Mass Effect: Andromeda, Pleasant Surprises

I was pretty negative last time, so I want to be clear.  Four hours into Mass Effect: Andromeda, I was really enjoying myself and was glad I had bought the game.  (That last is more significant than it may seem.  I nearly never buy games at launch; I wait until the price drops, usually a lot.)  I already thought it was great.

Then it impressed me.

When You Say Nothing At All

After elder Ryder hastily sacrificed himself and my character became the unlikely new Pathfinder, there was a cutscene featuring the aliens I’d been fighting, folk I now know to call “the Kett.”

It was impressive because it was subtle.  The game had already established a language barrier, so there wasn’t any dialogue.  That’s always a tricky limitation, but not only was it not a problem, the scene was so good that I didn’t even notice that no one was speaking.  It was even surprisingly poignant.

At first an obviously important fellow joined the rest of the Kett.  (I’m going to call him Ring-head, at least until some better name comes along.)  They were on the platform outside of what I’m going to call the Lightning Control Triangle–I don’t have any idea what else to call it—the platform where my character had been fighting just before.  There was something going on, it involved a little drone.  I was curious to see where it was going.

Then Ring-head walked up to the Lightning Control Triangle.  At this point I started to piece things together.  Because I had explored the planet so thoroughly, I had learned that the Kett seemed to be researching the older artifacts on the planet, artifacts that seemed to be contemporaries of the Doom Lightning Spire.  It made sense that they had probably been trying to get into the Lightning Control Triangle themselves.  Then the drone projected a recording of what elder Ryder had done, and that made sense too.  They wanted to know what we had been doing there.

Then Ring-head hesitantly, almost innocently, mimicked what elder Ryder had done with his hand.

A screenshot from the PS4 version of Mass Effect: Andromeda.

Nothing happened for him, so soon he lowered his hand again and looked at it with disappointment.

A screenshot from the PS4 version of Mass Effect: Andromeda

Then he looked at the hologram of elder Ryder, and I completely empathized with him.  I didn’t know what it is he was looking for or why, but I understood that he was frustrated.  Crazy aliens had just fallen out of the sky and done something he still couldn’t do, and couldn’t even understand.

It was a very gentle and nuanced introduction to a character I presume is one of the major antagonists of the game.  It’s in stark contrast, for example, to the cutscene from Mass Effect 1 in which Saren throws a tantrum and trashes his own room.  And it was all done without any dialogue.

Lives of Quiet Desperation

Then the game jumped to the Hyperion arriving at the Nexus.  I admit to being slightly confused at the time.  Some character expressed concern that the Nexus wasn’t finished yet, and I didn’t understand why they would expect it to be finished.  I had to go into the Codex and do some reading to find out that the Nexus left first and was supposed to be ready and waiting for the arks.

In any event, a worrisome lack of greeting greeted my weary new Pathfinder.  Naturally, my team and I disembarked to investigate, and we found the Nexus dark, unfinished, and seemingly abandoned.  At that point the game could have gone any number of ways.  Everyone could have really been gone, and finding them could have been part of the plot.  Everyone could have been dead, and fighting what killed them could have been part of the plot.  Maybe what killed them might have still been there in the dark, waiting to jump out at me.

I expected to find monsters, or bodies, or mystery.  Instead I found an engineer doing repairs by himself in the dark.  Then I expected him to be some sort of zombie.  Instead, he was just really confused.  The people on the Nexus had given up hope.

To be entirely honest, I’m still a little bit confused about how the Nexus was supposed to arrive early and yet everyone on board was surprised that it arrived before anyone else.  Nevertheless, I like how the game doubled down on one of its central conceits: the trip to Andromeda is a huge risk.  There’s no going back, and no chance for rescue.

There are lots of different ways to communicate that.  The most obvious would have been some sort of greeting party, who welcomed us to the Nexus and mentioned that they had stopped expecting us.  It was just so much more effective to show that they had stopped expecting anyone by having the welcome area completely abandoned.  And then the confused engineer made it more heartbreaking.  They had lived with despair so long that he didn’t even know how to react when something good happened.

I really appreciated that tone on the Nexus as I explored it.   To be clear I don’t like soul-sucking despair, I just like that the game has taken such pains to establish an interesting, dramatic, and sympathetic starting point for adventure.  I’ve said before that I liked the focus on exploration, the vast galaxy and the chance to investigate it.  My time on the Nexus added a new layer to it:  Andromeda isn’t just a huge and interesting space, it’s also daunting.

I can’t wait to get out in it.

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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.

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?