Friday, June 30, 2017

Video Game Review - Mass Effect: Andromeda

H-047c (or what's left of it)

Just a few caveats before we get into this.

Caveats: Bugs/Animation

At launch Mass Effect: Andromeda was met with much derision over the appalling state of many of it's animations (of which there are many examples and memes) and some other niggles like poor voice work and even a few serious show-stopping bugs. So before I tell you what I thought, I just want to be sure that people understand that I myself was met with only some very minor issues due to the fact that by the time I installed the game six weeks ago it had already been serviced with five or six patches which fixed most if not all the issues highlighted in those early videos.

I saw only one (1!) example of the Linda Blair head twist on a character and at most a half-dozen (six!) examples of "floating" enemies. Yes, some of the voice acting is substandard, but as to really bad performances I wonder do I only notice it because reports had drawn my attention to it? Arguably the most wooden characters are generally supposed to be wooden emotionless people, paper-pushing administrators, accountants etc. Outlaws and generally angry people don't seem as badly voiced in my opinion.

Game breaking bugs? No. An issue with Patch 1.07 did prevent the game from opening if your Windows regional settings were set to Ireland, setting it to UK worked around it until the fixed that, not a big deal. I'm declaring Patch 1.08 to be solid as now they've just started changing previously heterosexual characters to bisexual, pandering to the social justice warriors, but there are no longer any major issues that I can see. Lastly my one (1) bugged quest completion before the last patch was able to be properly completed in 1.08 after going back and speaking to the quest-giver.

Caveats: Fanboi

I'm a Bioware fanboi. I have played both Baldur's Gates (with expansions), Neverwinter Nights (with expansions), Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (one of the greatest games of all time Star Wars or not), Star Wars: The Old Republic (about four years logged with 16 different characters across all expansions), the entire Dragon Age franchise (with most expansions and DLC) and obviously all three previous Mass Effects (with most DLC).

That said, I don't hold the studio with the high esteem I held for LucasArts in the 90's. With Bioware I can be critical. One of the expansions for the original Neverwinter Nights wasn't great and when I originally played Dragon Age II in 2011, I stopped playing about four hours in because I felt the changes to the gameplay were too much and seemed to be simplified for the console crowd which annoyed me. It was five years before I reinstalled (because I wanted to start Dragon Age: Inquisition) and I appreciated it a lot more for what it was in my old age. Don't get me started on the abysmal ending to Mass Effect 3 or I would be here for another several pages. Suffice to say Bioware aren't perfect.

Mass Effect: Andromeda being released as it was has damaged their brand, even to me. ME:A was the first Mass Effect title after the original I didn't purchase at launch, partly due to the issues reported, but admittedly partly due to being released at a time when I could play it. Nevertheless, damaged and if it can be damaged for me, it is extremely bad for the company and I hope that Dragon Age 4 and Anthem can re-swing things back in their favour.

Caveats: You play like a girl

In Mass Effect I do. Commander Shepard is a woman, full stop. I do not recognise the claim that there is a male version of Shepard any more. This is because I played the first Mass Effect for a day or so as a male Shepard and I began to hate Mark Meer's voice because he sounded like a prick and it just rubbed me the wrong way. As Mass Effect has a LOT of dialogue, I was worried for my future enjoyment of the game so I restarted as a female. I never regretted the decision because I recognised Jennifer Hale's voice immediately. She previously voiced Bastilla Shan in Knights of the Old Republic, Dynahir - one of your Baldur's Gate companions and Felicia Hardy/Black Cat in the 1990's Spider-Man animated series.

This time for ME:A as I had just finished 155 hours of the Dragon Age: Inquisition campaign (game of the year edition) as a male Inquisitor Trevelyan (using the British voice as he's supposed to be a nobleman), I said I would swap to a female Pathfinder Ryder for the new Mass Effect; a choice helped by the fact that Ryder's female voice actor Fryda Wolff appears to be a lot more seasoned (44 IMDB credits) than Tom Taylorson (just 4 IMDB credits) who voices the male Ryder.

Caveats: I'm too old for this shit.

My review of Mass Effect: Andromeda will be based on the "normal" difficulty setting which I left unchanged from beginning to end. I died only approximately six times in the almost 130 hours I played. In one situation I died three times against a boss-level enemy, so I came back to the mission two weeks later with better powers and bigger guns and completed the objective.

This is an acceptable solution in a game section that does not demand you kill the enemy before progressing but many games do. Due to failing reflexes, hand-eye co-ordination, cramps and various muscle fatigue that begins to kick in around age 35-ish I'm hard pressed to function in certain games that require a level of youth to complete on harder difficulties. Now that I'm on the wrong side of forty I've made the permanent decision to stop playing games above normal difficulty (with some games possibly requiring casual/noob). There are some exceptions of course, but generally this is to limit death and restarts which delay progress, an unwanted situation in the world of today where spare time is even more limited.

This decision is also to prevent risks to my expensive computer hardware which I would be more likely to break as I may get frustrated during a difficult game. Such difficulty could also cause a build up of stress and lead to heart attacks or other health issues. Games are meant to be a form of relaxation and entertainment. So if a game is causing me stress then I will now just turn down the difficulty and eliminate the stress.

Caveats: Billy no-mates

The multiplayer aspect of Mass Effect which began with Mass Effect 3 I'm sure is fun for those that play multiplayer. I haven't and so it is not part of this review.

Caveats: No spoilers!

This isn't my first rodeo. I will describe some basic concepts without specifics, maybe anecdotes but not say anything that I myself wouldn't want spoiled and I have A LOT invested in these games (see the Caveat: Fanboi above).

Equipment Specifications

Current gaming machine is "Sicarius," constructed in September 2015. Intel Core i7-6700K @ 4.00GHz*, 16GB Corsair Vengeance DDR4 3000MHz RAM, Asus ROG Maximus VIII Hero Intel Z170, MSI GeForce GTX 980Ti Gaming 6GB GDDR5, Samsung SM951 256GB M.2 PCI-e 3.0 x4 NVMe, Samsung 850 EVO 250GB 2.5” SATA SSD, Corsair Hydro H90 140mm High Performance Liquid CPU Cooler, Corsair Obsidian 750D Full Tower ATX – Airflow Edition, Acer Predator 4k2k XB280HK 28” 3840x2160 1ms G-Sync Widescreen LED running Microsoft Windows 10 Home v1703 build 15063.413 with GeForce Game Ready Driver 382.33 from 22/05/17.

The GPU would not handle much above 28 FPS in full 4K resolution as easily as it did Dragon Age Inquisition so I dropped to 1440p for full 60 FPS in ME:A. It's important to note that by default, the game had HDR set to on. As I don't have a HDR monitor yet, everything looked dark and it took a while to figure out what was wrong upon initial installation. Note also that not including the EA Origin platform, Mass Effect Andromeda needs 47.0 GB of disk space.

* Sicarius reaches a stable 12.5% overclock to 4.5GHz when I wish it, It's not currently required and I would only do it in winter time.



It was clear from the appalling ending to Mass Effect 3 that Bioware had little intention to continue the story of Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect franchise, they had written themselves into a hole and gave us an ending (endings) to that portion of the saga that was as daft as the ending to the rebooted Battlestar Galactica series. ME3 should have had a "Return of the Jedi" ending, yes everything's in shit, millions are dead but the important people, the heroes, are alive - singing and dancing. Do that and pick up a new story with new characters years later, it worked for each iteration of the Dragon Age franchise.

Instead Bioware threatened a dreaded "prequel" route before creating the idea of The Andromeda Initiative which would depart the Milky Way in Arks, sleeper ships, before the shit hit the fan in ME3. To be honest it was an elegant solution to the problem that Bioware themselves created as it allowed you to create a new character with a clean slate and introduce new players to the franchise without needing the ten year baggage preceding it, a lifetime in video-game evolutionary terms. ME:A can be played and I'm confident, enjoyed by many whom may have never had the opportunity to sample previous entries in the series. If people wonder why Salarians and Krogans may not be on the best of terms, it's not really central to any plot but I'm sure there are codex entries copy pasted from the same entries you got in the original trilogy that explain it for you. In short, it's not important, move on with what is.

The main plot here is quite different to previous entries in the Mass Effect series. In ME:A YOU are the aliens as you have arrived the Helius cluster of the Andromeda galaxy to create a new home on some planets observed through space telescopes 600 years earlier and appeared to be capable of supporting life. Of course if it was just a case of colonising a few 'golden worlds' without any issues the game would be shit right? So that's obviously not what happens. Helius is now in the grip of "The Scourge" a massive debilitating space phenomena that damages both life and technology, the Kett, an unfriendly group of aliens from elsewhere are causing aggro, the Angara, a relatively peaceful spacefaring race indigenous to the cluster are weary of you and the cluster has been seeded by the Remnant, a dormant society of technology. To top it off, there was a serious event on board the Nexus, the mother ship which arrived a year before you wake up and many of it's crew were exiled to nearby worlds. You are pretty overwhelmed by all this as you don't have time to take it all in before you encounter your own problems and already so many things have gone wrong that your quest log is huge within a couple of hours.

It's important to understand that Ryder's not the seasoned soldier/officer that Commander Shepard was, she's just a cadet by comparison with some vague military and scientific training. No one respects her. Not before too long circumstances force you to become "The Pathfinder" a lofty title normally reserved for four elite few individuals, one from each Ark, but now it has to be you because your dad Alec (voiced by Clancy Brown, The Kurgan in Highlander) says so. You're the human Pathfinder, an AI is implanted in your head and the job of exploring the galaxy, protecting everyone, investigating what the bloody hell went wrong with everything and most importantly finding the human race a place to live and to propagate is now all on you. No pressure.

Ryder equips her weapons and armour and proceeds to venture out into the galaxy on her ship landing on planets, gathering companions, better weapons/armour and gaining XP following a bloated quest list made from both the critical path (the main story arc where the most important action/events happen) and any side quests you may want her to undertake. Some side quests are interesting, some boring, some more interesting and better written than the main arc but most seem inconsequential to the game as a whole, you only do them if you want to achieve more XP and have better weapons/armour and powers as you level - and who doesn't want that? It's helpful that quests are shoehorned into clear categories so you know which ones are going to be the most important. Hint: you can ignore everything that appears in the "Additional Tasks" tab, they are just filler for the vast open worlds. Loyalty missions though are very good and worth doing as they take you to other locations not visited anywhere else in the game and provide worthwhile interactive cinematic experiences. These missions were the heart of Mass Effect 2 and while they don't seem to hold the same importance here they're well worth the two hour or so diversion.

Character creation is pretty standard. The main feature of importance is that in ME:A, while most of the class concepts and combat/tech/biotic powers from earlier in the franchise appear for you to take, you do not actually chose a specific class, nor are you ever shoehorned into a specific combat role. This means you have more choice and can mix and match anything to your heart's desire, but if you prefer a role and stick with it, you can just chose a role and concentrate on that instead (you can always just reset all your spent points later). Appearance options are also up to Bioware's standard of creating anything from the sublime to the ridiculous. The studio copped flack upon release that while Scott Ryder looked normal and pretty much like his human model, Sara Ryder looked like a misproportioned goofy bug-eyed fish-lipped monstrosity crossed with an anime cartoon character as opposed to the stunning beauty she was modelled after. Why people chose to complain about character's default appearance in a game where you can spend like just five fucking minutes choosing better options using a few sliders I'll never understand.

My version of Ryder

Bioware also got rid of the eternal internal battle you had with your own morality which was represented since Knights of the Old Republic by a Dark Side / Light Side meter, known in Mass Effect as the Paragon/Renegade mechanic. This was with a quick even interruption or clearly marked dialogue choice, which allowed Shepard to act either like Gandhi or Hitler in certain situations. Ryder is a little less seasoned and follows either her head or her heart rather than being traditionally good or bad and I think the flow of her conversations is all the better for it. Interruptions are still a part of the game and dramatically effect the flow and outcomes of the missions in the scant few which they appear.

In addition to character levelling, you get a Nexus level - another progress meter for the galaxy itself and it's sustainability for life. Andromeda Viability Points (AVP) are awarded at a regular basis as your Nexus level increases based on the strengths of your efforts like solving colonists problems and making planets more sustainable. AVP can be spent on many different perks that make the game easier, so I recommend getting planetary viability up high. Planetary viability is interesting because you discover alien Remnant technology to assist you in terraforming. If you want to do this I recommend buying "Remnant decryption keys" wherever you see them for sale because eventually when accessing Remnant sites you will come across alien sudoku puzzles which you can do if you want or what I do, use the decryption key to solve because I want to play Mass Effect not fucking sudoku!

Mass Effect: Andromeda is the true ultimate evolution in third-person combat. Its incredible! You have great control over what weapons and powers to use (even changing them on the fly if you so wish), you can customise the weapons and load-out before embarking on a mission or exploring, you have a jump jet that automatically activates when jumping (it sounds daft but after a few hours you wonder how you've ever done without it) and taking down enemies by shooting them in the head with a sniper rifle or using crazy combinations of technical or biotic powers was so satisfying that I'm sorry the game is over now. Combat is a far cry from it's origins in Mass Effect ten years ago when it was certainly not the best part of the game. The game triumphed because it was the greatest video game space-opera ever written not because of the combat which seemed slow and clunky but thankfully got progressively better as the franchise went on. Combat is the best part of this game and it's just as well because Mass Effect: Andromeda sadly does not have a story worthy of the franchise.

Yes the writing for this instalment was lacking the "oomph!" that defined the saga before it. Previously there was a significant draw for you to progress to the main campaign, even to the point where it felt wrong to be out doing side missions out of self-interest while the galaxy was crumbling around you even during times when you knew you needed to do various other tasks to shore up resources and support or perform investigations. In this game there was so much more interesting shit going on in the background that I genuinely forgot about the larger issue at hand. Side quests by their very definition shouldn't be producing greater emotional reactions than resolving the main storyline but they do, and it's this disjointedness is a major failing of the game.

Part of the success of Mass Effect previously was how tight it was and how much it stuck to the traditional RPG video game tropes even through it's sci-fi setting. You landed on many varied and interesting alien planets and did your missions there advancing your story before flying off to the next one. Apparently the plan for ME:A was to have the Helius cluster of Andromeda to be made up of dozens of procedurally generated worlds to land and explore (some time before No Man's Sky was even announced). While that sounds like a great game in itself (yes No Man's Sky didn't get it to work but the concept is sound) it's not Bioware or Mass Effect which are cemented in storytelling as opposed to random exploration. Even though the plan shrunk down to just five fully crafted open world planets, it was the open world idea itself that was just too far reaching for this game.

The amount of driving across featureless landscape to search for a widget/person was a little too tedious for this player especially as there wasn't a pressing narrative reason to do so. Dragon Age: Inquisition did it much better, it had smaller areas which were better designed, more varied and there were more than twice as many of them. The Frostbite engine is a shooter engine and was never intended for RPGs to the best of my knowledge, whereas the previous Unreal engine appeared to be more malleable to any genre. As the planets are open worlds, there are no transitions separating different areas and thus the detail limits of many of the areas are obvious as the maximum number of assets were eventually reached. Sadly this breaks your sense of immersion and is also a black mark against the game.

All armour and weapons fully crafted.
Crafting actually follows Dragon Age: Inquisition's model pretty closely, rather than that of previous Mass Effect titles which is a plus as it's fairly straightforward even for those that dislike crafting. You can create custom weapons, always better than the stuff you pick up as loot, with different permanent effects added at the time you create them. They also have a varied number of empty slots that you add augmentations to like barrels, scopes, extra magazines etc. You get research from scanning stuff (you do a lot of scanning in this game - I bound the scanner to a mouse button) which earn you research points to spend as you level and unlock schematics for bigger, better weapons and armour. While you can just pick up exposed mineral nodes you find lying around, the only tedious part of crafting is that you may have to do a little active mining for minerals. You will do this especially to upgrade the Nomad your gravity defying 6-wheel drive light armoured vehicle. I recommend upgrading the Nomad to make the travelling easier, it's much better than Mass Effect's Mako. You mine by dropping forward stations on planets (which you will do for fast travel and resupply anyway) which reveal mining nodes and you extract minerals using the Nomad. You don't need to do this much (I did no mining at all on the latter two of the four planets you can mine) especially if you break down loot back into it's base elements instead of selling it, don't worry about enough money if you explore but if you don't, gain money through perks and selling everything. In either case this type of material gathering is far better than the terrible orbital mining experience of ME3.

Speaking of orbital mining, one of the staple points of the franchise is of course "The Galaxy Map" a top down representation of, in this game's case, the Helius cluster. As before you click on a star and you warp to the star system and scan planets. Thankfully it's mostly just a one click affair as opposed to the constant area scanning nonsense from earlier games. Some systems are filler and you not ever need go there but others need to be travelled to for major plot locations and some require exploration for side quests. The planetary transitions are nicely done but you'll end up tabbing to skip the animations after the first two or three dozen depending on your patience.

While the story may be lacking, your companions and their stories are not. Since the stellar companions of Baldur's Gate stole the show from that game, Bioware has been consistent with their quality of suitable companions which could be valorous heroes, passionate paramours and loveable rogues, often perhaps combinations of several archetypes. More often than not dialogue encourages you to seek more than a professional relationship with one or more of your companions and for the first time your romantic engagements are not limited to only those people on your battle-squad but on your ship too. It makes sense as it's not likely you'll be engaging in romance while in full body armour out in the field in mostly hazardous environments anyway. There's no influence system with your squad companions, they will ask you to go on their loyalty mission with them which are easily some of the best moments of the game but I don't think there's any negative consequences if you don't. Cora and Liam are just the squad you begin with but you meet several others and you can have two with you at any time. I recommend mixing up your squad every now and again because the conversations between different characters in the background is as awesome as it has been since Baldur's Gate.

I will say that the quality of voice talent on show in ME:A isn't quite up to the standard Bioware have employed in the past. It's quite noticeable unfortunately in a game that has thousands of lines of fully voiced dialogue. The main characters and companions etc. as well as most of the prominent NPCs are done well but some especially the background acting was poor. Disappointingly there was only a few more well known names in addition to the aforementioned Clancy Brown. Bioware enlisted the talents of Indira Varma (Ellaria Sand in Game of Thrones), Natalie Dormer (Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones), Kumail Nanjiani (Dinesh Chugtai in Silicon Valley) and Dublin born Stanley Townsend who has been a prolific actor on both Irish and British TV for the past thirty years. Bioware scored much bigger names for ME3 and DA:I with the likes of Seth Green, Tricia Helfer, Lance Henrickson, Claudia Black, Kate Mulgrew, Keith David, Martin Sheen, even Buzz Aldrin himself. One would think EA games would have forked out for someone closer to this level and it may have reduced negativity over the point. Regardless, players may also recognise Reyes' voice as that of Nicholas Boulton who previously portrayed Hawke in Dragon Age II and Inquisition and must tip my hat however to a Fallout 4 voice actor Katy Townsend who is one of the only Glaswegians I can understand and who made the character of Science Officer Suzi Anwar so endearing and a credit to how well written she was.

As the tension and urgency of the Reaper conflict from ME2 and 3 wasn't part of the game, and this was a new saga, Bioware chose a new composer for the score. John Paesano (Daredevil, The Maze Runner) composed a musical soundscape more in line with what Jack Wall and Sam Hulick did for the first Mass Effect which itself was evocative of old sci-fi exploration movies. The themes, battle music, exploration music etc are all great, they're all thematically new but still evoke Mass Effect.

I think writing any more would endanger spoiler territory so I will finish up. Mass Effect: Andromeda was not designed to be the first part of a new trilogy as such, but it was designed to be added on to in some fashion. Unlike the last game, the ending is perfectly solid and the main task you were given the first day is accomplished (one way or another) to satisfaction, it's just that some things you discovered along the way could be left hanging as they were obviously being primed for either DLC which I certainly would have lapped up or even the sequel, the former now being highly unlikely and the latter not yet confirmed with the franchise being put on hiatus as the studio creates Anthem.
The open world elements of the game are in my opinion not in keeping with Bioware's tradition of a tighter story experience and simply create pockets of unnecessary time sinks into the big picture which mean you could end up spending 40% more time in the game than is really necessary. However your companion stories, your own personal development as you level, and the magnificent combat systems, the best of any of the franchise, are plentiful and really the true reason you should play.

Overall score: 78%

My Comparison: Mass Effect - 85%, Mass Effect 2 - 99%, Mass Effect 3 - 93%

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