There have been few moments in the past year or so in which I have woken up to a feeling of abject horror and despair, you know that feeling which overwhelmed you when you heard Trump was President? For me, it was upon hearing of the controversy surrounding Mass Effect Andromeda, with early previews and subsequent reviews not outright hating the game but still definitively unimpressed.
I say this so that I can admit to some potential bias in the review because Mass Effect 1 through 3 currently hold a place in my heart as my favourite video game series (if not the actual best games).
Mass Effect is an RPG game series set in a pulp sci-fi future where humanity has been rapidly advanced to Star Wars/Trek style technology alongside numerous other space-faring races in the Milky Way Galaxy. To avoid conflict with the decisions made in the previous series, Andromeda is set in the distant Andromeda Galaxy, 600 years after the events of its predecessors. Humanity and many of the other races built “arks” in order to travel across empty space while in cryo stasis. The Andromeda Initiative of the game is based on the premise of exploring and setting up new colonies in this unexplored Galaxy, providing what is essentially a soft reboot to the series where previous decisions (particularly those made in Mass Effect 3, which occurs after the arks have left the Milky Way) have negligible impact.
In the game you play as Ryder a human “Pathfinder”, ostensibly in charge of the human branch of colonisation and are tasked with scouting out and providing new places for the Initiative to settle… Unfortunately things go wrong, as things do, with some of the locals taking issue with your arrival along with a massive and mysterious presence known as “the Scourge” destroying worlds and ships alike.
Starting at the heart of the controversy surrounding the game is the issue of the looks of it. While I personally think this aspect should get less attention than it does, it seems pretty obvious that the biggest thing to set off the internet Hive Mind here was the genuinely abysmal character animation.
I want to make it clear though, Andromeda is actually not a bad-looking game. In fact during moments of combat, driving around planets, spaceship cut-scenes, standing on a rocky plateau staring out over a vast terra incognita, the game actually looks pretty fucking incredible. The Frostbite engine does its work and the environments, vehicles, ships and combat all just look awesome.
The problem, however, is whenever the characters are front and centre. Everything from walking animation in cut-scenes to the smaller details of facial expressions just is downright terrible. Admittedly some are definitely worse than others (the infamous clown-face of Colony-Director Addison shooting to the top of the list) but there isn’t a lot that’s done well here.
Lips often seem to barely sync with words, expressions often seem locked in a squirrel-like, wide-eyed stare of apprehension, movement below the neck is constantly unnatural and awkward. The movement of lips with speech do not seem to align with other subtler movements of people’s faces so you end up with the effect of a completely static face with a moving mouth.
Realistically, it’s everything one should expect from a Bioware game, but for the current generation it feels both noticeable and disappointing. Particularly in a post-Witcher 3 era we have now been spoiled by a studio who has shown us exactly just how characters can be animated correctly, showing how extremely subtle things like the way a character holds itself or small details in expression can go miles in making the model look exquisite.
A lot of the time it almost feels like they did motion capture on a bunch of just REALLY bad actors. The director says “look amused” and so the actor pulls a ridiculous caricature of laughter. There’s no subtlety and the internet was right to ridicule it… As a final word on the topic, there was a rather memorable moment where I was chatting with an NPC who made a gesture like checking his watch at the end of a line of dialogue and then the entirety of his body froze in that position while waiting for my response. Meanwhile his face and eyes still twitched in a weirdly robotic fashion as if screaming “help me player! I have been frozen by a curse and can only move my cheeks!” Quite immersion breaking…
Admittedly the biggest explanation for this is a quantity over quality thing (a point I will come back to). It is a currently quoted thing that Andromeda features much more dialogue and many more speaking characters than previous ME games, which goes a distance to make the world believable. The thing is though, while some of the scenes are then animated well, because of the sheer volume of them an awful lot are simply left by the wayside.
If I may also briefly address the mostly ridiculous conspiracy theory that all the female character models were designed to deliberately look “bad”. Well… I mean, parts of the conspiracy theory aren’t exactly incorrect… Don’t get me wrong, the idea that Bioware was overrun by liberal SJWs who don’t believe in attractive people is patently absurd, but at the same time just looking at character models from previous Mass Effects compared to Andromeda and there isn’t really a single one that is actually “classically” good looking!
That said… I can’t think of a way to turn this into a valid critique that doesn’t sound like “wah wah why don’t you include nicer tits in my games!?!” so I’m going to leave it at that…
But seriously: having an undercut is not a requirement to be a strong female character for fucks sake! There’s a reason it’s called a stereotype that strong female characters have short hair! And so it feels oddly like stereotyping that it’s done here. (HAH! Reverse social justice warrior-ing! Bet you never saw that coming!)
Despite how immersion breaking the animation can be, something I hope that Bioware take directly to heart and work hard on improving for any subsequent games, it is at the end of the day a fairly shallow complaint, in the same way that it is a shallow compliment to say the environments and lighting are stunning.
There are however very real and very prominent issues with the gameplay itself that are far more jarring and frustrating than any amount of janky animation.
Absolute top of the list, for just about everybody is: the new iteration of the Galaxy Map for travelling between stars. While Bioware have not really succeeded in getting this right in any ME yet, the system in Andromeda is probably their worst attempt yet. The familiarly boring clicking on and scanning star systems is still present. However, each time you select a location to travel to in order to investigate you are subjected to an UNSKIPPABLE animation of a POV flight from where you are to the new planet. Then the camera zooms in for a close-up of the place (for SOME fucking reason), before finally zooming out and allowing you to actually scan and examine the place.
It’s the sort of idea which probably sounded fantastic in a committee because “oh it will give players a better sense of scale and of the fact that they are actually traversing space”. Meanwhile it makes thoroughly exploring any system an absolute chore, even if there’s only a very limited number of planets and locations. It’s the sort of thing that anyone actually playing the game for more than 5 minutes would immediately pick up as an unnecessary frustration.
Other irritations come in several forms: a completely bewildering research and crafting system for making your own gear, which one never feels particularly inclined to use (who spends resources on guns when you can just find them?) despite being constantly plied with resources and research points (of which you have an utterly baffling variety). It’s strange that something that technically is quite straightforward feels so difficult to use. Possibly a large part of the issue is an inability to directly compare items…
What particularly bothers me about this is that I spent both ME2 and 3 complaining about the limited weapon choice unlike in ME1, and now that they finally bring back a proper RPG item system, it just feels messy and rubbish.
Your AI partner, SAM, never fucking shuts up about anything and probably comes only just after Navi in terms of annoying voice in my ear that I start mockingly repeating what it says. “You have new e-mail at your terminal, Pathfinder. NO A FUCKIN DON’T YA ROCKET!”
And as if that wasn’t enough, the game has a truly horrendous problem with bloat. I recall before release Bioware said that the side quests would feel “meaningful” like in the Witcher 3, and by golly if they have absolutely failed to pull that off. When your quest log is full of dozens of “go to this planet and collect 7 things” then it ought to be obvious that a lot of the quests you are given are more like busy-work than actual meaningful quests. It’s stuff to fill your time and not much else. While some of the actual side quests can feel interesting and worthwhile there is just so much dead weight surrounding them all as well (this ties back in to the quantity/quality thing from earlier where I have to say that for so many of these, the additional “speaking characters” add literally fuck-all to the game).
The simple difference is that you are given a to-do list rather than a quest log. You don’t wander around doing things which take your fancy, exploring, investigating and generally making decisions which will have broad consequences. Instead you go to one place and scan a rock, then you go to another place and kill a guy and then another and pick up a datapad.
Given this, the maps then also feel faaar too big and empty (which is weird given how you also are given too many small shitty quests). Despite the fact that I quite like the driving around, and like the looks of them, realistically it gets extremely dull driving around several boringly similar landscapes just so you can check things off your to-do list. It makes me, again, wish for the open world of the Witcher 3 which just felt that much more alive and vibrant for all that it was every bit as big. For future games I’d really like to see a return to either smaller (and for the love of god please more varied) environments, or cut down the number of open worlds in favour of filling them a little further.
A lot of the issues that were raised about the story and characters are unfortunately correct as well. Much like in the character animation, there’s very little subtlety to anything and things seem to leap ahead past important slower stages. You don’t start the game as Pathfinder but you are practically immediately bequeathed it by your father, because apparently futuristic societies revert to dynastic monarchies. When you first encounter a friendly alien race you are able to speak with them in about 5 seconds flat, and share names for everything important (isn’t it so convenient that the mysterious energy force called the Scourge is ALSO called the Scourge by the aliens?). Some characters seem to very quickly latch onto you and start spilling their life secrets (“I’ve been on one mission with you and you taught me the meaning of trust!”). It’s often so contrived and rushed that it can just make the experience jarring.
As an example of how contrived it can be, in a mission to rescue the first human child born in Andromeda: as you are in combat to rescue the mother she goes into labour because of course she does… And then has given birth by the end of the 5 minute fight. Because OF COURSE SHE DOES.
Ryder himself also comes across as a bit of a wet blanket, not really ever seeming comfortable with command or decision making.
Speaking of, the game also has that flaw which can be so fatal for an RPG in that the decision making feels totally hollow, with little to no real consequences. Almost every single side mission does not cause any changes in game and even the more central plot missions feel like they have absolutely no weight. This is seen no more starkly than in one particular companion mission (which I won’t into too much to avoid spoilers) where you are pushed towards making an utterly incomprehensible decision which doesn’t really have any consequences because it turns out that all of your squad mates have plot armour and there is no chance of any of them dying throughout the game.
Even the overarching story had a few issues which I struggled with from minor plot holes to general inconveniences. It bothered me slightly that literally everyone in the Andromeda initiative is so eager to inform you that they are here for “adventure” and a “new start”. Then upon arriving in the New Galaxy, all these grizzled adventurers turn on each other the moment things prove anything less than perfect and it is up to Ryder to solve literally EVERYTHING. I mean… You’d think people would feel a bit awkward asking the Pathfinder to set up a TV signal antennae when he’s supposed to be fighting an evil army of monsters but nope!
The upshot of all this? Well, it turns out that a lot of the criticisms levelled at the game by others are actually valid… How weird…
Where the agreement with more mainstream journalists stops though is that I have seen the accusation levelled at the game that it does not feel like a Mass Effect game. Which is patently outrageous! It may be flawed, but a lot of these flaws are in keeping with the flaws of old-school Mass Effect. I mean, that may not exactly be a good thing (because for FUCKS SAKE Bioware, it’s game 4 now, how hard is it to make a Galaxy Map that WORKS?!)
More importantly though is that it also feels like a Mass Effect game in other, positive ways. Thus far I have been deliberately extremely negative about the game. Both to try and make this review balanced somewhat and to also make it clear that for all my love of the series, this IS an incredibly flawed game. There are things which make up for it though…
First and foremost is the most obvious compliment for the game. It feels like Bioware took some pointers from Destiny for Andromeda because the combat is absolutely stellar. Combining the third-person combat and powers from the previous Mass Effects with the brand new use of a quick use jetpack for vertical and horizontal bursts of motion makes the combat feel extremely satisfying and dynamic. Instead of sitting behind your chest high wall aiming where the enemy pops up and down all the time, the combat feels more like it encourages you to dart around the battlefield, flanking and leaping over enemies. Getting up close and personal for a few biotic and shotgun blasts before blasting away giggling manically. It feels polished, it feels aggressive but can simultaneously also feel careful and considered for those people who do prefer distance in their engagements rather than punching the aliens in the FACE!
A minor disappointment here is the inability to issue squadmate commands now, so their powers are no longer available to you (which means they might as well not exist frankly, but whatever).
An interesting compliment here but I also REALLY like the new skill system. You now, finally, have access to all the skills in the game and it is the points you put into the various biotic, tech and combat skill trees that determine your “class”. It is actually a system oddly reminiscent of Kingdoms of Amalur where you gain passive bonuses for the amount of points in each tree, allowing one to gain bonuses for sticking to one tree or mixing and matching. It just feels like it allows for more choice and freedom in your play style.
Another thing I completely approve of is the return of the bouncy space car: the Mako. Except it’s no longer the bouncy space car, but it is instead a far more well designed, if defenseless, vehicle called the Nomad. I like it for the same reason I liked the Mako, it gives maps a sense of scale, it makes it obvious that you are exploring distant worlds and not just trapped inside an endless series of stainless steel corridors.
Admittedly, it does bring up the question why the heck they don’t use a shuttle instead of a car, but I suppose we can’t have everything (and I also suppose the latter would have brought a whole host of technical issues).
The characters are almost all rather varied and interesting. Of course it’s very difficult to compare them to characters from the previous Mass Effects who are widely loved and adored. But one has to remember that the reason those characters are so damned good is that we had three games in which to get to know them! This is the set-up game, just like ME1 was. Garrus didn’t become a proper space bro until ME2 and Liara didn’t become anything more than cutesy until basically ME3. We need time for the characters to grow into their own, but several of them made major strides (Jaal is the new bro-tier).
As a start though, frankly I like most of them. Of course there were times things could be a bit contrived as I mentioned, but this doesn’t change the fact that for the most part they were actually very engaging and interesting. I enjoyed the conversations had with each character, particularly the squadmates of course, and feel that each one was memorable in their own way. The major recurring characters outside the squad are often interesting as well and usually with excellent voice-acting. It tends to be a sign of enjoyment that despite the vast quantities of dialogue I only very rarely feel the urge to actually skip any of it as for the most part I’m quite engrossed in the conversations.
The dialogue is often pretty excellent as well. It is perhaps a bit too early in the series for anything truly heartbreaking (I mean, I teared up in Mass Effect 3 and didn’t bat an eyelid at sending Ashley to die in Mass Effect 1). But there are poignant moments and amusing moments and a lot of it feels well-written (with the caveats of odd delivery and forced relationship building I’ve already mentioned).
I actually also quite like the theory dialogue choice system now which is no longer “paragon or renegade” but instead you tend to be presented one of four choices which are “emotional”, “logical”, “casual” and “professional” with the latter two leaning slightly closer to dickish than the first two. It is just in theory though, because while it could make the conversation feel a fair bit more human (as you aren’t being given the option between nice guy and twisted fucking psychopath there feels like there is distinctly less consequence from the choices because they are more oblique and less committal. It’s a trade-off, you can no longer say things that no rational human would ever say, but it doesn’t help with the “wet-blanket” thing…
At this stage my arguments have become increasingly rambling and incoherent as I try to explain that, while this review may come across as exceptionally negative, I think Andromeda is still a good game. I am particularly hard on it because of my love for the series and because it does not stack up to the ideal I have in my mind, but there is still a solid, fun game in there, one I would at least recommend to fans of the series and to those who like (space) RPGs. The main characters are exciting and interesting, the story has its moments, the setting and combat is fantastic and there is actually a lot of potential for greatness in the exploration and RPing elements.
It’s just a good game which is buried beneath far too much busy-work, bloated with awful side-quests and pointless dialogue. It is plagued by what I call the “EA effect” where the writers failed to take any risks or chances, too busy worrying about upsetting people they failed to realise they were writing something that was ultimately bland and unsatisfying.
I truly hope that Bioware use the set up provided by Andromeda to make Mass Effect great again. It is game one in a new trilogy/series and so perhaps it will be the weakest by nature of having to set things up in the new Galaxy. One can only hope so…
|· Combat retains formula of old Mass Effect games and improves on it to make it more dynamic and exciting
· Characters are exciting and interesting to interact with, some of them setting up the possibility of future close friendships
· Environmental design is fantastic and gorgeous
· The new Galaxy feels vast and impressive enough
· Conversation can feel natural due to the new design of the options
|· Character development can feel rushed or forced
· Character animation is seriously sub-par, noticeably so even
· Decisions do not have enough weight in the scope of the game, presumably relying on setting up drama in later instalments
· Research and development menus are frustrating, difficult and overall feel completely pointless
· Maps feel both too big and empty but also too crowded with useless side quest markers, making them eventually boring to traverse whilst still looking like a Ubisoft map
· Quests rarely provide any sense of real consequences, which only gets worse as the game progresses