Mass Effect: Andromeda has a great set-up. Presumably sick of jokes about lactose intolerance, the dwellers of the Milky Way Galaxy band together and send thousands of each race to the nearby Andromeda Galaxy to set up a new colony. The human contingent is travelling on a vast spaceship called the Ark Hyperion, and plans to meet other races at the Nexus, a huge space station that is to act as the centre of operations for both terraforming and zero-g partying.

The journey these ships take is one of 600 years, which is almost long enough for people to stop complaining about the end of Mass Effect 3, and definitely long enough for the habitable worlds we scoped out before leaving to be thoroughly owned by a many-tendriled space cloud that resembles Pink Batts called The Scourge. Andromed'oh! Basically, humanity boarded an overnight train to Hiroshima on August 5, 1945, and woke up dazed and slightly angry that its surroundings no longer matched the brochure.

To make matters worse, The Scourge also ravaged the Nexus, killing all its top-ranking staff – or so the station's fry cooks-turned-new overlords claim. That leaves all races in something of a pickle: there's nowhere to live, resources are hard to come by, and there's the small matter of the 20,000 or so bodies in cryo that will probably want to be awoken by something that hasn't evolved beyond skin and bones. You also quickly discover that the Nexus was in a state of near-mutiny, and that a hostile race of space lizards known as the kett are pretty keen to weave the skin of the other assembled races into a big, multi-textured rug.

Fortunately, you happen to be a Pathfinder – a melding of artificial intelligence with a sack of meat that comes with the advantages of both entities. That is: you can do things like decipher alien languages really quickly thanks to your lightning fast access to a database of all accumulated knowledge, and also you can dispense witty zingers and get sunburnt. As such, you are the perfect person to choose where to plant humanity's last packet of tomato seeds, and so it's planetside you go, crew in tow, to scope things out.

Everything you do in Andromeda – from exploration to data collection to mining to blasting aliens – boosts the viability of the planet you are on. "Do what you want!" the game exclaims. "I'll reward you for it, I promise!" This renewed focus on exploration gives Andromeda a looser feel than prior Mass Effect titles: while there are the main quest lines you eventually need to pursue, you are welcome to cold-shoulder them for days at a time in favour of ramping off craters in your spiffy new moon buggy.

Mass Effect: Andromeda review

There's plenty of looking at your topographical maps to work out how to get around a too-steep hill or across a yawning chasm, and this – as well as a 'scan things to learn about them' mechanic – really sells the exploratory vibe. Alongside deep customisation systems, the way exploration is handled makes Andromeda feel much more like an RPG than the prior two Mass Effect games. It's a sprawling adventure heavily influenced by '50s sci-fi, particularly in the design of its world and gear, but also in its wonder and warmth. It sports a transparent glass bubble with an antenna rather than an opaque angular space marine helmet.

However, as you may have already heard, Andromeda doesn't start strong. Poor writing, dull characters, and some atrocious dialogue completely rob the game's big opening scenes of any impact, while awkward face animations make some characters look utterly gormless, or spaced out at the very least. Sometimes it's not even clear what the expression on your character's face is supposed to convey. It's like a one of those movies where an alien slides inside human skin and tries to hold a conversation. Fortunately, this improves markedly a few hours into the game – enough to be a non-issue.

None of your initial companions make much of an impression
Mass Effect: Andromeda review
Mass Effect: Andromeda review
Mass Effect: Andromeda review

None of your initial companions make much of an impression, and neither do many other characters you meet. Everyone seems so one-dimensional, hewing closely to an overly-familiar archetype. Mass Effect always used characters as mouthpieces for differing points of view, but it was never this forgettable. At one point, you meet a new race and plod awkwardly and wordlessly through their city via a cutscene – it's quite bizarre. Infamously, the start and end of Mass Effect 3 were planned out mere months before the game shipped. I'd wager the same was true here.

Because male Ryder looks like Hostel director Eli Roth, I played as default female Ryder, and she has a fair bit of spunk and personality. Dialogue systems have been overhauled and there's now up to four responses – emotional, logical, casual, and professional – that all work well. FemRyder almost never said something I didn't mean.

That said, I found many characters remained bland for the dozens of hours I played the game. There's no Garrus, Liara, or Jack here, and the only squad members that left a lasting impression on me were hyper and excitable asari PeeBee, and another alien who crops up a few hours in. Everyone is merely okay, or outright ignorable. As such, I was never particularly concerned who came on missions, but I must confess I did find some of the banter as I drove around amusing.

The planets you visit are equally uninspired. The first is a rocky desert, and then there's a jungle, an ice planet, and so on. Even the alien tech looks overly-familiar: flat dark blue crystal structures straight out of Halo, sought after by the design-by –committee kett. At least the remnant machine race are interesting.

Activity-wise, things are initially tedious. Mining planets is a snoozefest (and that's coming from someone that loved mining in ME2), and driving around in your buggy is slow and boring. And while the landscapes are certainly pretty, there's a lack of distinct landmarks and not much variety, so you'd be forgiven for wondering why BioWare made planets open world in the first place. There's little to truly gawk at in amazement, just enemy camps to clear out and hills to climb between you and some often captivating side quest content.

Mass Effect: Andromeda review

Mining remains best avoided for the rest of the game, but driving becomes infinitely more entertaining once you upgrade your buggy's top speed and boost, which allows you to Skyrim your way up too-steep hills and snatch tasty air on the way down, as there's no fall damage. If only it was that way from the outset.

The other major gripe I have with Andromeda is with its menus, which are an unintuitive nightmare that make delving into the game's crafting and marketplace tiresome. This is a real shame as the underlying systems are deep and robust. However, interfacing with them was so off-putting, I ignored crafting for so long that when I finally returned to it, I was able to craft a beam weapon that, with little effort, melted faces and bisected planets.

one thing Andromeda mostly nails is combat

The horrific user interface also makes creating different profiles (a combination of character class and loadout) a total pain, so although I could technically switch profiles on the fly, I found I stuck with one more often than not. I wanted the stat boosts that come with aligning your profile with the threat in front of you, I just couldn't be bothered dealing with the convoluted menus to set each one up.

There are also a clutch of smaller problems including event triggers that cut dialogue off mid-sentence or trigger when you can't see what's going on, stingy checkpointing, and a confusing quest marker system.

But one thing Andromeda mostly nails is combat. Sauced up with a jump jet, hover, and dash abilities, it's not just excellent for an RPG, it's excellent for an action game. Battles are frantic and fast-paced, and most weapons feel great.

Its one flaw is the automatic cover system, which although mostly reliable, will still have you wishing you just had a crouch button. Sometimes it doesn't detect cover, and sometimes you just wanna duck – when at the top of a hill overlooking a base, for example. Your companions can do it, so why can't you?

The combat improves the arresting multiplayer that debuted in ME3, too, which is now an even more furious take on co-op wave-based survival, complete with all the loot boxes, upgrades, and emotes that label implies. It's seriously challenging in the best possible way, the changing objectives and enemies that can shoot through cover keeping you as mobile as possible. The only downside here is the lag introduced by peer-to-peer matchmaking, but hopefully this will diminish as more locals get online to team up and blast kett.

Mass Effect: Andromeda review

Like its namesake galaxy, Andromeda is a massive game, and when you mainline dozens of hours of a game over a handful of days as I just have, it's hard to come away with a nuanced, thoughtful view. I literally played until I had burst blood vessels in both my eyes, but the fact I kept going probably says more about the game than the prior paragraphs (or maybe I'm the video game reviewer equivalent of Rocky Balboa).

I think a lot of my disappointment stems from a feeling that BioWare could have taken the series anywhere, but we wound up in familiar locations making familiar friends and fighting familiar foes. I also feel like the philosophical soul of the trilogy is missing – there are far fewer of the bigger questions posed here, with decisions like who to bring out of cryo sleep first reduced from a complex debate to "which gameplay bonus would you like?". For a franchise that's been so creative in the past, these things feel like a let down.

Even so, if you wish to disappear into an astoundingly detailed space epic until your eyeballs burst, this is your game. There's plenty of (space) murder, (space) betrayal, (space) diplomacy, and (space) discovery, and much else to admire besides. There are also serious flaws, but the fact that the game is as good as it is anyway just speaks to how much it does really well. A mostly magnificent action game and an uneven and occasionally electrifying RPG, Andromeda succeeds despite itself.