Friday, March 31, 2017

Thoughts on Mass Effect: Andromeda

Yeah, I saw all the bad reviews and laughed at the hilarious wonky animations. I've discovered ways to make Ryder either do a crab-walk shuffle or look like she's on rollerskates. Sometimes I load up the Tempest and she's vibrating up and down while team mates stand on tables.

My biggest concern was that after having played an hour or so of Andromeda's demo, I didn't like it. The introductory planet feels wanky, with vision obstructing grass and awkward to climb rocks all over the place - not what you want when trying to get to grip with a new game and its mechanics.

The combat seemed like some weird throwback to ME1 where everything is floaty and underpowered.

Once you get past the first not particularly well done first hour or so, the game opens out into something I'm finding to be hugely enjoyable.

It's gonzo ME1. It's all those Mako planets from the first game, but jammed with stuff to do on them. If the original ME, which felt like a lost sci-fi film from the 70s, was all about discovery, exploration and trying to survive for you, then this will likely appeal.

Make no mistake, it has problems. Some of the faces / animations are dreadful (one of your ship's co-pilots looks like Chucky with a woman's wig dropped on top), and in places the level of character detail in ME2 is head and shoulders above this game.

Camerawork is very static, too - most conversations are just reverse angle shots. You won't see people walking around, doing things while talking, fast cuts to illustrate how Mordin's mind works or any of that jazz - it's meat and potatoes all the way.

The accents are hilariously wonky. The first Salarian I ran into sounded like a bored French Canadian guy. I've had cockney space aliens. I encountered a new species and they're fucking Australian space cats.

The voice filters seem as though they're dialled right down, so everyone sounds pretty much human with a broken vocoder. The old games ensured specific aliens all talked / sounded the same way. Here I've got cockney wideboy Salarians and beach loving space cats or some shit.

I don't understand this at all.

There's also an astonishingly crap bug where dying means a save will fail to load, and you'll have to exit out / try again or reload an earlier save.

Having said all of that, and in no particular order (ish), here's what I think so far:

* FemRyder is a great character, and nails the VO as someone who is absolutely unsure of why / how they're in charge of their mission, and nothing like the ready-rolled Shepard lite badass I was expecting. I've heard the dude Ryder is a bit more gung-ho, though.

* Lightness of humour abounds. Feels very ME1 (again) after the cut my life into pieces antics of 3. Nothing wrong with that, and quite a few of the lines from FemRyder have brought forth many chuckles.

* Electro synth music is back in business (I'm going to type "ME1" a lot, okay). A variation of the map music is present. This franchise is only dead once that music is gone forever.

* Your ship, the Tempest, is the best ship of the series.

The Normandy always felt like I was in a submarine, and I had to battle with the poorly placed button in the cockpit just to see some space or whatever. Where are my fucking space windows?

Here, there's glass and views for miles. There aren't many "dead" areas with nothing to do in them, and your crew actually walk around the ship and have conversations and stuff.

It's *great*.

* The Mako (Nomad) is back, and it finally has a purpose. It also comes with enough customisation options to stay relevant. Ooh, atmospheric damage! Heat damage! Cold damage! They're back! My suit also suffers said damage! It's like I'm actually in space! ME1!

They've also taken the planet scanning of 2 and made it something you do while driving in the Mako. Not saying it's better, but it definitely makes driving around more involved.

* The main hook of the game - colonise a new galaxy - isn't abandoned after ten minutes and is the core of the game. You have to try and make a collection of very large maps habitable, remove threats, build up resources, build outposts, perform tasks for said outposts and so on. Alongside that, you build up points to spend on releasing people from cryosleep on your newfangled Citadel which give you additional perks. Alongside *that*, you can send strike teams on missions which may reward you with additional funds to build / research more stuff. You can even pimp out your strike teams with equipment, even if they are nothing more than countdown timers with a win / lose at the end of it. All of these gameplay loops feed into one another and it's very satisfying.

There's even - mild sort of spoiler, look away now if you don't want to know an early game thing - planet terraforming as one of the main quest objectives for each world, to really drill down on those not very hospitable environments. So that's cool too.

* No more "why am I doing all of this" dissonance so common in this style of game, because for once it's literally your (unasked for) job. Crucially, you're not in charge - the people on the replacement Citadel are. You have agency, but you're not the king of the mountain. Are you watching, Fallout "Let's send the General to the other side of the map to kill some ghouls" 4?

* The Nexus is the best Citadel since ME1. No more "go to the Citadel and these ten side missions are all you'll get for the whole game". It constantly has something new to do or see in it, and I've revisited the station llllllllllloads of times over 30+ hours of play.

Sure, many of the side missions are, y'know, side missions. Fetch quests, go here, do this, scan twelve of those. But it's still nice to have the option of doing them inbetween / on your way to main missions, right? And quite a few of them are pretty well done (some are awful, but that's to be expected).

This dynamism (as basic as it often is) is seen throughout the game. You will typically have something new to do if you revisit that first outpost you built ten hours later.

* The planets. There are roughly half a dozen (I think) for you to make habitable, and the maps are pretty big. They're all distinct from one another, and of the two that are "similar" - they're really not, with one of them in particular being quite lethal over any given stretch of time (being intentionally vague here). It also looks very different from the other one, so don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

Think ME1 (again). Alongside those, there are multiple "hub" worlds with cities or other stuff on them, and (so far) at least one planet that's big and explorable with stuff to do, but not one you can make habitable. I've seen complaints about planet variety, but it honestly seems fine to me.

If you want big, main, explorable ME1 planets (and even those were a bit corridor-ish in the original game) then you have them. If you want corridor shooter / set piece / ME2 type environments, you'll come across them too. Seems the best of both worlds - aha ha - to me.

* Planet scanning. YMMV on this, because they've removed all agency from it. If you didn't have the load screen (you physically travel in first person from planet to planet like you're strapped to the ship's cockpit window) then you'd just click a button, click a thing and be done.

This is obviously so fast as to be utterly pointless, so you have the load screens to break it up a bit and make you ponder if you really *do* want to spend 30 seconds travelling to gain 10 bits of steel (yes, the rewards for scanning are rubbish).

In some weird way, it helps to remind you that you're stranded in this tiny chunk of a new galaxy, and look - here it is, every inch of it.

Basically I treat the planet visiting as "what am I picking for my ship's window wallpaper". Mmm! Spacey!

* In-game scanning. You research and develop items / weapons / whatever by scanning objects with your wrist thingy, and gain points in certain branches depending on where the object hails from. You then use those points to sink into research. Some people aren't keen on this, but I think it's fine.

* The story isn't (so far!) a rehashed original trilogy. There's some echoes / callbacks, but nothing too over the top. I don't know what direction it's going to go in yet, or how far into it I am, but by the time I'm hitting these main missions the characters are leveled up enough, with enough skills, that it feels close to the fast paced edge of ME3 combat.

* I wasn't sure about the crew at first, but I can now remember everyone's name including the boring, generic humans that nobody ever picks. I would have preferred to still use the power wheel (doesn't exist in this game), because I used to like picking specific characters for certain zones - as it is now, it's pot luck as to if they trigger combos or not. But in terms of characterisation and solid "loyalty missions", they're great.

Even the boring humans.

Anyway, there it is. I'll probably remember something I intended to mention ten seconds after I hit publish, but whatever. I really hope this gets a sequel, and I also really hope that EA don't turn them into corridor shooters.

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