Thursday, March 23, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda - Thoughts and Impressions

How do I start this without feeling guilty?

I've previously spoken at length about my relationship with Bioware, specifically the Mass Effect series. I'd sworn off them after Mass Effect 3, being dissatisfied with the ending, monetization, and other aspects of the way the story and game were handled. I then made an off-hand comment about a drunken tryst with Mass Effect 4 when it hit $5.

Well, technically speaking, it did. Or, rather, with the EA Access program, I forked out the $5 necessary to start the program and get the 10 hour trial of Mass Effect: Andromeda. There's been a lot of controversy surrounding this game so far, as the preview build and promotional gameplay has been met with a less than stellar reception. There's been a drastic shift in gameplay, which is good, but there's also been an alarming drop in quality when it comes to the character models and facial animations, which is not good.

The game, if you'll allow me to get technical for a moment, is built on the Frostbite engine, which powers many of EA's current games from Dead Space 3 to Star Wars Battlefront to Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2. For all I may complain about EA, the Frostbite engine is a work of art, and renders some amazingly good-looking games... but Mass Effect: Andromeda, from what I've seen so far, is not one of them.

One of the things Frostbite does best is lighting, and Andromeda falls flat in that area. Literally -- the lighting is extremely flat, as if you compared a low-budget television soap opera to a JJ Abrams film. Andromeda looks like the former when you compare it to the excellent lighting and shadows in something like Dead Space 3. The facial models on the default character are cartoonishly exaggerated, and the NPCs are largely bland and generic looking. Characters will tell you grave situations and tragic tales without even a twitch in their facial expressions, and moments later your character will have the most bizarre expressions on their face. Considering the 4-5 years of development, it's like the series is moving backwards instead of improving in these areas.

Gameplay suffers from some pretty terrible bugs as well. In the limited time I had in the campaign (the 10 hour trial cuts you short and returns you to the main menu partway through a story mission on the first planet you land on with a prompt to purchase the game),
  • I got stuck in the terrain 4 times;
  • I experienced pop-in (which is when an NPC spawns in the area you're standing) in a very jarring manner, with NPCs hitting a t-pose before dropping into their programmed space; and
  • I experienced lots of clipping issues (where a character model will phase through a solid object). 
As for the style, it plays very much like Dragon Age Inquisition, which did not have these issues to any noticeable degree, nor did it have such problems with bland and poorly-animated faces.

There are some positives. The game has an interesting premise: a group aware of the Reaper threat in the original series constructed ark ships carrying tens of thousands of varying species of Milky Way residents to the Andromeda galaxy with plans of colonization. Something goes wrong, and only the human Ark makes it, linking up with the Nexus station that was sent ahead to coordinate immigration, and the "golden worlds" turn out to be not quite so golden. Your character, either Scott or Sarah Ryder (name changeable in character customization) is thrust into a position of authority they aren't necessarily ready for, and it's your job to scout for new worlds and ready them for colonization.

When it's not bugging out, the traversal and combat mechanics are quite good. You're far more agile and quick then previous games, and combat no longer has you hugging walls as often as the cover system has been modified and jump/boost jets have been added. Some of the characters are quite likeable so far... and some aren't. Cora, your second in command (the internet is furious that she isn't gay because of her haircut) has excellent voice acting and dialogue, and Vestra, the Turian who joins your squad on the first planetary expedition, is a charming rogue (against stereotype for the Turian race, but she's still no Garrus). The character creator is decent, and allows for a lot of variation in your version of Ryder (mine pictured below).
Justine Ryder, totally out of her depth
A tip from me: if you want to cut down on the goofy facial animations, make your character's lower facial features at least 50% smaller than the default Ryder's.

I will whole-heartedly endorse the multiplayer. Much like Mass Effect 3, it's a horde-mode layout, where you fight off waves of enemies interspersed with simple objectives, and you can play any one of a number of classes of characters from Engineers to Space Wizards (biotics). It's been trimmed from 10 waves + extraction to 7 waves including extraction which quickens the pace; this along with the improved movement and agility of your characters makes for a much more fast-paced and frenetic experience. I played the last game's multiplayer for an obscene number of hours, and can easily see myself playing this one's multiplayer as much, especially since it's also been incorporated into the story campaign as Strike Teams that you can access from the Nexus station. I had plenty of time to experience it, what with the campaign ending prematurely and I still had over half of the time left in my 10 hour trial.  If I'm completely honest, the multiplayer alone has probably raised my asking price of this game from $20 to $30.

All in all, what I'm seeing so far is a technically embarrassing game with an ambitious premise and a really solid multiplayer. It's basically an incompetently-coded Dragon Age Inquisition wrapped in a sci-fi skin, and I know why: the studio that actually developed this game is Bioware Montreal, which didn't exist until 2009, and only had previous experience assisting in the development of Mass Effect 3. It was Biowares Edmonton and Austin that did the heavy lifting on all of Bioware's previous (and good) games.

This is one of EA's flagship franchises, and it was handed to an untested, inexperienced studio that took a fantastic game engine and made a complete shambles of it. It's also receiving backlash on all sides, ranging from Cora's haircut-based sexuality to a trans character dead-naming themselves in their first conversation with you to their lead facial animator allegedly being a cosplayer with no prior experience, Andromeda's losing the PR campaign harder than someone trying to speed-run Mass Effect 2 (sorry, let me explain - if you don't take your time and prepare properly by doing loyalty missions, you lose crew members and could possibly die yourself during the final mission).

Should you buy this? No, not at this time. If the multiplayer has the legs that the previous game had, a year from now a ton of people will still be playing it, and it's absolutely not worth the $60 price tag they're asking now. Wait for a) a major patch and b) a sale. In the meantime, enjoy the plethora of comedy that's been spawned by it.


Edit: Bioware has announced a patch, but sounds very unsure about how to approach the much-derided facial animations.

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