Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda - The Review!

First off, game developers. All of you. You suck. You released too many open world games in March and it's been impossible to play all of them to their fullest before the next game comes out. Seven days is not enough time to review a game. Particularly when one is attempting to provide thoughtful commentary on your product.

I'm knee deep in Mass Effect: Andromeda and have roughly 32 hours on record. 27% of the game completed. Terraformed 3 planets to 100%, because I'm me and I have OCD. I have only 1 quest that I can not complete and it's been confirmed to be bugged with no ETA on a resolution so that will have to wait for another play through. I've made a dent in the story, but I'm sure I have a lot more to go. I'm probably not even at the juicy stuff yet.

But even with an extension, my 2 weeks are up. I promised to have a review out to you all, so here it is. Mass Effect: Andromeda. Or: How I'm never going to finish this space game because I'm exploring way too much.

The long awaited game from BioWare has been met with some controversy regarding it's animations, but it's a welcome addition to the Mass Effect family.

Just like virtually every BioWare game, you choose your character before you start. You can play as broRyder or sisterRyder, twins who sign up with their Pathfinder dad to be part of the Andromeda Initiative (AI, har har). What is AI? It's a cross-species program to visit, research, and colonize the Andromeda galaxy for reasons. I have yet to understand the reasons, but again, only 32 hours in and I have plenty left to explore. The only justification I could come up with is "because we can." So arks full of Asari, Turians, and others, set off for a 600 year journey to the uncharted galaxy in cryogenic stasis. As a Pathfinder, it's your job to help find worlds where it's safe for people to start colonization efforts, and find out more about the landscape.

Because this is a game, something goes wrong during the journey. All of the areas originally searched as "golden worlds" end up being bunk. The Nexus, a Citadel-like space station, is in ruins. The other arks haven't made it yet. So it's all on your shoulders to keep the Milky Way crew alive. Lucky you!

The game is a weird amalgamation of Mass Effect meets Dragon Age: Inquisition meets Spore. Wrapped in a bundle of Sid Meyer's Civilization. I did not have many preconceived notions before going into the game. I stayed away from most media and toured the AI website, but that was the extend of my knowledge. The most that I expected out of this game was enjoyable companions, because that's what made ME 1-3 worth playing. I was also a bit hesitant on the game's direction, as they mentioned incorporating more of the "exploration" aspect of ME1, the one thing I hated the most. Well, that and the Citadel. They wanted to take all the things that worked in Mass Effect, make them better, and provide us with a new adventure.

So far, they are living up to those promises.

From the opening menu, you can feel the aura that something is different with Andromeda. The music is powerfully subdued, while helping build on the anticipation of the game. The environment and background art is breathtakingly gorgeous. If there were a devoted photo mode in the game (if you are playing on PC with an NVidia graphics card, you can download their program made to take in-game snapshots), I'd say the styling is downright perfect. Just needs photo mode - Horizon has spoiled me.

Character creation is about one step above Inquisition, offering more hair styles, coloring, make-up, and facial adjustments then before. But only 'just.' You don't have much variation with skin tone and there isn't a true red hair color. There's pinkish-red and orangeish-red. But no red, red. As a fan of read-heads, I was bummed by this. An extra part of set-up requires you to customize both your main character and your twin. It easily took me an hour to make this happen. I make no apologies for this.

For those wondering, the events of Mass Effect 1-3 have no bearing in Andromeda. You can choose who your Shepard was (male or female) and that's it. Any game files you have don't mean a thing. This is a whole new game that left the Milky Way behind.

The combat system is solid, and it's better then I could have expected it to be. It works well on both PC and controller, though I ended up favoring the PS4 a bit more. Some of the combat staples are still there, such as biotic/tech/combat powers, but everything is stepped up a notch. Andromeda uses an auto-cover system making anything that looks sturdy a potential spot to hide behind. It's weird at first, but once you use it you wonder why all games don't utilize this marvel. A number of abilities will look familiar to ME veterans: Overload, Pull, Concussion Shot, etc. But there are new abilities such as Flamethrower. I thought Incinerate was one of my favorite moves. No more! Now I can fry everything in my path for a brief period of time. Mwahaha!

Each ability can be customized as you level up and spend attribute points. You can make them more powerful, reduce cool-down time, and have their damage output focus on shielded or armored enemies. The biggest overhaul is with the player combat "type." In the old ME days, you picked a job and you were stuck with it. Engineer, Infiltrator, Soldier, whatever. Andromeda has erased all of that allowing the gamer to play however the hell they want. You want to be a biotic soldier? Do it. You want to set people on fire while sniping? Tactical engineer it is. The possibilities are endless, and you can swap job roles as you wish with a click of a button.

How is this possible from a story stand-point? One of the characters you are introduced to early on is SAM, an AI that communicates with you via an amp implant, who helps you with scanning and assessing your environment. It sounds creepy at first, but it's mostly harmless. Mostly. One of the cool things SAM can do is augment your body to adapt to current conditions. Meaning you can swap to different job roles as you see fit. It's a smart way to overcome the hurdle of those who claim that Andromeda isn't being canon with the other games.

There are also no more restrictions on the weapons you carry. If you were an Infiltrator, your options were pistol and sniper rifle. But now you can have all 4 weapon types on your person at any time. It's pretty freekin' awesome. Like ME3, your gear does carry weight. You can lessen the weight with attribute points and mods on the weapons themselves. Weight can affect your ability recharge speed, which can be crucial in the early fights while you're still learning the combat perks.

Another cool feature is your jump jet pack. Yeah. You get a jet pack. It's not like The Rockateer, but it does give you the ability to duck, dodge, and weave through enemies, while performing insane attacks. I thought this might be clunky, but it's surprisingly very smooth. Great reaction time and easy to fall in love with that you'll want to ground pound all of the baddies with your Omni Blade.

Speaking of weapons, we're back to the crafting system for your gear. It's not as bad as it sounds. Part of being a Pathfinder is researching and hunting out the mysteries of the planets you visit. As you scan, you earn research points that can be put towards blueprints for new weapons, armor, and modifications. There are 3 sets of points: Milky Way, Andromeda, and Remnant. Each offer their own gear that you can build after you find the materials during your quests. You can also buy gear from merchants; if you don't want to craft you don't have to. Color customization is also back, allowing the full spectrum of colors and tints. Finally! (FYI PC users: use Space to confirm.)

Onto the exploration aspect of the game, because this is about 80% of what you will be doing with your time. The environments and world designs are gorgeous. Whichever teams worked on these deserve a raise. They are glorious. Just the other night after I finished terraforming a planet and stepped out of a base to see the changes, I dropped an f bomb. The landscape was stunning. Even the transition scenes where you're flying from one planet to another are phenomenal. I'm talking about Hubble Telescope photography, type of pretty. What's even more impressive is that BioWare made the worlds feel lived in. They weren't like ME1 where it's a lot of empty land with the occasional base in-between. Everything in Andromeda feels new, different, colorful, bleak, exciting, cool, and dynamic. Including the new aliens that actually live on these planets. You get to visit towns, outposts, and full cities. It's refreshing. For me, the exploring isn't getting old. I'm finding myself even more invested in helping these planets thrive and finishing quests then I had expected. There's also the Nomad. Thankfully, it's not the Mako. Your new ground vehicle. Which can be annoying, but it's easier to handle and you have the ability to upgrade it as well as give it paint jobs. If there's any reason to invest time in mining and harvesting materials, it's to upgrade the Nomad. It'll help provide extra shielding and longer speed boost times. The Nomad is meh. I didn't love or hate it. But again: not the Mako. I consider that a plus.

How about the story and the characters? As I mentioned early on, I'm probably only scratching the surface of the story. I've accomplished quite a bit in 32 hours, but it feels like I'm still in the early stretches of the plot.

After you become the Pathfinder and have to find homes for the Initiative's colonies, you come across the Khett: a very jerky species that reminds me of the Collector's. They take what they want, try to morph their bodies into perfect beings by cannibalizing other species, and leave destruction in their wake. I think they are worse if only because they vocalize what they do. At least with the Collector's they don't speak and you don't know why they are being creepy weird. The Khett want you to conform. They speak about the process of converting your being into one of them like a religion. It's oogy. While you're dealing with them, you also have to run through these places called Vaults built by a cybernetic species named the Remnant. These vaults are the foundation for most of Andromeda, but something happened during the 600 years you were asleep that threw them out of whack. You have to hunt down the Vaults and set them right again to make the planets livable for the Initiative, and other aliens in the galaxy.

That's all I've got so far. I have a long way to go.

As for the characters, am I allowed to say they are more intriguing then ME 1-3 without getting my hand slapped? I adore Garrus, but when you have the banter of Liam, Gil, Lexi, and grandpa Krogan, it allows for a number of entertaining moments. The characters here feel dynamic. They don't fit one archetype, but an array of complexities that people have. For once the humans all don't sound like they came from the US or Canada. There are plenty that sound English, Scottish, Australian, Indian, and everywhere in between. Dialects play a HUGE roles in the range of NPC's and not just for us Milky Way folks. Even the species of Andromeda have their own nuances that vary from planet to planet. That might not seem like much, but it's little details like this make the game above and beyond the norm for open world content. It makes Andromeda feel more real.

You can find characters that you relate to here with such ease that you couldn't in other ME games. Yes there are some who are pigeonholed into certain groups, but they have independent personalities that support multiple viewpoints. It's kind of cool to watch NPC's grow as you interact with them over time. With Tali or Mordin, they were the same through and through with each game. Your choices didn't really affect who they became in the long run. But in Andromeda, my choices feel like they have an impact on more then the galaxy. Here, I feel the choices changing my crew members. The way their dialogue shifts after priority missions, and where their feelings lay if I don't side with them; there is a weight to my choices that I didn't experience before. Kudos to you, BioWare.

Now for the not-so great stuff. Okay so the people who have been harping on the animations are half right. Sometimes they look wonky with NPC's walking into walls in the background. But the actual "oh crap" moments are few and very far in-between. The same could be said for weird character faces. If you screenshot a character as they are talking, then yes. It can look silly if you catch them at the wrong time. But you know what? That's the case for living people too. My only big complaint on visuals is the character design when it comes to the eyes on Humans and Asari. The eyes look extra glassy this round, so it's easy to feel ooged out when you look at them.(Update 4/11/17: As of Patch 1.05 on April 6th, this issue has been mostly addressed. The eyes still look a little glassy, but much improved.) The animations and glitches are not a big deal. They are rare and non-existent in most instances. Sometimes it's funny - I have duel Grandpa Krogan's in the kitchen to clean the dishes, and I'm okay with this.

Besides, if people can justify Final Fantasy XV as a great game with it's world-breaking glitches, then Andromeda should be light years ahead on the grading scale. I've yet to experience a glitch that caused my game to crash, and I've tumbled down quite a few mountains in the Nomad.

Fetch quests are still fetch quests. I'm sure there has got to be another way to add ancillary content to these type of games, but I don't know what it is. They're annoying at this point. There isn't anything new here. Go here. Shoot this. Go there. Gather that. Then take it all the way back to the Nexus where you have to go back out and gather one more thing. Ugh. Make it stop RPG's. Please.

While the Khett are the big-bad, for the moment, they aren't very original. Yes, their tactics are evil. Malicious. Vile. Yadda, yadda, yadda, but we've seen it before. There's nothing to really distinguish them from other bad guys. I've linked them to the Collector's already, but they are also very Borg-like, ala 'Star Trek.' I'm almost waiting for a giant cube ship to appear that acts as their primary base of operations. The same comment can be said for the Remnants. They are wanna-be Geth in sleeker bodies. That's it. It's not exciting. About the only cool new enemy are the Architects; Remnant super-bosses that look like giant snakes with mechanical spider legs. They feel more indomitable then any Reaper I have faced and have some enjoyable fight mechanics that go with it. But the uniqueness of these two alien species is just "meh."

An odd complaint that I have also involves the Remnant and their puzzles to enter the Vaults. The puzzles are, I kid you not, Sudoku. Mother. Flippin' Sudoku. I traveled 600 years to a brand new galaxy, and my only way into these planet saving sites is to work on Sudoku puzzles. Way to stretch the brain on this one, BioWare. On the plus, it is different and requires some more logical problem solving then shooting your way through. But really? Sudoku? I guess it's the intergalactic language of all species.

Speaking of language, how the hell am I able to understand these new species I've encountered with my Milky Way translator? Initially when you meet the Khett, you can't understand a word they are saying. Which seems very normal given that you're using technology from another galaxy. But just after the first major mission, that all goes away and you magically have the ability to translate everything. Even the newer aliens you meet, you can instantly understand every word they say! If there was an upgrade to your translator after scanning Khett technology, that would make sense. But the game never addresses this. It just assumes you'll blindly believe that you can understand every creature that talks. It's annoying, to say the least. Also, the random names we gave to these new, violent species are the same names that everyone else in Andromeda uses. We just made up a name on the Nexus. We just met this new alien who has never heard us use the word Khett, but they call them the Khett too? I know this is a fictitious space game, but give me some logic. Please. For the time went into making SAM plausible, they should have used it for plot holes like this.

My other beef is the lack of dialogue menus with my crew members. I've gone through a number of Priority Missions, but it feels like I haven't been able to talk to my crew as much as I would like. A lot of the options are greyed out, meaning I've talked to them about the subject before. Nothing new pops up until much later in the game. I'm a little disappointed by this. But this is offset by how often your crew moves around the ship. They don't stay in the same spot like ME1-3. You'll find Cora, one of your Human Pathfinder compatriots, in the shuttle bay, at the conference table, on the deck, in the mess hall, and everywhere in between. And they all chatter away with other companions. It's never quiet on the Tempest. That touch of realism is appreciated, even though I wish I could have more one on one talks.

I'm 50/50 with how I feel about the Tempest, your new ship. The layout is much easier to navigate and you don't have to waste time on loading screens. But I think I like the Normandy more in terms of design. The Normandy feels like a kick ass piece of space metal. The Tempest looks nice, but it's a less clunky version of the Bounty Hunter spaceship from Star Wars: The Old Republic. One long tunnel with stairs and ladders. It's not that stunning when you think about it. But it does have one hell of a view.

I still have quite a bit to go, but so far I'm enjoying the ride. The more I play, the more I like this game. I will, most likely, post an amended review when I've completed my journey through this new galaxy. At the very least, I'll have a lot of cool space photos to share while lamenting on having to solve another Sudoku puzzle.

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