Foreword: Here’s an incomplete post from last year that I started as a way to vent my frustrations at Mass Effect: Andromeda, shortly after completion. I eventually abandoned it because work got hectic and coming back to it took too much effort, but since I went trough the effort in the first place and I kinda make up the rules as I go along here, I figured I’d just go ahead and post it and get it out of my drafts. I’ll leave it exactly as-is from the way it sat in my drafts, and let you decide how you feel about it. Sorry I couldn’t complete it.
I’ve never agonised on the exact way to start something quite as much as I have with this here Massive Effective piece. There are just so many feelings and I can’t quite figure out how to perfectly compartmentalise and process them. It’s a bit like meeting an old friend whom you adored and enjoyed many great hours with in the past, only to realise that you have grown apart from them and you are now radically different people. You reminisce on what once was, and are routinely and regularly crushed by the realisation of what is now.
And that’s not meant to be a melodramatic metaphor for a woefully underwhelming game that will be the subject of a pretentious critique.
But it is.
I want to first take a moment to address the point of this exercise. I am not writing a review. I do not want to provide purchasing advice or a spoiler-free, objective viewpoint. I want to dig into the creepy eyeballs of this game and yank until the ocular vein lies dangling on the floor of what was once my undying love for the Mass Effect series; gone, alienated, replaced by yet another “but at least it’s fun right?” cover shooter that has jet-packs as its big sell. This is not a review. This is a critique. This is my sincere attempt at exploding my severely backed up thoughts all over the exposed bosom of your visual spectrum. And if that’s not graphic enough, try this.
If you want to know what went wrong with Mass Effect: Andromeda, it can easily be summarised as: Too much vision, not enough grounding. Hubris, essentially. Kotaku put out their own exposé on the game’s nightmare development cycle which a BioWare Montreal developer described as “painful”, coincidentally also a perfect descriptor for the final game experience. The article goes a long way towards explaining the so-called “near-miraculous disappointment” and after a few years of personal software industry experience, it all sounds scarily familiar. It’s a harrowing tale, but ultimately it’s also the story of how a triple-A developer squandered five years and $40 million, so if you think I’m going to give them a pass for this then you can guess a-fuckin-gain son.
If you think I’m going to harp on the animations for two thousand words, believe me I’ve considered it. But no, we’ll let that dead horse rot although I will mention that Cora’s sex scene is so beautifully animated that it is an oxymoron next to the rest of the game; seriously, go watch it and see for yourself. In truth the animations are just the tip of the titanic iceberg that shattered my hopes and dreams.
“But Cavie,” I hear you say. “Go back and talk about why you would use ‘but at least it’s fun right?’ as a disqualifier when in the past it has been your number one qualifier for enjoying games, and also please have my kids.” Well reader, allow me to oblige you with both my wisdom and my inferior genetics. The combat in Mass Effect: Andromeda is fun. It’s fun if and only if you play a Vanguard class. In every other instance, you will eventually tire of the repetitive, unimaginative nature of combat. Every, single, encounter, boils down to foot-soldiers and a few elites, but not in that super-rewarding challenging way like with other games. Here it’s just a case of fire until dead, and no interplay between that. The game gives the illusion of variety with different types of elites and abilities, but ultimately nothing is an outright counter to anything, the game doing its best to keep fights fair to any play-style. Save for the architect battles (which also become repetitive though thankfully short-lived) everything can be taken down by pressing the shoot button for long enough while occasionally pressing two of the power buttons to create a combo. Yawn.
The previous Mass Effect games were fun not because they had a variety of enemy types or because you had a variety of abilities per squad member. They were fun because those two things had interplay. You had to stop and think about what you were doing, and you had to carefully select a suitable squad composition for every situation. If you had to fight against a lot of vorcha, you took a krogan. If you had to fight geth, you took a quarian. And so on. This increased replayability because you could struggle through an area once, learn from it, and then adjust accordingly to practically walk through similar areas (or on a second playthrough). Do you think that happens in Mass Effect: Andromeda? Of course not. I just picked whichever squad member I wanted to without paying a lick of attention to their abilities because I knew it didn’t matter, and because I couldn’t control their inventory or ability usage I didn’t care what happened to them during fights. Hot-swapping ability profiles was fun for the first five minutes and then I settled on a preferred fastest way to kill the things that drop generic weapons I don’t care about because I already crafted the weapon I want profile AKA infiltrator. This style of combat is much better suited to shorter action titles, or, the way reviewers played Mass Effect: Andromeda… no wonder they praised the combat.
The combat is fun. If you’re a vanguard. And only for the first fifty or so encounters, and the handful of boss fights (dubious). After that, its painfully vapid lack of depth starts to show like the flaws on your life partner just after the honeymoon phase when you realise you committed your life to them but are only just getting to see the real them but it’s too late now because you’ve already given so much, how could you possibly have known?
And it doesn’t stop there.
When you aren’t shooting Kyle the Kett or Ronny McRaider’s entire family, you’re travelling the Heleus cluster of Andromeda. So in actuality, this game should be titled Mass Effect: (Small Cluster Within) Andromeda, but I guess that’s not as catchy? Within this cluster, you will find many systems to visit. These vary from positively breathtaking to thanking the gaming gods that BioWare patched in a Skip button for you to mash. Some of the systems have planets you can land on. These planets form the open world locations that one might compare to the Things To Do, Everywhere™ locations in Dragon Age: Inquisition. How it’s possible to travel to the different systems containing these planets is anyone’s guess, because the series previously established that Mass Effect Relays made interstellar travel possible, and we left those behind in the Milky Way. Somehow in the 600 years spent in stasis, they managed to figure it out (they also developed a natural resistance to the genophage, I repeat, in stasis — who did they consult with for this game, flat-earthers?). Whatever. Let’s just go with Sam did it for sci-fantasy reasons and move on.
The planets themselves are actually quite majestic, and BioWare did at least manage to capture that initial feel of landing on a completely alien world. Granted an alien world with agreeable atmosphere, gravity, and wildlife that is both eerily similar in morphology to Terran species and consistently found across the entire cluster (just like they are in our galaxy, gotta love those Martian ducks). But sure, let’s just say the Andromeda Initiative planned for all of it and only dark matter got in the way of aforementioned plans. This then brings up an inconsistency based on dark matter rapidly affecting planets’ atmospheres, but apparently not affecting anything living? So what are we afraid of in this game exactly? Whatever man, you’re on a planet and the evil dark matter done fucked it all up. Thing is, besides Eos, the other planets seem to have conditions that are already found on today’s Earth so perhaps Andromedans need to stop being little bitches and Milky Way up? Conveniently, a precursor civilisation left behind exactly the correct tools for terraforming entire planets, that are all located in exactly the correct area that you’ve landed on, and your AI through the power of Milky Way lexicography is able to achieve exactly the correct interaction that creates exactly the correct terraforming procedure to make the planet great again. It’s all very silly and nonsensical but it’s a means of achieving your story purpose, albeit by holding down a button three times, entering an underground basement, pressing another button, and then running the fuck away in order to completely (and perfectly) terraform an entire planet. I’ll allow it.
What makes even less sense is the story around one particular location (as well as encounters on other planets, but mainly): Kadara. Kadara doesn’t make a lick of damn sense, man. Even just in terms of game design, like why is there a random hub area and an open world location, and why can’t you directly land in the open world location from space? So the story goes that there was a rebellion on the Nexus in the year between the Nexus and Hyperion arriving in Andromeda, and most of the surviving rebels were exiled. These exiles then landed on Kadara and created a port which you visit during the story. Thing is, even if the exile happened on day one, I don’t believe for a second that a bunch of exiles managed to do, in a year, what doesn’t seem possible even with futuristic tech in ten. Even Mass Effect 2 conceded this as a story reason to reduce the size of the Citadel, stating it needed repairs after the events of the first game two years prior. What kind of futuristic super-engineers got exiled, exactly? Especially considering when you reach the Nexus it’s in shambles, but Kadara is thriving. How? It’s never explained, or even approached (I would even have believed that Kadara’s gravity meant time moved slower there). The writers want you to simply believe and not question it, but my time with LA Noire compels me to press X to Doubt on this possibility in any reality even if they somehow found a way to leverage Remnant tech for their ends, the way Ryder does.
Not that any of this matters, because in my time with the game I had effectively wiped out twice if not thrice the total count of Nexus exiles anyway, if not every single member of the Andromeda Initiative. See, the game doesn’t shy from spawning new enemies to fight you and you can stuff your logic in a supermassive black hole. But they expect us to believe this is the best the Milky Way had to offer in terms of productive colonists (they attempt to explain the hostility by claiming it’s a degenerative disorder caused by stasis but [LA Noire Doubt here]).
So yeah. The planets are majestic. They managed to leverage good sound and atmospheric lighting in a way that feels satisfying to explore, and despite its monotony every objective marker seems adequately focused on achieving that overall story goal of exploring and finding new homes in a new
cluster within a galaxy. Pathfinding, as they so eloquently put it (we’re getting to the writing, don’t worry). For this reason, I’m willing to be a lot more lenient and excusing of the inconsistencies and utterly bizarre design choices mentioned here, than I am with say the combat or animations. Contriving story reasons is okay if it ultimately serves its purpose, and in this case I’m willing to accept that we may someday stumble upon ancient terraforming technology, or build an entire city in a week. But what I can’t possibly accept is how the character models never, ever seem to fit properly with everything else. Observe.
Think that’s okay, huh? Maybe I’m just making a big deal out of nothing and those krogans should definitely be lit in that way when standing in a barely-lit area on darker ground. Okay sure, how about this one.
I’m going to guess galactic stasis is really bad for the skin, or this man is doing a really shitty Horizon Zero Dawn cosplay, because his skin looks like a metallic alloy.
Compare this to the general atmospheric lighting in the game worlds.
I have to admit, despite the lighting being horrendous in some places (New Tuchanka) the colour contrasting in ME:A is on point. pic.twitter.com/FnJ8dZyzk7
— Cavie (@CaV1E) July 19, 2017
Night and day, eh?
Too many convenience sins: Remnant, terraforming, genophage solution, etc.
Story doesn’t resolve any of its biggest plot points – Who is the Archon? Where are the Remnant from? What are the Kett if not discount Reapers? What is the scourge? etc.
Only two (one) real new species and one of them is resolved poorly (Angara) – how does Andromeda even remotely compare to ME trilogy?
Conflict resolution for companions? Cora rivalry disappears? Drack does nothing if you let his scouts die? Automatically loyal after one quest regardless of resolution?
Romance is one-dimensional, never rejected by squad and just creep on them until they give it up?
Keeping minor species for DLC, blatant and unnecessary. Reminiscent of Javik in ME3. EA bullshit?
Viability/AVP/etc gives you a contrived reason to do monotonous quests. (Does it make it more worth it?)
Other quests worth doing? Tasks don’t give tangible benefit, just some dialogue “claiming” a benefit.
Horrendous quest-tracking, crafting and map management.
What is the point of this game? What is its essence? What do we walk away from this game having learned?