Let’s get it out of the way: yep, I’m writing another goddamn videogame opinion piece and putting it on my website. Thank god 2017 is the Final Year, so if I have to hear about it at least it won’t be for very long.
But why? WHY? This is the fourth game in a series I don’t even like that much. (I once burned Mass Effect 2 so thoroughly on Twitter, the tweet went on to be included in an academic paper and I’m apparently listed as the ninth author or something. I’m not making this up, I swear.) It’s a Western RPG with dating sim “elements” and I generally don’t fuck with that anymore and just play straight-up dating sims so I don’t have to grind through bloat-fights to get to the good stuff. You still can’t date the most interesting alien races (krogans, salarians). It’s $60 and I’m self-employed. Right before the game launched, a bunch of gifs and clips came out highlighting that the animation of characters’ faces was...less than stellar, which is not exactly great when a lot of the game centers around talking to said characters.
I...don’t really know why I bought this game the day it was released. I wasn’t in the mood for a power fantasy, but also there’s a lot to be said for pretending you’re an entire galaxy away from the Trump administration sometimes. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
~*~Spoilers, because I played the heck out of Mass Effect Andromeda~*~
First off, the character creator for Ryder, if you go with a custom head, is almost Bethesda-esque, which I know is mean but god-DAMN. I made a head. Then I tried making another head which turned out to be pure nightmare fuel. So then I tried the default Sara Ryder head, but that girl needs 600 years of chapstick, so I finally just rolled back to my original attempt and stuck it out. Yeesh. Yeeeeeeeesh. How is it that the character creator looks so different from the actual game? This is a fascinating problem to me.
I had avoided all spoilers for the game’s plot because I...don’t bother reading about videogames anymore. (Either it’s a title I know I’m going to buy so what’s the point, or I just let word of mouth tell me about good games after they’ve shipped. Studios talking about their games still in development end up unintentionally lying a lot for a variety of reasons related to dev, so that stuff tends to be nonsense and not worth paying attention to, in my experience.) So it was a delightful surprise that I was NOT the most talented person in the entire fucking universe this time. (Usually in Mass Effect games, you play as the most skillful bad-ass in all time and space, and nobody can figure out anything without you there. It’s satisfying but also kind of hilarious.) An interesting side effect of this though was that since Ryder is this sort of classic fish out of water trying to catch up type, my typical “play the game on the easiest setting” play style didn’t line up with the in-game narrative for once.
Typically when playing Mass Effect (or the other big BioWare series, Dragon Age), the power fantasy offered of being this extraordinary hero lines up really well with playing the game on easy. Everyone is all “thank fuck you’re here!” And I’m like “YEAH thank fuck I’m here, you losers couldn’t defeat the thing I just killed in three hits!” and then everyone is very impressed and talks about how great my character is. With Ryder though, all the NPCs were yelling things like, “they’re surrounding us!” and “these guys just won’t let up!” and meanwhile I’m like “it’s...it’s fine everyone. They’re all dead. They died in one hit. Calm down.” I eventually felt like I wanted to increase my difficulty setting because I felt so bad about how stressed out everyone else was over these very non-stressful fights, but...not enough to actually do it. >.>
(Please don’t read this under the misapprehension I played the game without dying. (Somewhere in Montreal, Manveer Heir just got confused and angry and he’s not even sure why.) I still found a way to murder myself: drive the Nomad around while severely damaged until it exploded.)
AND ABOUT THE NOMAD...So in the first Mass Effect game there was the worst driving simulation of all time, and it was called the Mako. This shitty off-road vehicle that you had to cruise around in on planets and it was the worst and remains the worst. And then they took it out for the next two games, and that was a good decision! Nobody missed it! But for some reason, someone somewhere has decided to evaluate videogames based on their sheer volume, so every planet has to feel like you’re actually traveling, I don’t know, the entirety of it, and so the Mako is back, in POG form, as the Nomad. It IS very helpful for traveling the massive distances that some of these environments span, but it’s still unwieldy and before I upgraded it a bit it drove me to despair. In real life I am capable of navigating streets and traffic, but in videogames for some reason I turn into a virgin who can’t drive, and I hate it.
There were a few other things that were sort of odd Mass Effect 1 nostalgia-y integrations into Andromeda in addition to the Nomad, most notably the inventory system. Do you like making customized weapons and armor and getting to name them? I hope so, because you definitely can spend a lot of time doing that in this game! (...I do. I made a sniper rifle called “Nighty Night” that held only one round at a time and murdered basically every single thing in 1-2 hits and it was deeply satisfying.)
What gets me about these things -- the ATV driving and the inventory customization -- is that these are really odd things to shove back into the series, when I think about it. People tend to have strong feelings about each of them (as I have just demonstrated), and putting both of these into the game is a gutsy move that gives Andromeda a lot of personality. Whether you like that personality or not, the game feels distinct for having those choices, and I like that.
Meanwhile, some of the other systems that remain from the series have been dialed back to the point that they feel unnecessary. While scanning planets in Mass Effect 2 had a sense of pacing to it and was a mini-game in itself, it’s useless here. With so much mining happening with the Nomad, I wish they’d just cut the rest of it all together so I didn’t have the weird exclamation points on every planet hanging out in my UI whenever I entered a new system.
This review itself is starting to feel sort of like how the game plays -- a little confusing and poorly managed. The game hyped a planet-settlement decision to me that seemed as if it was setting a pattern, only for it to turn out to be a one-time decision, which it seemed to just be using to determine which type of protesters I was going to be dealing with in another sector. I never got to make military/scientific planet settling decisions again. They try to hang a lampshade on why the viability of planets is scored through literal points, but it doesn’t quite work, but then I don’t ever quite manage to care. The sheer number of quests is so ridiculously out of control that the game PRE-SORTS THEM INTO FOLDERS AND SUBFOLDERS FOR YOU because to display them all on one screen would be madness. You would think that given this largess, it would be unnecessary to have bullshit “find 8 random hidden things on a planet” fetch quests...but you would be so, so wrong. (And in what I soon discovered was classic Andromeda-unevenness fashion, some of those fetch quests came with map markers, but some did NOT. Guess which ones I didn’t bother finishing.)
I’m being a bit rough on it, but most of all that up there...I could kind of give a fuck. I also really didn’t notice the duck-lips animation beyond the first couple of seconds of it. What put me off a lot more was the overall art direction for characters and how it affected human and asari faces. Everyone looks like a middle schooler in Andromeda for some reason. It’s...real weird. Shiny eyes, clear skin, chubby cheeks. The krogan and turian models look incredible, all the additional detail on the textures finally makes those characters really feel alive in a way that I hadn’t seen in the previous games. But something about the way the human and blue-human (asari) are designed lands too close to Barbie Sparkle Blast for me.
Also, and this is maybe the weirdest one...there are a lot of cutscenes in this game. A LOT. And if I had to, I’d put $5 on it that an algorithm picked the camera angle and shot selection for a good chunk of them, and then nobody polished them beyond that. Have you ever been on a Google Hangout or Skype call and someone doesn’t have their mic muted, so the call will flash from whoever is talking to the unmuted person for just a second occasionally? Yeah, imagine that, but in the middle of a cutscene at the end of the main quest line of a $60 AAA videogame. And I don’t mean once, I mean several times. For multiple cutscenes. Also characters not framed properly (chins cut out of frame, for just one example), or the camera placed so that an object is obscuring most or all of the talking character. (This would happen frequently on the Tempest, with the giant rotating Nexus model; I’d be having a heartbreaking conversation with Kallo, but every 5 seconds the Nexus would rotate through and blot the entire screen. Narrative-breakingly hilarious! But kind of shocking that BioWare of all studios shipped a game that treated its characters like this.)
So what I’m saying is, I understand why the game has a 74 Metacritic score currently. (FYI Metacritic is garbage.) In terms of doing its job as a videogame, Andromeda struggles, and there is something to be said for being the best turd in turdland. But you know me, I always appreciate it when the people making a murder simulator actually try to branch out a bit, and while the Metacritic reviews all say the best thing about the game is the combat, I played the game on Narrative difficulty so fuck a bunch of that, let’s talk about the actual game, shall we?
First up, what the effer is Mass Effect Andromeda “about”? I was worried for a while, because the writers have NPCs throwing around words like “frontier” and “pioneer” from the beginning and...those are some loaded terms. (Translation: imperialist colonialist white bullshit, and given that the game was made in Canada, specifically white European bullshit.) And the game’s not ~perfect because what is, but it did feel to me like the writers knew what they were doing and you/the player/Ryder basically stumble into a new galaxy and hey surprise, it’s not uninhabited. And there’s a buuuuunch of shit going down.
(I’m real, real curious how many, if any, players ever figure out that the bad guys in this game could/do represent white imperialist colonization culture -- they come in, lie pretending to be friendly and peaceful, and then turn every alien race into themselves, all while stealing attributes of those races and claiming it’s a “gift” to be turned.)
I also really enjoyed that it felt as if the writing team had put some thought into the kinds of people who would be drawn to going to another galaxy -- charismatic con artists, overly idealistic idiots, people who are incredibly bad at fitting into society in one way or another, etc. THIS IS YOUR DATING POOL. This is also the pool of people you’re getting your orders from, your quests from, and so forth. It took me a little while to figure that out, and not everyone is an extreme archetype, but it was nice to not just have a bunch of normal-ish people with normal backstories. As my spouse put it, “so it’s like Deadwood in space?” And...yeah, kinda, but with you setting up the town of Deadwood over and over again.
One thing the game nominally dabbled with is the old Star Trek convention of genre-hopping with every planet, and honestly I wish the game had leaned harder into that particular turn. I nicknamed one of the planets Casablanca in my head (because...[dreamy sigh] Reyes…), but the rest of them I mostly nicknamed based on their weather. (They named the sand planet Aladdin, by the way. I mean, it’s spelled slightly differently but. They did. Like I said, this game has a gutsy personality, and I’m not sure if I like it.) But said sand planet Aladdin is also, somewhat predictably, the Mad Max planet...which was GREAT! Of COURSE I want a desert planet full of bonkers people with weirdo hair and tweaked out weapons going HAM on me! Bring it!! Given that BioWare wants their games to feel like movies, I’m a little surprised they didn’t play with this more, but eh, what do I know.
One place where the game reliably shone was the “loyalty missions” for your squad of random weirdos and overqualified military professionals who decide to spend all their time waiting around to hang out with you. (Look, Ryder is a sweet kid but...why.) At some point each of these people are like, “hey I have a problem and I need your help” and then you can just take your sweet ol time doing it, but once it’s done, they’re loyal to you forever! (I...think it means they fight in the final boss fight? I have no idea. I did them all. It was fun.) All of the team content and team quests were good, lousy camera angles aside, because BioWare writes a good NPC. I continue to wish they would just buckle down and ship a goddamn dating sim one day. It’s much faster than doing what you currently do, folks! Just...putting that out there. (Alternately: seduce or kill whoever you have to to get the rights to the X-Men games, because BioWare could actually do X-Men properly; equal parts combat and interpersonal drama. I’ve been saying this for years, and will continue to do so until it happens.)
I can’t really review the actual romances because I only did one (<3 Reyes <3) and honestly, it saved the game for me. A++, would romance again, even though it was apparently a “second tier” romance so I got no bangarang scene. ??? Again, this game is confusing, I have no idea how romance even really works in it. It used to be, you said something nice to someone once, that was it, you were married forever. I honestly prefer this system, where you can just Kirk your way through the galaxy and who knows! Maybe you have a fling! Maybe you break up! Maybe you glitch your way into a relationship with two people and then the game doesn’t know what to do with that and so mashes the models of both characters on top of each other whenever there’s a romantic cutscene, forcing you into intimacy with a horrid two-headed creature that longs for death! (This happened to someone, I’m not just inventing things.)
I would be remiss in talking about the romancing stuff without pointing out that the voice actor for Alistair from Dragon Age Origins also voices a romanceable character in Andromeda, Gil, but Gil is only available if you play a male Ryder. Information I personally kind of wish I’d had going in. [cough]
It’s strange, for all the weird, broken, uneven things about Andromeda, it’s by far my favorite Mass Effect game. I liked being a stranger in a strange land. I liked the beautiful starscapes and the rhythm of travel from planet to system to system to planet. I liked how a quest that began with a dramatic explosion in space took a turn and found Ryder on a call having to listen to one of the main human administrators complaining about an old friend of hers from college, yelling “god, that is so like her!” I liked how the game never let me forget that evil always has a face, that there’s never one single point of failure or success, that everyone is participating in a system whether they mean to or not. The game definitely wants for editing and polish, and I won’t argue that it’s somehow more charming in the state it’s in -- I eagerly await any and all patches that fix the currently bugged quests, and maybe even the cutscene cameras, one can dream.
But while, again, I understand maybe the average videogame reviewer was hoping for something different, I very much enjoyed the experience of being a little wrong-footed and awkward, fumbling along trying to get along with people who maybe didn’t want me there at all. It was reassuring and sweet to play a character who wasn’t strong and perfect, who wasn’t always smooth or remotely cool. (Ryder is maybe the least cool sci fi videogame protagonist in recent memory.) By the time I got to Morda, the krogan leader who took no shit and served plenty, I was just praying that none of the dialog prompts would lead to Ryder getting herself permanently banned from the planet. (See again: why can we never date krogan?? Why could I not somehow, some way, date Morda, or at least sell myself into sexual servitude to her? She was AMAZING.)
I never know how to end these things, because I know traditionally one is supposed to give a score or at least some indication of whether a game is worth buying. And I mean...buy it or don’t, but please at least watch videos of Reyes Vidal and then talk with me about how he is incredibly, incredibly hot. I cannot overstate how much spare time I spend thinking about this fictional character now, it’s ridiculous.