Saturday, October 20, 2018

Console Corner: Review of Mass Effect: Andromeda

Before diving into my review of Mass Effect: Andromeda, I should state that I have not played the original Mass Effect trilogy. I have seen gameplay and read about the games when deciding whether to invest in Andromeda, but as a whole I have zero first-hand experience. I mention this as, the lack of experience with the original trilogy should make my review of Andromeda more objective than a lot of reviews I’ve seen. But all in due time…

If there is anything video games were seemingly made to do, it would be to realize the fantasies of science fiction. Exploring exotic planets, shoot outs with hostile aliens, space ship flight, seeing distant universes, human diaspora across the galaxies—these are some of the most imaginative areas of science fiction just waiting to be realized in interactive fun. And the sheer volume of such material in video games is proof. At the macro level, Bioware’s 2017 game Mass Effect: Andromeda captures these phenomena wonderfully; at the micro level, less often.

After hundreds of years of deep space flight, a fleet of allied ships, human and alien, has arrived in the Andromeda galaxy seeking a new home. From vast arks carrying racks and racks of people in cryosleep to a massive operational nexus, it’s a full mission. And it includes the exploratory ship The Tempest, led by the Pathfinder, you. In something like Star Trek: Next Generation-style, the player is tasked with meeting any aliens who might live in the galaxy, establishing peaceful relations, and finding new planets suitable for human colonization, if possible. Problem is, the first planet The Tempest lands on destroys any hope of a peaceful settlement. A hostile alien group known as the Kett open fire on the Pathfinder in an attempt to prevent access to a strange alien technology scattered across the planet. Neither Kett, human, or any other known alien species’, the technology, called Remnant, seems to hold the key to making the planet suitable for habitation. And thus you, the Pathfinder, must clear the Kett and unlock the secrets of the Remnants to pave the way for the thousands awaiting a new home. The Kett, however, with their foothold in the galaxy, have sinister plans for any alien species they encounter, including the Pathfinder…
 
A vast mix of planetary exploration, Big Dumb Objects, extraterrestrial integration, epic galactic conquest, and good ol’ fashion alien shootouts, Andromeda pushes all the big science fiction buttons. The planetscapes are wide, varied, amazingly rendered, and huge fun to drive around with the six-wheeled NOMAD vehicle. The Remnant towers and their accompanying vaults offer the player a bit of platform puzzling, requiring them to find glyphs, decipher codes, and unlock doors by figuring out switch sequences. And the firefights with the Kett are as action-packed and versatile as any hardcore gamer could want. From these perspectives, Andromeda is a very complete game.

At the story level, cracks begin to appear, however. From one angle it is a spaghetti heap of missions and side missions; Andromeda is, if anything, packed full of things to do. I can only imagine that it would take in the neighborhood of 100 hours to complete all of the activities and missions available. I completed the main story, terraformed all the available planets, completed most of the crew loyalty missions, and did a decent number of side missions, totaling 62 hours, but there was still a lot more things I could have done. The majority of the player’s time is spent on the main kett storyline and settling planets (five planets in all, though more are explorable), but the additional side missions are something quite easy to get caught up in. From loyalty missions for each of your Tempest crew members to helping aliens you meet on the various planets, recovering your AI’s memory to collecting starship models, the amount of side material can sometimes feel overwhelming. And quantity sometimes overtakes quality. It’s regularly the case that the side missions feel too generic. There is one side mission, for example, wherein the player finds themselves on a rogue planet and ultimately a part of its transition of power (aka, a duel at high noon at the OK corral). The player is given the bare bones of the backstory behind the duel, but takes part only in the ending, and as a result doesn’t have the true feeling of belonging or being a part of that story. Had the side mission been expanded and deepened so the player could experience the full story, it would have been more satisfactory and less banal. 
 
And a lot of the other missions feel the same: too non-specific, or lacking in context. And this is all not to mention that the majority of dialogue choices do not take the overarching story in any unique direction; they are simply different paths to the same destination that allow the player to express themselves more naturally yet without consequence. For example, it’s possible to be haughty or defiant in response, but rarely if ever does this evoke an appropriately reactive response from the person or people you are conversing with. Had the creators focused more on the development of fewer storylines and structured them in a fashion that more often gives the player real agency, I can’t help but feel character interaction, and as a result story, would have been more rewarding. Compare to Witcher 3, and the difference in quality becomes clear. 
 
As subjective as it is, another issue is the sheer volume of stuff to buy, sell, and upgrade. Put simply, I never felt I fully understood every aspect of weapons, armor, upgrades and ways to develop your character’s tech tree, or if there was any really difference among the plethora of stuff. I utilized a small sub-set and completed the game with few problems, which begs the question: what’s the point of all the rest? Style? Preference? Or did I miss something? I wrote ‘subjective’ as I know for some players a virtually infinite amount of options is desirable. I comment only because, had less effort been devoted to developing the options surrounding weapons and armor and instead been put into richer, fuller storylines, the overall game would have benefited. In the end, the weapons and armor require an environment and story to be deployed in, rather than vice versa.

Along with quantity vs quality, I would be likely to level criticisms at the often mundane dialogue, mundane emotions, and the mundane aliens. Perhaps because I’m saturated with a century’s worth of science fiction novels and stories, but conversation should not so often feel forced, characters should speak in more than monotone voices (particularly after your father has suddenly died), not to mention not every alien should have two arms, two legs, and a head with two eyes, a mouth, a nose, brain, etc, and have some code of conduct or culture analogous to humanity’s. But such are the aliens in Andromeda; they are humans with cosmetic changes. (The fact you, the human, can have sex with most of these aliens is even more laughable.) I don’t need Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris to believe the weirdness of a setting, but the aliens in Andromeda felt like window dressing, and for certain better script writing and voice acting could have engaged the characters’ emotions, and as a result the players’ emotions, to a higher level. 
 
And now the elephant in the room: the breadth of player complaint upon initial release of Andromeda. From graphics to facial animation, in-game bugs to ‘not meeting expectations derived from the original Mass Effect trilogy’, there were and are complaints coming from certain corners. Firstly, yes, there are issues with graphics and bugs. But these are minor aspects of the game, nothing game-breaking. There are more polished games on the market, but Andromeda is far from the worst. In fact, gameplay is solid; the fighting mechanics and movement around the environments are very well done. The storyline, as scattered as it is, remains up to snuff with at least the most average science fiction game. And there can be no doubt that a huge amount of focused thought, creativity, and time went into the production. After all, traversing and exploring the planets is huge fun. The final product is not perfect, but it’s certainly not as rotten as many ‘reviewers’ would have it out to be. Which leads to 1) the caveat to open this review, and 2) it seems a lot of people who played the first Mass Effect games expected Mass Effect 4, didn’t get it, and were angry (versus viewing the game for what it is).

In the end, Mass Effect: Andromeda does a lot of things, some of them well, some not so. Gunfights and exploration are great, while the side missions, dialogue, and options upon options spreads themselves too thin. I’m not as concerned as other people about the quality of the facial animations or the minor bugs. For me, the overall graphics, main storyline, visualization of the environments, and complexity of gameplay spin the game positively. In most ways it is the immersive, enjoyable, space opera game that players who want such an epic experience, expect. There are some genuinely good set pieces that are a joy to explore and battle across, even if some of the side missions, dialogue, and aliens are a little lackluster and under-developed. Take that as it is.

Now, about Bioware issuing a remastered version of the original Mass Effect trilogy for the PS4… When?!?!?

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