May 2018

Mass Effect Andromeda: One(ish) Year Later

Youtube content creator Raycevick has made a number of videos discussing video games and how they have aged. Unsurprisingly, his entry on Mass Effect and its sequels have been watched by me several times. He hasn’t done one on the Andromeda entry yet, which is unsurprising given how little time has passed relative to the titles he has already reviewed. 

What caused me to do it, however, is the fact that I finished a second play through a few months ago. To my recollection, it’s the first time I played through a Mass Effect game twice in the same year. In retrospect, I found that strange for a game I felt so mixed about at the beginning. Conversely, I considered the possibility that my opinion may well have been swayed by the familiarity I had with the original trilogy, thus causing me to believe it would be worth giving it a fresh review. Sorry not sorry, some spoilers are present.


I think it was the combat which drew me back for a second round. Really, it had to have been. Having gotten used to the “profile” system and the research and development mechanics, I was able to more effectively utilize them this time. My new mouse didn’t hurt, either. Combat was so different from the original trilogy; it took quite a bit of time to acclimate to its differences. The lack of a pausing mechanic, the ability to mix tech and biotic powers, and the jump jets allowing for dodging and hovering in conjunction with true freedom of weapon choice culminates in a far more compelling form of combat than earlier instances. The XP point spending has been polished to perfection, there are plenty of sequences that bring tension with varied enemies requiring a variety of tactics, and the ability to carry both ammo-based and energy-based weapons gives lots of player agency. It’s unsurprising that Frostbite, the game engine originally built for the Battlefield and Medal of Honor franchises, provided the developers with the tools to get the combat aspect of the game right.

Raycevick describes Mass Effect as “a trinity of combat, conversation, and exploration”. Though I’ve lauded the combat component, it’s amazing how much the exploration side falls flat. In my earlier review, I criticized the volume of fetch quests and how much of a time suck they were. It didn’t help that the exploration aspects were a function performed by the player, rather than the character. In virtually every situation, we land where there are already people – not just the baddies, but colonists. How is my avatar boldly going where plenty of people have been before? It’s being revealed to me as a player, but isn’t truly blazing a trail. Now admittedly, I’m having trouble coming up with a better way of making it seem like “exploration” is happening as much to my character, but I’m hard pressed to come up with a worse way to do it than to make me feel like I’m the cluster’s UPS service. I was annoyed by this even further as a result of the fact that I can send strike teams to complete “Apex Missions”…but I can’t delegate side quests to them?

The conversation side is lackluster as well. I’ll emphatically reaffirm the fact that the in-vehicle banter between characters is the highlight of the dialogue. In fact, I was thrilled to find a mod that disabled the AI voiceovers which had a maddening habit of cutting off banter I wanted to hear in order to inform me of something I already knew. However, in-person dialog is rife with shortcomings. The oft-maligned facial animations never bothered me, but it’s the nature of the dialog itself. A handful of characters are voiced by talented individuals who give life and expression to those characters, but most sound like they’re not invested in what they’re actually saying. The different responses themselves tend to be almost pointless to pick. Most players would likely admit that since every major decision had some sort of contingency plan in place (e.g. Wreav if the player kills Wrex, a new council [same as the old council] if you don’t save them, etc.), it was just the illusion of choice if you really got down to it. Even so, dialogue options still had impacts. In Andromeda, I literally can’t recall a single discussion I had with anyone that made a difference about anything other than the NPC’s responses within the conversations. In its defense, the final push had a nice ensemble of radio chatter which reflected the assistance from a number of allies met along the way; it was indeed a highlight of the game to have a “come together” moment with far more cohesion than ME3 provided. That one event, however, does not forgive a game’s worth of ignoring the decisions I spent making when the one of the series’ highlights was how decisions more deeply impacted gameplay.

As far as characters go, Ryder never seems to come into her own, and spends the game being the lowest common denominator. She never seems to truly settle into either being ruthless or compassionate, rank-respecting or insubordinate, diplomatic or a fan of “bigger gun diplomacy”, mission oriented or “no squadmate left behind”. She has assorted moments of trying to get something to shine through, but it’s never coherent enough to truly define the character in the same way Shepard did. I can understand wanting to avoid turning Ryder into “just another Shepard”, but going to the other extreme of having virtually no charisma at all is an uninspiring solution.

It’s entirely possible that I’m biased as a result of watching Youtuber Ruskie’s video on the game recently, but I don’t think he’s wrong on his story assessment, either. The Archon is a one-note, imposing but uninteresting villain. There is little motivation to fight the Kett or the Remnant other than “because they’re evil”. We can’t attempt diplomacy with them, and they don’t have motives besides “exalt everyone”. They’re just cannon fodder with a lust for power. This was forgivable in Doom or Goldeneye:007, but for a game with three prior installments that did a pretty good job giving motivations to the antagonists (admittedly, the Reapers being a major exception), the Archon falls flat as a villain. 

On the flip side, the Angara are solid choices for a species with whom to ally, but they (and the Kett) are the only ones met in the game. By contrast, I met people from half a dozen races in my first lap around the Citadel. There had to be more than two races in the cluster, but even if we want to argue that coming up with another race would have been prohibitive, at least give us more distinct Angara cultures. They’ve been fighting the Kett for centuries, they have different planets they inhabit, and they all have the same language and culture and religion? Exploration could have been done in this manner, by meeting several factions (including those at war with each other) and by putting Ryder in the uncomfortable position of attempting to stay in everyone’s good graces and preventing the Milky Way refugees from becoming the common enemy. It’s not just the planets that could be explored, but really, the people.

The family dynamics fail to have any weight. You have a twin, but they are woefully underutilized. It would have been far more interesting for them to have been a squadmate, with the fact that you were chosen to be pathfinder be a point of contention. The crew could on occasion express concern about whether blood runs thicker than water, with the player having to choose between family and crew. It could have been one of the “big choices” to have to kick your twin off the ship or something similar; Mass Effect hasn’t ever explored family in this way before and it could have really been great. Instead it’s a wasted opportunity because the times when family is involved, it feels more like a forced mechanic than something which can truly be explored by the player.

Other things add to its shortcomings. The variety of planets are not as great as they could be, with three of the six being basically deserts. Even if the desert motif was retained, gravity or sunlight could have been the particular management challenge of a given planet. Wildlife is invariably hostile; there’s no equivalent of the pyjak or the space cow which I can recall seeing. The scourge is purely an annoyance which adds literally nothing to the story or gameplay. I romanced Suvi the second time around, and I found it to be a waste – there were maybe four conversations involved, no real bonding or sense that she and Ryder were really falling for each other, and I found it a strange double standard that while Suvi’s climactic romance scene was a kiss and a dip-to-black, Peebee’s…wasn’t. I can appreciate the planets having descriptions, but I submit that it doesn’t fall into place for those descriptions to exist if I’m just discovering them for the first time. These are just a few of the minor annoyances which collectively become not-so-minor collectively.

In conclusion, I think I stand by my original musings – Andromeda is a pretty good game. It is not, however, a good Mass Effect game. The standard is simply higher for a game whose title is Mass Effect, and it was a standard which Andromeda failed to meet on a number of fronts. Andromeda‘s combat may well have been an improvement over the original trilogy to the point where I played Andromeda twice in one year, but it’s the story that keeps me coming back to the first Mass Effect game ten years after I played it the first time. Do I think I’ll have played Andromeda six times by 2027? Probably not.

Infinity War vs. Justice League, and DC’s Box Office Handicap

This past week, I saw The Avengers: Infinity War. I was also home sick and decided to re-watch Justice League. Minor spoilers of these and other Marvel and DC movies are sprinkled throughout, but nothing major.

It was Justice League that inspired this blog post. A generally held belief is that people are still waiting for the disappointing Marvel movie, while people are still waiting for the DC film that doesn’t disappoint. I think I’ve figured out a few reasons for the disparity. As a quick sidebar, I’ll admit my bias for being a bit more of a DC fan. Sure, ‘feature film’ isn’t their strongest medium, but virtually every TV series they’ve done in the past three decades, animated and acted, have been pretty solid. Also, while Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequels are excellent games, the only Marvel games I can think of that were any good were their Street Fighter clones – nothing that had its own story to tell.

I am certain that the biggest challenge faced by both The Avengers and The Justice League is the same: they need a villain powerful enough to require more than one superhero to resolve the conflict, and a circumstance dire enough to warrant it. A villain that powerful, however, is nearly impossible to create without devolving into a one-note, insatiably power hungry, god-like being threatening the entire planet. There is basically no other story line which supports the heroes working together in such a manner.

A multi-superhero movie wouldn’t work if they were a villain like Khan. His appeal is the fact that he made the audience second guess whether there was some merit to his cause. Interesting as Khan was (and still is), Iron Man would make quick work of him. It’s similarly impossible to go for the unsettling nuance of a villain like Norman Bates. What made Bates such a memorable antagonist was the fact that he wasn’t some larger-than-life monster, it was precisely that he was so ordinary. That sort of nuance is unsettling when they are the antagonist of an equally ordinary person, but Norman Bates would not have enough time to creep everybody out before Wonder Woman took him out. Even a villain like Darth Vader, the textbook definition for “ominous” or “imposing”, would be a tough sell as an antagonist for The Hulk or J’onn J’onzz; there’s no possibility for a showdown to go his way. Thus, we are left with Thanos, or Steppenwolf, or some other villain who is equally impossible to assign any other personality quality than “more powerful than any two superheroes fighting them”. Any such quality would be subsumed by that power – a power that inherently isn’t human or held by a being that can be any real sort of reflection on the human condition.

As another quick aside, the last point, I believe, is amongst the reasons why Batman villains are as good as they are. Scarecrow’s power is to use people’s deepest fears as a weapon. Two-Face embodies internal conflict. Catwoman’s motivations are primarily self-serving but she’s helped Batman in isolated instances. The Joker is, essentially, Batman’s antithesis and turns Batman’s own moral code against him. An ensemble of enemies who are themselves relatable in conjunction with a flawed protagonist makes an excellent basis for a story, and the lack of one is what makes a superhero movie devolve into “two dudes punch each other until the movie decides one of them actually harms the recipient”.

So, why does DC have this problem more so than Marvel? I think there are a few reasons. First and foremost, I think DC’s biggest challenge is Superman. His laundry list of powers make him a team on his own, and thus no room for internal struggle or conflict – or, conversely, a need for teamwork. A fight between anybody and Superman has no stakes because his only weakness is a hard-to-find substance only billionaires seem to possess. It would have been particularly interesting if Superman’s weakness was something more common, like aluminum – easy enough for him to avoid, but suddenly evens the score as “the thing that can kill Superman costs $20 at Target”. Since it’s not, DC’s first hurdle is far higher – a being Superman can’t beat by himself. This multiplies the motivation and personality problems, because “more power for no reason” or “he’s just evil, okay?” is about the only way to justify an attack requiring more than Superman to resolve.

Second, One of the major issues with superhero groups is the classic question of “who watches the watchmen?”. Marvel handled this with Captain America: Civil War. This movie’s pitfall was that each side seemed to have its adherents split down the middle for the sake of keeping the things evenly matched during the fight scene. It would have been more interesting to have spent more time having the motives of each individual explored and explained, but at some level I’ll need to concede that Marvel’s 12 Angry Men would have a far more limited audience. DC tried tried to tackle the same theme with Batman v. Superman, and it was not nearly as well received. A major part of it was because of the almost nonsensical setup to the fight, along with the fact that the fight could have easily been avoided in a thirty second conversation where Superman just explained what was going on. However, I submit that even with that situation handled differently, the story still wouldn’t have held up. Batman isn’t well known for his unwavering accountability to commissioner Gordon, so for him to be the one having an issue with Superman’s lack of oversight is hypocritical and nonsensical.

Finally, I think there are the “less tangibles”. A few bullet-time shots can add some artistic flair, but over half of the slow motion shots in Justice League were pointless. I think director Zack Snyder uses hard lighting in excess as well. Using heavy contrast in lighting can illustrate a darker mood, but having 2/3 of the movie done that way is enough overkill to leave viewers with a sense of despair that Marvel’s brighter colors help avoid. While Marvel did the single-superhero stories well, DC only seemed to have solid success with Wonder Woman; only she and Superman had a standalone movie prior to Justice League. In practice, this meant that The Avengers could spend more time on the standalone story, while the first half of Justice League was the summarized origin story of The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg (and, dealing with the, ehm, “Superman Situation”).

I’ll close with this – DC truly shined in their early 2000s animated series Justice League: Unlimited. They did this by making it primarily a compendium of smaller stories. In most cases, one or two superheroes would address a particular foe or circumstance, rather than the Justice League battling in concert every time. These stories were excellent in their depth and complexity precisely because they avoided “the world almost ending on a weekly basis”. There were so many great episodes and scenes that I feel it’s a great counterargument to the Marvel movies – the series was done in such a way that it’s near impossible to retell its stories in a movie format.

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