Mass Effect: Andromeda, Atmosphere

In a game that has focused so much on atmosphere manipulation, it’s probably fitting that what I like best is the game’s atmosphere.  (Maybe it’s an intentional connection by Bioware, a bit of high art in game development.  I’m happy to give them the benefit of the doubt.)

The setting of Mass Effect: Andromeda is steeped in despair.  It’s really haunting.

Mass Effect: Andromeda promotional image

I mentioned the other day that one of the moments I liked best at the beginning was the one that established the overwhelming desperation and hopelessness on the Nexus.  The people there were trapped and running out of time, but they had no options.  Society was breaking down; people were breaking down.

Even the first real side-quests, a murder investigation and a hunt for a saboteur, reinforced that quality of the setting.  Bleak prospects and high anxiety had inspired one settler to murder another in a pyrrhic quest for survival at any cost.  In the aftermath of a failed rebellion, powerlessness to escape leadership that couldn’t be trusted was transformed into self-destructive rage.

Enter my character, the ersatz Pathfinder.  His tenure hadn’t started well—disaster, failure, tragedy—but he and his team were the last, the only chance anyone in Andromeda had for hope.

The Ghost Town

Finding hope meant diving into the mire and digging it out by main force.  This is where the atmosphere became so important.  Mass Effect: Andromeda is a game after all.  I, the player, knew that my character was going to be able to succeed somehow, was going to beat the odds, do the impossible, triumph with swagger, or at least glory.  Even in Halo: Reach, when players control a doomed character on a doomed planet where they went in knowing the ending, it was possible to succeed.

Mass Effect: Andromeda really needed to sell “isolated and disheartened” for it to work at all.  It hit it out of the park.

A screenshot from the PS4 version of Mass Effect: Andromeda

After the Nexus my character traveled to Eos, site of many failed colonies, a barren and hostile planet that seemed exactly like the suitable home only for ruins and corpses.  Even the air tried to kill me.  My only protection was speed or the confines of a dying shield umbrella.  The whole world was littered with stories though.

Hopeful emails that trended slowly toward confusion and concern.  Journals that start out with projects, but then become little more than discussions of obstacles, injuries, and death.  Recordings of the colonists as tensions mounted and they argued about how to stay alive.  Their corpses, left and lost two-million lightyears from home.

The game didn’t pull its punches.  There was one quest a little bit later, after my character had started to show some promise in the hope restoration business, that poignantly brought my efforts into perspective.  I found the equipment of a lost surveyor and decided to complete his task.  He had set his equipment to play messages with each step however.  It was already heartbreaking when it was just the voice of a child proud of his father, now missing, probably forever.  Then each step added to the story.  The son had been dying, had been left behind in the Milky Way, but promised to be content, knowing his father was safe “in the future.”  What a future his father woke up in….

It’s brilliant.  I really don’t want my character to let these people down.  I’m invested in their plight.

Not much later my character left to track down more bodies for burial.  It was the least I could do, but instead I found a mystery, maybe even glimmers of hope.  Perhaps some had escaped?  I tracked them across two systems, only to discover they’d been hunted by someone before, and escaped (if you can call it that) only by crippling their own ship in dangerous space.  I found it drifting not far away, burned and spinning.

A screen shot of the PS4 version of Mass Effect: Andromeda

But there were survivors on board.  My character exclaimed with joy.  I was right there with him.  It was the most satisfaction I’d ever felt at completing a side quest.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is an amazing game.

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Mass Effect: Andromeda, Impressive, Most Impressive

Mass Effect: Andromeda seems determined to kill the completionist in me.

Promotional picture from Mass Effect: Andromeda

I mean this as lofty praise indeed: the game is both staggeringly huge and remarkably engaging.  I keep returning to the main quest not because I finally exhaust my ability to explore, but because I realize after much glorious wandering that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s available.  The setting and story are so interesting though that I don’t want to postpone them for what might very well be weeks while I dig through every available nook and cranny.

A Whole New World

I can’t say this enough; Mass Effect: Andromeda is vast.  I keep saying it to my friends, and chuckling with delight as I think about it, but I keep wanting to tell them again.  I thought I was doing a good job on Eos, the first major planet, exploring a big map—I already thought the world was impressive in size—then I realized that it was at least three times bigger than I thought it was.

Promotional image from Mass Effect: Andromeda

It’s an experience with which I’m growing pleasantly familiar: finding out that what I already appreciated about the game was even better than I knew.

The vastness is well filled, too.  I remember when I used to play World of Warcraft, I would explore and find mostly nothing.  It was always disheartening to spend time wandering through so much wasted space, or to see something with promise only to discover it was nothing but decoration.  Most of the time I would explore, then wish I hadn’t bothered.

That’s never once been my experience in Andromeda.  Everywhere I’ve looked, no matter how stubborn or inventive I’ve been in getting there, I’ve found some reason to be glad I looked.  I don’t mean that the game is showering me with treasures and loot, either.  Sometimes I find treasures, sure.  But sometimes I find monsters.  Sometimes I find quests.  Sometimes I find interesting information about the game’s backstory.  Sometimes I trigger conversations with my companions that add depth and richness to the world.  The variety itself is one of the things I find too.  The game makes me feel like I’m exploring a new world; it always leaves me wanting more, wanting to look over the next hill, and there’s always a next hill.

A screenshot from the PS4 version of Mass Effect: Andromeda

Everything is more expansive than I expect.  When I got far enough in the main quest to dive underground into the mysterious ancient vault on the planet, I had a certain intuitive guess of how big it would be.  If nothing else I’ve played other Mass Effect games, and I know how big the structures typically are at the end of a quest chain.  Instead, my little team and I kept delving deeper and further.  And it never felt like meaningless length.  The whole way I was interested in looking around, and there were always new features to see and wonder about, new clues to find, new conversations to have.

A screenshot from Mass Effect: Andromeda

The size and variety in the game isn’t limited to the map though.  Huge describes almost every aspect of it.  I get to mix and match skills however I want, choosing from a bigger variety than any other Mass Effect had.  I get to choose my equipment too, both its features and appearance.  I get to research and design new items, then I can modify the base items while I build them to give them unique qualities, all before adding modifications to them.    I get to make choices at every scale, from small things like which way to travel, to large things like what sort of settlements to build in the galaxy.  And I get to do it all with an interesting group of companions.  The number is smaller than in some past games, but their variety is greater, and their unique personalities have been more richly implemented.  They have interesting relationships with each other, the environment, and the NPCs, not just my character.

My time on Eos was a blast as I began to discover all of this.  None of these were my favorite part though.

 

Mass Effect: Andromeda, Rough Sailing

I’m about 10 hours into Mass Effect: Andromeda now, and I can’t help but be delighted by it.  I had some rocky moments in there when I started to have serious misgivings, but then the game dropped the mighty metaphorical hammer of awesomeness on them.   I’ll get to that.  First though, let me do justice to the problems.

Game Mechanics 101

My time at the Nexus was mostly great.  Like I mentioned before, I really appreciated the general atmosphere, and the commitment the game had to developing that atmosphere; it helped me feel invested in the game setting.  I was a bit bothered by obvious questions I couldn’t ask—if the exiles and Krogan could find a place to live, why couldn’t the Initiative; if a bunch of scientists and civilians could unite to form an elite sector-wide tactical strike squad, why couldn’t they defend a colony; who was the merchant trading with, and why—but not enough to dampen my spirits.

I was still really excited as the game set up its various systems and mechanics:  solve quests on planets to make them habitable, gather resources for the Nexus, increase “viability” so that more options will become available.  None of it was laid out as seamlessly as it probably could have been, but I don’t really object to recognizing game mechanics as game mechanics.  Besides, exploring, questing, and resource gathering have long been a part of Mass Effect, and in this game, they actually make sense.  Even more, what I suspect will become a straightforward system of accumulating “viability” to wake colonists is actually reasonable.  It makes more sense than the “Loyal people are less likely to die” mechanic from Mass Effect 2.

So all told, I was having a blast even before I got access to my starship, the Tempest.  I figured it could only get better.  After all, who doesn’t want to hop on a starship and explore the stars?

A screenshot from the PS4 version of Mass Effect: Andromeda

Well at first, I wasn’t so sure that I did.  Travel in Mass Effect: Andromeda involves a lot of zooming around, as seen from the nose of the Tempest.  When the rest of the game is third person, first person space flight is a little odd.  First person space flight as the nose of a space ship would probably have been odd no matter the setting.

Making it worse, arriving at a destination usually involves it suddenly appearing out of nowhere right in front of you at the end of your trip, instead of starting as a speck on the horizon that grows into clarity.  The models that appear aren’t always stellar even.  (See what I did there?)  The first one I saw was literally just a big blue splotch.  I don’t have a screenshot of it, because it was so shockingly horrible that I didn’t think to take one.  You’ll just have to trust me.

When I left though, I didn’t fly around the splotch, I flew right at it and it suddenly disappeared.  It was the most immersion crushing first person perspective experience I’ve ever had in a video game, and I have gotten stuck in pixelated corners before.  Then, the next place I flew was an asteroid field.  I know because it popped into existence around me at the last moment, like a swarm of giant rocky ninjas throwing a surprise party.

And while this was going on, I was getting overwhelmed by game tooltips and plot dialogue, and I didn’t catch any of it.  The tooltips vanished too quickly and I couldn’t follow the dialogue because I was trying to read the tooltips and so missed the beginning.  I couldn’t find the tool tips anywhere in the codex, either, and none of my quests had updated with the information my crew had just been discussing.  I was so frustrated that I loaded a save game and played the whole sequence again.

The tooltips didn’t load the second time, so I’m still not sure what they say.  I caught the dialogue.

This is one of the consistent problems I’ve had with the game though.  Understanding what’s going on requires careful attention to dialogue and triggered events, none of which are either repeatable or transcribed anywhere, and most of which happen without any warning, sometimes in a direction there are no reasons to face, and frequently while something else is going on that prevents careful attention.  There was a sub-quest I went on a little while later which involved my gathering pieces of equipment.  I didn’t catch the backstory for the quest.  In the middle there was a monster reveal I didn’t catch, so I didn’t understand why dramatic music was playing or why my sidekicks were complaining.  Then the quest completed and I didn’t hear its results or the explanation of why I’d just spent half an hour pursuing it.   All because everything was communicated by triggered events that it was too easy to miss.  I worry how much of the main story I’m missing.

In any event, I was getting frustrated with the game and less excited about it while I flew through space on my ship.

Luckily, I landed.

A screenshot from the PS4 version of Mass Effect: Andromeda

More soon.

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.