Thursday, April 13, 2017


Mass Effect Andromeda is a fun game, the end!


Okay, I suppose I can write a bit more about it:

I'd been slightly apprehensive heading into this game. Between the shift to a new studio (BioWare's Montreal division rather than the core Edmonton studio) and a new protagonist (the original trilogy exclusively followed Commander Shepard), there were enough unknowns to cool my normal anticipation for a new BioWare game. I didn't pre-order or get any of the special editions, just grabbed the game at release and dove in.

On the whole, I really like it. It pulls off a challenging trick, both continuing and reinventing the franchise. The hallmarks of the series are still present: dialogue-heavy gameplay, fast-paced squad shooter combat, beautiful planets, awesome space battles, a wide variety of alien species to meet, fight, and love. But it also upends a lot of the elements from previous games. Instead of a narrative that focuses on an existential threat that requires urgent force to combat, it's a story about exploring and building in a new galaxy. The tight binary dichotomy of Paragon and Renegade has been replaced with a more varied and textured set of tools for personalizing your character's attitude. Crafting has grown more complex. We're exploring a series of open zones rather than bespoke levels.

The end result is that it shakes up the series while keeping it recognizable. Everyone will have things that they like and dislike about those changes, but by the end of the game I was very much on board. I hesitate to say that it's better than the original trilogy, but it does certain things better, and seems confident in its own approach.

The change that most impacts gameplay is probably the shift to "open world" gameplay. I think that technically these are large zones; I tend to think of "Open World" as being a single contiguous map, as in GTA or Elder Scrolls, rather than a series of huge maps, like Shadow of Mordor, Rise of the Tomb Raider, or Dragon Age: Inquisition. Both designs result in a similar outcome: lots of player freedom, in that you can proceed at your own pace and direction, wandering around the map and doing things as they catch your interest; outside of a few critical plot missions, you can even stop a mission partway through and just go do something else for a while.

For years, I've been on the record as saying that my ultimate dream game would be an offspring of Bethesda and BioWare, which unified a large and immerse open world with vivid characters and a compelling plot. I've now gotten two of these games, with Dragon Age Inquisition and Mass Effect Andromeda. And... I don't love them as much as I feel like I should? Don't get me wrong, I do still love them (especially DA:I), but given my earlier statements I would think that I'd be ecstatic.

While playing Andromeda, I pondered this. Why wasn't it as awesome as it "should" be? I don't have a solid answer, but I do have a couple of thoughts.

First, when anticipating these mythical "ultimate games", what I'm really wishing for is something like Ultima VI or VII, but better: modern graphics and interface, and a deeper story. Thinking back on those games and comparing them to contemporary RPGs, I think part of the difference is how "gamified" the new RPGs are. That's a silly thing to say! What I mean, though, is that in the classic Ultimas, the world was something that existed in its own right, not as a source to mine for more gameplay. For all the time I spent wandering in Britannia, almost none of it mattered: there's no compelling reason to wander into fields, to chat with the farmer, to milk the cow, to churn the butter, to mill the grain, etc. If you just want to play the game, you can ignore like 80% of the world. But the fact that it's there, and deep, elevates the game: you feel like you're participating in the world, that it's a fully-realized place, which makes the big plot stuff feel all the more important: you know that this war will affect that farmer, even though he doesn't have anything direct to say about the threats facing his country.

In a modern RPG, though, that world would be seen as a wasted opportunity. You would have a Task for Visit Every Farmfield, yielding bonus XP upon completion. There would be an Achievement to Milk 100 Cows, granting you a special badge on Steam. Churning butter would unlock a new Codex entry. This would all be placed in service of increasing the total number of hours of "gameplay": "Yeah, you can beat Ultima XXI in 30 hours, but a completionist playthrough should last you 120 hours."

New and old RPGs both embrace open worlds, but they end up with opposite effects. New RPGs are Skinner boxes, training us in OCD behavior, doling out little morsels of mini-quests and lore nuggets to keep us engaged. Old RPGs were unstructured sandboxes, giving us the total freedom to wander or not, to sightsee or not, to come up with our own stupid ridiculous goals like dragging a cannon from Castle Britain to Yew or stealing every spoon in the game. Those old games felt relaxing, places I would want to spend hours wandering. The new games generate mild anxiety, a fresh checklist that I must complete before I'm allowed to stop playing.

The worlds themselves feel different too: games like Andromeda and Inquisition are "detailed" more than they're "real". They look incredible, but have relatively little interaction: you can't pull books off of shelves or rifle through desk drawers or pick fruit off the table. That isn't necessarily a bad thing - curated environments can be wonderful, and BioWare has a strong track record of making great ones. But it's another thing that creates a sense of distance from the truly "open" worlds of the past, where your character could do anything physically possible, from smashing an armoire into bits to flinging dishes into the street. These BioWare games are still essentially about telling a story, and not simulating a universe; but now that story has dozens or hundreds of subplots to resolve, and few or no plots you can create on your own. (The Bethesda games come much closer to the realism level of the Ultimas, though they still fall short - there's more detail than before, but very few opportunities to modify the game world apart from small objects.)

Ultimately, though, I think the big difference here is probably just myself. I find myself dreaming of an unstructured world that I can explore and enjoy at my leisure; but if I had that kind of game, would I realistically play it? There's a world of difference between the kid who played Ultima games and the adult playing Mass Effect. Back then, I had plenty of time and no money; I loved losing myself in those virtual worlds, telling stories as much as listening to them. Now, though, video games play a small (but, obviously, precious) part of my life, and I'm very conscious of everything I'm not doing when I'm playing a game. If a game can come in, get out, and make me feel something, then I consider it a good game. If it can do that in a few hours instead of dozens, then I consider it a great game. I just don't have much appetite for losing myself in virtual worlds for its own sake. That doesn't mean that this goal is bad or that there aren't plenty of folks who would enjoy it. But I probably need to start doing a better job of aligning my pre-existing notions of what would make a great game with what experience has taught me that I actually enjoy playing.

The above stuff probably sounds negative, so I should re-emphasize that I did enjoy all of the dozens of hours that I played Andromeda; it just set off that particular train of thought. "Waah, this game isn't perfect!" There are definitely advantages to shedding the more streamlined and linear gameplay of ME2/ME3, and it feels great to see the evolving impact that your actions have on the planets and connect with the land in that way. Unlike, say, Rise of the Tomb Raider, which would have been a very enjoyable game without its open-world component, Andromeda benefits directly from its freer gameplay, both narratively and mechanically. I quibble, but it's something they did for a clear reason, and it has strong advantages.

On an unrelated note: I was disappointed by the clubs in this game. They've been a strong element of all three Mass Effect games, reaching a zenith with Afterlife in ME2. There are several clubs you can visit here, but they're all pretty miserable. Most of them are dead, with just a bar and a few patrons awkwardly standing around. There's a single club that looks cool - Tartarus in the Kadara Slums - but the music here sucks, which makes all the partying folks look ridiculous. Sigh. It feels like they have the tools to make something great... there's great lighting, tunes, and modeling in the game, they just never all come together in an appealing way. It's a small thing, but was always a highlight of the earlier games for me, and I was a little bummed to not have that here.


The dialogue in this game can be good, but the written stuff is excellent. Emails and crew bulletin messages and other electronic communication tends to be really funny, and can also be poignant and touching. The absolute highlights for me were the terminal messages on New Tuchanka, which have turned the Krogan into my new favorite species.

I dallied a little with Vetra and Peebee early on, but quickly focused on Suvi as my love interest for this playthrough. That was largely driven by her fantastic voice, but I was also intrigued by her character. She is the ship's science officer: not a core member of your away team that you adventure with planet-side, but a consistent presence on your ship's bridge, along with Kallo the Salarian pilot. Her main role in the gameplay is to notify you of interesting astronomical phenomena you encounter; story-wise, she's involved in analyzing unusual technology you encounter and inventing original techniques and devices to accomplish goals.

Given that scientific occupation, you would assume that she would be a hyper-logical, Spock-like character. She ends up being a lot more interesting, though. She's driven by a sense of wonder and passion, delighting in the beauty of the universe and the mysteries it contains. In an early conversation, she reveals that she is religious, and sees the handiwork of God in the creation she so loves exploring. She doesn't see any tension between her faith and science: every new discovery she makes deepens her appreciation for the creator.

I thought that was cool. At first I thought it was really original - I can't think off hand of another human character in the franchise that has addressed religion. (The Asari have a vague religion. There were a few Codex entries describing in general terms that Earth's religions went through upheaval after discovering intelligent life on other planets, but none of the humans we've met have had much to say about it.) I tend to think of the BioWare folks as being genial secularists, and was pleasantly surprised to see a positive representation of a character of faith.

But then I remembered, duh, Dragon Age: not only have they included multiple characters with religious convictions, but I invariably end up romancing them. They've covered a wide range of backgrounds and explored different aspects of faith, but always in ways that feel genuine and respectfully engaged. Leliana in Origins is a conversion story: someone who walked in a dark path, then had a religious experience, and has become much more fervent in her beliefs than those born into the faith. Merrill is a cultural believer, whose sense of history and faith are strongly intertwined, and who looks to that background for support and direction. And Sera is a seeker, with an unarticulated sense of longing, trying to find answers to the existential questions that fill her with dread. Now, to this collection we can add Suvi, whose belief provides a framework with which she can analyze and take joy in the experiences around her.

Anyways, I shouldn't be surprised: regardless of what faiths the developers may or may not have, religion has been and continues to be a significant force in the world, and it's a valuable element in building characters. I'm sure that lots of people write about war and death when they've never killed another person, so why not explore this other vector of human experience?

I do think it's interesting, and pretty cool, that Sera and Suvi have both been people of faith and lesbians, without mining that for any angst or conflict. These are imaginary worlds, after all, and it's really refreshing to see those aspects able to live in harmony rather than pitted against each other.

Speaking of lesbians... after a couple of these games, I'm increasingly happy with the "mosaic" approach towards representation in BioWare games, where potential love interests are spread across a spectrum of heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual characters (with a birdie from Iron Bull in the pansexual department). It does occasionally lead to in-the-moment frustration ("Why doesn't Cora like Sara?!"), but I think there's a ton of value in representing the different types of people in the world. Dragon Age 2-style "everyone is bi" feels better in the short-term, but is ultimately a flatter experience, and feels manufactured around the player character rather than an organic environment into which they have arrived.

That said: this is the second game in a row in which homosexual characters have felt a bit like second-class citizens. Mass Effect 3 was the first game with "pure" same-sex relationships, and both of them were support staff who hung out on the Normandy but would never join you in the field. They were still really cool characters, eminently likeable and with good arcs of their own; but since they weren't present during any of the missions, they had an order of magnitude fewer lines and less impact on the story around you. I think the literal amount of "romance content" was fairly close for heterosexual and homosexual characters, but they couldn't be a part of your life in quite the same way, fighting side-by-side with you and bantering with your friends and commenting on the obstacles you encountered.

I don't want to make a big deal out of this - again, they are good characters, and I don't want a checklist of boxes that diverse characters must check - but I did raise my eyebrows when the exact same thing happened again in this game: once again, two same-sex characters, and once again, they're the support staff, confined to stay hidden at home while the rest of you head out into the world.

As usual, I think Dragon Age shows a more positive alternative. First of all, they mix things up quite a bit more, with Dorian and Sera as two fantastic companions, Cullen and Josephine as engaged advisors. While the advisors in Dragon Age are also kind of support staff, I feel like they got to be very present: you're regularly interacting with them for the various War Table missions, receiving frequent reports from them, assigning them to go on tasks, listening to them banter among the other advisors. It's still a step down from life in the party, but a shorter step, and would be more of a consolation.

Representation is definitely a hot topic these days, which everyone (including me) wants to weigh in on. I think that's a good thing, especially with the contemporary conversations taking place these days in the US and elsewhere. However, it is a little disheartening that many fans (including me!) reflexively reduce characters to simple gender/orientation pairings. "Gil = Gay Male", "Josephine = Bisexual Female", and so on. Characterization continues to be BioWare's strongest suit, and these labels aren't helpful at communicating their personalities: Sera and Traynor might fall into the same bucket, but they're worlds apart.

I think a big part of the reason for that is because romance is so important to us BioWare fans, and gender and orientation are the two factors that determine whether or not we'll be able to pursue a particular character. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about this: it does seem odd for those to be the sole factors in allowing or forbidding a relationship. In the real world, the odds that a random heterosexual man and woman will have a successful relationship are extremely slim. There are a whole host of factors, both definable and obscure, that come into play. Why not start considering some of those as well in our games?

This actually was more common in earlier RPGs. Baldur's Gate 2 was exclusively hetero, but still had restrictions: potential love interests had certain racial preferences (Aerie isn't interested in half-orcs, and Jaheira won't waste her time with gnomes) and alignment preferences. Fans created mods that added new queer love interests, but also added requirements of their own: Nalia got a fantastic new romance, which she would only pursue with a strong fighting man.

This all feels more realistic. Is it really more fun, though? Throwing up even more obstacles in the way of love would frustrate players even more. My current crazy idea (which I like in theory but would probably be untenable in practice) would be for characters to have a range of preferences, with romance possible above a certain threshold. So, for example, Cassandra is generally attracted to men; but, if the right woman comes along who looks a certain way, who makes certain kinds of choices, who follows a certain profession, etc., then she might be curious enough to experiment. I dunno... that would probably make it too complex and frustrating in a different way ("Why doesn't Cassandra like my jerk dwarf thief?!"), but it might make for an interesting experiment.

I've written many paragraphs without talking about Andromeda. Yikes.


One last thing before moving on from representation: was anyone else weirded out by the Gil/Jill storyline? I know several gay couples who have had children, and nothing that comes close to what's depicted here. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt... norms might have changed significantly over several hundred years, and we're still in the first generation or two of recognized same-sex families, so maybe those bright lines are more important now than they will be in the future. Still, my eyebrows rose MANY inches during that last conversation with Gil. I feel like this would have made a lot more sense if humanity was directly facing a Battlestar Galactica-style species-extinction event, or a Genophage / Children of Men type of reproductive disaster. Within the context of settling Andromeda, though, it seemed deeply weird to me.

Back to the game itself: I generally enjoyed the plot and world-building, but was left a bit cold by the choices. Not always for the same reason, either. Sometimes they felt frustratingly limited, as in the murder investigation: you need to pick between two silly extremes instead of the middle road that the situation demands. Others are just dumb, like dealing with the Salarian traitors: given that they've already betrayed the ark, specifically to acquire information, there's really no reason why they wouldn't share their intelligence with you, since that was the whole point of them doing it in the first place! And quite often, the choices felt severely unbalanced, without any compelling reason for a particular side. Turn the remnant drive core over to the Krogan, and you can re-integrate this immensely powerful force back into the Initiative as friends and protectors, and start a new settlement on the planet. Keep the core for yourself, and...... what, exactly? Or, near the end of the game, you can decide to cut a secret deal with the Kett second-in-command, to abandon the Archon and allow you a clearer path to kill him. Why wouldn't you take that deal? Those aren't necessarily bad choices, but it feels like they forgot to explain the downside to making them.

In general, the choices don't seem to affect much. I rescued the rogue Angaran AI, which did lead to some very amusing dialogue back on the Hyperion, but never actually impacted things one way or another. Picking to save or destroy various Pathfinders affects future cutscenes and dialogue, but doesn't seem to make a mechanical impact on the game. Honestly, though, I think this is more or less in line with the choices in the earlier Mass Effect games. Stuff like saving the Rachni queen in Mass Effect 1 seemed like huge choices with galaxy-shaking consequences, but ended up only having a minor flavor effect on the game. Over the course of the trilogy, there were really just a handful of decisions that had significant impact on the game itself: like Virmire and the Suicide Mission.

One recurring theme of playing Andromeda was making me even more deeply appreciative of Dragon Age. Particularly in the choice-and-consequences department, DA has been especially strong at altering the course of the game: from Connor Guerrin to the Landsmeet to the Dark Ritual to Hushed Whispers to the Pool to... well, there are a lot, which can have both immediate and long-lasting reverberations, drastically altering the tone of subsequent play-throughs. I don't want to rag on Mass Effect - it's always been pursuing a more cinematic experience than Dragon Age, and tells its story very well - but it's a story with fewer variations, and the people who play Mass Effect will have similar experiences to one another, in contrast with the wider-ranging journeys taken in Dragon Age.

In some ways, though, Mass Effect seems to be picking up good features from Dragon Age (much as Dragon Age has inherited better cinematics). One particular thing that jumped out at me was the great final mission on Meridian. This reminded me in a really good way of the Arbor Wilds sequence in Inquisition: you're leading a small squad, but at the same time an entire army of your allies, in a fast-paced and enthusiastic pursuit of your foe. I love these "all skate" endings, which Dragon Age has always done well: it's thrilling to see Bann Teagan and Enchanter Irving and your various armies arrive to battle the archdemon, or Cullen and your other party members arrive to fight Meredith, or Briala and Celene arrive to lead Orlesian troops against Corypheus. I don't think that's been a part of Mass Effect endings before: narratively, there's a huge battle taking place at the end of ME1, but it doesn't actually affect what you personally are doing much. Here, though, it was a blast to take the field with Sloane and Kandros and the other friends I'd made along the way.


Anyways, hopefully that's a good sign! While I do enjoy Mass Effect, Dragon Age remains my first love, and it's very encouraging to see more and more of that DNA spreading across.

Last but (maybe?) not least, here are my albums! After all my complaining about not being able to take screenshots, I finally came up with the most ridiculous, jury-rigged daisy-chained work-around ever (running Origin through Steam so I could double-overlay the game and finally capture the dang screen). I have a bunch of photos, but they start from maybe 40 hours or so into the game. Lots of spoilers, I guess. I realize I didn't talk much about the actual game itself in this post; there's more of that in the captions to these shots.
Here are some pictures
Here are some more pictures
The last mission
The ending of the game

And, in a non-spoilery vein, here's an album just of outer-space screenshots. I have a crazy theory that this is a very pretty game that looks nice, and I think these images support that theory.

That's it for now! I've finally determined that the secret to making SAM stop talking is to stop playing the game, so that's what I'll be doing for at least the next couple of weeks. I will probably come back to this after some future patches, and will almost certainly be picking up whatever expansions come out. I'm not sure yet if I'll actually do a second playthrough or not... I've only ever done one with the original trilogy, and apart from the other romances, there isn't a whole lot that I want to experience which I haven't already done here. Still, there's enough left to do in the world that I might continue Valiri Ryder's story for a while longer, spending more time on those beautiful planets and taking the excuse of unfinished tasks to go on another voyage.

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