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Mass Effect Andromeda: 14 mixed observations of the opening hours

Some bad, some good, many meh

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I’ve experienced quite a few of the same issues John has with Mass Effect Andromeda [official site], but there’s stuff I’ve been less bothered by, there’s stuff I’ve appreciated, and there’s also stuff Big J didn’t mention yet that has made the nitpick zones of my brain light up like Mardi Gras.

I’ve played four or five hours of the Origin Access paid demo so, like John, I stress that all this may yet change later on. I’m going to break this into points, but my take-home feeling is that, though I certainly wouldn’t call MEA awful, it is failing to grab me as much as I’d hoped it would and it thus far feels oddly generic in a way this fresh start for the series really shouldn’t.

1. It’s inconsistent

In terms of presentation and polish, I mean. Mass Effect has always had some dodgy faces and animations, but standards have changed since the series began and MEA’s quality is oddly changeable. It can offer some of the best environmental graphics I’ve ever seen one moment, then show me someone who walks like a Muppet suffering from constipation the next. Eyeballs look amazing when someone’s up close, with reflections and blood vessels and the works, to the point that I believe a watchable CGI film could be made with MEA’s tech, only to look as though someone’s got two Extra Strong Mints embedded into their faces from a distance. A named character can look like the Frostbite engine at its very best, but in the background there’s an incidental NPC who seems to have time-travelled from a low-budget 2006 game.

This distracting inconsistency is also very much the case when it comes to Mass Effect Andromeda’s copious speech. There’s plenty of solid VO and perfectly acceptable writing, but there are also deviations into the cringeworthy on both fronts, particularly (in what I’ve seen so far) this character, Foster Addison:

The sad thing there is that the role this character is meant to be occupy is, in a quiet way, vital: the only person so far who meaningfully calls out the inappropriate reverence others offer to the lead character, but I’ll cover that in its own point later. I think any game with this many speaking characters is inevitably going to wind up with a few planks in there, but it’s a damn shame that it’s such a visible one. Also, it’s a perfect storm of wooden performance and bizarrely duff words. “My face is tired…”?

Honestly though, it’s not representative of what I’ve seen of the game as a whole – generally, it’s solid enough. However, there has been precisely no-one who’s made a real impression on me, or who I’ve wanted to know more about. As I say, there are only a handful of writing/acting disasters (so far), but the deeper problem is a failure to (so far) excel. Which is my overwhelming feeling about the game as a whole, in fact.

2. It doesn’t take full advantage of its concept

MEA’s setup, if you’ve missed it, is that the major races from the earlier Mass Effect trilogy have spent a few hundred years travelling on giant colony ships to setup a new life in the Andromeda galaxy. Much is initially made of the fact that humanity, particularly, has voyaged further into the unknown than ever before and that anything could be out there, but it’s all of twenty minutes before it’s defaulted to shooting matches against armoured bipeds, set among mostly grey rocks. All this opportunity to go batshit scifi, but almost straight off the bat it’s doing the most obvious and most familiar thing. I’m hopeful that future planets and species will be more inventive, but right now my feeling has been “well, here I am again.”

This sentiment isn’t helped by the fact that it’s only an hour or two before you’re nattering to returning ME1-3 aliens the Turians, Asari, Salarians and Krogan, all occupying more or less the roles with the same dynamics that they had in the first three games. Armchair designer time I’m afraid, but were it me I would have kept these guys at bay until much later in the game, and give Andromeda’s fresh start a chance to be a fresh start, creating awe and mystery by sending you to strange new worlds to seek out new life and new civilizations. Instead, we essentially go over everything all over again, almost straight away.

As it stands, the only meaningfully new element we’re shown, if you’ll excuse me excepting the rather generic new blockhead-lizardmen baddie aliens you shoot at very early on, is that the first planet has a load of levitating rocks all over it. MEA is rapidly becoming infamous for the fact that its human characters repeatedly mention this…

…and I fear it’s the case because there’s little else that’s similarly comment-worthy in MEA’s initial hours. There are potentially fascinating ideas and setups scattered around the edges of proceedings – you’re on a ship with thousands of people stuck in cryosleep, the planets you expected to be habitable are not, you’re in a whole new galaxy – so I have to hope these are given more prominence later. Instead of more rocks and more conversations about how the Krogans and Salarians don’t get on.

3. The skin is amazing

As I say, MEA’s appearance is inconsistent, but it has its bravura moments. Some of the landscapes and starfields are positively dramatic, but it’s all the detail on people’s skin when you see their higher-quality characters models in a conversation that’s most impressed me. Even on Foster Addison, who in addition to her ropey dialogue suffers from glassy robot eyes blasted with enough makeup to drown a goat, there are pores and subtle wrinkles and small reflections ago-go.

Some characters genuinely had me wondering if I was watching pre-rendered rather than realtime footage (granted I’m running this maxed-out at 3440×1440 on a 1080 Ti – I’ll do some performance/quality checking on a lower-spec card when I get the chance). I don’t even mean the humans here. The crevices and lumps around a Krogan character’s jaw made for an almost disconcertingly photoreal alien, as did the eerily infinite blackness of Salarian’s huge eyes. There are many places where MEA’s tech and art really goes for it, which makes the misfires (most of which concern human faces, as with Addison) all the more jarring. Lighting and whatever collection of post-processing gives MEA’s appearance its filmic quality are also pretty heroic here.

4. It’s very broad

Now, I suspect the memory-creep involved whenever a few years pass means that many of us are guilty of thinking the original Mass Effects were somehow more literate than they were. Sure, there were some great character moments, but it was always space-pulp through and through, and drifted more and more into Magical Prophecy Nonsense as it wore on. Even so, there’s an obviousness and a shallowness to much of what I’ve played of MEA that doesn’t feel in keeping with my experiences/memories of the earlier ones.

Companion characters (including your own) very much say what they see, making superficial observations that don’t seem to reflect idea that they are one of a handpicked few sent to find and survive in a new galaxy. “Looks like some kind of alien machinery,” that sort of thing, with no follow-up comment to suggest a curiosity to know what it does or who made it. Not awful, but not interesting – and at odds with the idea they’re here to assess whether this place could make a safe new home for their species.

My feeling is less that this is a failure to write the sharpest dialogue possible, and more that MEA is actively designed to be broad. Hoary old RPG fans are less of a goldmine than are people who like to shoot men/monsters and collect loot, and though there’s all sorts of story and side-questing going on here, at heart it would seem to be continuing the series rapid shift into a weapons-centric game. So intellectual curiosity is either brushed aside or concentrated into between-mission conversations that you can easily skip through if you just want the next task.

I don’t mean to sound elitist here. I just think MEA, now that it’s no longer part of an ongoing storyline, is consciously made to be as accessible and mass-market as possible (though I’m not necessarily arguing that it’s been completely successful there) and that mak-u-think writing and pauses for thought during action sequences may have been considered detrimental to that.

5. It retains some of ME 1-3’s cludgier elements

For instance, there’s a monetary system all over again. Just like the guy in the basement who made you pay for weapons on your own ship in whichever of the original MEs it was, here you’re told that a resource shortage means you need to stump up for upgrades, even though pretty much everyone else goes out of their way to inform you that the fate of every single person here apparently rests on your under-equipped shoulders. It’s ludicrous. But it’s always been ludicrous, in every single Bioware Chosen One game, so I can’t get too het up about it – again though, it’s a shame that the chance for a fresh start has been somewhat squandered.

There’s also plenty of ‘help me solve this minor problem on this spaceship, because for some reason everyone else onboard is totally incapable’ side-questing – that same sense that everyone’s just been shrugging at everything until you happened to turn up. Again, not even remotely exclusive to this game or this series – but it does exacerbate that ‘business as usual’ sensation.

A broader concern for me is very strong hints of Space Magic very early on. I should be spoiler averse here, but again I was hoping the fresh start was an opportunity to move on from all the mystic hand-waving that characterised particularly ME3 in favour of slightly harder sci-fi. I fear it has been decided that Space Magic is expected from any Mass Effect game, despite the outcry about ME3’s ending.

6. I’m TBC on companions

Only met a couple so far, but I don’t hate them yet. Excitable young human soldier Liam has come across as broadly likeable in my limited interactions with him to date, but I’m unnerved by the fact that he’s instantly acting as though we’re besties after just one mission in which the only thing we said to each other was repeated comment about the floating rocks. That I can’t remember the name of the woman companion probably doesn’t bode well, but she’s got good hair and maybe a bit of a Kara Thrace thing going on, so I’m happy enough having her on my team for now. Everyone does seem rather wholesome, though, but maybe – for better or worse – it’ll try to explore more ideas later.

7. The makeup/tattoo/scarring options in character creation are excellent

Now we’re talking badass crazy renegade space hero.

8. It continues Dragon Age: Inquisition’s singleplayer MMO structure

Whole lotta collecting and crafting, whole lotta random skirmishing as you roam, whole lotta relentlessly scanning arbitrary items on a planet’s surface for nebulous research points that you can then spend on making/buying new stuff. It’s very game-y here. On the one hand, this gives you far more to do moment to moment, which is handy if you’ve burned out on quests, but on the other the hamster wheel structure is at odds with the central conceit – finding a new home and keeping an alien threat at bay.

It’s different in many ways – particularly because it’s a shooter rather than a stabber – but if you didn’t get on with DAI’s random encounters and loot-fountains, you’ll likely have similar issues here. I should say that I personally got on alright with DAI, but that was primarily down to enjoying the characterisation – and this is the area in which MAE has thus far most been lacking.

9. Skill trees involve dozens of very similar skills

Levelling up isn’t terribly interesting, because, though the skills you unlock are split across Combat, Tech and Biotic categories, each of which feature 12 upgradeable powers, the fast majority of them involve ‘fire a bolt of space magic at an enemy.’ There are far too many which are far too similar – for instance, we get both Flamethrower and Incinerate, and the essential damage effect of both is very similar to the essential damage effect of most everything else – and that means the choice does not feel meaningful. Maybe I’ll have something to regret later, but right now it’s just a matter of pumping more points into the three powers I most liked the names/lighting effect of. By which I mean: there isn’t much sense of feeling like a specialist. It’s just Combatguy regardless.

10. It’s very blue

That’s not a negative, just a comment on the style choice. As you can see, it makes for strikingly cinematic scenes sometimes, but on the ‘Nexus’ base ship all the staff are dressed in blue too, regardless of species. MEA is always On Brand.

11. I’m real glad I own an ultrawide monitor and good GPU for this one (but less glad I have a Corsair keyboard)

Like I say, MEA’s presentation is weirdly inconsistent, but sometimes it gets it absolutely right. Maxed out at 21:9 and doing the 60 frames thing on a high-end Pascal card, environmentally it can be a right looker at times. At this stage, my main investment in the game is wanting to see what future planets look like on this setup.

A fly in the enthusiast-hardware ointment has been a bizarre conflict with the Corsair Utility Engine software that controls the lighting on my mechanical keyboard. I was getting an unchanging black screen from MEA at launch until I uninstalled this. The fix is no biggie as I don’t often fiddle with the keyboard’s settings anyway, but finding said fix in the first place was frustrating, and clearly a patch is required.

12. The spacesuits all have pooping hatches

No-one ever says that that’s what they’re for, but c’mon, we all know. Someone on the art team’s really thought about the practicalities of space-life, and then followed through. So to speak.

13. It doesn’t quite know how to treat its own star

Your character, Ryder, is a Pathfinder, or in some cases The Pathfinder. In one moment we can be told this is essentially a galactic surveyor, simply the boss of the team in charge of choosing which planets to try living on, but in other that a Pathfinder is a quasi-religious figure, whose abilities simply cannot be replicated by anyone else and upon whom the entire colonisation project depends. And yet your character ends up donning this mantle about an hour into proceedings, with almost no prior experience and no special powers, which rather makes the case for it being simply a title.

Again, the game seems undecided as whether Pathfinder is just a job (in which case it’s bizarre that no-one else felt able to scout out planets during a pre-game year-and-a-bit in which the Pathfinder is AWOL), or some kind of mystic calling, and it really feels like it’s having its cake, eating it, then chucking it all up onto the floor afterwards. This stuff is really knocking holes into the main plot, both in terms of coherence and whether I can take it entirely seriously.

14. I’m just a bit bored, really

I haven’t found Mass Effect Andromeda to be objectionable or even a huge lapse in quality, but I have struggled to care about anyone. Personalities are either broad or buried behind too many layers of exposition, your own character’s role is confused, the third-person combat feels routine and, most of all, this new galaxy feels oddly similar to so many other space marine games. Plenty of big RPGs (I’m using the term loosely here, fear not) have slow starts, so I’m entirely open to finding more points of connection later, but so far there is that sense of a game going through established motions, underneath a very high tech skin. I certainly don’t think what I’ve played of MEA is a disaster, but it really needs to find its mojo soon if I’m to stick with it.

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