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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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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.

330px-Sovereign

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.