baffling “auto” cover system claims that you just need to move close to an object with your gun drawn to hide behind it, but it doesn’t work very well. It just ends up getting you shot a lot, even when you think you’re safe.

Mass Effect Andromeda jump jet
You want jump jets? You’ve got jump jets.

Systems overload

“Andromeda” just doesn’t know when to quit, layering on screen after screen and system after system to make even the simplest task, like equipping a hot new weapon, painstaking.

Find a gun? You’ll need to head back up to your ship or find a “forward station” to switch your loadout, because, well, who knows. Tiny, uniform iconography turns inventory management into a slog. You know the thrill of finding and ogling a gorgeous, exciting new rifle in “Destiny?” That ain’t here.

Scanning planets for resources takes forever due to pretty but infuriatingly slow pans and zooms. Tracking down a specific resource to, for instance, craft a new helmet, is a total crapshoot. Bioware’s focus on the big picture has left a surprising number of holes in its basic RPG foundation.

They even tossed in co-op multiplayer, because it’s 2017 and I think that’s required by law now. “Mass Effect 3” toyed with this and it returns largely unchanged, as you and some pals clear out waves of increasingly stubborn baddies. It’s got its own progression system and offers a decent break from the RPG slog, though considering the core game could take a good 80 hours to complete, I’m not sure anyone needs it.

So do they need “Mass Effect: Andromeda” at all? That’s a tough call. A cool game is buried beneath “Andromeda’s” issues. When the guns are on point and you’ve exploded a Biotic combo, or when the ramifications of some difficult choice made hours ago comes back to haunt you, “Mass Effect: Andromeda” scratches that old space itch. But getting past the technical gaffes and unfriendly interface requires a great deal of patience. Space is big, indeed, but it’s supposed to be fun, too.

Platform reviewed: PS4

What’s hot: Cool story; outpost settling is a good hook; improved maneuverability; deep combat options

What’s not: Technical issues; aggravating interface; seriously uncanny valley; quest quantity over quality; dated feel

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Ben Silverman is on Twitter at ben_silverman.