Friday, March 31, 2017

Ed's Review: Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a bit of a mess.

The animations are often very bad, particularly when it comes to human (or near-human) faces, but the mess is hardly limited to just them. The game is riddled with bugs both minor and major (on my PS4 copy, for example, every single time I suffered a one-shot kill at the hands of a giant Fiend, I had to manually close and restart the game because the game wouldn't bring me to the reload screen), the UI is a mess, the research point economy is out of whack, and ease-of-life features that should have been obvious, like the ability to reconnect to EA's online services from inside the game rather than exiting to the main menu, are bafflingly absent. It's a game that obviously needed another few months of polishing and fine-tuning, and even with those touch-ups, it wouldn't have likely stood as one of Bioware's all-time best efforts.

Still, I liked it, and I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Andromeda tells the story of a group of explorers from the Milky Way who, between the events of the first two Mass Effect games, somehow built a bunch of huge ark ships, rounded up more than 100,000 people, and blasted off towards the Andromeda galaxy. They arrive more than six hundred years later to find that the worlds they had targeted for colonization have been devastated by some sort of cosmic energy cloud called the Scourge and a hostile alien species known as the Kett. You play one of the two Ryder twins, the son and daughter of Human Pathfinder Clancy Brown and part of the team he leads. Your mission: establish a new home for the Milky Way colonists, make contact with local species, fight back the Kett, and figure out what's going on with the mysterious Remnant technology scattered across the Heleus Cluster.

The story, at least initially, seems to have far lower stakes than that of the first Mass Effect trilogy, in which Commander Shepard discovered that Robot Alien Cthulhus were about to repeat their 50,000-year cycle of wiping out all advanced life in the galaxy for some unfathomable reason. (And when we actually got the reason, at the end of the third game, it was an unfathomably stupid one.) The residents of the various arks and the Nexus--a knockoff of the Milky Way's Citadel intended to act as a hub for the new colonial government--don't know anything about the Reapers and don't know that they may have narrowly dodged a cosmic bullet. They just know that something happened in Andromeda within the last six centuries, and the bright future they were promised is not immediately forthcoming.

It's an interesting setup that allows the game to avoid some of the bafflingly bad writing injected into it over time--and mind you, the ending of ME3 was the culmination of a lot of awful storytelling, we just didn't notice because Garrus was awesome--and lends itself to a more exploration-heavy gameplay experience similar in ways to the original Mass Effect. Unfortunately, this sense of charting new territory is undercut by both ludonarrative dissonance (roll your eyes if you think the term is too hipster, but it applies) between what you're told to be the state of the galaxy and what you observe, and the simpler fact that you're not the first human on any of these planets.

In the game's lore, the Nexus and its crew arrived more than a year you did. Humans, turians, asari, salarians, and krogan have already made contact with the local races, already set up bases and colonies everywhere you're going to go, and already established thriving economies. That's a bit annoying, but much more egregious are the massive gangs of pirates and bandits you will encounter with at least as much regularity as you do the Kett. I tried to keep an estimate of how many Milky Way bad guys my team killed over the course of the game, and lost track after several hundred. Given the limited population pool (120,000 or so colonists, most still in cryo sleep), how exactly is some random goon getting ahold of a bunch of prefabricated housing modules and a gang of dozens of armed and armored soldiers? Moreover, how are dozens of these random goons assembling their own armies?

This isn't a new problem for the series. The folks in charge of designing the game's combat don't want to concern themselves with what makes sense for the world, they just want fun and interesting bad guys for you to fight. And, to be sure, they succeed in that. The combat starts a bit slow, with a limited arsenal of powers and weapons, but opens up greatly as Ryder gains levels. The Profile system, which lets you switch between pre-made sets of three powers and some passive bonuses, at first seemed a bit pointless but gradually becomes invaluable. For mass combat, I'd switch to my hard-hitting Vanguard profile, throwing myself at enemies like a biotically-charged ping pong ball of death and sending foes flying with kinetic explosions; when I needed to hold a specific position for a bit, I'd switch to a more traditional Adept role, knocking bad guys out of cover and setting them up for powerful, explosive combos.

While the fighting is good fun, it's a bit disappointing how little control you have over your companions compared to previous games. While I can understand why Bioware moved to make them more autonomous than before, I miss being able to tell my cohorts when to hit with a specific power or switch from their rifle to their shotgun. The amount of customization available to you when crafting weapons also feels a bit wasted when you can build a massive new plasma cannon but can't hand it off to your krogan buddy.

The buddies are also a step below the companions of prior Bioware games. While none of them are egregiously bad, and most of them grew on me quite a bit with time, there are no obvious standouts like Garrus, or Tali, or Mordin, or--moving to the Dragon Age games--Alistair, Varric, or Dorian. Peebee, the asari archaeologist with serious commitment issues, seems to be the most divisive of the bunch--fans either seem to find her the most interesting and endearing member of the crew, or the most two-dimensional and annoying. (I fall closer to the latter, but eh, she's fine.) Personally, I ended up a fan of Drack, an extremely veteran krogan soldier who puts a slightly paternal spin on the series' usual "gruff, pragmatic warrior guy" stereotype. All of the companions have at least some interesting trait that sets them apart from their archetype, from Liam's reckless idealism to Vetra's big-sisterliness, with the possible exception of Cora, who falls into the thankless Bioware role of being the rules-oriented, boring one.

The character that I think will emerge as the most interesting and important, however, is Jaal, the last member of your crew to join and an important link to the Andromeda galaxy. He's well written and well acted, useful in combat, and has probably the strongest arc to his story. Once you get him, you should probably just take him along on every main story mission. I did, and I imagine a lot of the big revelations would have lost some impact if he hadn't been with me.

And the revelations are interesting and worth reaching, even if the game starts at a glacial, unfocused pace and takes its time hooking you in. The lengthy opening tutorial gives way to a potentially even lengthier tutorial on Eos, depending on your need to pursue sidequests. (My advice: come back later. Eventually, the planet's radiation hazards clear, and it becomes much less of a pain to get around.) The story does gradually pick up, however, and--aside from a few handwavy moments it doesn't give you time to think about--builds to a satisfying climax that sets up some very interesting ideas for the series to pick up on in the future.

Andromeda is very good, even if it's not great. If you're a fan of the original games, it's probably worth a shot--though be warned that it is a massive title that will take dozens of hours to complete. Like the original Mass Effect, it tells an interesting story competently, but lacks substantial polish and is very rough around some of its edges.

Ed's Totally Subjective Score: 7.5/10

And now, some random thoughts.

  • I stuck with the default names for the Ryders, and I'm glad I did. There are many times throughout the game where characters will refer to you as "Sara" or "Scott" if you've kept that as their names, and I don't imagine they do that otherwise. It's a small touch, but after three games of just being "Commander" or "Shepard," it's nice to have a first name.
  • Having started a New Game + as Scott Ryder, it's really noticeable how much better the male character's animations are than his sister's. Sara's always twisting at weird angles and making strange faces, but Scott seems like he's actually accustomed to being in a human body. Probably a side effect of them sharing animations, and Sara's rig being significantly smaller.
  • The animations that play as you move from planet to planet. They are very pretty, yes. They are also interminable. I don't care if they have to skip fixing game-breaking bugs, the very first thing Bioware needs to patch are those awful transitions. How did they get through QA?
  • Early on, characters mention that the Quarian ark is still on its way to Andromeda and is also bringing all the other races the devs couldn't be bothered making new models for. With complete seriousness: Bioware, before you end this series, I demand an elcor shipmate.
  • The multiplayer is much like Mass Effect 3's, which is good, because ME3's was fantastic. Unfortunately, EA doesn't seem to have made dedicated servers for PS4 users, and almost every session I've tried has been laggy to the point of near unplayability. This is a shame, because one of the first characters I unlocked was a female krogan gladiator, and I gave her bright pink and indigo armor and want to run around headbutting things with her.
  • Female Ryder is incredibly sarcastic. I haven't heard enough of her brother's voicework to have much to say about him, but man, Sara is hilariously snarky even when she's being serious. Her VA either did a really great job or a really bad one.
  • Brightly colored hair just seems really appropriate for a pair of 20-something twins who decided to jump galaxies.