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It couldn’t have gone any other way

We’re going to be talking about Mass Effect again this week.  I’m going to be talking about it a lot now, especially after the news that came out yesterday.  Because I kind of think that it’s sort of inevitable, actually, but it’s also kind of gotten me thinking, so, let’s get back to it.

Mass_Effect_Andromeda_cover

Copyright Bioware and Electronic Arts

Right, so, yesterday, EA said they’re “scaling down” Bioware Montreal and that Mass Effect was officially on ice for the time being.  What that means specifically is unclear, because it does seem that Mass Effect Andromeda multiplayer will still be updated.  No one has said anything about the single player DLC, which was teased (and possibly leaked a month ago) at the end of the game, at least as far as I can tell.  This, combined with the confirmation that Andromeda was mostly pushed out at the last minute and wasn’t really ready for release when it came out is dissaponting, but also not really surprising.  I loved Andromeda, but it did feel a bit like a cash grab.  Not when I actually played the game, because it was clearly made with love (just not ready to be played yet and filled with small flaws), but in the marketing and how EA didn’t seem to care about whether or not the game got fixed after it was out and the lack of notification if there was going to be more in this series.

Honestly, though, I think this might be pretty much all that could have happened, and it’s not Andromeda’s fault.  Andromeda was a wonderful game, and I loved the 70+ hours I put into actually beating it.  The thing was, it proved something to me that I was afraid of.  Mass Effect is dead, and the ending of ME3 killed it.  Not because of the choose your color bullshit of the ending, but because it was such an obvious “burn the setting and run” sort of ending that there was no coming back from it.  Pushing the game to a galaxy literally far, far away, 600+ years removed from the events of the game meant that nothing we as players grew to love was part of the game.  Yeah, it had the aliens and vague references to the characters, and they really tried to shoe horn in a Citadel equivalent, a lot of the game felt like they were trying to do the same thing, but different for no reason.

Andromeda is disconnected from the other games because Mass Effect 3 destroyed the setting.  Sure, I guess it got fixed/not broken depending on your Extended Cut ending, but it didn’t matter.  All three endings are mutually contradictory, have nothing to do with the game itself, and ignoring them would also prove to be something of a problem with any potential sequel.  Throwing it into another galaxy, though, does nothing to help, since all it does is give us some familiar faces, and has us go over the same issues once more.  Andromeda rehashes conflicts that were already resolved in the original trilogy, for good or ill, and it makes all of the decisions we did matter even less.  The Milky Way is toast.  Fuck it, we’re moving on.

It’s not just the fact that the three endings are mutually contradictory, meaning that in order to make an actual sequel, Bioware would have to pretty much invent three different settings for one game.  Hell, in one of them, Shepard would still technically be running around, even if you knocked the timeline up thousands of years, since she’s all the Reapers now.  Also, the Reapers would still be alive in two endings, but the Geth, EDI and any other AI based creature would be gone in another.  That’s a huge undertaking to make a game, and it wouldn’t be worth it to wade through.  That’s, of course, using the Extended Cut endings, which of course Bioware would do, but those endings clearly weren’t the intent (which is why they’re pretty much shitty PowerPoint presentations tacked on at the end of the game).  The original ending is a straight up massacre, with the Mass Relays being canonically destroyed and the world returning to a pre-spaceflight setting, which is literally the destruction of the setting.  If you can’t go into space, there’s no point of a space opera setting.  Now, of course they would go with the Extended Cut, but there’s no way they could make a decent sequel incorporating that ending, unless EA is willing to basically make three different Mass Effect games.  Still, they’re color coded, and that’s worked for Pokemon.

Even ignoring the ending, and just giving some sort of handwave of “yeah, the Reapers died, Crucible, whatever” is a problem too.  Three had so many choices, but that could be implemented in a variety of ways, or, let’s be honest, there was a reason why there was a golden ending for each major conflict in 3, just make all of them canon.  It’s the ending that’s the real problem.  Ignoring it is pretty much what I would have done, but it’s also a tacit admission that it was a terrible idea, and I doubt that Bioware would want to retread that whole discussion, regardless of how they feel about the ending 5 years removed.  Yes, it has been five years.

It’s hard to know what to do with Mass Effect.  I would be willing accept pretty much anything, because I love the ideas.  Andromeda was fun, but it missed so much about the original settings, that while it works for a side story, I’d rather return home.  Especially if Andromeda itself isn’t going to be any more interesting to see than home is anyway.  Still, I wish we could see some of the secrets of the new series revealed.  Maybe in time.

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Strangely Underrated: Mass Effect Andromeda Review

Let’s start by getting everything out of the way.  Mass Effect Andromeda is a good game.  It’s a solid successor to the original trilogy, and while it doesn’t always do things right, neither did the original game.  In a lot of ways, Andromeda is Bioware at its finest and the game feels like it’s the best thing they’ve ever produced.  Other times, it really feels like Bioware at its most Bioware, relying too heavily on their own tropes, animations and concepts that don’t always pan out.  Ultimately, the game is good much more often than it is bad, and even when it’s bad, it’s more disappointing than anything else.  What it really comes down to is a game with a lot of expectation, and meeting it most of the time.

Mass_Effect_Andromeda_cover

Copyright Bioware and Electronic Arts

Mass Effect Andromeda picks up a little bit more than 600 years after the original trilogy, with a group of arks having been sent to the Andromeda galaxy (some 2.5 million light years away in real life) for the purposes of science and exploration.  To the characters, the game picks up in between parts 2 and 3 of the last game, meaning that while the players know that the arks were probably sent to hide humanity (and the asari, krogan, salarains and turians) from the Reapers, the characters actually don’t.  Once they drop out of faster than light travel and begin to defrost the people in cryo stasis, the Andromeda Initiative, the organization the player works for, find that all of the potential colony worlds are a bust due to some sort of dark matter interference.  Combine this with an ancient race of robots, alien invaders that don’t come from the Milky Way Galaxy and the indigenous people caught in between, there’s a lot going on here and a lot of things for the writers to play with.

Unfortunately, the main story is mostly about the main character fighting off the invaders as the new “Pathfinder” with a super AI and advanced combat abilities.  It’s not that it’s a bad story, nor does it ignore the ideas of immigration and colonization, and the good and the bad that comes from it, but it’s a little disappointing that the story is a fairly typical hero’s journey, with all of the more interesting ideas being used as little more than set dressing.  The game introduces a lot of ideas, themes and concepts, mostly dealing with what it takes to start from scratch further away from anyone else in the universe they know than anyone has ever been, but not all of them are followed up on.  Further, a lot of the new ideas for this galaxy, introduced to make the galaxy seem different and alien from our own, don’t get enough development and are not fleshed out enough.  Much like with the first game in the series, the game ends with more questions than answers.  Then, with the game being a new IP and sequels pitched right from the beginning, it felt like a mystery waiting to be solved.  Here, as an established game, with a lot of uncertainty about the direction of the series, they feel more like storylines unresolved.

The worst offender is the Remnant, technology left behind by someone, so mysterious that even the native Angara don’t know where it came from or who made it.  All that’s left is mysterious, advanced terraforming technology, which serves as the main mechanic for the game, and their robot guardians.  Who or what the Remnant are is a main element of the story, and while some parts of it do get answered, the resolution leaves the story hanging and uncertain as to what the developments actually meant.  There’s a great reveal at the end of the game, which has huge ramifications for the newer setting, but the game does nothing with it.

Mechanically, the game is mostly solid.  It plays nice, handles well, and it’s good to have a vehicle that is actually fun to drive.  Planet maps that aren’t all mountain ranges also helps, as well as the six wheel drive function.  The Nomad is much better than the Mako or the Hammerhead, and the planets, while fewer in number than in the first Mass Effect, serve as nice RPG maps, with tons of interesting quests (a step up from Dragon Age Inquisition) and lots to see.  Plus, they’re actually designed with the Nomad in mind, making it less of a chore to get around.

Combat, too, is a refined and improved version of Mass Effect 3’s combat system.  The ability to change powers at will more than makes up for the smaller power suite given to Ryder, and while changing classes at will doesn’t quite work out like they intended, a little bit of tweaking and balancing will do a lot to fix everything.  Plus, the fact that Ryder can specialize into anything makes for some really interesting builds, although, balance is still a problem here.  Adding the jump jets and more advanced AI makes the fights a lot more dynamic than just grabbing cover and pulling out the biggest sniper rifle, especially when taking into account the several new and old weapons, each with their own kind of firing system.

The weapons, however, are also an example of the RPG elements getting in the way of game.  Weapons have to be researched and crafted, using resources, because it’s an RPG and of course we have to have a crafting system.  Because research points are scarce, it’s difficult to branch out and buy new weapons, especially late in the game, because every level of firearm needs to be leveled up, then built, separately.  Every 10 levels, each weapon needs to get more powerful, and the game doesn’t do it automatically, so the player needs to spend and increasing number of research points to buy the next level of gun, then spend more resources to build it.  Fortunately, it’s possible to deconstruct the old weapon to get some of the resources back, but it’s still a lot of steps with a lot of moving parts.  Since research points are limited, it’s generally not worth branching out in a save file, because if you’re at level 30, all of your guns need to be level 5, and you can’t just research the level 5 blueprint of a new weapon, you have to research 1-4 first (although you don’t have to build them).  Also, while it’s really cool each weapon has its own unique firing system, the game doesn’t really explain what that is, having to make due with some hard to read stats (which can be somewhat conflicting and are terribly balanced) and a couple of sentences of description.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the graphics, most of which has been fixed with a patch.  Yes, the game has poor animations and there’s a lot of Bioware talking head syndrome, but a lot of it is fixed and the problems weren’t quite as bad as initial reports made them out to be, at least on the PC.  The bigger issue is that Bioware is reusing animations from Dragon Age Inquisition instead of coming up with new ones.

There’s a lot to criticize, and I know I spent a lot of time sounding like I’m trashing it, but these don’t completely diminish the enjoyment of the game.  There are lots of issues, but it’s fun, it’s enjoyable, and it feels like actually exploring a new galaxy.  The game needs work for the sequel, but it’s got a lot of heart and it’s definitely worth the trip.

Ubisoft’s Latest DRM Blunder

I’m not really a journalist anymore, so I don’t really use this blog to “report news.”  Not like I used it to do that when I was a journalist, but I really prefer to offer commentary and opinion on various goings on with various types of media, but then, we get to see stupid crap like Ubisoft counting changing a graphics card as changing a system as far as their “X Number of Installs” DRM,or to be a bit less technical: a bunch of guys changed out their graphics cards while doing benchmarks and a game said it’s maximum number of installs and refused to work.

Oh wait, this is commentary!

Now, as the Rock, Paper, Shotgun article I linked indicated, this is probably a glitch and not an intended consequence of Ubisoft’s already arbitrary DRM crap, but it’s still rather irritating, especially with as of Monday morning, Ubisoft hasn’t gotten back to them after contacting them four days previously.  It’s things like this that make it really hard to want to support a studio that obviously cares enough about the artistic direction of video games when they pull this DRM shit.  I know I’m not really a PC gamer or anything, but I don’t want to support a company who will choose to shackle one section of the fanbase just because of their chosen access point.

I’m really trying to understand Ubisoft’s reasoning for their restrictive DRM policies.  I respect the idea of trying to curb piracy and I can get behind the idea of making sure they can protect their IPs, but their way of doing it is so ass-backwards, even by the standards set by the rest of the industry, it becomes infuriating to just think about what they’re trying to do.  I’m willing to grant to Ubisoft this particular instance is probably a glitch in the software, but in a lot of ways, it really encapsulates how little they seem to care or realize what their policies are doing to consumers.

Gabe Newell has said that a problem with piracy is really more of a problem with service, and Ubisoft is absolute proof of this.  We can bring up the arguments about punishing legitimate customers and the “$50 rental” all day, but those have been trotted out over and over again, and it’s clear they know these arguments and don’t care about them. I think they made that particularly clear this summer.

No, what we need to discuss are alternatives to this.  We need to show them that there are ways to incentivise legitimate consumers without being patronizing to them, like EA does , and show them there are ways of curbing piracy without making pirating a copy feel more legitimate than purchasing it (I’ve heard the argument that someone may buy a copy of the game, throw it out and then pirate it, just to show support of the game, but not have to be crippled by the DRM release).  Steam is one way of doing that, but it does have its own problems and issues that go along with it.  Day one DLC is an idea, but a lot of that is either superficial or it can feel like a way to punish pirates/used buyers/people borrowing games from their friends, so it’s probably not the way to go.

Instead, the industry and the hobby, needs to collectively sit down and figure this one out.  PC gaming isn’t going to go anywhere and consoles will probably take on more and more aspects of PC gaming (until they eventually merge), and piracy isn’t going to go away either, so this stand off needs to end, soon, before fans and companies start doing even stupider crap than they have already.

Personally, I think it would be smarter if companies gave a larger incentive to pirate (or buy new) than they currently do. Honestly, things like extra characters or cool weapons to download at launch is kind of stupid (especially if I have to sign up for some kind of service just to get Zaeed…) and kind of comes off as condescending, like I said earlier in the post.  I mean, it’s cool that they have this extra character or weapon, but the feeling is that the publisher is saying to me “oh, you’ve decided not buy used?  OK then, I guess I’ll let you have everything on the disc.  Well, everything I don’t want to sell you later anyway.”  It doesn’t feel like I’m getting rewarded for supporting them, but instead, they’re begrudgingly giving me access to what I spent my money on.

It also doesn't help that my "reward" for buying new is a guy like this. Maybe if it were Kasumi...

I’ve found things like art books, posters and maps do a better job of getting me to buy new (or get Collectors Editions as the case may be), but that’s not really something that’s going to work for everyone and in the case of buying used, it may mean Game Stop will just require someone who wants to sell the game for a quick buck to include the art book or map.  They haven’t done it yet, but who knows what could happen if art books become widespread.  Still, it is nice to get little “feelies” with a game, even if it’s just a cool looking poster, so that is something publishers can start with.

I don’t think finding an ideal solution is going to be easy though, but I don’t think it’s entirely impossible either.  I think what we do need to see is more understanding of the mindset of the consumer on the part of the publishers.  I mean, it’s clear most of the developers understand their audience, but it’s time the business people do too.

Defining Property

In the future, and by future I mean within the decade, we’re going to have a serious discussion about what property in a digital, post-scarcity era means.  We’re going to have to determine how much control the purchaser, the original IP creator and the distributor has over a piece of data and how much of what we own, we actually own.  This is something that’s going to be fought out in countless legal battles over the next several years, although the current batch of “no lawsuit!” EULAs that are making the rounds may delay this, but not for very long (months at most).

Like I said last week, it’s easy to determine what is a person’s property when they can hold up a physical disc or tape as evidence of purchase and there’s very little another party can do to stop them from using it, even if that other party is the distributor or original creator of that disc.  Obviously, with a piece of data, something that can only exist within another physical product and cannot be held up with the same physical scrutiny of an object that can be held in a person’s hands.  In other words, it’s clear I own my iPod, but how much do I own my copy of Iron Maiden’s “Piece of Mind” that resides within the iPod.

Sure they look innocent, but this is where the battle began

The general expectation is, of course, what I paid for I own.  Yes, some things are licensed or rented, but that has to be determined right when money changes hands and can’t really be imposed afterwords.  This is what makes the overly restrictive DRM and last second EULA changes so odious to the consumer, since it feels like something illegal or at least malicious is happening, but no one is doing anything about it.

Take a look at the rumors of people being locked out or Origin accounts for being douchebags on the forums.  Granted, some of these people are being assholes on a public forum and that’s not a good thing, but if they are really being locked out of their games for things they are doing away from the game, it’s going to feel like someone is jerking a legitimate consumer away from their stuff through extra legal means.

I have a feeling this is going to become my new "Jean-Luc"

Plugging users into these inescapable elements like DRM or Origin may work for these companies in the short term, but I have a feeling that it’s going to become an albatross around the necks of these companies before too much longer.  There are a lot of people interested in the nature of digital property, and restricting it so far has led to mass amounts of piracy.  It’s also clear the current business model employed by media distributors probably isn’t going to work as long as digital media becomes more and more popular.

What needs to be done is that consumers and developers need to have a long talk about what constitutes right of ownership.  This is something that needs to go beyond copyright, because while the creator certainly has their right to get paid, the consumer is clearly not a passive consumer when there’s an exchange of money going on.  Things are already getting heated on both sides and continuing a drawn out war of words is not going to be healthy for anyone, and if big companies continue to try and impose old school market techniques on a brand new market, they’re just going to get their ass handed to them, SOPA, Protect IP, etc. be damned.

That’s not going to be good for anyone in the long term either.  We’re already seeing tons of piracy and an over-reaction to said piracy, which is creating bad blood among even legitimate consumers.  Boycotts and mass piracy probably aren’t going to topple any big companies, but it can do some damage to smaller or more esoteric projects if things don’t improve on either side.  Both sides need to be striving towards a more productive future, which will require both sides making concessions, because this fighting can’t really be sustained.