Confusion. That’s what I’m feeling most as I sit here reflecting on my time with Andromeda so far. Mass Effect is one of my favorite series. As a massive fan of KOTOR, I pre-ordered the collector’s edition of Mass Effect 1 back in 2007 and adored my time through the entire trilogy over the ensuing five years. While I had complaints with each one, and the community at large lost its mind with the ending of 3, Bioware created characters and a universe that are adored and have endured. So with five years and a new console generation to work with, the community has been expecting Andromeda to completely blow them away. So as I sit here watching bewildering animations, listening to juvenile writing, and staring at environments that often look only as good as they did in 2007, I am thoroughly confused.
Let’s start with the facial expressions. When the first Mass Effect released in 2007, it set a very high bar for facial animations and expressions. They were far more detailed than most games at the time and added to the character development and attachment that players felt for them. Bioware continued to improve upon their work with the sequels, with that aspect of Mass Effect eventually becoming a pillar of the franchise. Recently, with titles like Witcher 3 and now Horizon Zero Dawn showing such a high level of fidelity for the character interactions, the bar has been raised substantially. So to watch the characters interact in Andromeda is at best confusing and at worst depressing. They truly are staggeringly bizarre at times with characters often looking robotic and soulless. In particular, some characters will seem to be simply staring off into the distance as they speak to you and your team. For a title that relies so heavily on character interaction and emotion, it degrades the experience heavily and I have no idea how Bioware intends to develop a relationship between the player and characters with these models.
Moving on to the animations, third person perspective games often face a challenge in balancing smoothness with efficiency. For third person titles where combat takes a backseat to interactions and visual focus, I’d imagine it’s a little easier to balance the player’s movement. For titles more focused on combat, it seems to be far more challenging. Epic, and now The Coalition, faced similar challenges with the Gears of War series but over the course of five titles (yes Judgment counts!), have done an excellent job at making the game feel fluid whether in or out of combat. Mass Effect 3 took strides to improve the system and did an admirable job at the time. While it wasn’t incredible, it felt improved and with multiplayer making a debut in the title, it was necessary. Again, here we are five years later and Bioware has been heavily touting the multiplayer component of Andromeda. So how are some of the movements and animations simply so bad? When running, it looks as though you’re squatting while leaning on some sort of pivot. It quite simply looks, and feels, unnatural. A.I. characters in the environment will sometimes show the same issues which again, cheapens the overall experience. More importantly, it makes combat feel awkward at times as well. Trying to make important adjustments or movements in the middle of combat can be cumbersome. Add to that the automatic cover system which seems to give no indication as to when you will or won’t cover, and I felt like I was fighting the game as much as the enemies during combat.
Environments in Mass Effect, and sci-fi games in general, are incredibly important. Developers need to make the player feel as though they are inhabiting a world that could potentially exist. As games across the industry have advanced, so have expectations. While the initial planet in Andromeda acted as a prologue and was relatively pretty (despite being very linear), upon arriving at the Nexus I was yet again taken aback. Was I truly looking at Mass Effect in 2017? I can say without hesitation that it looked no better than the trilogy on the last generation of consoles. Here are a few untouched examples captured directly from my console:
Let’s briefly touch on the writing too, another critical aspect for a title like Mass Effect. While some of the interactions have been excellent as expected, there are a percentage that seem to have been written by an entirely different team. There is a huge level of disparity between them at times. One in particular, is already taking the internet by storm where the woman in charge of the Nexus as part of a conversation says “My face is tired……..” while seemingly staring into space with no emotion. There were also a few quotes early on between Ryder and the team that seemed so out of place and/or juvenile that yet again, it left me bewildered.
I have a few other qualms with the title as well. The menus, while replicating the look and feel of previous Mass Effect titles, haven’t advanced forward at all. I understand wanting them to look similar for continuity’s sake but again, it’s 2017 and the bar has been raised in this area across the industry. Finding loot on downed enemies is easy to overlook as the indicator for them, and containers in general, are not well defined until you are very near them. Typically in RPGs containers will have a unique look or some sort of meaningful indicator so the player can identify them at a distance. Andromeda has neither, with item containers having identical physical copies littered around the environment that contain nothing. Also, even though I’ve only been at the Nexus for a short time, there have already been multiple instances where we’ve gotten on the “tram” which acted as a loading screen between sequences (to add insult to injury the textures flash on the tram itself). This of course, as Mass Effect fans will know, immediately gave me flashbacks of the elevators in Mass Effect 1. I’m not sure if this continues throughout Andromeda, but it’s certainly not a good thing so far.
As my title indicates, I’m worried about Andromeda. Without doubt, there’s a ton to still be excited for with the game. The antagonist is introduced briefly early on and the story between finding a new home planet and combating this new enemy race seems intriguing. The videos Bioware has shown of the open planets and Nomad traversal looks fantastic. And I love that the skill sets, and most importantly to me, loot and crafting, have been expanded to more respectable RPG levels. It’s also worth mentioning that some of the cut scenes that don’t focus so much on the human faces have been amazing. In the end however, the core of Mass Effect is relationships. The development of Ryder, your crew, and the decisions you will make that will eventually impact everyone around you is what Mass Effect is all about. When those interactions become unbelievable, and even laughable at times, it destroys immersion and ruins the entire experience. While it would be easy to say “Bioware will likely address these items very soon”, we have confirmation via this Tweet that it is not the case:
At day 1? No, that ship has sailed. We'll have more patches later on, but exactly what goes into them is still in discussion.
— Ian S. Frazier (@tibermoon) March 16, 2017
With 2017 already delivering several AAA titles and with more on the way, I feel Bioware and EA could be facing a high level of backlash if the new Mass Effect title isn’t up to par. And from what I’ve seen and played so far, it simply isn’t. We’ll see what next week holds when the community at large gets their hands on the game.