EEDAR Review Scan: Mass Effect: Andromeda

04.03.17

Review Scan is a periodic feature here on EEDAR’s blog, where analysts take a recently released title and break down critical reviews of it, laying out the game’s major strengths and weaknesses. Just as EEDAR does in our custom mock reviews and game evaluations, suggestions are then provided for how the game could have reviewed better and been received more positively. Today's post focuses on the latest entry in the celebrated Mass Effect series, released on March 21, and called Mass Effect Andromeda.

Mass Effect Andromeda is a very interesting review case study, and so it’s worth a little more context here. Developer Bioware is well known for making huge, story-heavy Role-Playing Games, going back to the days of Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. These games are usually very well-reviewed, not only because they’re very impressive technically, but because they provide unforgettable characters and story interactions to go along with the impressive choice and depth available while role-playing. Mass Effect as a series was introduced by Bioware in 2007, and while all three games in the series were lauded for providing solid characters and excellent stories, the games have also moved steadily towards a focus on action rather than storytelling. Mass Effect 3 was released in 2012 to mostly positive reviews, but its plot was attacked for being too simple compared to previous titles in the series. Mass Effect Andromeda, then, is a reboot of sorts, providing both a new setting and a new protagonist in an attempt to expand the series’ scope (and perhaps reset some expectations around the series’ and developer’s RPG heritage).

Unfortunately for Bioware, Mass Effect Andromeda has arrived to the lowest Metascore in the series, and one of the developer’s lowest Metascores overall. Dragon Age II, largely seen by critics as a rare misstep in quality and focus from Bioware’s history, garnered a Metascore of 82. Mass Effect Andromeda is over 10 points lower at 71. The only other title in Bioware’s history to score this low is Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, an RPG spinoff of the Sonic series that Bioware produced for Sega.

With that context, let’s explore why this game scored the way it did.

Positives

Combat is improved, with more options

Critics agreed that the best feature of Mass Effect: Andromeda is its improved combat. Combat in these games has been steadily improving throughout the sequels, and in this latest version, Bioware has made shooting and fighting feel more responsive than ever. The addition of a jetpack to the player’s arsenal means they can hover and fly to see out over the battlefield, or zoom right into (or out of) a fight. Critics also praised the removal of the class system (instead allowing players to mix and match abilities as they see fit), and while some critics didn’t like that the player’s NPC allies could no longer be managed directly, they did appreciate the game’s combo system, where players can match their abilities to their allies’ skills to do more damage or turn the battle a certain way. The one negative point here is the somewhat touchy automatic cover system, but other than that small concern, the combat in Mass Effect Andromeda is some of the most satisfying the series has ever seen.

Open world elements do expand exploration

Bioware has been moving towards open world gameplay for a while – Star Wars: The Old Republic is an open world MMO, and Dragon Age: Inquisition took that series in a more open world direction, with extremely large areas for players to explore, loot, and even conquer. That direction has continued here, where the player’s character is the Pathfinder, and the emphasis is on exploring and colonizing the large, open spaces of the game’s “Golden Worlds.” Critics called out these spaces as beautiful and huge, and with the addition of the game’s Nomad vehicle, said they were very easy to explore and get lost in. The worlds even have puzzles to solve and crafting components to find in them, and so critics agreed that these environments made the game worth exploring from start to finish.

Removing Paragon and Renegade meters allows for better character creation

Past entries in the series have pushed the player’s dialogue choices towards two opposing options, Paragon and Renegade, with different consequences and benefits for each. Andromeda, however, does away with these arbitrary opposites, and instead allows the player to choose from a number of different dispositions during each dialogue sequence. Critics said that the removal of “locked-in” Paragon and Renegade options allows the player to make choices more freely and create a more unique character, rather than having to fit into an archetype.

There’s a negative here, in that critics felt the more open dialogue system also meant that choices weren’t quite as consequential as those in past titles. While past choices, especially in dialogues, could really push players to one side or the other, the addition of more viewpoints here makes each choice less meaningful by comparison. Critics said that while the open-ended dialogue system was good, it wasn’t quite as powerful or consequential as some of the biggest choices in past games.

 

Negatives

Story isn’t as compelling as previous games

The biggest issue that reviewers had with Mass Effect: Andromeda was that the story and the characters weren’t nearly as compelling as those found in the previous titles. While the initial Mass Effect titles felt fresh and new (even though they borrowed some common sci-fi elements), Andromeda feels a bit cliché and less interesting. Critics noted that the player is turned into the Pathfinder quickly with a stilted tutorial, meaning that the plot’s beginning feels thin and unearned. The game’s characters did earn some praise, but they weren’t as enjoyable for most critics as series standbys like Wrex, Liara, and Garrus, and Andromeda’s new aliens and villains didn’t compare well to the dynamic personalities present in past titles. Enemy variety was also lacking, with only a few variations on core enemies, rather than really different types of life on the game’s many worlds. Overall, critics said that the game felt iterative rather than revolutionary. The game’s setting and characters echoed the quality of the previous Mass Effect games, but didn’t do a good enough job of standing on their own and feeling like a real improvement on what the past titles have offered.

Character animations and some UI elements are poorly implemented

This is probably the most interesting point of this title’s reception: Many critics and reviewers called out the game’s character animations as a big negative (with characters featuring lifeless faces, poorly animated movements or even buggy animations), and said that many of the game’s UI elements and minor systems were frustratingly poor in their implementations. Planet scanning was the biggest sin here: Players have to choose each planet to scan by hand, need to wait through a long animation for the scan to happen, and then earn an underwhelming reward (usually just a few bits of currency) when the scan is finished. The whole process is a negative, and is made even more frustrating by the fact that this replaces what was already a problematic system in the previous games as well. Critics say this was a clear opportunity for improvement that was either ignored or even made more frustrating.

It’s true that the concerns around the animations and the scanning implementation were called out as negatives for the title even before the reviews dropped: A few early previews also contained complaints about these features, and the discussion about them nearly overshadowed the game’s reception. EEDAR does believe there was some bias here: Because people talked about the low quality of these features before the final reviews arrived, it seems likely that review scores were lower overall. As objective as reviewers try to be, hearing one poor reaction can influence other reactions, and EEDAR believes that is the case here to a certain extent.

However, there is also no question that some of the animations in the game are of poor quality. This is also the first Mass Effect title made for modern consoles, and with the release of titles like The Witcher 3, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, and Horizon: Zero Dawn, expectations are higher for character animations, both in gameplay and during cutscenes. Planet scanning was also a negative in past titles, so it makes sense that critics would attack that experience here as well. While EEDAR does believe that comments on the animation quality did bias some reviewers in terms of scores, it’s also likely true that those concerns would have come up in reviews no matter what. Scores may have been a bit higher if early criticism hadn’t come out, but one look at the rough animations or one bad experience with the planet scanning shows that these are still real issues to deal with, regardless of any bias.

Quests and some areas are barren and repetitive

Finally, critics called out Andromeda’s side quests and open worlds for being somewhat barren and feeling like “filler.” While the open worlds can be spectacular, they are also relatively empty compared to other titles like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Horizon: Zero Dawn, and critics found that many of the activities there weren’t very innovative or all that interesting (most of the game’s puzzles boiled down into a slightly tweaked version of Sudoku). There is a lot of wide-open space in Andromeda’s Golden Worlds, and not a lot to do there. Quests are also an issue, with too many quests simply asking the player to go to a place and kill some enemies. While the relationship-specific ally side quests were called out as a strength, many other quests were considered inconsequential and repetitive. Players understand that not every single quest can be unique and singular, but critics said that Andromeda reused the same standard quest structure a bit too much throughout the campaign.

Recommendations

EEDAR’s main recommendation for Mass Effect: Andromeda would be to have the title set a solid new tone, rather than trying to revisit what was popular about the series previously. The additions to combat are the closest point here to success, but the Mass Effect “formula” is to fly around the galaxy, pick up crewmates to grow closer to over time, and eventually try to take down an enemy that saves the world. Andromeda hews very close to this formula despite its differences from the previous series, and that doesn’t line up well with what players necessarily wanted from a new tale in the universe. Bioware might have been better served focusing on what was different about this title: New aliens, and a new focus on the world that isn’t necessarily about killing or being killed. Shepard was a military man, and the Pathfinder could have been a character that was about finding and making peace in the world, about building things up rather than tearing them down. Instead, critics say that the game has boiled down into too many quests where the player’s job is to go to a point and kill an enemy, without strong management elements or choices outside of that structure.

EEDAR would also recommend improving on the game’s least interesting systems, including planetary scanning, crafting, and character advancement. That third system was improved here, with the removal of classes, but EEDAR would further recommend perhaps character abilities that open up based on ally choices, or even other character options for race or age. Crafting could be improved as well, with a smoother UI and more rewarding moments when mining or gathering. Crafting could also involve some randomness or secrecy, with players getting either a random chance for a bonus or a bigger surprise when they craft something nice (rather than just choosing it from a list). Planetary scanning could also be improved, with better rewards, and a better interface.

Finally, EEDAR would recommend that player choice be emphasized with the title, and that player choices be made as meaningful as possible. Critics of the game said that with the new dialogue options, NPCs essentially waved off most player choices, and with such a clear and simple villain in the game, there weren’t any really tough decisions to be made. The discovery of every new planet brings with it a whole slew of moral issues: Is the player choosing to be an explorer, a conqueror, an extractor, or a farmer? Are players leaving these new areas as untouched as possible, are they looking to push their will on these areas, or are they looking to take these new areas for everything they’re worth, until moving onto the next planet full of resources? Andromeda could have done a better job of really exploring these choices, and making a player’s decisions about how to interact with these worlds extremely meaningful and consequential. Critics complained when it felt like the story was on a scripted path rather than really allowing them to tell their own tales, and so Andromeda would likely have been better served making the player’s actions more directly and powerfully affect the game’s world.

 

Conclusion

Mass Effect Andromeda is an above average title, with a score likely impacted by some points of low quality and a negative early reception bias. There are definitely improvements to be made here, and hopefully the next release in the series will shore up the repetitive quests, improve the UI, and polish some of the rough content. Overall, Andromeda would have benefited from being more ambitious and trying to deliver a brand new experience rather than merely revisiting what was popular about the previous Mass Effect titles. Even with Andromeda’s technical concerns, it’s clear that reviewers were looking for a game that tried to be more unique, rather than recreating the same characters and situations in a slightly different light.

 

Mike Schramm
Manager of Qualitative Insights, EEDAR

EEDAR regularly performs analysis like this on titles both released and in development. For insight on your title or project, reach out to Cooper Waddell and see how EEDAR can help you.

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