Mass Effect: Andromeda

While I waited for this free month of EA games, I planned out how I would make the best of it. Since I've been wondering for years about what another Humble Origin Bundle would have, why not turn that into a playlist? Crysis 3 would be neat to play through, just to see how it ended. It turned out to be short enough to knock out in a weekend, so now what? Mass Effect: Andromeda would be a likely candidate, since it wasn't exactly a money maker for EA, so why not give it away?

"Screenshot of Mass Effect: Andromeda, showing some combat with the ancient robots."

Way back when I started this blog, I was in the midst of a Mass Effect binge. After investing several playthroughs of each game (at 100 or so hours each), it was devastating to be let down by the last 10 minutes. And because I'm a sucker for punishment, I replayed the last one again to make sure that I didn't miss anything. The pain dulled over the years, as I moved on to some other, some better, some nostalgic, and some mediocre games. In 2017, upon hearing that Mass Effect: Andromeda was less than stellar, I finally released any residual emotional attachments I had to Mass Effect. I wrote it off. Combined with the reception of its contemporary, I'm expecting Bioware to get carried off to the EA cemetery any day now.

Because I'm going into this science-fantasy dating simulator with no emotions, I'm judging this with low expectations. I'm not going to dwell on what they promised originally (No Man's (pie-in-the-) Sky, from what I gather), nor about the development hell this went through. I expected a travesty, but started getting disappointed, because I was liking it.

I've heard that there's a formula for Bioware games, so let's follow along. Your dad was a military hero, and you (and your twin) served, but weren't anything notable. After a fierce battle, your dad dies, leaving you with a mage and fighter. As your dad dies, he promotes you as his replacement. It doesn't feel like being a Spectre, but you can do pretty much anything you want. There's a sinister group everywhere, and the robots aren't happy to see me, either. Said robots guard ancient ruins. There's a hot chick studying them. Checkity, check check! There's no dreams or visions, but I have a computer in my head. (Does that count?)

About two hours in, I noticed that this feels an awful lot like a rerun of Mass Effect 1 and 2. It's as if someone seen it once, then was asked to put it together in another galaxy. What's the best part? The Mako! I'm out there driving around planets and eventually I drive past everything, and there's nothing around! Between that and flying around stars and planets, it nails that beautiful, near tangible feeling of exploration and discovery among the untrammeled planets exactly like the first Mass Effect did. (Side note: I'm expecting that feeling from Star Citizen.) Granted, this rover doesn't handle anything like the old Mako did, which felt like a paper plane. This "Nomad" feels like a tank. You have to use 6 wheel drive mode to go up even the slightest hill, or it starts slowing to a crawl. I've been able to navigate up some cliffs, but it feels like it voids the warranty. There's also a planet that you have to go around that's nothing but hills and sheer cliffs.

"Screenshot of Mass Effect: Andromeda, showing the Nomad doing epic jumps on an asteroid."

The bread and butter of the series remains combat and conversations. Combat is rock solid, but dynamic. Remember when you're in the character creator, and you have to choose a class? You can change your class (profile) in the middle of a fight! I never saw the need to change away from soldier though, once I found a shotgun to use when I wanted things dead right now. Combat environments are well suited for your increased mobility, because you have jump jets. Balconies and elevated platforms come included with most areas of chest-high walls.

The conversation system should be familiar to long time players of the series. There's a six spoke wheel containing dialog options for a thoughtful, logical, jovial, or professional response (not all options apply for all situations), though you end up saying mostly the same thing. There are two more ways you can say things, but they're so rare that I forgot what they were. To much delight, the paragon and renegade morality system is not present, so you don't have to replay the game solely based on that alone.

I enjoyed the characters on my crew. There were enough hints that they weren't one dimensional cardboard cutouts, but they weren't fully fleshed out. Most of them are deeply connected to their families, and will go on and on about them. I guess because when you travel for 600 years on a one way trip, you want people you care about on the other side. (Everyone you left behind? Their troubles would be over.) Even the local recruit (who didn't travel for 600 years) goes on about his family, which seems to encompass the entire village he grew up in.

One of the criticisms of Andromeda is that the code, the Frostbite Engine, was suited for first person action shooters, not third person cinematic science-fantasy dating simulators. You could have fooled me! It's better suited for these kinds of games than the busted code Bethesda has been using for 20 years. Most of the animations are fine, but I stepped into the back once and saw that someone's neck was totally broken. I never once fell through the floor, nor the ground, nor was I accidentally blasted into space, but creepy doll face is still there. Some characters cross their arms awkwardly, with some hands colliding with their chest or arm, while others had their hands curled up on the back side of their arms.

The setting isn't quite like what I expected. I expected places where no one has been. An hour in, it's blindingly obvious that you were the second arrival. You pull up to your expedition's main hub (which got there beforehand, as planned) only to find it virtually abandoned. You discover a rebellion happened there about a year ago, and many people people got exiled because of it. They said a lot of stuff about "The Scourge". Maybe it was explained to me and I wasn't listening, but I didn't know what it was for sure. (I thought it was those rebels?) It wasn't for another hour or two that I discovered the definitive answer. I recall a trailer or preview where you go to a colony, but it looks like it's been there for a while; now I know why (I've been there).

I have a beef with these new sci-fi helmets. This game (and Star Citizen, and probably others) are filled with astronauts that look like they're wearing glass domes for helmets. Someone forgot that humans have a fairly narrow field of view, and transparent parts are only needed on the forward part of the head. Transparent parts on top are unnecessary. In fact, they might be dangerous to the user, as the transparent parts are probably made of acrylic (or glass), which is not as strong as the armor elsewhere. It's far more dangerous when people wear these to a war.

In addition to collecting loot, you can research and build most of your equipment. Only yours, because you can't change your teammates' equipment, like in Mass Effect 1. Sometime before heading off to the final boss fight, I decided to research some of the ancient ruin/robot technology. Since the bad guy has a knack for that, I decided to give and be a piece of that medicine. That armor definitely made me look like an evil robot, complete with red glowy parts! (And no silly glass dome helmet!) The weapons you find and use have the standard ammo system that has been in place since Mass Effect 2. Behold, the ancient ruin tech tree has guns that work just like Mass Effect 1 guns! (They have infinite ammo, and overheat when shot too much.) I'll take one of those!

The music is not exceptional, but I enjoyed the galaxy map theme, and appreciated the light brass in the main theme. The sound is generally good, except sometimes in conversations. Big, important conversations have bespoke camera angles, but others zoom in and are done over your shoulder. Because I'm fighting a war on alien planets whose atmospheric composition might be hazardous, I want to wear helmets at all times, except in conversations. This works in the cinematic, important conversations, but for shoulder talks, the helmets remain on. Add in that my teammates seem to stop where they are (which might be several feet behind me), and top of the helmet muffling, I might not hear what they're saying if they chime in. (Couldn't a transmitter turn on?) Initially, I thought it was an engine bug, but I eventually noticed them whispering.

"Screenshot of Mass Effect: Andromeda, showing the inside of an ancient ruin."

While I applaud that Bioware has stepped away from the setting and characters of the original trilogy, I'd like a story with a different scope. When you and some buddies go off to save the world universe, what else is there? It feels like you've written yourself into a corner. I haven't completed other Bioware games outside Mass Effect, but I've heard they're similar. They can't get over writing messiah characters. I'd like a smaller, grittier take on Mass Effect. The Citadel wards beg for a cyberpunk or film noir story. Mass Effect is perfect for a space flight/combat simulator game. Maybe next time, Bioware can get over writing a human lead character. Couldn't you be some alien fighting a losing war, when "Jesus" appears in another land? Sigh.

I call Mass Effect a science fantasy genre, mostly because of this element zero stuff. It's the snake oil for all the physics-breaking magic. Also, not only are the aliens are a bit too common and humanoid, they are also unrealistically neoliberal to believe.

I never got any of the later Mass Effect 3 DLCs, so it was cool to see turian and krogan women around (they didn't really exist/able to be seen in the previous games). A few months ago, I heard that the Origin version of Mass Effect 1 includes both of its DLCs (I had only played one of them). I took it for a spin, only to remember that 2011 was a crazy time, and realized that I had lost my edge. With this Origin subscription, I was looking forward to playing the other Mass Effect 3 DLCs, but the subscription doesn't have any! What a rip off! Maybe it's a good thing that Andromeda has no story DLC.

That brings me to the end. The future prognosis isn't good, for this spinoff or series. There are some very obvious threads that need tied, like the quarians and mom. Although Mass Effect, as a series, has been "put on ice", there's evidence that something new is happening, but I've already seen it fly off into the sunset. Maybe Mass Effect will be rebooted. My only regret was that I wasn't able to punch the Archon in his stupid face, because both him and his face were asking for it. So goodbye Andromeda, goodbye Mass Effect, goodbye Shepard, goodbye Ryder. This might be the last time I play you, but we had some... times. Some good, some... not so good.

Whatever you might have heard about Mass Effect: Andromeda, it's worth checking out, especially if you liked the first game.