I had, by purpose or distraction, not found out anything about Mass Effect Andromeda [official site] before playing its review build, beyond that it was set in a whole new galaxy. Ooh goody, I thought! A sci-fi RPG series I completely loved, but with a fresh start, baggage shed, and the extraordinary potential of a setting in a galaxy entirely unlike our own.

 Yeah, about that. The first few hours of Andromeda are a gruesome trudge through the most trite bilge of the previous three games, smeared out in a setting that’s horribly familiar, burdened with some outstandingly awful writing, buried beneath a UI that appears to have been designed to infuriate in every possible way.

I had gone in assuming this would be more BioWare pleasure. So far – and let’s be clear, there’s lots of room and time for it to pick up and turn things around – the first few hours have been just awful.

This time out you begin by choosing whether you’re a lady or a man called Ryder, daughter or son of a leading figure in an expedition to leave the Milky Way and start new lives in Andromeda. Using magic telescopes the various familiar races of Mass Effect were able to spot “golden planets” in the new galaxy, and setting out in massive ships called arks, each race shipping about 20,000 passengers, they set off on a six hundred year trip in cryo-tanks to reach the new lands. I love this start! It says, “We can be anything, do anything!” If that’s the plan, the game isn’t showing its hand in this early section.

I’m at a loss. What I expect from BioWare is slightly dodgy combat, but splendid writing and characters. What I’ve seen so far is some decent enough combat (but nothing beyond what you’d expect in a third person shooter), and some of the most dreadful writing. I cannot emphasise enough how poor it’s been.

 Humanity travels to a new galaxy for the first time, there’s so much hope, so much potential, but oh noes, everything’s horrid, and there’s a reptilian-looking alien race on a dusty sand planet that shoots you with ray guns on first sight. Really?! A different galaxy and the diversion from the norm is so slight that between the generic bone-headed (literally) lizards and their pew-pew antics are, er, floating rocks? (Seriously, the game thinks this innovation in portraying reality is so novel that every character feels the need to mention it.) Within seconds you’re apparently the Chosen One, a Pathfinder, which means someone who can look at a planet and say, “Yes, I think people might be able to live here.” Er?

Within minutes of starting there’s a cutscene in which a soldier type is shooting an already entirely dead corpse, and someone else has to say, “Hey, hey, take it easy,” and he fires off a few more shots and declares himself satisfied. I can’t even imagine how anyone can feel okay with writing that into a script without experiencing enough shame to just get up, walk away, and keep walking until they fall off of or into something.

Both Gary Carr’s Liam (a companion) and Zoe Telford’s Addison (grumpy Space Captain Lady) sound as though they’re distractedly reading from a page where the text is too small in a poorly lit room, which is a real problem when both are in such prominent roles. Telford’s E-NUNC-I-AT-ING makes it sound like she’s reading phonetic words in a language she’s never heard. Thankfully Fryda Wolff is perfectly good as your character, Ryder (no one plays Mass Effect as a guy, right?), so at least you don’t wince at the sound of your own voice. In a saving throw, the brilliant Kumail Nanjiani is cast as a Salarian, Director Tann, but he’s so far not been given anything worth saying. Most of the rest are stilted or dreary.

This is endemic. It’s so very, very bizarre to be playing a BioWare game where the characters are so empty and dull. Of course the two companions you start with in all three previous Mass Effect games are the worst, and that’s no exception here. But it doesn’t get much better. You are bombarded with conversation by nearly your entire crew early on, and they’re so freaking stereotypical. The exposition hangs off the dialogue like eighty ton weights, drowning any hope of emotional connection. Characters painfully tell you what their personalities are, rather than, say, having one. (“I tend to live the way I work: kinda “feel it, do it.” Not a lot of close ties, no real sense of purpose.” – Actual dialogue someone wrote on purpose.)

Generic Grumpy Space Captain Lady is there, right up front. With a deft hand she begins by correcting your grammar from “who” to “whom”, and then in the same conversation says “less” when she means “fewer”. Whatever, but don’t play Grammar Corrector if you don’t know any.

It feels so BioWare Paint By Numbers. Before the term has even been explained to you, you’re granted that awe-inspiring title of “Pathfinder”. People stop and mutter reverently when they realise it’s you, far before you even know it’s you. To get to grips with the title you need to dig through the game’s Codex, which is a crappy way of explaining one of its core concepts, let alone helpful in making the ridiculously early appointment anything close to meaningful. It feels so flippant, like a programmed sigh of, “Bollocks to it, the player has to become The Special One, no point dragging it out.” Within an hour of starting you’re so titled.

And then of course the first rando you speak to says, “You’re the Pathfinder! They’ll listen to you! My husband’s been arrested for a crime he didn’t commit!” There are like twelve people on this space station, but no, BioWare can’t not be BioWare, and awkwardly cranks out its most generic and over-used side quest right out the gate.

You’ll want to know about combat. It’s fine. It’s better than previous Mass Effects, because it’s been set free. You can still use your Biotic tricks like flinging people into their air, then popping off their head with your favourite gun, but now you can do it out in the open world rather than in some silly corridor. There are lots of ways to approach fighting, and you can spec up as a tank, a ninja or a ranged fighter, or a wizard, essentially. As I said at the start of this paragraph, it’s fine. Enemy AI is nothing to get excited about – mostly they bob up and down behind cover – but then that’s true of every game ever.

 As for your own team’s AI… well, look:

What else have I experienced? EVERYTHING! The game throws #content at you in fistfuls, not pausing to tell you why or how you should care. You can craft absolutely bloody everything (which does afford the rather important ability to name your own equipment), from a madcap confusion of ludicrous curved lists that don’t scroll properly, where every action requires seventeen different clicks that confirm that you want to confirm that you want to craft the thing you don’t know if you need. You can gather minerals by exploring, and you need them for crafting or upgrades or whatever, and they’re so madly distributed.

“I’m tracking a huge mineral deposit,” says someone on your crew, so you trace the “anomaly”, fly to it in the laboriously slow animation, scan it, and then click to pick up, say, “+147 Iron”. Enough to make a gun.

It’s mindblowing how dreadful the planet scanning system is. That you have to watch the camera zoom in to wherever you were, then crawl across the solar system to wherever you clicked (in an animation that reveals nothing, offers nothing) and then every single time zoom in too far into that planet, hold for two seconds, then pull back out again to where it’ll eventually show the UI. I can only assume that in testing BioWare had a way to skip this, because otherwise anyone playing the game ahead of launch would surely have questioned the wisdom of making this completely unrewarding experience so unbelievably boring to wade through.

UI design is a spectacle of bad choices, and this is the one area where it’s definitely not going to improve after these scene-setting few hours. This is a design so poorly put together that you can’t even just look at a list of active quests. You instead have to pick your way through an unintuitive and irritating mess of menus, clicking on each blank mission category to see whether you’ve got anything active on the list inside each. It’s an opaque process, clumsy to navigate. (Hell, my hand incessantly twitches at my mouse’s thumb button to go back, as is standard in every web browser, but not implemented here.)

And why is the quest log highlighted with an exclamation mark indicating a new quest this time? It doesn’t always label the categories to show you which folder the exclaim applies to, and sometimes there isn’t actually a mission for the exclamation mark it does show, so click through each category in turn to discover no, no, no, no, no, and then realise that it’s because it’s moved a completed quest into the completed list.

Oh, and in case that seems like a breeze of a system, it’ll merrily change which mission you’re pursuing without telling you! I was following this dumb murder mystery side quest, but because there was a main story plotline on the same planet it decided to switch its pursued quest to that one. It does this all the damned time. It’s beyond infuriating.

Side quests feel like something from a 2004 Korean MMO. Just complete nothingness, running from map icon to map icon, scanning objects with your scanner when told to, and then AI companion SAM letting you know that, yup, the source of the defects has been found/animal has been captured/toddler reunited with rabid tiger, despite your actually doing nothing relevant to the tissue-thin narrative.

I desperately hope this all improves. Above is what I typed out as I played the sections up until the point at which EA say we may reveal/discuss no more until our review. The thoughts as I experienced them as I played. The reality of playing games is, as you get deeper in and things start to improve, those earlier frustrations can become tempered, and their impact on the overall impression lessened. I strongly hope that will be the case here, and I’ll be able to report next week, “Yes, that was all true of those opening bits, but gosh it gets better!” I really, really hope so, because damn, this is the more Mass Effect we’ve been waiting for for so long.

I’m as shocked as you are, and I’m sure if you need to you’ll find gushing coverage elsewhere, but I like to think I’ve evidenced everything I’ve criticised here. And gosh, I hope we can look back at this and laugh. We’ll know by Monday. Meanwhile, if you want to, you can pay to play these first few hours via Origin Access and get at it on Thursday. See if I’m wrong.