I’ve been a huge Mass Effect fan since Mass Effect 1. I’ve played through all of the games of the Shepard trilogy many times. Since I care so much about the series, I knew I would have high expectations for Andromeda. After about 20 hours now of gameplay, I wanted to write down my thoughts thus-far.
Fundamentally Mass Effect: Andromeda is a Mass Effect game and should entertain fans of the series, but it suffers from many well-documented problems. I’m going to focus specifically on the user experience problems, which to me feel unconsidered.
I want to start by acknowledging that some the choices BioWare made might have been an attempt to keep the game feeling closely related to its predecessors. Unfortunately, intentional or not, the choices unnecessarily keep the game from feeling like a contemporary AAA title in 2017.
When approaching an object like a door or a person in ME:A, I have to position my Pathfinder to look directly at the target from a specific distance. Older games in the series also worked this way.
In the past few years, games like Bungie’s Destiny have made this interaction much easier by allowing you to look in the general direction of a person or object from a medium distance or approaching angle to inspire a conversation or action.
In ME:A, I often end up wasting time trying to target the person or figuring out how to approach them from a specific angle in order to engage them. In Destiny I can run wildly towards the Cryptarch and start my engram decrypting session 100% of the time by smashing the approach button. This looseness feels fun and gives me confidence in the interactions.
In Mass Effect, I have to finagle my character back and forth to open the doors to the Tempest if I approach too closely. This ends up being a small but constant frustration throughout the game.
Mapping and location
ME:A relies on a simple compass view at the top of the screen to show your waypoint. Often this ends up not being helpful since the game has vertical dimensionality to the maps. A little up or down arrow discloses which direction you need to go when you are close to an object, person or waypoint. The information it provides ends up being unclear partially because it doesn’t take into account objects in the way.
Horizon Zero Dawn uses this same type of compass system, but has much stronger use of color and clear iconography. It also uses opacity to help describe distance. It is more aggressive with in-context targeting to help me find the direction to nearby objects and their vertical orientation. It works better.
In ME:A I spend lots of time diving in and out of the map menu to find my way. This is especially frustrating because entering the map is a two step process. For something I am toggling on and off often, this extra interaction becomes tedious through repetition.
Other compass-based navigation system do not seem to have this problem. In Horizon Zero Dawn I rarely feel lost and therefore don’t need to use the full map nearly as often. Many other games give you a sense of what direction you need to walk with turn-by-turn navigation.
Notice how Destiny constantly shows you where to turn next using a pulsing white diamond indicator.
Another decision that confuses me is the menu system. When you enter the menu you get a traditional Mass Effect circular menu to choose the section you wish to interact with. Once you enter a particular section you can also move between menu sections horizontally. Having two competing navigation systems gives me constant pause as to the fastest way to navigate, adding hesitation and ambiguity to my decision-making.
In many menu screens but most notably the ‘Journal’ section, enclosing folders present sub-information. To see my current mission I need to know the type of mission I’m dealing with and the name of the mission. Both are necessary in order to view current progress of objectives.
There is very little visual information as to my current enclosure level, other than tiny, half-opaque breadcrumbs at the top of the screen and a folder icon next to the title. This requires me to re-parse where I am and what I’m doing.
In other menu sections the circular layout theme is continued with the type and iconography, which makes the content more difficult to parse than if it has been laid out on a grid. There is a tension between all menu sections as they look similar and yet, slightly different. This frequently results in feeling lost as to what menu section I’m viewing.
Font choice and size
I am playing the game on a fairly large TV at 1080p resolution from about eight feet away. I have 20/20 vision and the font size of many UI elements often rests on the edge of unreadable. I could imagine the font rendering much better in 4K but I’m stunned that this wasn’t considered more carefully.
When working towards an objective in the game you are presented with new terms or specific places to go. I can’t believe I physically have to get up to make sure I’m reading something this important correctly. Either BioWare was being optimistic about people having 4K setups or they didn’t consider how distance might impact UI legibility.
The font choices are about as equally unreadable as they were in previous Mass Effect games. Narrow fonts with very little kerning make the Codex unpleasant. Overly bold fonts with heavy letterforms are distracting. Curved layouts on paragraph text seem unconsidered. This game ends up being a lesson in why typography is important.
One of the most disturbing gameplay issues is knowing when your biotics and special powers are charged and ready to go. This is critical to fast gameplay and many other games have solved this well.
In Destiny, when your Super charges, you get clear gold text in the middle of the screen letting you know it’s ready to go. Zero ambiguity.
Blizzard makes it 100% clear you are ready to go with your Ultimate in Overwatch.
Here’s what it looks like when your biotic is ready to go in Mass Effect: Andromeda.
I miss this all the time when there is action on the screen. It is very unclear which powers are charged and which are not. It assumes too much of the user. The attempt at subtlety gets lost in the heat of battle.
There are a host of other issues that hurt ME:A, such as the voice acting, animations, and the gameplay mechanics. I’d love to see improvements in those areas as well, but I would mainly like to see these interface problems resolved before the next Mass Effect game. The game’s ‘rough around the edges’ feel is amplified by these issues. It ends up making the gameplay less fun when you are consistently fighting the interface.
Numerous other recent game releases have demonstrated mature design thinking in their interfaces. It’s been wonderful watching design come into a position of prominence in video games. I hope BioWare can pick up on the value and ideals of that work and bring the next Mass Effect up to speed.