Mass Effect: Andromeda, Nitpicking

I bet I spent longer on the first planet than you did.

Screenshot from the PS4 version of Mass Effect: Andromeda.

I’m about five hours into Mass Effect: Andromeda now, and the first 3 1/2  to 4 were spent on Habitat 7.  On the plus side, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the map, I think I did pretty well at finding most if not all of its secrets.  There were mysteries and ambience and captivating vistas.  By the end of it, I would have happily recommended the game to anyone, and I hadn’t even reached what are now my favorite moments.

More on that soon.  First, I have a bit of nitpicking to get out of my system.

Trouble in Paradise

Most of the reviews I’ve read praise the combat in the game; for me the combat is the weakest part.  I can never tell what’s going on, and if my character couldn’t turn invisible, walk up right next to a monster, and then shoot it, the combat would be impossible for me.  I’m sure the frenetic pace is very realistic, but in a real gunfight I would be less than no help.  I don’t need games to bring my real level of uselessness into my pretend life.  I miss being able to pause.

Screenshot from the PS4 version of Mass Effect: Andromeda

Also, while I’m at it, they mention not wasting ammunition.  You know what would have been helpful?  If they had brought the guns from Mass Effect 1, which never ran out of ammunition.  I’ve said it before (often), and I’ll likely say it again (often): ammunition (or “heat sinks,” making sure to pronounce the quotation marks with derision) has no place in a Mass Effect game.  Why would an entire galaxy of intelligent people trade weapons they can fire an unlimited amount for weapons they can fire a few times.  (At the very least the “heat sinks,” again with maximum derision, ought to cool down when you stop shooting.)

I also don’t like the number of times my sidekick tries to point out something, except without the game giving me any indication which direction my sidekick is even looking.  At one point for example, I think I was supposed to see flares.  I mostly saw rocks and lightning, since I didn’t even see my sidekick, much less whatever he saw.  Then, during one of the burlier brawls, people kept calling out things, but they might as well have been screaming incoherently.  It seems like a lot of scripted events depend upon my watching my sidekicks, and I usually have something else much more pressing to watch.

And then, finally, I don’t like the way the conversations work.  I like (at least in theory) the new system of “moods” for responses.  I don’t like the vague summaries the game gives of each potential response.  Too often I interpret a summary one way, only to find my character saying something entirely unexpected and usually regrettable.  Either the response summaries need to be better and more clearly written, or Bioware should go back to a more verbose alternative.

Surprises

Nitpicking aside, I really enjoyed by time on the Broken Lightning Disaster World.  The ending was a little weak—magical translation of language with no frame of reference, magical clearing of the sky and space, death by unexplained cloudy shove off of a cliff—but then the game surprised my twice, and reminded me again of why I was excited to play it, and why I think it’s exactly what I hoped it would be.

More on that soon.

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Mass Effect: Andromeda, Into Another World

Two hours into Mass Effect: Andromeda, I was pretty lost and more than usually confused.  To be clear though, I mean that as compliment.  Let me back up a bit.

First Impressions

I’m a sucker for music, so it features prominently in many of my fond game memories.  I remember the thrill I felt the first time I launched Knights of the Old Republic.  I still frequently find myself whistling the theme from the first Dragon Warrior that I played on the original Nintendo Entertainment System.  And of course I like the music from the original Mass Effect: the gentle atmospheric theme over the start screen, the driving melody in the opening cinematic, all of it.

Naturally, I was pretty excited to start Mass Effect Andromeda and then sit patiently, listening without playing it.

The menu music is a little reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel soundtrack.  I like it.  It’s evocative, as much mood as melody, but it’s not just noise.  (Which distinguishes it from much of Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel soundtrack, which is just noise.)  What does it evoke?  For me, melancholy but vast open spaces, with a touch of challenge and hope.  That is to say that I think it does a nice job of setting up a story about a one way trip to a huge unknown galaxy, a story about finding a way to live there since going home isn’t an option.  As I sat there listening to the music, I was pretty sure I was going to like the game.

Familiar Faces

I read some reviews that didn’t like the character editor.  I thought it was fine.  It’s pretty largely unchanged from the previous games, although I found it easier than they were.  Plus, I got to design two characters instead of just one.  I decided to make the brother/sister pair look like how I imagine my own kids will look when they’re older.

If something happens to one of them, I’m going to be pretty upset.

Zero Hour

I’ll admit that the opening of the game surprised me a bit.  The first Mass Effect had a brilliant opening cinematic that really got me invested both in my character and in the excitement of exploring this interesting future world.  Mass Effect 2’s opening was ill-conceived (like most of the game), but action packed.  Mass Effect 3’s opening had some slow parts (and was also ill-conceived), but opened with something dramatic and ended with lots of action.

Mass Effect: Andromeda begins with some shuttles flying away from Earth and around the moon.  They fly toward Ark Hyperion; the people on board the shuttle look excited.  The Hyperion sits perfectly still.  There’s the standard “story so far” text, the Andromeda logo, and then Ark Hyperion appears as if from nowhere in Andromeda.  It travels slowly past the camera.  A handy display informs us that this is hour 0 day 0.  My character wakes up with a gasp.  Someone offers him coffee.

I kid you not.

It’s a very different style of opening.  It’s easy to imagine a slightly more dramatic one, too, something that communicates the inherent potential of the game’s setting.  Maybe start with a scene of the Arks approaching the edge of the Milky Way.  Crew are shouting last minute commands.  The player character and his family are getting ready to go into stasis.  The music swells.  Finally everything is ready; someone gives the order.  Insert the “Story so far text.”  The music reaches its crescendo and we cut back to the arks as they jump to Faster than Light speed and the “Mass Effect Andromeda” logo appears in their place.

Then maybe have a montage, scenes of an empty ship patiently waiting intercut with pictures of sleeping people.  Every couple of seconds, pop up a display of how many years have passed.  Finally at the end, we see the Hyperion appearing in Andromeda.  Then the hour 0 day 0 has more of a punch.

In any event, I was a little surprised.  That being said, I didn’t feel as disappointed as one might expect.  Something about the peacefulness of the Hyperion’s slow flyby, its 0 hour designation, the calm conversation that follows, they helped me feel connected to one clear mood: Andromeda as a new place, an empty canvas.  There’s a lot of excitement in the idea of just getting to explore it.  The slow opening rather unexpectedly helped me focus on that excitement.

Maybe that’s intentional.  I’ll come back to it again in a little while.

Signs of Trouble

My character’s exciting new life of exploration gets off to a bit of a rocky start.  I don’t think the reveal of the dark energy cloud is handled very well, but I mostly think that in retrospect.  At the time I thought the sudden impact nicely communicated what my character was feeling: everything was going well and then something really worrisome happened.

Again, while the game is clearly going to have some sort of plot and conflict or it would be dull, I thought the opening did a good job of establishing the baseline as exploration and opportunity.  Rather than feeling like a action game with a slow beginning, it felt like an exploration game in which there’s sudden conflict.

The next bits didn’t go well for me, the player, either.  This is the first Mass Effect I’ve played on a console with a controller, so I was finding it really difficult to orient myself.  People were shouting at me.  There was a definite sense of urgency.  Messages kept popping up on the screen with hints and instructions.  I just couldn’t read any of the messages because the text was too small, and I didn’t hear any of the shouted instructions because I was trying to read the game hints, and I couldn’t figure out where the door was or which way I was supposed to be looking because I didn’t get any of the instructions.

It’s probably a good thing that 20,000 colonists weren’t depending on me.

Then there was another cinematic involving people flying on shuttles.  Bioware must have invested heavily in shuttles, and wanted to get their money’s worth.  I guess I can appreciate the immersion, but at the time I was mostly thinking that, instead of seeing a great view of what was outside the Hyperion, I was seeing the back of my character while he saw a great view.

At which point I was starting to worry about the game.

Habitat 7

Then this happened:

A PS4 screenshot from Mass Effect: Andromeda

When everything took a bad turn for my character, it took a good turn for me.  Once I was on the planet, I started liking just about everything.  This goes back to the joy of exploration that I mentioned earlier.  I suddenly felt really strongly that I was a stranger in a new galaxy, and that I was allowed to explore it.  Even more, I felt like the galaxy was worth exploring.

This is what I meant about being lost and confused.  There was so much map for me to explore that I got turned around, and that much room is exactly what an exploration game needs.  Better yet, I never felt like I was just marching through empty (albeit beautiful) filler.  Everywhere I went I found something interesting.  I didn’t know what most of it was, but it was interesting and I was allowed to investigate it.

In short I felt like someone on a strange planet, and I was thrilled.  I can’t wait to play more.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

I’m not a gamer by most definitions, but I like video games.  I don’t play many of them any more though, mostly for practical reasons: I have jobs and family and other interests. Aesthetics is a part of it—I’m largely uninterested in most of the products on the market—but I probably wouldn’t play much even if companies still made games I might like.  (This is probably why no one bothers; no sense selling to people who aren’t buying.)

Some games I get excited about though.  Mass Effect: Andromeda is one of them.

Promotional image from Bioware and EA, the companies who make and own the rights to everything Mass Effect

The original Mass Effect is one of my favorite games of all times.  In fact, it actually transcends that a little bit.  If I were to combine games, movies, television, plays,  and books into a single genre, Mass Effect would be one of my favorite things in that genre.  I like it a lot.

Mass Effect 2, to put this gently, was trash.  It was certainly a letdown compared to the first, and residual good will from the first is the only thing that could make it bearable.  Mass Effect 3 was generally better, but the ship of good will had sailed for me by the time it came out.  So the Mass Effect trilogy is rather like the Matrix trilogy in this, only the first one is good, and it probably would have been better had the sequels never been made.

Why in the world be excited about another sequel?  Good question. I don’t have a good answer.  A part of it is probably hope that some good from the original can be resurrected.  (I always hope for resurrection.)  A part of it is the basic pitch: the idea of exploring a new galaxy, and the indications that the game takes the thrill of exploration seriously.  A part of it is that I got a PS4 for Christmas.

In any event, here I am.  I thought it might be interesting to discuss the game while I play it.  Admittedly, this might only be interesting to me, but hey, it’s my blog.

Let’s begin, shall we?

Teasing a Terrible Star Wars Movie (Continued)

Last time I started writing about my thoughts on the recently released teaser for the next Star Wars movie, Episode VII.  In the grand scheme of the internet debate, I don’t suppose my thoughts amount to much–I certainly don’t expect them to have any effect–but here they are.  I think the glimpses we’ve been given point to a movie with some serious problems, and in particular some serious problems trying to continue what was good and unique about the original Star Wars movies.

It’s been suggested that I’m being hasty, judging a movie by only a few seconds from it.  The movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum however.  I see similarities in the teaser to elements that were problems in other J. J. Abram’s movies.  He has certain tendencies; the problems in his movies follow certain patterns.  When I notice similarities between the teaser and his other work, I think it’s fair to assume that he is carrying his tendencies forward into Star Wars, and that familiar problems will likely come with them.

It’s also been suggested that nostalgia has blinded me, that I would hate any new Star Wars material because nothing can live up to the original trilogy in my mind.  I leave it to you to judge for yourself whether my objections are rational or some sort of emotional backlash.  While I greatly enjoy the Original Trilogy, I don’t think those movies are perfect, just good, unique, and worth watching.  Meanwhile, I can envision countless sorts of new material that I would be excited to see so long as a certain quality is preserved, a quality I will call, for lack of a better phrase, the Star Wars atmosphere.  My objection to the teaser is that the Star Wars atmosphere is mostly lacking, and I’m not sure J. J. Abrams understands it.

Let me explain by returning to the teaser about thirty seconds into it.

Storm Trooping:  The Movie

After the rolling droid, and culminating in some sort of embarkation maneuver, we get a few quick glimpses of storm troopers.  For the record I have no particular trouble with the new storm trooper design; I think it looks great.  My problem with these glimpses is the camera work, although it’s difficult to unpack what I mean.  The essential question is this:  what are these shots supposed to communicate?

Probably my most petty complaint is stylistic.  There’s a trend over the last two decades to make movies a more visceral experience, especially any sort of movie with action.  Filmmakers don’t just want to show action, they want the audience to experience it, at least in part.  Consider the difference between the first and later Bourne movies.  In the first we saw the many fight scenes from a fairly stable and slightly removed perspective, because the intent was to let us watch what Jason Bourne was doing.  The later movies involved faster cuts between camera angles that were closer and more varied, all up in the character’s business, to use the phrase.  The goal (presumably) was to let us feel the fights more than see them.

I’m not a fan of this particular trend, most obviously because I don’t even really want to see a lot of violence, so I certainly don’t want to experience it on any other level.  I also think it’s a lazy and ineffective sort of storytelling.  It’s something that people do because they don’t trust the story to communicate it’s importance effectively.  To use the above example again, because the director didn’t trust the visual of Bourne’s fights to communicate danger, intensity, urgency, or whatever, he used camera tricks instead of narrative, staging, acting, and all the other better tools at his disposal.  I think the result looks sloppy, not to mention frequently incoherent.  Camera tricks are no substitute for a good story.

Science fiction movies in particular always face the temptation to devolve into meaningless action.  One of the best qualities of the original Star Wars trilogy is that they kept their focus on character and story.  In fact during the filming of Return of the Jedi, when Mr. Lucas was asked about how he was going to top the lightsaber duel at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, he explained that he wasn’t even trying.  Instead he was going to trust the characters and the story to make the end of Return of the Jedi intense, and that approach paid off.  The lightsaber fight at the end of Return of the Jedi is entirely forgettable, but the scene isn’t.

Now to go back to the storm troopers, what we have is a jiggling and flashing close up of some storm troopers in formation, a jiggling and flashing close up of storm trooper guns, and a jiggling and flashing close up of storm troopers advancing down a ramp.  These seem to indicate an “up in the character’s business” filmmaking style, and a particularly jiggly one.  In short they seem to be indicative of  J. J. Abrams usual style, but J. J. Abrams nearly never trusts his characters and story and frequently descends into meaningless action, often incoherent action.

Another important thing to note is this: the wider and more stable cinematography of the original trilogy actually helped communicate the scope of the action.  While a close shot of one or two stumbling troopers might communicate the visceral feeling of a shockwave, the wider shot of an entire hallway filled with stumbling troopers communicated the scale of what was shaken.  While a camera trick might communicate the visceral feeling of an AT-AT causing the ground around a single soldier to explode, the wider shot communicated the overwhelming presence of the AT-ATs when compared to the rebel soldiers running around on foot.   “Up in the character’s business” style always makes things smaller, because so much context is eliminated.

But all of that is actually secondary.  My main complaint concerns a matter of more basic perspective.  There’s a famous story about Hitchcock, during the filming of Psycho, having to re-film the detective’s ascent of the stairs, because the original camera perspective made him seem like a villain rather than a victim.  Here we have something like the reverse: these shots put us in the middle of the storm troopers, identifying and sympathizing with them.  They’re the heroes going into danger, rather than the danger the heroes are going to face.

Current rumors suggest that a converted storm trooper is the hero–the first scene of the teaser adds some support to that–but then he would become a hero precisely by ceasing to be a storm trooper.  (Which might be why the storm trooper from the desert isn’t wearing his helmet.)  I suppose, as a part of the plot, a whole group of heroes could dress up like storm troopers and then ride into danger, in which case these storm troopers might actually be the heroes, but that seems unlikely.  If it turns out to be the case, I’ll happily retract this part of my complaint.

In the original trilogy, the storm troopers were the embodiment of the vast, monolithic, and unassailable empire.  That was one of the clever effects of having them all look identical, even anonymous.  (They don’t even seem to have names, just numbers.)  They collectively became imperial might, rather than being individuals.  One might get shot, but there were always more, endlessly more identical storm troopers, always coming at the protagonists like an unstoppable wave.  (Sure in real life it’s important to remember that even one’s enemies are human beings, but Star Wars isn’t real life.  More on that in a moment.)

Think about how storm troopers were used in the original trilogy.  We didn’t see them preparing to board Princess Leia’s ship, we just saw them pouring through the door, too many to stop.  We didn’t see them preparing to storm the rebel base on Hoth, we just saw them pouring through the door, too many to stop.  We didn’t see them preparing their ambush on Endor, we just emerged into the forest to find the entire surrounding area was filled with them.

So even if these storm trooper shots didn’t flicker and shake, even if they weren’t so close that it’s impossible to tell context, they would still be entirely wrong because we (the audience) are with the storm troopers rather than being confronted by them.

There are a couple of obvious objections people might raise.  For example, they might suggest that humanizing the villains could provide some interesting moral depth, making the world more grey.  That isn’t Star Wars though.  Star Wars has clear good and evil.  In fact clear good and evil are essential to the story.  In the last moments of Return of the Jedi, with Luke representing good and the Emperor representing evil, we don’t want Darth Vader to arrive at some sort of compromise between or mix of their two positions, we want him to choose a side.  The drama in Star Wars is always like that: it’s about whether a character will choose good, never about what good is.  In fact, the most morally grey characters in the original trilogy, Han and Lando, have their grey-ness portrayed as a failure; they’re likeable heroes precisely because and only when they stop being grey and become good.

People might also suggest that these scenes come from the beginning, when we’re getting to know the storm trooper who will eventually become good.  Maybe we’re glimpsing storm trooper life from our (eventual) hero’s perspective, so we’re supposed to sympathize with him, not the others.  Think how much more effective it would be though to view things from the another perspective.  Perhaps we could start with the perspective of where-ever the troopers are attacking.  A drop ship (or several) appears.  Endless waves of merciless and identical storm troopers appear and represent imperial might.  Then afterward, one of them takes off his helmet and looks around at what they’ve done.  He suddenly becomes an individual, we understand what he’s seeing–if the actor is good, we’ll understand what he’s thinking and feeling too–but storm troopers remain a sort of idea, the unstoppable endless wave of evil power.

The Scene I Don’t Mind

After the storm troopers we see a woman driving away on a speeder.  She’s obviously in some sort of hurry, although we don’t get any clue about why.  This scene I don’t mind.  It doesn’t thrill me–I can’t imagine that it’s intended to be thrilling, which does inspire questions about why something so largely forgettable was included in a teaser–but I can live with it.

I don’t mind her hurry, and am not talking again about irrationally frenetic action, because there’s no reason to suspect that her hurry doesn’t make sense (e.g. quick erratic movements or ten seconds of empty desert).

THE AWESOME PART

Then there are X-wings skimming across water.  At this point I very nearly forgot all of my complaints, because this sequence is just great.  I wish there were some sort of wider shot for scope, like I mentioned above–something to tell us how many X-wings are involved in the battle they are no doubt racing toward, or something to tell us about the danger they’re about to face–but there’s no reason to suspect that there isn’t something like that which was just not included in the teaser.  (Imagine how awesome it would have been if the pilot pictured had said, “All wings report in,” and then there had been a wider shot of dozens of fighters skimming across the water.)

If you don't like this shot, I don't think you and I can be friends.

If you don’t like this shot, I don’t think you and I can be friends.

If the teaser had just been X-wings skimming across water, it would have been enough, and I likely would have retracted all of my previous doubts about Mr. Abram’s upcoming Star Wars film.  I would have joined the happy throngs of excited fans.  Instead the trailer was more than just X-wings.

Stay tuned for my thoughts on “He Won’t Seem Evil Enough If We Don’t Invent a New Sort of Lightsaber,” and “Just Hold The Camera Still, Man!”