Took me a few tries to remember my password.
Once upon a time, I was a student who needed to write a lot of papers. My finished products weren’t bad, but what seemed to take everyone else 3-4 hours always took me at least 10. Sometimes 20. So I started a blog about World of Warcraft, wrote in it twice a week and after awhile words came out of me faster. As an added bonus, I made friends, found myself at conventions all over North America and really got a deeper, more intense experience out of my games. Then I quit it all to live out of a backpack for two years. I tried to keep up the writing but I was always too tired, too busy, too impatient. It didn’t take long for the words to dry up. Now I’m a grown up who has to write letters, memos and reports. While my letters, memos and reports are never short of excellent (IMHO), what takes my colleagues 5 minutes to write during shifts takes me over an hour, off the clock. Plus, I miss my favorite people but am scared that if I email anyone, the only response I’ll get is “I’m sorry, I don’t think I know you. You must have the wrong email.” If my emails don’t go right to spam. It has been that long.
In hopes of finding some good ol’ days glory, I promised myself that I would make a post once I finished Mass Effect: Andromeda.
…Ok, I promised myself I would make a post once I was done with Skyrim. Then after the first time I finished Dragon Age: Inquisition. What can I say? I’m just a big disappointment to myself.
Speaking of disappointments…
Actually, no, I wasn’t really disappointed by the latest Mass Effect. I had a lot of fun playing the game. Yes, the flaws are glaring. (And would you even call them flaws? I feel that sloppynesses is more descriptive.) But since I was so attached to Shepard, I half expected to spend the entire game thinking #notmymasseffect. Which I didn’t do. I easily lost myself in the game and clocked in at 153 hours (estimate 120 if you cut out idling).
I had just finished another Dragon Age: Inquisition run when MEA came out (not that I expect anyone to read this, but just in case someone who doesn’t follow the gaming industry ends up here by accident – Dragon Age and Mass Effect are made by the same company but different teams- and this time around in different studios- and share a lot of features), so it was interesting to me that it seems MEA shines in the places DAI was lacking and the things DAI did well crashed and burned in MEA.
Let’s talk about Ryder
I feel like talking about the story first would be more logical, but Shepard was so important to me that it only makes sense to start with Ryder.
The history between Shepard and I is that I stumbled across Mass Effect at a time where I needed a storybook hero in my life. I’m not a “power through this” kind of person. “I’ll have meltdown now and feel better later” is more like me. The latter serves me well, but every now and then mastering the former is what gets the job done. Shepard was my shining example of powering through everything.
Unlike Shepard, a 30ish year old born leader with an established and successful military career who is applying her exemplary skills, Ryder is 20ish (22 I think) and discovering herself as she takes on the unexpected job of frontlining exploration in a new galaxy. She’s awkward at first and grows in skill and confidence throughout the game. I love it. To younger players, I feel like she would be very relateable, and if at the frontline of further Mass Effect games, could really endear herself to that audience. For me, on the other hand, Ryder made me feel old. So she was more like a little sister that I cheered on and was proud of. She was so deliciously distinct from Shepard that I was able to let go and allow her to grow on me.
In the comparison with DAI, MEA stands out. Both Ryder and the Inquisitor are inexperienced people ending up at the forefront of a massive, high stakes organization through unfortunate circumstance. But the Inquisitor’s journey is too smooth to be engaging. Two of the biggest badasses in Thedas (Cassandra and Liliana) are bearing their fears and dreams to her within hours of meeting. She takes on each mission with a smile and emerges non worse for wear. The events in Haven are the closest she gets to a setback, everything else just works outs. Ryder also does abnormally well for herself (after all, the game is long enough, adding setbacks would stretch it out ridiculously) but she is forced to prove herself. She also occasionally and appropriately loses her shit and at times needs to count on her squadmates. The writers could have gone further with Ryder, but that’s just me being greedy.
Like the Inquisitor, Ryder does suffer from somewhat of a narrow personality range. Emotional/Logical and Casual/Professional replies structure seems good in theory, but in practice (possibly due to the weak dialogue writing) they really didn’t feel all that different from each other. Back in the Paragon/Renegade days, I would play Paragon with some “I’ve had enough of your shit” Renegade moments (I’m so bad at being an asshole that when I did my Renegade ME1 playthrough, I had to use a guide.). I don’t mind trying something different, but I liked that Shepard chose to be compassionate (or not). With Ryder (and the Inquisitor), it felt like she responds the same way and does the same thing no matter what, she just words it a little differently.
Ok, now for the story
Yeah, so DAI. The story starts off great and promising, you’re excited to grow your Inquisition, your camp gets attacked, you do badass heroic stuff- then the story comes to a screeching halt and you collect flowers for 100 hours until you decide to take out the bad guy. There are some story bits thrown in and I loved the story bits, but they’re so rare that you tend to forget about them as you do other stuff.
I was therefore pleasantly surprised that MEA starts off strong, continues strong and ends strong. In my 120 hours of playtime, I had a few nights before the final battle where the story stagnated as I drove around to do all the “collect shit that might appear in some places if you’re lucky and the quest isn’t bugged”. The rest of the time I felt engaged and enjoyed how even the most insignificant sidequests felt somehow connected to the story, a very different experience from DAI.
There is a lot of repetitiveness in planet exploration – most planets follow the same pattern, but, to my surprise, I didn’t mind. By the end of the game, everything felt like “drive around the mountains”, but discovering each for the first time was exciting to me. Every political situation, every Remnant vault, every environment was just different enough to feel fresh. I might not feel the same way in future playthroughs, but for now, I’m satisfied.
I’ll note, though, that while the story is highly entertaining and well-paced, it seriously lacks creativity. I mean, it’s fine: entertainment is the most you can ask for from a video game. It just surprised me since Bioware is supposed to be the storytelling leader in the industry, you would think they had hordes of brilliant writers fighting tooth and nail for an opportunity to pitch their awesome ideas. Instead, most of the twists are predictable and kinda cliché (and worsened by the clumsy foreshadowing), as if there was one person responsible for the whole thing who was told to go home, watch some Star Trek and come back the next day with a full story. There are some interesting chunks of story near the end, you know, once it’s too late in the game to actually develop and explore them. It’s not bad by any means, it’s just, well, after the original trilogy missed the mark for legendary status by 20 minutes of “WTF were they thinking”, as a loving fan, I hoped they would redeam themselves. And MEA is good but isn’t inspired enough to go down in history. With all the love in my heart, I hope MEA2 uses the established groundwork to give us something exceptional.
I guess this is where we can segment into the writing
To me, this was the most massive disappointment. Some of the dialogue and the random bits of writing you find in game were great, maybe even most of it. But there was enough unnatural, tedious, confusing or downright cringy material to distract me from all the good. So much made me wonder who on earth they hired to write this stuff, and what happened to their editors?
There’s a lot of telling instead of showing. One of your companions, one who hides her insecurities behind playfulness, wants to be slow to open to you. But instead of in-character dodging of questions and teasing, she seriously tells you (I am paraphrasing but only slightly) “I am slow to open up, please leave me alone until you have earned my trust” Like, who says that? It would work with a bookish, formal character, but it DID NOT FIT her AT ALL. Oh, and in case you do miss what little your companions show you instead of spelling out to you, you can count on your ship’s doctor to explain it to you. I get that the target audience for Mass Effect is young and possibly socially inept, but comon, they can’t be that clueless.
Another telling-not-showing that really got on my nerves was, well, everything about the new galactic species you befriend. “Oh the Angara! They have electromagnetic bodies and are so open about their emotions!” Your Angaran squadmate reinforces this at every opportunity “I think you are a good friend. I say it because I am Angaran and we are open about our feelings, unlike you Milky Way folk who are embarrassed about your feelings.” There is also this late game gem: Angara: “I am excited about this thing we discovered” Ryder: “Oh, how I love how open and vulnerable you are with me! (You open-Angara-you)” Yet I didn’t notice a single occasion of an Angara being unusually emotional. If anything, they’re kinda flat and talk like zenny yoga instructors. I also never noticed any Angara using their electromagnetic abilities (outside, perhaps, of your companion in combat).
As for the other companions, I found that they started out strong “I am your new crewmate and this is what’s cool about me”…then didn’t really say anything new to you for the rest of the game. One even regresses and becomes insufferable. To make matters worse, when your companions (and some other NPCs) have something to add in their non-cutscene dialogue, there’s no notification. All their options stay greyed out. If you want to find out whether they have more to say, you have to replay all their dialogue in hopes that some of it might be different. So you miss new content (and sometimes even new quests) until you realize this, then you end up playing old stuff over and over again. It would have been easy to make new dialogue content white, like those dialogue options you haven’t selected yet.
When compared to DAI…well you can’t even compare to DAI. Despite pacing issues with the story, nothing is accidental about character dialogue. If a characters says something that seems off, you find out down the road they were hiding something. You discover character personalities little by little as you play the game, very little is told to you. In fact, with every playthrough, I feel that I get to know and understand the DAI characters better. I don’t expect the same to happen in subsequent MEA playthroughs.
The Gameplay, however, was really fun
I love currencies so I was served. Three types of research data, skill points, credits, APEX teams, gear levels, cryo pods, viability points, profile levels. So fun! I suspect my large number of played hours was due to sitting in my ship micromanaging all my stuff.
The combat is tough for me to comment on because as long as it’s not terrible, I’m happy. I’m no TPS expert, but, um, I enjoyed the combat. There’s a huge variety in weapons and defensive gear (a little overwhelming at first, to be honest) and you can experiment and modify your stuff to you heart’s content. Fighting is smooth and natural, your squadmates take care of themselves, everything works as expected (as far as I could tell) and early in the game, the difficulty scaling seems right. As an average gamer, I played on normal difficulty and the challenge felt…normal. I had to think about what I was doing, but was never frustrated. Later on in the game, the combat does become trivial, but I guess you’re just not expected to be level 70 on your first playthrough. You can also up the difficulty whenever you want.
The profile system, where you can customize and level up different profiles, felt quite brilliant to me as well. I didn’t realize you could switch profiles on the fly until late in the game (the one time the game shows you something instead of telling you and I missed it: in the tutorial mission, you see Daddy Ryder switching profiles. Maybe I am as clueless as the game treats me.)
I have to criticize the crafting a little. You can research blueprints and craft from the same station, but if you want to equip/unequip weapons, you have to run pretty far to a load out station. And heaven forbid you want to try a weapon. You have to equip it, land somewhere, drive around until you find enemies then fight. A target dummy in your ship’s loadout room would have been infinitely more convenient.
Overall, though, given how frustrated I was with DAI’s combat (mostly with the camera, I could never freaking see anything while fighting) and crafting system (I had to make detailed tables to keep track of everybody’s gear, then I’d use up all my resources to craft something cool, only to find an upgrade 30 minutes later), MEA was absolutely glorious to play.
Animations, lack of facial expression and, well, lack of faces period are probably the most common complaints I see about the game. I mostly play old games with terrible graphics and I’m face-blind anyway, I didn’t notice until it was pointed out to me. As for the facial expressions, I didn’t mind too much, however, I felt like it was a missed opportunity, especially when playing right after DAI, where I found myself really speculating what characters are secretly thinking based on their body language. I did feel like main character animation was improved in MEA, though. I hated, hated, hated seeing my graceful, beautiful Inquisitors move like gorillas. Sara, thankfully, did not move like a gorilla.
While I wasn’t overly bothered by the graphics and animations, I do question what they did with their resources. They had 5 years and a good budget. I don’t buy the “new team and Frostbite” excuse. The Dragon Age team didn’t have experience with Frostbite either and other than the gorilla Inquisitor, the animations were fantastic. Plus, Montreal has a huge animation scene (Quebec produces a lot of media, almost all of it coming out of Montreal), there are other big name gaming studios in the city and every credible CEGEP has some kind of game development and/or animation program. There’s no way they couldn’t find proper talent. Besides, even if the game is made by a different studio and team, couldn’t the new studio receive coaching and training from Dragon Age veteran animators?
What did bother me, though, where the bugs. More bugs than a beehive, it felt at times. I haven’t been able to get new gear or mods for the past 8 levels. The APEX menu freezes the game more often than not. I have two completed quests stuck in my quest-log (ok, minor detail, but it bothers me). My AI tells me I have new email all the time when I don’t. Sometimes my character and her subtitles have totally different lines.
If you look at the credits, there’s a long list of game testers. I could see them missing little, specific things, but some bugs are pretty major and some occur for most players. Seriously, what are those game testers doing with their time?
Let’s wrap it up
Almost 3000 words and I didn’t even write everything I had in my head. Feels just like old times!
To me, Mass Effect: Andromeda was fun. Definitely worth that money and time I put into the game. (I just kind of wonder what the development team did with their time and money.) I’m not sure whether I will want to play it again, but I do want to explore multiplayer (and coming from me that’s saying a lot!) and I’ll be first in line to buy DLC. I know MEA2 isn’t a sure thing, but I do hope for it because I want to see my Mass Effect buddies and colonies grow. I want to see what comes of the loose ends still hanging. And I still have hope for a legendary space story.