TL;DR: The gaming-review websites are right on this one.
As I continue my wowcation, I’m catching up on console games. I’m sticking to my resolution to play no game without a colon in its title. Fortunately, the game companies of the world do not disappoint in this quest.
I’m going to aim this review towards those who’ve played the other games in the Mass Effect (ME) series. If you haven’t played any ME games before, I don’t think this is a good place to start, unless you’re utterly (and I mean utterly) dismissive of story and only play games for the combat. Yes, there’s a codex and you can read the entries to fill in the background, but if you don’t know why there appear to be no male asari, why female krogan are special, and which are the salarans and the turians, you’ll have to read a lot to catch up.
The very beginning of ME:A is set between the events of ME:1 and ME:2, but it immediately jumps to 600 years later with arrival of inter-galactic arks from the Milky Way to the Andromeda galaxy. After the usual “start with a disaster” and various soap-opera events, you play the role of Ryder, the human Pathfinder, charged with forging a home for the Milky Way races (humans, asari, turians, salarans, krogan) among the planets of the Heleus cluster within Andromeda. You quickly come into contact with an enemy race, the kett, and a potentially friendly race, the angaaran. You learn of an ancient and extinct race, the Remnant, and search among the ruins of their highly advanced technology, looking for tools to accomplish your missions.
The graphics of this game are gorgeous. Bioware’s effort in making use of modern graphics hardware is impressive. (The exception are the character figures, which still wander in the range of the uncanny valley.)
Your reaction to the game mechanics may vary from mine, since I played on the “easy” level and don’t focus on min-maxing. I liked the fact that you’re not stuck in your initial “spec” of Ryder, and can respend your skill points (for an increasing amount of credits each time) to play a different role if you choose. I played in Tech Spec, blasting away the enemy’s shields, freezing them in place, and overcharging them to create combat combos. After about level 40 (I got to level 61 by the end of the game), you can even get enough skills in multiple talent areas so that you can shift between, for example, combat spec to biotic spec in the middle of a firefight.
In addition to the skill customization of Ryder, the graphics customization of Ryder is stronger than any previous ME game (though in line with Bioware’s previous RPG-style game, DragonAge: Inquisition). I chose to play a female character named Angela Ryder (the last name cannot be changed) with dark skin, short auburn hair, and blue eyes. Par for the course, but the interesting twist is that in the game you will see images of your father, mother, and brother; the game does some “genetic extrapolation” so these characters generally resemble you. You’re allowed to change your appearance (but not your gender) during the course of the game; I didn’t test if your family changes with you.
Diversity in characters is well-represented. The starting members of your party are Cora, a Nordic-style blonde, and Liam, an African-American with a British accent. As in all recent Bioware games, you can explore romantic possibilities with most of the characters on your ship, the Tempest. I started with Cora, but she gently let me know she wasn’t into women. I didn’t bother with the other humans (Liam, Suvi, Gil) after that, because who wants a relationship with a human? I really wanted to hit it off with Vetra, a turian (in memory of Garrus) but she just stammered and didn’t follow up on my interest. Finally I wound up with Peebee, an asari, who is by far the easiest character (in more ways than one) to hook up with, as long as you can deal with her annoying behavior.
Your reaction to unskippable cutscenes may be different from mine. I mentioned the gorgeous graphics. The problem is that, if we’re not talking about lovemaking, seeing the same gorgeous thing over and over again with no variation gets tedious after a while. One graphics transition was skippable (moving between planets within a system); the others were not (e.g., moving between stellar systems). In my last review, I complained about Torment’s transitions between areas, but there you saw a load bar and knew it was the game doing some programmatic switching. Here it seems like the ME:A designers are just showing off the graphics processors.
Another problem is the story. My brief plot summary above may have seemed familiar to you, down to the roles that various races play in ME1-3. ME:A is definitely more of the same. You go on quests, you’ve got the character-loyalty missions (which reward the ability to purchase upper-level abilities for your party’s characters), the ancient races are mysterious, the enemy is a bunch of mean bastards for you to mow down, you fight mini-bosses, etc. After seeing the same thing five or six times now (including the DragonAge games), don’t expect to see anything different.
A criticism of ME:3 is that all the decisions Shepard made during the course of ME:1-3 had no difference in the outcome of the saga. It’s hard to judge ME:A by the same criteria. You can make decisions that affect some NPCs and plotlines by the end of the game, but there don’t seem to be any major consequences. (It’s possible I’m missing something; I had a lot of allies along the way in the final battle, and it may be that your decisions would affect which and how many allies show up. Because I played in easy mode, the presence of allies didn’t mean much to me.) There are hints that some of your decisions would impact events in sequels, but Bioware has decided not to release any more patches or DLC for single-player ME:A. This not only means the “end” of the game (no dangling plot threads resolved), but probably the end (or a very long delay) for the Mass Effect series. Perhaps if the game were to have continued, your role-playing choices would have long-term consequences.
In the end, I enjoyed the game, primarily because the reviews on the gaming sites had lowered my expectations somewhat. Make no mistake: apart from the graphics and some game-mechanics tweaks, this is the same “Mass Effect” game, in both tone and plot, that you’ve experienced before. If you want to experience anything different, seek elsewhere.