Friday, April 7, 2017

Game Talk #16: Mass Effect - Andromeda

I just beat Mass Effect: Andromeda last night, so I figured it was time to talk about it.

First I'll talk about the game, then I'll talk about the...'controversies' surrounding the game.

For transparency's sake, I liked Mass Effect 3. No, I loved it. It was one of the best games I've ever played, maybe even the best. And yes, I also think the ending flat out sucked at first, and then became tolerable afterward. It went from not making sense to being kind of disappointing. And honestly, that fourth option, where you shoot the stupid star child (I still think that whole thing was dumb), and he's all like, "Fine! Then go ahead and DIE!" and then you all die, well, it felt like BioWare responding to fan's legitimate complaints with a middle finger, you know? Like, fuck you BioWare, you're really cool most of the time, but that was fucking disrespectful.

Or maybe I'm misinterpreting it.

Anyway. Everything up to the ending was just fucking amazing. Mass Effect 3 started out stellar and compelling, and never really stopped being compelling. Pretty much everything about it was fantastic, from the music to the art direction to the graphics to the gameplay, the acting, the missions that all felt necessary, the multiplayer, ALL of it felt like what I like to call Mass Effect Fully Realized.

So obviously I was pumped for another Mass Effect game, even knowing it wouldn't have anything to do directly with the trilogy. Which was good. It was good that there was a solid, firm end to the trilogy.

Except for watching a trailer and the occasional overheard piece of information, I avoided Andromeda related media pretty much for as long as I could. I managed to get my hands on it at around 9:30 PM on the 20th of March, since my wife and I pre-ordered the special edition and showed up to pick it up when we could at GameStop. (Normally we'd go for a midnight launch, but apparently they didn't want to stay open until then, so they told everyone to arrive between nine and ten for their pre-orders.)

Overall, I liked the game. A lot. But it made me really sad, because it could have been so much better.

More specifically, here's some of my problems.

SPOILERS, obviously.

-Yes, the facial animations. They're a problem. A big problem. I want to say "WTF happened BioWare? You had like five years and how many millions of dollars? AND an extension? How was this not priority number one?" But, on the other hand, I understand how insanely difficult it is not only to make a video game, not only to make a Triple A game, but also to make a game like Mass Effect: Andromeda. And there have been a few articles giving theories about why they sucked. The primary idea being that there are SO many characters, with so many different possible dialogue options, plus, the fact that Ryder can have like a million different permutations, PLUS all the 'cut-scenes' are actually in-engine to compensate for this fact, and it means that some serious compromises need to be made, especially when you're trying to make a game as big as Andromeda. (Which was a problem, I'll get to that later.) Even worse, they switched to a brand new engine, which means that they built literally everything from the ground up. So maybe it's not as easy as everyone thinks it is. But, despite all that, I just wish they'd prioritized it more.

-Character customization is definitely a step back. The scars do NOT look like scars, at all. The tattoos are almost all stupid looking. I mean, fuck, come on, Skyrim had this shit down five years ago. And the hair. Oh my fucking God, the hair. At least for the guys. Besides there being just not enough options, MOST of the hairstyles look FUCKING. STUPID. I mean seriously fucking stupid. Like, I couldn't take my character seriously at all if I used this goddamned hairstyle. Maybe it seems shallow, but this is a fucking RPG. A 'Role Playing Game', as in, you're supposed to get invested and immersed in the story, so every little bit of immersion counts. Especially when it comes to the main character that you are going to be looking at and playing as the entire game.

-Team control. Why the fuck did they take away the ability to control your team? At best, now you can make your team go places or attack specific enemies. But nothing beyond that. I looked it up and the official reason was 'It slowed the combat down.' You know what? It did. But you know what else? It didn't HAVE to. I've played entire playthroughs of the previous campaign where I didn't, not once use team control. So it obviously didn't slow down the combat at all for me, did it? Why should thousands of people who loved playing tactically like that get fucked over? Because it was never mandatory to use it, it obviously didn't force the game to slow down. You could have left it in with literally no loss to quality in terms of how 'fast' the gameplay and combat was.

-Contextual cover. This is fucking stupid. In previous Mass Effect games, you pushed a button to get into cover behind something. Now, you just have to kind of approach it and then your character will maybe think about getting behind cover sometimes. Seriously, I've died so many fucking times because my stupid fucking character wouldn't get behind cover. I don't know what they were thinking. You know what actually slows down combat? Fucking dying because my stupid character won't decide to get into cover.

-Flanking. Holy shit. Enemies flank so much in this game that it's absurd. Some people say that it's 'more realistic', but do you know what else is 'more realistic'? Having more than two fucking people covering your ass. In a realistic situation, you'd have a whole squad that would help prevent flanking. So since we're not being realistic in that regard, how about we just keep it how it was in Mass Effect 3? Yet again, if it isn't broke, don't fix it.

-Quantity over quality. Gaming in general seems to be suffering from Open World Syndrome. Basically, all these games that open world games come out always have to say 'The biggest open world EVER.' They're constantly in competition with each other and even themselves, in terms of previous entries, for making bigger open worlds. Unfortunately, they waste so much time and so many resources making a bigger world that they never stop to think if maybe they should be making a better world. Because although it's a really good effort, it's obvious that it diluted a lot of the game. The game is just spread so thin that all the cool stuff that happens seems pale, because it's lost in a sea of boring mediocrity. I'd rather they have cut about 25% of the 'open world' sections and used that time and effort on polishing what remained. You can have the biggest open world ever but if isn't worth exploring then it isn't worth shit.

-Dialogue. For the most part, the primary dialogue is decently written and decently acted. But the off-hand comments or the stuff that wraps up conversations, stuff like that, is just bad. Like, way too often someone tries to make a joke and it's so lame. I hate forced humor because there's no need for it and its just painful. It brings the quality of the whole scene down, and in this case, the quality of the whole game. Not everyone needs to be a fucking comedian. Plus, one problem is that it seems like all of your dialogue options are too...samey. Like, Ryder delivers everything in basically the same manner. This is a problem.

-Romance. Okay, to be fair, I've only had one romance so far. It was with Vetra. I also had a one-night stand with PeeBee. So that's as far as my experiences with the romance subplots go. But holy shit, this feels like a huge step back from Mass Effect 3. The romances themselves are so...threadbare. There's almost NOTHING. And I know that Vetra is supposed to be the one that takes the longest, but still, even after we'd officially become a couple, you'd hardly know it! There's no real changes in the way she treats me or talks to me, no real extra scenes, no sense that you are in a relationship. Compare this to Mass Effect 3, with the little bits of extra ambient dialogue or the extra scenes in the Citadel DLC. I understand that Andromeda should be more comparable to Mass Effect than ME3, given that it's the first in a new trilogy, but it is being made after ME3, which means it should be using some of the standards set by that game. They were spouting off about how the sex scenes are like softcore porn, but what about the relationship scenes actually leading up to it? There's just not enough of them. You get like a few options to say something 'romantic' and then there's one scene where you actually become in a relationship, and then there's a sex scene. Which, okay, let me tell you, here's a huge annoyance for me: Vetra has no sex scene. Seriously, it's just fade to black. She still has her armor one! Compare that to PeeBee's or Cora's, which has full on nudity that goes pretty far. WTF happened? Did they just not know how to handle it? To make matters even worse, I took a glance at one of the side romances, where you get to hook up with one of the new alien women...except you don't. There's like nothing. Not even a fade to black moment. You literally just kiss once, and not very passionately, and then basically you're both like, "Well, we're too busy right now, I guess we can be romantic later." And again, the build-up to that doesn't seem worthwhile. I've also heard that there's pretty much nothing for Suvi and Kerri, so like...WTF BioWare? Did you just run out of time or something? You can't hype having 'softcore porn' romance scenes if there's only like two of them.

-Useless quests. In the true open world style, there were too many 'go here and find eight of these things' quests. I don't mind a few of them, but this was just ridiculous.

-Quest markers. Okay BioWare, either have quest markers, or don't. Some of the quests, specifically those 'find eight things' quests, don't have quest markers! I get that they must have been going for a 'you should explore your surroundings' kind of vibe with that, but this is ridiculous. I'm not spending four hours combing through one of these giant ass worlds looking for six datapads or eight dead bodies. Like, I have shit to do. If I have to go look something up online, you've failed in your game design.

-Glitches. This has to be my absolute number one problem with this game. The glitches. I don't mind the little stuff. It's annoying, sure, not a huge deal. The big stuff, on the other hand? Yeah, game breaking glitches are bad. I've had a fairly decent run through, but I've run into some situations where there was literally no way to advance the plot. After exhausting every option, I go to look it up and find out that it glitched out. I did everything I was suppose to, but the game shit itself, and because of the fucking stupid checkpoint system they force on you during the actual missions, you usually have to lose a decent amount of progress by reloading, because they fucked up. I've also run into situations in which enemies glitch into a wall, and they can still shoot me, now from literally any angle, but I can't shoot them, unless I find one specific spot, which there's no way to actually discern, by firing at random from every angle I can think of, to eventually finish them off. It wouldn't be that big a deal, except that several of the completion conditions are 'kill all enemies in the area'.

-Ambient dialogue, or basically any dialogue that isn't part of an actual scene where the camera zooms in and there's choices, can be cut off way too easily. I can't tell you how many times something someone was saying, and sometimes it's actually pretty interesting, like banter between crew mates, but also important mission-related stuff, gets cut off abruptly. It's really annoying. I think what's happening is that some things have a higher priority and basically overwrite the dialogue, but whatever algorithm they wrote is clearly fucked up, because I'll be saying something important after finishing a piece of a mission and suddenly get cut off because I opened a door or like, the tiniest sound in the world that no one can actually hear occurred. It's ridiculous and annoying as hell. I often find myself just dead stopping if I hear dialogue start up, because I know how easily it can get randomly cut off for no real reason.

-The gun play. It just doesn't feel as tight and balanced as previous installments. There's something just off about it. I'm not sure how to describe it exactly, but I guess it's just not intuitive, and I don't remember having this problem in ME3, or maybe even ME2. Considering what a big part of the game it is, this really should have been prioritized.

-Healing, for you and your vehicle. Now, you have to find boxes of medical supplies in the field, instead of carrying around medpaks with you. This was annoying. Same for your vehicle, you have to find a Forward Operating Station if you want to repair it. Also annoying. Just let me choose when and where to patch myself and my vehicle up.

-Shepard. This is a minor one, but in the beginning you get to choose Shepard's gender, which is the only reference to the original trilogy and your actions, and the only customization, that there is. Now, the devs claimed that it makes a 'big impact' on the game later, but I beat the whole damned game and never, not once, did I see any of that 'impact', let alone a 'big' one. Am I missing something? WTF happened?

There's other things, but these are the biggest complaints I have. I'm probably missing some stuff, but it's still early. I've beat the game once and I've started a new playthrough. After all that bitching, you'd think I hated this game, but I don't.

I actually really like it. A lot. Enough to finish it and then immediately dive back in.

So what was good about it?

-Exploration. I really love the idea of exploration, so having this new open-world philosophy was a step in the right direction, at least for me and my tastes. I felt like that was something they were trying to go for with ME1, but couldn't deliver. Most of the worlds were just too bland, and it was way too much of a pain in the ass to get around with that fucking Mako. Andromeda almost feels like a fully realized version of that dream of exploration. Although I still say the worlds are too big. I'd rather have better content than more content.

-The outposts. If there's one thing I love more than exploration, it's base-building. It's why I love MineCraft and SubNautica so much, and why I poured so much time into State of Decay. (Okay, one of the reasons.) Building up a base. Establishing outposts is fun, although I'll be completely honest, I thought there was going to be a lot more customization to the outposts. I really only like this idea in theory, because basically, you do some missions, you establish the outpost, then you do or two missions to help them out. I seriously hope this is something they expand on in future installments.

-The missions. For the most part, with the exception of the fetch quests, most of the missions feel either important or like they belong. Like they fit into the story. Like they're there for a reason. That's not always easy to do.

-The controls. When they work, they work well. When they don't work...they crash and burn. Thankfully, they work more often than not, so overall, it's a satisfying experience. To go a little more into depth, it feels really cool to jump-jet up the side of a huge building or cliff sheer...when it works. Or to jump across a chasm. But every now and then, it'll just fuck up arbitrarily, which takes control away and totally breaks the immersion. Also, the fact that you spawn back where you were when you die from falling off a cliff is crucial, since that can happen a lot, so I'm very glad they put that in there.

-Multiplayer and the Strike Teams. I haven't even touched multiplayer yet, but I love concept of these Strike and APEX Teams Kandros has lined up to go out into the galaxy and do dangerous but necessary things. I also love that you can level up your Strike Teams, and that they're adding a little bit of a story into the multiplayer. I definitely plan to get around to it soonish. My only real lament so far is that there isn't enough customization to the Strike Teams.

-The aesthetics. Not to get confused with the graphics, which are actually pretty good considering the fact that this is a HUGE game and everything (cutscenes, etc.) has to be done in-engine pretty much. But the general art design, the color scheme, the way the planets look and the ships, it's all fantastic. New, and yet it keeps that ME style. That is very easy to fuck up, especially when you're trying to reinvent.

-The story. I like the story, it felt good. Without really talking about it, it feels appropriately epic, without actually being too epic. It feels like the beginning of a solid trilogy. Also, there are a couple of pretty cool twists in there, which is classic BioWare. (That KOTOR twist, holy shit.) Although the Archon seemed like a cool antagonist in the trailers, and in the beginning, he kinda fell flat in the game. I'm not even sure why. Hopefully the next bad guy will be better. Although, ugh, hopefully he's at least better than freaking Harbinger in ME2, who featured such FREQUENTLY repeated catchphrases as 'You feel this.' and 'This hurts you.' Holy shit, those were stupid.

-The fact that the game stands on its own. I had no idea how they were going to handle a new Mass Effect game. When I heard it specifically wasn't going to be Mass Effect 4, I was really glad, because it didn't seem necessary at all to do a sequel to ME3, and yet it seemed perfectly fine to do another game set in the same universe. I'm glad that Andromeda turned out as well as it did, and had a stand-alone story as good as it did.

So, overall, I guess I'd have to get the game a B. The biggest thing that stands out about this game to me is the fact that it could have been better, like, a lot better, if only BioWare had had more time. On the one hand, I want to shout at EA for making them push it out before it was ready. On the other hand...they had like four or five years of development time and an extension, and every month that a game doesn't come out just keeps burning through a lot of money, so...I don't really know how to feel about it, except to say that I wish it was better, but it's nice that it turned out as well as it did.

I'm also glad that they've acknowledged a lot of the problems and have already released a huge (2.3 Gigs) patch to fix a lot of them, and have committed to fixing more about the game.

Okay, let's talk about...the ugly part.

I don't really want to go too in depth with this, because it's really just a fucking cesspit of the worst parts of humanity, but there have been a few things said about the game that I feel should be addressed.

First of all, everyone's going after BioWare for being inclusive and diverse. I don't know why this pisses people off, I really don't. My only theory is that it makes them uncomfortable and feel 'threatened', so they lash out in response, which is stupid. People call it 'pandering', which is also stupid. The reality of the situation is that all media companies pander. It's just that 95% of them pander to white people, in video gaming, it's mostly straight white men. (God, even typing that phrase out, 'straight white men' just makes me feel weird, it's like it's because a curse word or phrase or something, people flip the fuck out over it, which is super ironic because these are the same fucking dicks that always make fun of people for being 'triggered', and yet, they get 'triggered' as fuck over this shit and threaten to literally fucking kill and rape people over this stuff. Seriously.) So it feels 'weird' when a company intentionally puts in a female protagonist or a gay protagonist or...basically, a not white protagonist. Which should tell you how fucked up the whole situation has become.

Being inclusive is a good thing. That's...all I really have to say about that. If you need someone to explain to you why being inclusive is generally a good idea, I'm not sure I can help you, but I suppose I could try. The reason being inclusive in media is a good thing is because it has a positive overall effect on society. People don't like to admit it, and a lot will actively fight against it, but media influences you. A lot. Sometimes in ways you don't even know. If we normalize diversity and inclusion in our movies, books and video games, then it will help create an overall less hostile atmosphere. There's other reasons, but I think this is the big one.

The women. A lot of people were complaining that the women were made intentionally ugly. I don't really know how to feel about this. Mainly because I don't see it. If anything, I think they look more attractive because they aren't all fucking fake, plastic super models. (Not to bash on super models.) I guess it's just nice to see women that have flaws. I mean, not everyone is traditionally attractive, and this feeds into the diversity and inclusion. Now, there was an argument that while the women were made less attractive, the men remained very attractive, which unbalanced any reasonable argument BioWare had for doing so. I don't really know how to react to this, either, because in the actual game, it doesn't seem like the men are generally more handsome than the women are pretty. Overall, this is how I feel about it: If you're sitting there, complaining that the women in a video game, a video game that is about sci-fi exploration, combat and adventure, aren't all fucking 10s, then...that strikes me as pretty shallow. Or I guess just a dumb thing to complain about. I don't want people to think that I'm dismissing every argument about the appearance of the characters, but a lot, not all, but a lot, of the people yelling about these just seem to be freaking out because they aren't sexually attracted to literally every woman they see in the game.

Manveer Heir. There was a lot of controversy surrounding this developer at BioWare. If you don't know, basically, he was a guy who worked at BioWare, on Mass Effect: Andromeda, and he was super racist towards white people. I'll be honest, this seemed like a really fucking toxic topic, so I avoided it. Glancing over some of his tweets, yeah, it seems like he is racist towards white people. There's a whole debate there about 'you can't be racist towards white people', which is not as black and white as it seems. (Not trying to make a joke there, seriously just the easiest way to say it.) I think both sides have merit, but what it really boils down to is, yes, you can. I don't want to get into the depths and complexities of this issue because it would take pages to explain, but racism is racism, and shouldn't be tolerated, no matter who it's toward. If you hate someone because of the color of their skin, then, uh, yeah, that's racist. Either way, he was fired, or quit, I'm not sure which, but he's gone now. Another small note, if they were defending/tolerating his racism, then they fucked up.

Sara Ryder. There's a lot of jokes going around about her facial expressions means that she's autistic. This really seems fucked up. Something like autism isn't a punchline. And this isn't an issue of me being 'super PC' or whatever else it's call nowadays, I just think it's fucked up.

That's basically all I wanted to talk about. There's a lot more, but I don't want this post to go on forever. I think the biggest problem with people who disliked this game is that they tended to either get confused by or be confused with an absolutely toxic group of people. I've noticed that people who frequent use phrases like 'Social Justice Warrior' or 'Libtard' or 'Special Snowflakes', shit like that, tend to be fucked up pieces of shit that hate everything, and they attempt to hide blatant racism, sexism and homophobia behind ideals like 'free speech' and 'telling it like it is'. Which is actually painfully ironic, because they accuse those they percieve as SJWs to be doing something very similar, trying to make one thing happen while cloaking it in a good cause. Can no one here see the irony? Like...are that many people not self-aware?

Now, that isn't to say that anyone who doesn't like this game doesn't have a point. Because there are valid reasons not to like this game. Not liking this game doesn't make you a racist. And liking it doesn't make you a saint either. People need to stop having such binary fucking thinking. It's causing a lot of problems.

So yeah, hopefully the next Game Talk will be less heavy.