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Wot I Think: Mass Effect Andromeda

Massive Defect

Strap in. Mass Effect Andromeda [official site] is out on Tuesday in the US, and then because EA still lives in 1987, in Europe on Thursday. I've played it for over 70 hours, seen the main ending, and am entirely ready to tell you wot I think. It's well worth reading my previous piece on the first few hours, as there's much there that's relevant that I've not repeated below.

Mass Effect Andromeda feels like a game that exists because there needed to be a new Mass Effect game. It’s hard, as deeply as you explore it, to find something that shows any other reason for it to be. Despite the extraordinary opportunity of a fresh start, fresh characters, and even a fresh galaxy to set it in, this feels like a lengthy rehash of what came before. It is bad in many ways, from its madcap AI, poor character faces, dated design and most of all, horrible writing, but its biggest crime is just how unavoidably, all-encompassingly dull it is for so, so many hours.

There is an odd phenomenon, however. I’ve played for something like 75 hours. I was being thorough, focusing on what to me seemed the most important tasks, but endlessly drawn into side quests and mini-adventures. And yet there is a wealth of game remaining, even after the official ending. It let me do that, play the way I picked (or, as the case really was, the most bearable way), and that’s a huge achievement, something very rarely seen outside of Bethesda games. And in that time, I found what I enjoy in Mass Effect Andromeda, the aspects of an utterly enormous game that let me have some fun. Qualified fun, fun incessantly interrupted by bugs and irritations, mistakes and the unceasing misery that is its turgid, sophomoric writing. But some fun.

This is the story of the inhabitants of the Milky Way venturing to a new galaxy. A group of one hundred thousand or so members across five races (Human, Turian, Asarian, Salarians and Krogan) making the extraordinary trip across dark space to go somewhere completely new. A six hundred year cryo-frozen journey, to explore what might be. It is, in its concept, so massive, so wonderfully bursting with possibility, so hugely exciting. It is, in delivery, just about as unambitious an approach to the idea as you could think of.

This tale of discovering Andromeda - or at least the Hellius cluster within it - is populated by some cardboard cut-outs from a science fiction display stand. Rubber-masked baddies (with the least scary-looking big bad of all time), an astoundingly familiar alien race, and - just to ensure no originality could slip in through a crack beneath the door - an ancient, mysterious and technologically accomplished missing race (with a peculiar love for airport puzzle books).

Think about a new galaxy, a whole new potential of life forms, of evolutionary exoticism, of astounding new ideas. Now discard them all and think of intensely familiar bipedal people living in ordinary cities with ordinary thoughts, relationships, educations, jobs, and would you believe it, technology exactly on a par with what you just happened to bring with you. Floating octopuses that think in cascading colours? Societies based on amorphous interaction? Ideas better than the ones I’m throwing out? Nope, not a single thing.

You are a Pathfinder, either male or female, named Ryder. You gain the title of Pathfinder within the opening moments of the game despite not being qualified or experienced for the role, without it ever being meaningfully explained, and then are immediately treated like the second coming. It is, as best as I can cobble together, a job title for someone who surveys whether planets are suitable for living on, aided by an AI that directly interacts inside your brain. Each of the five species shipped twenty thousand souls, and one Pathfinder and one AI, called SAM. Except when your human ark shows up, you crash into a strange space anomaly that’s twisted throughout the cluster known as the Scourge. It wasn’t there on your magic quantum telescopes when you left, but (and I’m not being facetious here, this genuinely is the plot) no one thought that things might change on planets over the course of six bloody centuries. Things changed, and the galaxy isn’t as you were expecting, the planets aren’t suitable for habitation, and before you turned up the people who set off early to establish the nu-Citadel, the Nexus, had a big falling out and an awful lot of them were exiled.

As if that weren’t drearily inevitable enough, there’s also a race of cartoon baddies called the Kett, whose grumpy gnarled faces ensure you realise they’re bad, who shoot at you on sight for no reason (in fact, against all reason when you learn more of their nefarious plans) wherever you go. Oh, and just in case this didn’t feel like all the other Mass Effects, there’s ancient alien tech on all the planets that just might help. Off you go.

The AI, SAM, is an invention of your father’s, and is a key aspect of the game. You and he communicate all the time, and you are required to use a scanner all the time, with SAM adding colour commentary on what you see. So of course the matter of AI becomes a crucial one in the story, what with AI having been banned in the Milky Way, and people very nervous of it now after their experiences of the Geth.

Let’s talk about the combat as this is going to be a very negative review of a very mediocre game, and the combat is almost great.

You can choose to focus on three aspects, combat, tech and biotics, which correspond to fighting, mechanics and magic. Each has its own (samey) skill tree and you can put abilities together in groups of three, and then switch between the groups on the fly. I began by putting everything into biotics, but then running out of uses for skill points there (when you’ve maxed out an ability, it’s a waste of time really to start on another that does almost the same) and so have improved the passive skills in the other sections. I focused on pistols, sniper rifles and biotic Pull and Throw, which can be used together for fun combos.

In play, this works out like any other third-person action game really, except with the ability to blast baddies into the sky for entertainment. Headshots, ducking in and out of cover, sitting back and letting rival enemy groups beat each other up for a bit… You know the score, and it’s all delivered well enough. It’s nothing exciting, but it entertains in the same way Far Cry does. Clear out a camp, run in and scoop up the loot, and most likely find a new collectable that’ll build into yet another side quest. It's only thwarted by the completely appalling team AI.

Companion AI is a disaster, most distinctly because it’s so incessantly noticeable. You want your buddies to just be there, trotting behind you until fighting starts. Instead they are bonkers, darting back and forth as if chased by wasps, and have the most wonderful/ridiculous need to climb on top of things. Just stand in a room looking at a computer terminal and your buddies will jump up onto cupboards, beds, desks, whatever they can find. More than anything, they take this most difficult path on offer. Why run down some stairs when they can jump over a railing behind some crates, then have to run in an enormous circle around a building to find you again?! It’s definitely amusing, but bloody stupid. And when they react to their self-imposed obstacle courses by letting out terrified grunts, it’s also damned annoying.

But get into battle and it’s much more serious. I cannot tell you how often they just run in front of you and stand still, screwing up shots, bumping you out the way, not shifting out of cover you need, or ignoring enemies immediately in front of them. They can be a help, and when it works it’s fun to see them using their abilities to kill off enemies, but they’re just as likely not to.

Enemy AI is clumsy, but isn’t it always, and this only becomes more problematic when - say - the giant robot you’re trying to kill is entirely encased by a small hill, somehow able to still shoot at you. But so goes this clearly unpolished mess of bugs.

It cannot be understated just how much there is of this game. And not just in the way it’s a big stack of explorable maps smothered in icons (thanks Ubisoft for your contagion sweeping through all of gaming), but in the way that there’s recorded dialogue in what must be unprecedented quantities, more side quests than every other game in history put together, and a genuinely impressive variety in ways to play. There’s charging about in your six-wheeler over planets, uncovering enemy encampments, having cover-based shoot-outs. There’s exploring ancient temples of the Remnant. There’s chatting with absolutely everyone you come across. There are lengthy missions (that play out like raids) in special locations. There are (optional) multiplayer games tied into the main plot. And there’s trying to do sex on everyone you encounter.

What unites all these different features is the most unrelentingly dull writing, cliches and aphorisms pouring out like the waterfalls they’d use as an analogy in this sentence. Every chat lasts three times longer than it needs to, and they’re achingly boring from casual encounters to the deepest moments in relationships. I cannot explain this better than by giving a lengthy example from one moment in the first few hours, a chat about the potentially complex and messy subject of faith.

One member of your crew, a scientist, reveals to you that she believes in God. Now, this is old territory for Mass Effect, where in the first game you had a right-wing Christian on your crew, and it was handled especially well. Not so this time! This is genuinely the conversation:

“Just all of it. So alien. A constant reminder of the divine intelligence behind all creation.”

“Divine intelligence? A god?”

“Yes, I believe in a higher power. I know it’s a little odd. But I’m a scientist because science brings me closer to something greater than myself.”

To this you are given two possible responses. Beyond all credibility, they are:

“I feel the same way.”
“There’s no higher power.”

What the hell? You’re given the choice of either emphatically agreeing that you too believe in God, or you rudely tell a woman you barely know that her faith is bullshit. Honestly, I was tempted just to walk away from the game than be forced into picking one of those two answers. But I went for the former, since at least it wasn’t rude, and I was trying to flirt with her anyway. She expresses her pleasure that someone else agrees that it’s possible to believe in science and God at the same time, and then in what must be one of the worst lines of dialogue in gaming history, your character’s option of a flirting reply is:

“You definitely have an interesting perspective on the interplay between faith and science.”

This isn’t how people speak.

This is endemic, permeating from conversations through to grand ideas. Entire races are still described as having a single personality type. “Quick-minded, sharp” someone says of the Angara, as if that’s going to be a common trait across an entire sentient species. A single philosophy is attributed to the entire species, across multiple planets, as if no one would disagree, ever, across space and time.

Giant decisions sproing out of nowhere, with no warning. You’re just idly clearing out yet another identikit ‘dungeon’, and then suddenly you’re asked to decide if you should kill a bunch of innocent people for some potential wider benefit. There’s no flow, no sense of history, just bonkers false choices when a nuanced response would be far more valid (and in BioWare games, previously optional).

There is, as ever, the one crewmate who doesn’t want to talk to you. Who you have to win over by, er, waiting. But this time they’ve ingeniously picked the character from a race who incessantly go on about how they don’t hide their feelings. He won’t talk to you, won’t say why. Everything feels this inconsistent, people explaining their reasons for not liking other people like primary school children, all spats and no sophisticated moral reasoning.

Perhaps most significantly, they made the bold decision to remove good/evil responses that have been a mainstay of the developers’ RPGs, but they’ve failed to replace them with anything close to as meaningful. As a result, they’ve essentially removed the majority of choice at all. At one point you’re offered an extremely significant deal that contains an element that’s tantamount to extortion. In any other BioWare game before you’d argue this, perhaps choose it as the lesser of two evils, or reject it based on principle. Here you get two choices: to accept it, or accept it while making a joke. It’s quite bizarre how far they’ve gone in removing the illusion of autonomy, while still seeming to think they’re offering dialogue choice.

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Of all the Mass Effect games to take away the opportunity to be a dick to your crewmates, boy did they pick the wrong time. Having spent dozens and dozens of hours in their company, I can tell you that I neither like nor dislike any of them. I pretend to dislike Liam and Gil, because both are presented as cock-er-nee blokey-blokes, and it’s ghastly, so I try to pick responses that will upset them, but there’s barely anything that could and nothing interesting comes of it.

I’ve never before played a BioWare game where I wasn’t torn about who to take with me in a landing party. Those moments of, “Oh no, but I have to take X on this trip because it’s his home planet, but that means I will miss Y! There’s not even a glimmer of it. I resentfully take two along, not caring what either will add. It’s so, so odd.

Let me give another example that’s emblematic of almost every aspect of the writing: there’s one sidequest on Eos where you find a message from a dude who died in the middle of doing a job, planting radio beacons in various hard-to-reach places. So your task is to finish the job for him, out of respect. With each beacon you place, a message automatically plays, an adult woman’s voice saying empty aphorisms about what a good job her dad is doing. Right, you think, so his daughter recorded him these messages, so she’s probably dead - where is this going to go?

Where it goes is the shocking revelation that - oh no! - she’s dead! And from this we’re asked to feel an emotional response, with your companions leadenly explaining that it’s emotional, you see. Meaningless platitudes from a dead daughter playing out as you complete the task of a dead father. It’s an embarrassment, as if saying, “SOMEONE IS DEAD, SO THERE IS SADNESS!” is how it works. It could have been handled delicately, the messages could have been subtle, messages of genuine complicated love between a father and daughter, a short story playing out as you learn of their trials and their grief. That he never got to hear these messages from his dying daughter should have been the hook, should have tugged at the player, played on our own emotional attachments to parents and children. Instead, as with every part of the game’s writing, it was flat, perfunctory and robotic.

Much has been made of issues regarding facial animation, but much of the time faces can look great. Non-human faces. Humans they did not get right. The whole game is this weird flip-flop between gorgeous and ugly, sometimes showing you incredible vistas in detailed scenes, other times awkward greys and blues with boring boxes. Some characters look amazing, others look drawn in crayon. Sometimes special effects are dazzling, other times embarrassing. It's certainly not Frostbite at its best. But sometimes it can look really lovely.

The bugs, oh there are many. I’ve had Ryder get stuck in a star jump pose, and skid around like a paper doll. I’ve had to quit and restart because conversations couldn’t be left. Characters talk over each other ALL the time, making it impossible to hear key information - and more egregiously, companions will sometimes suddenly start reminding you about an active quest, cutting off the new information to which you’d been listening. I’ve fallen through floors, been killed by rocks (see above), am constantly told there’s something to scan when there’s nothing to scan, have characters loop vital conversations, and Ryder nearly always clips and gets stopped when trying to run up a flight of stairs...

Then add to that a litany of irritants. For example, on an ice planet, every single time you step away from a heater SAM says, "Pathfinder, the temperature is dropping," or variants thereof, and then when you pass the next one, "Pathfinder, the temperature is stabilising, life support systems at 100%". Non-stop! Every ten seconds he says one or the other! On so many different planets! And then every time you drive past something you can mine... He DOES NOT SHUT UP.

And you can’t just get back on your ship any more. It has to take off from the planet you’re on, even if you just want to check your bloody email (apparently multitools still can’t manage this feat), which involves watching two tedious unskippable cutscenes then two more to land to carry on where you were. Add that to the glacial planet scanning (because everyone LOVED that in Mass Effect II, right?!) and it makes for an annoying game.

I mentioned in my last article about how atrocious is the UI, and it bears repeating. It’s awful in every imaginable way, bewilderingly so. Menus are miserable to navigate, and often barely functioning. When looking through the codex or quest journal or inventory to find newly added content, it’s (usually) marked with a blue tick. Which would be helpful if it weren’t designed as to not let you see them. Anything past the first six entries is off the bottom of the scrolling list, but the act of scrolling highlights each entry, and highlighting them removes the !. As you scroll down to find what’s been slotted in new, it unmarks itself before it appears on screen. That’s bewildering, and makes the reams of content even more unnavigable. And when you’re trying to find new quests in the massive shopping lists, infuriating.

Then there are the exclams that won’t disappear, the ones that are marked in the tab but don’t appear anywhere in the lists within, the ones that aren’t marked on a sub-heading... it’s a mess.

When shopping or crafting you can compare weapons to what you’re currently holding, but not armour to what you’re currently wearing. When crafting you can either have everything you can currently craft from every category lumped together in one enormous list, or lists of everything craftable in a category which doesn't highlight what you can currently craft. New items like augmentations or blueprints aren’t added to the tops of lists, but rather slotted in all over the place, and thus the scrolling-deleting-the-exclams issue renders these useless as well… It just goes on and on.

So there are two big problems. A game that’s somewhere between unpolished and unfinished, and a game that’s just flat and unoriginal and uninspired. There’s the ability to wile away many hours cleaning icons from maps, and it's worth noting that I lost myself in this multiple times, but in these surroundings, not worth celebration. It’ll keep you busy, but not in a way that feels like you used the time well.

Is it as bad as my previous comments on the first few hours suggested? Kind of, yes, but diluted down by sheer volume of busywork. There’s nothing I’ve found that redeems its crappy writing, threadbare companions, moribund story, and ghastly UI. But, well, the best I can say is it occupies time. The driving's kind of fun, with its own list of annoyances. Um. Some it's fine.

Which is frustrating, because dammit, I wanted a wonderful new Mass Effect game, and such a huge amount of effort and work has gone into this. For all its cacophony of flaws, it’s a vast and intricate creation, into which many people have clearly poured huge quantities of energy. To see so much achieve so little is dispiriting in the extreme.

Bugs will, I’m sure, be fixed over the coming weeks, and maybe if enough people ask they could ditch the UI and start from scratch on something that works. But it won’t be able to remove that ennui that weighs down so heavily over its formulaic tale, especially after its daft ending.

I’ve a very strong feeling that people are going to buy this anyway, and many will milk from it what they can in order to feel rewarded. That’s great. But as a follow-up to the previous trilogy, it’s a timid and tepid tale too heavily reliant on what came before, too unambitious for what could have been, trapped in a gargantuan playground of bits and pieces to do.

Also, who the hell travels to another galaxy and doesn’t bring the Elcor with them?

Mass Effect Andromeda is out on the 21st in the US, 22nd at 11pm in Europe, for PC, via Origin only. £50 too. Cripes.

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