I already said I wasn't going to have long intros, so I'm gonna get right into it.
For anyone who didn't read the intro, here it is, even though it's not required.
The action is, on a visceral level, very satisfying. Ryder moves with speed and purpose, every element of combat is fluid and crisp, guns fire punchy, loud shots. At the system's core, aiming a weapon and pulling the trigger feel good in a way they never have in a Mass Effect game. I can see how 'It's the best ME game from a combat perspective' or 'It's a good shooter' are reasonable defences of the game. Ryder feels more weighty, fluid, and more 'real' than Shepard - but this doesn't come at the cost of precision. Ryder can sprint and leap or tiptoe and aim equally well, which is no small feat. Coming off the back of playing the Witcher, where tilting the control stick often sends Geralt bowling through a group of hapless NPCs, I can appreciate how polished the controls are. Kinaesthetically, Andromeda's easily the best Bioware have ever done to date.
There's also no getting around how much more organic its open world feels, compared to ME3's linear set of shooting galleries. Players have a lot more freedom in how they approach combat, or, in many cases, whether they aproach it at all. It really matters, and makes Andromeda feel more like a game and less like a playable movie.
And it's important that we acknowledge there's no blueprint for what 'good' or 'bad' combat looks like. What is enjoyable to some might be boring or confusing to others, especially in games which cross the lines of so many different genres. Sure, kinaesthetically pleasing combat is almost always better than not, but that isn't the be all and end all of action gameplay.
And this is still an RPG. The genre sets expectations higher than aesthetics. Combat isn't just that thing you do in between conversations, just as conversations aren't that thing you do in between shooting and driving. It doesn't exist solely to provide spectacle and enjoyable feedback. It's a key space through which players define their characters by making decisions.
Or, to put it another way, the problem is choice.
Giving the player access to every ability and background means more choice, but those choices are also less important than ever. Combined with the removal of the control wheel (which allowed for direct control over every power available to both the player and his squadmates, and not just the three mapped to face buttons), Andromeda's combat is a notable step down from ME3 in terms of roleplaying and strategy.
There are far less options for levelling squadmates than previous games (Image Source: MKIceAndFire)
In ME3, players could 'prime' a combo by using a tech/biotic power on an enemy, and 'detonate' that combo by hitting the primed enemy with another ability. Countdowns were affected by weapon weight so players could spec a tech or biotic build with low weight who threw powers around and sparked combos like a madman. It made for exciting, well paced combat encounters that the series has, in my opinion, never topped. Giving players the chance to go all in on the game's most unique aspects made ME3 different to the usual cover shooter fare. And it tied into the themes of the game in its own way: the story was about building a galactic alliance to defeat the Reapers; the strongest strategy in combat was using powers in tandem with your allies to detonate combos.
While combos still exist, such a playstyle is significantly harder to pull off in Andromeda. Because the power wheel has been removed, setting up/detonating combos is more of a happy accident than a viable core strategy the same way it was in ME3 and squadmate's powers are limited to 3, even though players use the power wheel to switch weapons anyway. There's no sense behind such a limitation (senseless limitations on the player will be a recurring theme throughout this series) and the devs really showed that they misunderstood the good things about the OT (another recurring theme) with this decision. Because the player can choose any power regardless of class they never find themselves with any weaknesses or blind spots that need covering. Who accompanies you into combat doesn't matter in the same way as it did at least in ME1 as squadmates don't have to provide the aforementioned cover with defined abilities, nor are there vulnerabilities in enemies that only they can exploit - and the player doesn't have to consider how powers interact nearly as much. The player can switch profiles on the fly, but doing so activates every cooldown, so updraging more than 3 skills at once is just wasteful. There's no real functional difference between a tech, soldier or biotic power the way there was in ME3 because you're barely using them in tandem. What makes this worse is Bioware Montreal are the guys who worked on ME3's multiplayer. That was far better than it had any right to be and every class had a distinct identity, so how did they get it so wrong here?
See, it's not just about what the systems allow the player to do. It's also important to consider what strategies and behaviours those systems encourage, or even condition, in players. I fully accept that perhaps I just played the game in a way which was less enjoyable than others, and that's partly on me (despite spending a significant amount of time experimenting with different abilities and strategies). But that's not just the result of my choices but the systems in which I made them, systems which encouraged and discouraged certain strategies.
There are combos, but cooldowns make them far less useful (Image Source: MKIceAndFire).
As a result, in a game with psionic gravity-warping biotics or future-tech glowing omni tools, the simple frag grenade (high damage, arcs behind cover, no cooldown) ends up being one of the best abilties, which is kinda sad. When I think of Charlotte Cutt's excellent article about how more options is always better, I feel like Andromeda is the perfect counterargument. You have all the options in the world but the choices themselves have less meaning than ever because there is no opportunity cost in the decison-making process and viable combat strategies have been drastically narrowed. If Ryder can do everything, the difference between playstyles narrows, which severely hurts replayability, and players will naturally be drawn to make choices around effectiveness and not the background of their character or squad roster.
And the abundance of costless choices means that none of the gameplay choices can have any narrative impact, because there are simply too many possibilities to account for. It's like comparing the faction choices from Fallout 4 to Skyrim. Because you can choose to join, and eventually lead every faction in Skyrim, there can't be any potential conflict between them, which segregates their narratives. Narrative issues aside, at least the choice of who you join matters in Fallout 4's story. In ME1, there were small sidequests based on Shepard's background. Not much, but those kind of small variations added up to make the games more replayable and Shepard's journey feel unique each time. Here? What difference does Ryder being a soldier or biotic have? Never mind compared to Dragon Age, where the racial or class choices make a huge difference to the experience.
Profiles only really offer a few passive bonuses, and matter very little on lower difficulties or to high-level Ryders (Image Source: USGamer)
It's not as though the removal of the wheel, misguided as I think it was, is enough to make the combat 'bad' or 'not a true ME game'. It still is snappy, fluid and 'juicy'. The problem is direction. The combat's disparate elements never really come together to create either a focused experience or a platform for role-playing choices, so the combat being juicy at its core isn't as great as you'd think it would be. I don't know what the developers were really going for with the combat and I'm not sure they themselves knew because the level design, mechanics and enemy types grate against each other and drag down the whole experience.
So, enough about what they removed. What did they add? Well, Ryder has a jetpack which can be used to jump higher or dodge at speed. This allows for gameplay to extend beyond simply shooting - these mechanics make for several platforming sections which, while not really good enough to wow anyone who's ever played Mario or Uncharted, combine well with the puzzle mechanics in the vaults to provide well-paced breaks from shooting and driving. The aforementioned polished control helps a lot here even if the jumpjets only really increase jumping ability - you can hover, but won't be able to truly fly. Most of these areas are optional and puzzles can be bypassed through 'decryption keys' which, while rare and expensive, make it easy to avoid that content. So it's no problem if players aren't fans of sudoku-like puzzles or ledge-grabbing but still want to clear all the content or grab all the loot.
The puzzles, while repetitive and simple, offer welcome breaks from combat (Image Source: MKIceAndFire).
The problem is the greater mobility options don't mesh with combat at all. The camera is too close to Ryder, which makes lateral movement harder than it needs to be, especially when arenas are filled with knee-high crates for cover. Most enemies bunker down behind cover and most arenas are spacious and broad. Naturally, sniper rifles end up being almost necessary because of the huge open spaces and very accurate AI, along with poor range of most weapons and powers that isn't helped much even with aim-assist. The jetpack doesn't get you close enough without taking damage, and enemies like the Anointed (the second most common Kett enemy type, armed with space-LMGs) shred your shields so quickly that taking cover is the only way to deal with them on higher difficulties. The game's controls want you to rush enemies and take risks, dodging and weaving through combat encounters. But the close perspective, lack of interesting abilities and common enemy attacks lead players to approach combat as conservatively as they'd approach any generic cover shooter (at least on higher difficulties). It's a shame because games like DOOM have slower projectiles and arenas which are in the 'goldilocks zone': not too sparse that you have to take hits before you can engage enemies, and not so claustrophobic as to limit player movement. And that's before you consider Warframe, a game which has made mobility into an art form. On a simple design level, jetpacks have no place in cover shooters and levels filled with cover and hyper-accurate minigun wielding grunts have no place in a game trying to encourage agile, aggressive movement.
Outside of combat, conversation and travelling, you'll spend most of your time scanning. Scanning definitely ends up as a crutch for the majority of sidequests (Image Source: MKIceAndFire).
Another issue which prevents the combat from reaching its potential is the enemy design. Bioware could have gone all out and created anything for players to fight - hell, in a completely different galaxy you have the perfect excuse to mix up enemy types, so the similarity most enemies have to not only enemies in the OT but enemies in all cover-shooters really belies a lack of imagination. Even a galaxy away, we're still killing human-shaped, gun wielding grunts. When the game provides wildlife, there's little variation among them, nor is there much explanation why the same set of animals appear across multiple different planets, systems apart, with wildly differtent biomes. I'm not expecting monster hunter, but you don't need to be Sir David Attenborough to know that the same lizards which live in a radioactive desert wouldn't survive in a tundra, and 'the Jardaan made them' is little more than an excuse.
Look. How. Boring. The. Kett. Are. (Image Source: Mass Effect Wiki)
There are 11 distinct animal types, and they all function the same - that is to rush you down. The only difference between them is survivability, size, a couple of cloaking abilities and the Auroch's instakill attack (seriously, that's the thing from ME3 you keep?) Kett, Roekaar and Exiles are all humanoid and have very few unique or interesting abilities - cloaking and grenades are common among all. Remnant are the most varied: floating Observers are threatening because they drift over cover but are vulnerable for the same reason. Assemblers spawn small 'breachers'which swarm the player, so they can always shift the pace of combat at a moment's notice. Nullifiers both shoot through cover and have long windups highlighted by their red targeting laser. The Remnant feel like the only enemies designed to actually interact with Andromeda's cover and mobility mechanics.
Observers and Nullifiers, some of the more unique enemies (Image Source: MKIceAndFire)
It's no surprise then, that the combat has its high points when it gets away from shooting dudes. Fighting a Remnant Architect for the first time is an impressive spectacle, a giant, multi-stage (even if those stages are just 'it moves slightly further away from you') worm-like boss creature. Sure, the narrative reasons for the Initiative fighting the Remnant are shaky at best, and there isn't a single other enemy on the Architect's scale (in power or size), but the fight itself is still intense and challenging. The Architect makes use of area-of-effect attacks along with a repeating shot that has a windup long enough to give players a chance to find cover. Ryder has to constantly move and use his jetpack to survive, and it's a snapshot to what the game could have been if they'd designed other enemies similarly regardless of scale. Sadly, only 5 exist. It manages to be bizarrely both over- and underused: it goes without saying that making the final boss an enemy players could have already faced four times before is a bad idea. Say what you will about ME2's Terminator foetus but the human reaper was striking, original and bizarre enough to really feel like a final boss.
There's no denying the spectacle of an Architect fight is impressive (Image Source: Mass Effect Wiki).
Thats a perfect microcosm of the problems of Andromeda's combat. It's flashy, never worse than functional and not even close to 'bad', but is that really an achievement when it barely commits to anything resembling an original idea? It doesn't build itself around its new mechanics and actively removes some of the unique ones that made ME3 so fun and subsequently fails to meet its potential. And the few times it does do something interesting or impressive, it barely punctuates a thorougly generic experience.
I'm no fool. I know combat not being great is far from enough to hold down a Mass Effect game: if it was, I wouldn't be a fan or writing this in the first place. Solely as a mechanical system, MEA's combat is still leagues ahead of 1 and 2, and I did later mod my Ryder to be an absolute storm of bullets and powers, improving the game somewhat. Even vanilla, there are some interesting and intense fights to be had but they're the exception, not the rule. What really drags the action down is the level and quest design, which I'll get into next time.
(As an aside, I'm getting really annoyed by Origin's lack of screenshot feature. And I'm only discovering now that you can use Steam's overlay with Origin games to take screenshots through Steam. Would have been nice to know before spending 80 hours or so playing this game).