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Anthem: Also Why I Hate Destiny

I’ve never actually played Destiny, so that title is a bit misleading, but I’m required to have a title, so I decided to put it up there.  Today was EA’s conference for E3, and there were a few things announced, like Battle Royale for Battlefield V (we knew that) a Jedi Knight game (with no other information beyond “can use a lightsaber and are a Jedi”) and we got a new trailer for Anthem.  It’s a cinematic trailer , with no new gameplay.

The premise is pretty simple, the last bastion of humanity is holed up in a single city, where elite super soldiers fight to protect the last vestiges of humanity and hopefully, one day, regain control over the world they once lived in.  It’s a lot like destiny.  There are mentions of gods (probably the progenitor humans), a bunch of monsters to fight, altered humans that have their own cultures and probably diverse enough biologies to be separate people.  The biggest difference, instead of being raised from the dead with space magic like in Destiny, in Anthem, everyone gets Iron Man suits.  Actually, in the trailer, one dude is Genji in his sentai armor, another lady is Iron Man and another dude is in a combination of the Hulkbuster and War Machine armors.  It looks like we, as players, will scrounge around an open world and fight big monsters in a less linear version of Borderlands, while sometimes hanging out with other players.  The story will “continue for years to come” so, don’t expect too much.

I could be totally wrong, it could be an indepth semi-multiplayer RPG with unique mechanics, that utilize the stuff they learned from Mass Effect 3 and Mass Effect Andromeda to create something unique.  A more story focused Diablo III kind of game, only you get to play as your own unique Iron Man.  However, based on what I’ve seen, I kind of doubt it.  I’m not even sure what the characters are, or who I’m playing as, and I’ve watched all of the media  related to Anthem so far.

anthem-dylan.jpg.adapt.crop191x100.1200w

Copyright Bioware and Electronic Arts

When we first saw Mass Effect, we were introduced to Shepard and the world right away.  We know who we’re playing as, what we’re getting into and what’s going to happen.  It doesn’t spoil anything, like the Reapers or even Saren, but we know what’s going to happen.  Even the Dragon Age Inquisition trailer added more to what we were going to be doing than the Anthem trailer.  It doesn’t reveal that you’re playing as the Inquisitor or anything, but we do know that there’s a war, we see characters that we’re going to play and familiar face Morrigan pops up to explain some stuff about the world.  It’s easy to understand, digestible and makes sense.

Making a good, well crafted single player experience, or even a good story based multiplayer experience, though, is clearly not EA’s goal.  It hasn’t been for over 10 years, but it really seems like now, they want to put the nail in the coffin.  Obviously, players like multiplayer games, and they are easy to monetize, but it does make for a rather sad commentary that one of the largest video game publishers that owns some of the best single player RPG IPs aren’t interested interested in making them.  I mean, I love new games and new IPs, but Anthem doesn’t look at all like a new IP.  It looks like EA got mad that Destiny made a shit load of money, even though everyone in the world seems to hate it.

Then again, I went back to play World of Warcraft again, so what do I know?  We’ll see if I actually stop once I get my class mounts.

I know a lot of people were optimistic after God of War was so successful, selling over 5 million copies, that companies like EA would change course, or at least alter a bit to allow for more single player games, but I’m not.  The big companies aren’t interested in making good games.  They want to suck every penny from their player base as fast as they can, it’s why they’re so intent on forcing loot boxes into every game, it’s why they want to monetize everything, it’s why every game has a bunch of shitty DLC that costs almost as much as the game itself and they want you to buy that DLC when you buy the game, sight unseen.  This is, of course, assuming that the DLC even comes out.  EA has canceled DLC for upcoming games before.  Andromeda comes to mind, and, here’s a secret, Mass Effect Andromeda sold over a million copies.  It didn’t do as well as the original, and it probably didn’t hit 5 or 6 million, or whatever insane number is required to keep the game in production.

I guarantee we’ll see the same with Dragon Age, and it’ll be like this until they find some better way to squeeze all of the money they can out of single player RPGs, too.  Hell, they already did it with Dungeon Keeper.

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2017 Biggest Disappointment: The Entire Industry

Mass_Effect_Andromeda_cover

Copyright Bioware and Electronic Arts

The biggest issue with Mass Effect Andromeda was that they only had 18 months to make the game.  That’s unacceptable.  Before the game was actually in development, most of what made up Andromeda were pie in the sky ideas and a system designed to develop some planets.  The actual development, as in when they actually had a game to develop and work on and they weren’t in pre-Alpha, was 18 months.  The game came out on March 21, 2017.  Dragon Age: Inquisition’s final DLC, Trespasser, the last thing relseased by Bioware before Andromeda came out on September 8, 2015, just over 18 months before Andromeda came out.  The entire development cycle for this game, the real development for this game, exists entirely in the space since Trespasser came out.

It’s an embarrassment.  The game probably wasn’t as bad as people said it was, and considering how the original trilogy ended, it’s about the only way it could have gone, but the level of mediocrity involved in the development of this game showed that no one at Electronic Arts gave a shit about this game, seeing it only as a way for the company to shit out something attached to Mass Effect’s shitty, but surprisingly popular, multiplayer and make all the money.  The game was released in a clearly unfinished state, and not in a Final Fantasy XV way, where they keep adding features based on community content.  I mean, voice acting was cleaned up, features were put into the character creator, missing textures were put in the game.  The reason that lady looks so awful at the beginning of the game?  Because they didn’t finish making her.

There was so much shit like this all year that it’s really hard to narrow down just what’s the most disappointing part thing of the year.  There wasn’t one game, or one industry practice or one anti-consumer stupid bullshit thing that felt like it was any worse than the others.  Even things that have been bad for years, like crunch or industry working conditions, managed to come out and get bad all over again.  Not just because they were dragged out into the limelight as a part of a larger conversation in Western culture, but because there were reports of crunch being particularly bad over this past year.  The aforementioned Mass Effect Andromeda released after being drowned in it, and it wasn’t the only one.  CD Projekt Red’s current project, Cyberpunk 2077, was rocked with allegations of poor working conditions, and of course more and more news comes out of Japan every week about how the developers are treated.

They’re not the only ones.  EA famously canceled a mysterious Star Wars project, codenamed Ragtag, which led to the closing of the Visceral Games, the makers of the Dead Space trilogy.  It was a series I wasn’t a fan of, I don’t like horror games myself, but it was definitely a series that put things like quality and good player experience over trying to get more and more money and that’s something I can respect.  There’s a lot, both positive and negative, to be said about the development of Ragtag, but all of that falls into the larger picture of a bloated industry more interested in greed that still doesn’t know how to keep the ambitions of studio heads in check at the same time.

This doesn’t even get into the loot box system, which was already a terrible thing and somehow managed to become even worse than it already was.  Microtransactions and loot boxes and other ways to siphon money from players were such a pernicious and sinister part of the game’s industry for so long, it was hard to imagine them being worse, and then we got Star Wars: Battlefront II, which not only tied player advancement to a microtransaction system, these microtransactions were also done through loot boxes.  It’s insane.  Not only would one player do more damage than another, whether or not the player who’s behind can even catch up was intended to be random.  That doesn’t even sound like it’s good for long term player engagement, so I don’t even know how a greedy CEO can look at that and think it’s what will bring in the money.

SWBF2_box

Copyright DICE and Electronic Arts

I understand the appeal, form a business perspective of “games as service,” even if I think that it misunderstands the idea behind, and the potential of, interactive media.  A continuing game that can be updated, generally through some sort of paid service or expansions, rather than having to build a new game each time.  It’s why we had the MMORPG boom between 2002 and 2011, and why everyone is rushing a battle royale style game out the door now.  It’s something that could, technically, even be a benefit to the industry, were it used to buoy smaller projects, or more ambitious or niche titles, but that’s not what the industry is using it for.  Instead, it’s just a way to make games cheaper and maximizing profits.  I’m not under any illusion that video game publishers are anything other than engines to make money for the company and their investors, but that doesn’t mean that the industry can’t also have its cake and eat it too.  As we’ve seen this year, the indie scene has shown there is an audience out there for genres, titles and concepts that might not fit into the traditional “AAA” “Hardcore” market.

Not that things have been great on that front, either, since Valve has decided that doing any work to curate their storefront is some sort of cardinal sin.  Despite promising, after closing Steam Greenlight, that Valve would let fewer shit titles onto their platform, this year we’ve seen even more questionable titles, Unity asset flips and straight up scams on the Steam platform than any other year.  Seriously, last year was the worst year ever in that regard, but it grew this year.  Hell, before writing this sentence, I opened up the Steam store and the first thing presented to me was some sort of survival early access sort of game.  A type of game I don’t even play, which, if Steam had algorithms half as good as YouTube (which still seems to think I hate women because I play video games), would understand that’s not the kind of game I’m interested in.  During the Winter sale, it was almost impossible to find any good deals without the help of a third party, and I basically skipped most of it anyway, instead electing to buy a bunch of Final Fantasy games I hadn’t played so I can do a project for this blog.  It’s ridiculous.

So, as a whole, this year gave us some of the best video games I’ve ever played.  It was also a year where publishers constantly tried to shove their shit down our throats, lying to our faces and hook us into near-gambling “lifestyle” games to satisfy our own greed.  It was the most 2017 thing I think I could have experienced.

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.

How to make the best of the weakest parts: Mass Effect Andromeda

Mass_Effect_Andromeda_cover

Copyright Bioware and Electronic Arts

Before we begin, I will spoil literally everything about Mass Effect Andromeda here.  If you have not completed it, please do not read any of this article.  I don’t have time to put any other spoiler warning up, so keep that in mind.

So, the Kett were pretty much the weakest part of Mass Effect Andromeda.  The Archon was basically a giant missed opportunity and the rest of the Kett were basically just a redeux of the Reapers, by way of the Borg.  That was actually kind of lame, especially after so much build up and an attempt to give them something of an identity through a pretty good extended side quest.  Here’s the thing though, the Kett might actually be good for Mass Effect in the long term, and would actually be able to fill the exact same niche as the Reapers, while doing it a lot better than they ever did.  It won’t even be that hard.

Before Andromeda, the Reapers were the weakest part of Mass Effect, for a lot of reasons.  The conversation with Sovereign on Virmire is one of the best science fiction scenes I have ever experienced.  “You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”  It’s an insane line, one of the best in the series (up there with “Had to be me, someone else might have gotten it wrong.”) and nothing ever lives up to it.  No interaction with the Reapers, through the rest of the next two games, any of the comics or the terrible tie in novels, manage to reach the heights that the discussion with Sovereign manages to do.  After that, the Reapers are pretty much faceless Elder God rip offs, and also manage to contradict all of the cool things Sovereign said.   It would be impossible, actually, to match up with what he said and manage to have a coherent story, but it’s still ultimately disappointing.

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Image copyright Bioware/Electronic Arts. Also, the Reapers never manage to be this cool, again, either.

The game, from then on, becomes entirely about the Reapers, and they take over the narrative, but they’re not very interesting.  They also contradict themselves a lot, never living up to their promised potential, but what’s really boring about them is that they have no identity.  In a series where the “humanization,” for literally lacking a better term, of the alien is a major theme in the story, the Reapers stand apart.  While that was probably the thematic point of the Reapers, it doesn’t work for them.  Sovereign, and to a much lesser extent, Harbinger, try to act as the “face” or identity of the Reapers, nothing gives them any sense of character.  Even the Geth, who are also synthetic beings with a gestalt mind, get a lot more personality.  They’re given goals, identities and characters, as well as an engaging backstory, that allows them to grow beyond being simple death machines that ran the cute engineer girl’s people off of their home planet.  They exist simply to be an antagonist (and then they burn the setting down as one final “fuck you” to Drew Karpshyn), lacking any nuance or narrative interest.  In short, they’re boring.  Also, they don’t really fit with the rest of the setting.

The Kett are basically the Reapers 2.0.  The Reapers show up, eat everything to make them a part of who they are, are an implacable army of destruction and their power is so much greater, the Council species barely have a fighting chance (and then they don’t because at the end, someone half remembered some of the things Sovereign said in that awesome conversation you had with him on Virmire).  The Kett manage to be exactly that.  However, they have one thing that makes them different from the Reapers.  Also from the Borg, to which they are also quite similar.  See, the Kett are people.  Yeah, they have their old lives stripped of them and there’s this quasi-religious element to their new identity that forces them to live this creepily Spartan lifestyle, but this seems to be cultural, not genetic.  The few Kett we get a chance to interact with have their own unique personalities and are basically people.  Terrible people, sure, but they’re people.

This is where it works.  Since we can actually interact with them, they can fit into the Mass Effect paradigm really well.  If we can get some actual interesting Kett characters, even if they’re bad guys that we have no chance of managing to get on our side, they can be compelling and interesting.  Someone who genuinely sees Ryder as a rival, maybe even like how General Kang was to Captain Kirk, as an example, or maybe take that religious aspect the Archon had and make something with it.  Like a Paladin type character, a crusader, who is convinced it’s her holy duty to destroy the Initiative.  There’s a lot to play with, and that makes them interesting.  By making them people, it does mean that the game is never going to get the epic scene with Sovereign, but if that means we get to have human villains with thoughts, dreams and desires, as well as a way to deal with them that, potentially, isn’t violence (even if one can’t come up in the game), that makes for a better overall experience.  I’m willing to sacrifice that one moment for a longer term goal.

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.