Mass Effect: Andromeda was finished over the weekend.
My overall impression? Serviceable. Adequate. My /played time was about 90 hours, so it is a tad difficult to ascertain whether the characters blossomed by the mid-game or if it was a sort of Stockholm Syndrome effect. Well, I can say for sure that I immensely enjoyed Peebee and Drack’s company. Vetra too, perhaps, but she’s no Garrus. Cora can take a hike.
The combat and general environments are easily the best the series has offered. I played the entire game on Hard, which was appropriately named. It has been mentioned before, but a lot has been done to incorporate waist-high barriers into the environment in a logical manner. In fact, a sizable portion of the game have none. Which is real shame given how many enemies have beam laser effects, which effectively melt you outside of cover. Still, Hard is Hard, so it was a welcome challenge (most of the time).
The environments and the Frostbite engine in general were exquisite. I got a little tired of the theme planet trope (Desert planet! Ice planet!), but the terrain overall was varied and the organic vistas were amazing. Indeed, I can see now why such a big deal was made regarding wonky character animations given how outrageously polished the rest of the game looks – it seems so out of place.
What also felt out of place were the poorly-implemented mechanical aspects of the game. Fighting feels great. Switching abilities mid-battle feels less great. Downtime inventory management feels awful. Scanning things give you Research Points, which you then use to buy weapon blueprints, which then take resources collected from driving around to craft, which then take Augments and/or Mods you receive from fighting to improve. I’m sure it sounds like a reasonable way to tie all the player experiences together, at least on a whiteboard. In practice, you end up wasting tons of Research Points because every single gun is available from the start and you don’t know how it feels to shoot till you get one in your hands. By the mid-game though, you’ll have needed to pour all your points into upgrading a specific type of gun (e.g. Black Window) through its various iterations (e.g. III, IV, V, etc) to maintain combat effectiveness. So… either settle on something early, making the multiple pages of menus irrelevant, or try all the things and always wonder whether a specific gun sucks, or if it would have been good at max rank.
I played a little bit of the Andromeda multiplayer, and it was… basically ME3’s multiplayer. ME3’s multiplayer was a hidden gem and significantly extended my playtime of the game well beyond the (original) poor ending. That may have been a time and a place thing though, as I had basically zero drive to continue playing Andromeda’s multiplayer, despite an objectively more refined combat system. For the uninitiated, it is a 4-player Horde game mode where one caps out at level 20, but items/weapons/character options are gated behind lockboxes. Open a Black Widow sniper rifle? Now you can take it with any character. Unlock a second one, and now you have a Black Widow Mk 2 with slightly higher stats. And so on.
So far, most of this has been high praise, so you might be wondering why the game is “serviceable” and “adequate.” It’s relatively simple: Andromeda is not better overall than any of the prior trilogy. Graphics and combat? Better. Characters, plot, themes, cohesive narratives, emotional gravity, witty one-liners? Not better. I find it extraordinarily silly to judge Andromeda “on its own merits” considering it has Mass Effect in the title. Andromeda is better than a whole lot of other single-player RPGs, yes, but better Mass Effects (overall, mind you) exist. If you had to make an exclusive choice between all the titles, I’d recommend one of those other ones instead.
And perhaps that is part of the reason why Andromeda may be the last in the series. At first, I was a bit sad, but it kinda feels like the right move now. The Mass Effect name has a lot of baggage attached and, outside of the various character races, there wasn’t exactly a whole lot tying Andromeda to it. Yes, all these people are from the Milky Way, there are various Easter Eggs and such pointing to Reapers and Shepard, and so on. But there didn’t have to be. The fact that it was tied to the franchise just made the world-building easier – no need to explain five humanoid races tooling around with each other relatively peacefully. Andromeda could have been the story of five human nations from Earth and little would have changed, narratively. Hell, the eponymous “mass effect” was uttered like twice in the whole game, always in reference to shields. Eezo sickness could have been any other miraculous plot disease.
Ultimately… I dunno. Andromeda is certainly better than any random given RPG out there. Andromeda is not better than any given Mass Effect title. It is worth experiencing, but it is not essential to experience right now. Perhaps in another couple of years when we finally get some more concrete idea as to whether Bioware is closing the Mass Effect door for good.
So it is looking more and more like the Mass Effect series is done. Latest word is that Mass Effect: Andromeda will not be getting any single-player DLC. While I do not normally care for DLC – much less story-based DLC – this is not a particularly good sign for the health of the series.
And that’s a damn shame.
Andromeda is not remotely close to being as good as any of the original trilogy titles. But… it’s not bad, either. Animations are still wonky, especially when compared to what came before. At the same time, the actual graphics and alien vistas are phenomenal. Combat too is probably the best it has ever been, in terms of cadence and action. While there are still waist-high barriers around in most areas, it certainly doesn’t feel as forced as it did in prior titles. The side crew can’t hold a candle to the OG team from the Milky Way, but perhaps they could have caught up in the next few games.
The problem seems to have been development run amok. I have seen a lot of people decry those derisive animation memes as the reason for the game’s poor reception, but few people examine why the animations were poor to begin with. Despite being in development for 5 years, the game only really coalesced a year and a half before launch. It boggles my mind that the designers were thinking a No Man’s Sky approach to Mass Effect was ever a good idea, e.g. thousand of procedurally generated random planets. This is a flagship franchise – if you want to screw around with the formula, do it with another property!
To date, I still have not completed the main story in Andromeda. As is custom, I got to a stage in which I felt like the endgame was approaching, so I quickly veered off into sidequest territory. I even completed that stupid sidequest that required 16 mineral readings from every crag of the ass end of the universe. Not because it’s fun, but because I’m cruising around with fun company. I mentioned it elsewhere, but I could listen to Peebee and Drak shoot the shit for hours. And I have.
I will be sad when it is over.
While I am a big believer in finding meaning and purpose in every action one takes, I also hate unfinished stories (Kingkiller Chronicles much?). You can certainly have fun with Andromeda, as I have thus far. But I am weary of encouraging anyone being sucked into an orphaned narrative.
A few (dozen) more hours in, and things are humming along.
In these early stages of the game, three abilities do not feel like nearly enough. I came across a website that suggested that Barricade – a Tech power that constructs cover on demand – was the bee’s knees. After a boss-ish encounter that saw me kiting an armored beast around for 5 minutes, I’d suggest it’s more akin to bee’s ass. Energy Drain and Pull were rather ineffectual with Barricade as the wildcard, and it’s too early in the game for my weapons to have much of an impact on anything.
Indeed, I have talked about uneven difficulty in games before, and Andromeda seems poised to follow the same patterns. In Divinity: Original Sin, the difficulty was uneven in the early game because enemy CC was powerful while you lacked options towards ending encounters quickly, e.g. by blowing up the team with OP spells. In Andromeda, you can specialize yourself into a corner by not selecting all of the abilities, or perhaps not bringing the right kind of weapons. Andromeda allows you to actually change the three abilities you have in the middle of combat, but that won’t help you if you never spared the Skill points to buy them.
That said, I don’t actually like Andromeda’s swapping Skill system.
While the game goes out of its way to make the process mostly smooth – you can swap Favorite loadouts with a couple clicks – I find the entire process too… metagame-y. Ryder’s ability to switch abilities on the fly is given an in-universe explanation, but that doesn’t prevent the flow of combat from being broken whenever you pause the game to become an entirely different “class.” It’s like… why? I would agree that this is better than being able to paint yourself into an unwinnable corner by choosing the “wrong” abilities, but only barely. Why not allow us to equip more abilities at once?
Ah, right… consoles.
In any event, I will continue chugging right along. I am warming up to the characters a bit more, and going out of my way to complete most of the side-quests in typical Mass Effect style. It is hard to tell how far along in the game I am, but I’m guessing it might be closer to halfway than anything.
Bad facial animations are bad.
It is difficult to know whether I would have noticed the details on my own had it not been for the hilarious (and sad) examples spread across the internet. I would like to imagine that I’d notice, but maybe not. The toothpaste is out of that tube though, and straight into the fish-lips of every member of humanity that survived the journey to Andromeda. Maybe cryogenics causes one’s skin to slog off the bone.
About 5 hours into Mass Effect, all I can say is holy shit.
One of the most groundbreaking things occurred in the city after the first “dungeon.” In talking with a receptionist to the Consort, she winked at me.
… and then a few months later:
My favorite aspect of the original Mass Effect was the integration of non-verbal dialog into the narrative, and the general narrative itself. In ME2, that is kicked up a notch^². Characters smile, nod, gesture, facepalm, wink, and otherwise emote in subtle, natural ways. Indeed, these little actions end up becoming part of the dialog, creating nuance and meaning that words themselves could not convey.
Perhaps the novelty has worn off. Perhaps the Witcher series has ruined facial expressions for other games for me. Or perhaps the animations in ME: Andromeda are really that bad. At the moment, I am leaning towards the latter. Ryder pretty much looks drunk all the time.
I have only played about an hour or two thus far, but the rest of the game seems okay. The gunplay does not seem as tight, but it could be the learning curve of the Frostbite engine. Or perhaps my low-level guns. I like how you can swap out abilities and such, but don’t like how apparently I’m limited to three abilities at a time. I suppose in the paradigm of quick recharging Biotic skills, it would be too much to be just slinging more mass effect fields than bullets.
Still, I always question whether these sort of decisions are made based on solid design principles, or whether it was to dumb down the game for consoles.
I was trying to describe the Dragon Age series to a friend the other day, and failing miserably. You see, this friend is a huge fan of the Mass Effect series. Should be easy, right? “It’s like a fantasy Mass Effect. It’s even made by the same studio!”
Except that is not really true.
I mean, yeah, it’s made by Bioware. But the longer I look at the Dragon Age series as a whole, the less it looks like a coherent narrative and more a mishmash of one-dimensional fantasy tropes. Dragon Age: Origins was a breath of fresh air with the Mage/Templar relationship, turning Elves into wandering Gypsies, and otherwise subverting a lot of traditional fantasy. Perhaps the genre has evolved in parallel or the novelty has worn off, as these days I’m finding the Dragon Age setting floundering for an identity.
I liked the Grey Warden schtick in the first game, even if it ultimately meant you were fighting dragons and orcs. In Dragon Age 2, you really weren’t doing anything of note; things just happened around you. While there is still time for Inquisition to kick into gear plot-wise (no spoilers, please), I’m at a bit of a loss in mustering up the motivation to care about anyone around me. Don’t get me wrong, party banter is pretty much the reason someone plays Bioware games; I just find it hard to like someone when there’s no real context for their decisions or personality.
For example, I have lost all investment in the Mage vs Templar narrative arc. The concept of anti-mage knights overseeing mage initiation rituals was pretty cool in the first game. It evoked a sort of Wheel of Time “mad dog on a leash” image; I started thinking that perhaps a similar thing should exist in the Star Wars universe vis-a-vis Jedi. It gets the mental gears moving, you know?
But now we are left with insane Mage vs insane Templar generic fantasy 101. My next Inquisition plot point indicates I will need to choose between seeking Mage support or Templar support, with the decision being mutually exclusive. I’m honestly about two seconds away from looking it up on the Wiki and making a decision based on which side gives the better loot. Quite simply, the game hasn’t given me any reason to care about the outcome. Compare that to my utter agony over the Genophage decision in Mass Effect 2. Same sort of binary, morally grey decision, but Mass Effect managed to get me to care. Dragon Age doesn’t even try anymore.
If someone asked you to sum up the Mass Effect series, you could say “scrappy Commander gets ship, builds galactic coalition to defeat Reapers.” As for summing up Dragon Age… uh… hmm. “Series of unrelated scrappy heroes collects NPCs and fights mobs.” Obviously it’s a lot harder to come up with a coherent narrative when you change heroes every game, but I’m not sure how much slack Dragon Age deserves. The Far Cry games have nothing to do with one another, and yet I can feel the thread that binds them. Where is the Dragon Age thread? What is Dragon Age even about?
I think Bioware would have been a lot better off sticking to the Grey Warden angle. Having a new Blight every game would be pretty formulaic (and unsustainable), of course, but I would of loved to have seen a more nuanced exploration of what life is like for the condemned Wardens in the post-Blight period. Sort of like a subverted fantasy plot, wherein your coalition and party members start strong and then fade out, slowly ground to dust via political machinations that find the Warden treaties inconvenient once the world is no longer ending. Perhaps there is a schism that develops amongst Wardens that desire children and security for their families. Maybe the Mage vs Templar rebellion could have started by the Mages deciding to free themselves en masse by joining the Warden cause.
Shit, can you imagine? Do you allow the Mages to essentially subvert the Warden code to emancipate themselves? They get their freedom, but there won’t be enough safeguards amongst the Wardens to keep a check on their power. Plus, what of the nobles who suddenly see the Wardens become a stateless army whose treaties supersede their sovereignty? Do the Wardens become complicit in the subjugation of Mages by rejecting them, especially when the Templars crack down extra hard after the attempted mutiny? Meanwhile, an Archdemon stirs from the all the conflict and bloodshed…
That would be an interesting decision. Not choosing between two NPC leaders that I was introduced to 10 seconds ago.
Who knows, maybe Inquisition will turn out to be super interesting in the final analysis. It isn’t terribly interesting now though, and it will have a hell of a time matching the plot I just invented a minute ago. The game is still fun, but I’d rather be playing Skyrim 2. Since I can’t, Inquisition will have to do.
So hey, there is another sale on Origin right now – pretty much the entire EA catalog (all six games) is reduced by 50% or more. Know what isn’t reduced in price though? Goddamn Mass Effect DLC:
That’s right, you can buy the entire Mass Effect franchise for $15. If you want to get all the canon DLC though, that will be an additional $64. For a 2+ year old game. For DLC that has never been on sale.
At this point I can no longer tell if Bioware is just stupid, or evil, or what. Is the nefarious plan to rope in new players at the $15 price-point and then squeeze the $64 out of the few who become super-enamored with the game? Or is the marketing department asleep at the wheel (or fired) and they just never got around to running the numbers on having a Bioware point sale? Or, you know, migrating from the goddamn ridiculous point system like every other game company?
I suppose the good news is that Casey Hudson, project director for KOTOR and the entire Mass Effect series, left Bioware last week. While I still have some sour grapes (more like sour raisins at this point) over the ME3 ending debacle, the fleshed-out endings went a long way in regaining my trust. I do not idolize content creators as a rule – individual works are the only thing that deserves respect – but this move makes it more likely that Bioware will be left with games I won’t be compelled to play, thereby making it easier to both hate them and not give them money simultaneously.
But seriously, Bioware, put that goddamn Mass Effect DLC on sale and I will buy it.
Game: The Last of Us [PS3]
Recommended price: $30
Metacritic Score: 95
Completion Time: ~17 hours
Buy If You Like: Metal Gear Zombie, brilliant storytelling, good games
When it came down to a decision as to whether I should do an extremely late jump into this (now past) console generation, I really only had one question: did I want to play The Last of Us, or the Halo series? Despite ultimately choosing the PS3, I waited on purchasing The Last of Us for quite some time. This was the reason I bought this console, and I was a bit apprehensive about putting that $200+ decision to the test. After all, everyone raved about Bioshock Infinite at release and looked how that turned out for me. How could this Metacritic 95/9.1 game live up to the expectations I have levied upon it?
The answer is “Easily.”
The Last of Us (TLoU) is 3rd-person, stealth-emphasized cover-based shooter set twenty years into a “zombie” post-apocalypse. An outbreak of mind-destroying spores has nearly wiped out humanity, and the survivors are doing their best to stay alive in a world of infected bites, raiders, and mundane starvation. You play as Joel, a professional smuggler and hardened badass, who along with your partner Tess is looking to get even with a guy who robbed you both of a shipment of guns. After a series of close calls, Joel & Tess take up one last job: to smuggle a 14-year old girl out of the city and to a safe house.
The principal gameplay is exploring, sneaking, and killing from an over-the-shoulder perspective. While the environments are extremely linear and the number of enemy types fairly basic, I found the gameplay itself to never get dull. Supplies are almost always limited, so some real decisions will need to be made as to whether you take the time to sneak around and get some stealth kills versus lobbing a Molotov cocktail into that group of enemies right now. Compounding this, the human AI is brutal in its sensibility – enemies will fan out, attempt to flank you, send only one guy to investigate noises while the others watch, and so on.
About the only complaints I have about the combat side of things is the reverse difficulty curve and checkpoint system. Like many similar games, TLoU is harder in the beginning and only becomes progressively easier as time goes on. Part of that is familiarity with effective strategy, given how there aren’t a lot of new enemy types, and part of that is from access to more/better weapons. Indeed, facing human enemies became somewhat of a joke later on since they would frequently congregate in small groups at the beginning of encounters, which made it extremely easy to blow them all up at once with a nail bomb. And while I give Naughty Dog some credit for a truly seamless checkpoint system, it ends up doing some strange things to the difficulty insofar as discreet encounters only end up being ~5 minutes long.
For as fluid and exciting the combat system may be, where the game truly shines is everywhere else. The visual juxtaposition of ruined human civilization and a greenery of nature reclaiming the space filled me with sadness and wonder simultaneously; it feels like the most compelling combination between the movies I Am Legend and The Road. The musical score is amazing in its ambiance and willingness to not take over a scene. As for the voice acting, well, I never really noticed there being voice acting at all – it was just normal, natural dialog.
The overall narrative is likely the thing most everyone talks about when TLoU is brought up, and I can confirm that it is about as amazing as advertised. The weird thing is that there was not one particular moment in which I remember sitting there thinking “Wow, that’s some good videogame plot.” Instead, I felt permanently affixed to my screen, playing in five-hour increments, as each scene segued perfectly into the next and I eagerly devoured every little detail.
Now that I think about it, there actually were a few details in cut scenes in which my jaw dropped at the excellence of Naughty Dog’s craft. When Joel ever-so-briefly looked at his watch, for example, I was taken back to that first wink in Mass Effect when I understood, for the first time, how much farther gaming as a storytelling medium has evolved. These subtle-yet-significant gestures hold such a hidden depth of emotion that it boggles my mind that their meaning wasn’t as belabored in-game as I am doing right now. I mean, the gesture would be ruined if it called more attention to itself, but it is such a calculated risk that I’m surprised they did not.
Ultimately, The Last of Us is one of those shining examples of Games As Art that also happen to be extremely compelling to play. And unlike some other titles which overreach in their attempts to be narratively “deep” and complex – *cough* Bioshock Infinite *cough* – The Last of Us simply presents its case amongst gripping gameplay and, story told, drops the mic as the screen fades to black.
Tobold put up a rather cringe-inducing critique of Mass Effect 3 the other day, prefaced by the Sid Meier quote of “good games are a series of interesting choices.” From there, Tobold argued that ME3 was not a good game, because the story choices being presented did not lead to gameplay changes. Indeed, he goes so far as to say in the comments:
My point is that this is supposed to be a GAME, and not just some interactive story. Choices that only affect the story, but change nothing in gameplay shouldn’t be in a game. Otherwise I might as well wait for “Mass Effect – The Movie”, and not bother playing at all.
First, that argument is so absurdly cliche that I started questioning whether he was simply trolling us at that point.
Secondly, in point of fact, you could not simply wait for Mass Effect: the Movie because any such film could not encompass the varied plot choices you can make over the course of the game. Characters can die in Mass Effect 1 & 2 and thus not show up in Mass Effect 3, cutting out entire swaths of character arcs. Who makes it through the Suicide Mission? Would the film feature a male Shepard or FemShep? Would the choices be primarily Paragon or Renegade? Which races get the shaft? Would the conclusion be the Red, Blue, or Green Cupcake?
Third, I believe Tobold’s stance is exceedingly pernicious to the maturation of gaming as a medium. It simply boggles my mind that a self-professed lover of D&D would twist “interactive story” into a pejorative; are non-interactive stories supposed to be preferable?
Individual agency has a way of submerging players into a narrative in a way that traditional storytelling does not. Just look at the mind-bending (at the time) twist in the original Bioshock and the narrative arc in Far Cry 2. Even if you were not particularly impressed with the depth of these narratives, those story mechanisms simply cannot be replicated in book or movie form. Reducing games to their mere mechanical components would be an incredible tragedy of potential.
What the exchange highlighted to me though, was how squishy the venerable Sid Meier quote actually is.¹ To me, the choice between curing the Krogan genophage or deciding not to was interesting. In fact, I spent ten minutes or so agonizing over it when the dialog wheel was presented. Was it fair of us to cripple an entire species because we feared their hardiness and breeding speed? At first, I was worried about that hypothetical. Once the Reapers were gone, who is to say that the Krogans don’t simply out-breed and out-muscle the rest of us out of the universe? Then I thought: wait a minute, is this not the same sort of argument used against inter-racial marriages in the past, and even concerns about Islam today?
In contrast, Tobold simply picked whatever gave him the most War Assets.
I do agree that a good game is full of interesting choices. But what should be obvious to anyone spending more than a minute thinking about it, is that what is interesting to one person can be boring/irrelevant/pointless to someone else. “Interesting” is not an objective term; Sid Meier may as well quipped “Good games are full of fun” for all the sage wisdom it contains.
¹ The full quote is actually: “According to Sid Meier, a [good] game is a series of interesting choices. In an interesting choice, no single option is clearly better than the other options, the options are not equally attractive, and the player must be able to make an informed choice.” (Rollings & Morris 2000, p. 38.) This does not meaningfully change my objections, as whether an option is “clearly better” and/or “equally attractive” is necessarily subjective. For example, I almost always prefer passive abilities to active ones, to the point that most of the WoW talent tree levels have only a single rational (to me) option.
I have been playing Borderlands 2 quite a bit lately.
At one point, I had a mission to rescue a dude at the top of this dam. I fought my way through several rooms, saw some interesting stuff, solved some pseudo-puzzles, killed all the things. As I bust out of the final door onto the dam proper, everything goes to hell: the orbiting space station starts launching artillery shells, armed robots start landing, bullets start flying everywhere in this now-three-way battle royale. I take down a few more enemies with my corrosive sniper rifle, and then crouch behind some cover while I reload.
I emerge from cover while tossing a holographic decoy out, stealthing to the first robot and meleeing it in the goddamn face. As robotic limbs fly everywhere, I switch to a ridiculously large shotgun, aim, and fire at a second robot. The shotgun shoots 17 pellets that each individually explode on contact, and firing it sounds like God slamming a car door shut.
Whump. Chik-Chik. Whump. Chik-Chik.
As I stroll down the middle of the ramparts like I own the place (and I do), I am suffused with a feeling of Badass. This whole sequence is staged, minus the explosive shotgun; the designers specifically put this music, with these enemies, in this order. It is the definition of themepark content, as single-player games are wont to be. But that doesn’t matter. I had been having fun before, but this was on its own elevated level. And after the sequence is over and I move on to the next (decidedly less cool) quest it occurs to me to ask: when was the last time I felt this way while playing a game?
I had to go back, waaaay back to my guild’s first Mimiron kill¹ in WoW. Like I said, I have had fun in plenty of games in the past three years. I have done some crazy moves in Deus Ex, there are some epic moments in the Mass Effect trilogy, and double-dagger Elementalist in GW2 was great fun originally. But the specific feeling I had owning faces up on Bloodshot Ramparts? Very fleeting, very rare, but much appreciated.
If you guys have experienced something similar in a game lately, feel free to share below.
¹ Please excuse the editing and the decidedly non-epic music accompaniment. 2009 was a long time ago.
Although it shouldn’t be, I found it somewhat emotionally difficult to uninstall Mass Effect 3 this weekend. I haven’t played the game in more than five months, and I had not planned to start again either. All the extra DLC feels moot to me after the endings, and while the multiplayer was surprisingly good, I got my fill of it after a few weeks.
There is no particular reason for me to feel this way.
And yet… uninstalling may as well be the kiss of death. I can always reinstall later, of course, but the mere knowledge of a 5-6 hour download is enough to send my thoughts elsewhere. For a while, I had entertained a fantasy that I would replay the entire series again, start to finish, this time as Renegade FemShep. The whole ending debacle stymied that fantasy, but there always seemed to be a spark of hope that I would come back around and just do it.
But… not anymore. I need the hard drive space. And I probably need to move on for real, like I thought I already had. No reason to keep holding onto those old pictures of your exes.
In other news, I uninstalled Diablo 3 this weekend and felt relief. Of course, I did so after cashing out my gold, although the exchange rate is a whopping $0.52 per million gold right now. I did not talk about it, but I booted D3 up two weeks ago and went ahead and beat Diablo on Inferno, just to say I did so. The gear inflation/power creep/nerfs made it feel like a completely different game.
But then again, I am not sure I enjoyed the game that it had been all that much anyway.