Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Phantom Menace haunts Mass Effect: Andromeda



What follows are my initial impressions of Mass Effect: Andromeda first trial on EA Access.

As I only finished the original Mass Effect trilogy - arguably one of the greatest space operas in any medium - a couple of weeks ago. Commander Shepard and the fabled crew of the Normandy are still fresh in one's mind.

Possible mild spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn't played Mass Effect...



Andromeda seemingly has an identity crisis. At first blush it's a disparate mishmash of the original Mass Effect, Halo and Batman: Arkham franchises. Too familiar tropes and first contact degenerates into a firestorm with rock people before you draw breath. So much for the Prime Directive. This is Star Trek funded by Cerberus. More on Cerberus later.

There's a nagging feeling of The Phantom Menace, surrounding the opening act, in spite of a sense of awe I haven't experienced since playing Phantasy Star Online (PSO) for Sega Dreamcast. Why should I care about the fate of the main protagonist, and her crew, when the writers rushed the introduction and the role of Pathfinder doesn't feel earned? That said, I'm enjoying playing as female Ryder and there's plenty of fun callbacks to the original trilogy: from familiar soundtrack cues to sound effects and much more.

Boarding the Tempest evoked emotions once reserved for the Normandy, USS Enterprise, Millennium Falcon and TARDIS.



Appreciate the more nuanced dialogue options in Andromeda. Paragon and Renegade, inherited from Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), was perfect for Shepherd's war with the Reapers in the original trilogy. Amusingly, it's too easy to unintentionally start romancing other characters, and this levity is welcome in the first few hours of the game. At its heart, Andromeda should be about exploration and hope.



Personally, I'm enjoying the banter with fellow crewmates at this early stage in the story. Liam, the most rounded member of the human crew, Peebee, a playful Asari, and Vetra, a female Turian capable of giving Garrus a run for his money, are the standouts thus far.

SAM, your AI assistant, appeared to be an annoying incarnation of Halo's Cortana in various video clips I'd watched. However, the backstory behind SAM's controversial development, begun by Ryder's father, on the Citadel, before embarking on the long journey to Andromeda, suggests a compelling mystery is in the offing. This is underscored by SAM and Ryder's rich interaction aboard the Nexus, headquarters of the Andromeda Initiative.

It's worth noting the conflict between artificial intelligence and organics drove the narrative of the original trilogy and impending apocalypse. However, there's a hopefulness here that is channelled through my favourite character. Ryder herself. Fryda Wolff embraces the role with an aplomb worthy of Daisy Ridley as Rey in The Force Awakens. I can't speak to the male incarnation.

The past couple of years I, like many other gamers, have suffered from open world fatigue, which Guerrilla Games' Horizon Zero Dawn deftly dodges. Andromeda appears to have a level of depth that may be just too overwhelming for some and is not in keeping with the franchise's legacy. Narrative fans may feel encumbered by crafting. The Witcher 3 remains atop my pile of shame as the notion of expending hundreds of hours playing a single game is too daunting a premise.



The Mass Effect universe has never looked shinier. The Frostbite 3 engine has pedigree as evidenced by stablemates Battlefield and Star Wars Battlefront. There's a very rare pleasure in simply wandering around the Tempest and basking in its reflective beauty. The trial version includes the day-one patch. Hopefully, BioWare will support the game, post release, with the same fervor as CD Projekt Red.

Art direction is uniformly excellent, just don't mention the humans and their Pingu lips. In 2017 it's inexcusable given Dragon Age: Inquisition, BioWare's other franchise, boasts superior animations and dates back to 2014. Humanities tech alludes to Cerberus, which feeds into a rumour that Cora is the Illusive Man's daughter.

What gave Mass Effect 2 its edge was working with the enemy, lead by Martin Sheen's Illusive Man, propelling the game into The Empire Strikes Back of the saga. With that in mind, it's possible there'll be a twist to this tale of exploration leading to a chilling cliffhanger! Unless it's a self-contained installment, which I'm hoping it's not. Mass Effect, like Star Wars, warrants a sequel trilogy.



The Mako was an infamous addition to the original Mass Effect and possessed all the finesse of a helium balloon with a gun strapped to it. My heart sank at the notion of more planetside traversal with its successor. The Nomad. However, the Nomad handles really well and your squad can disembark, with ease, to explore or exterminate at will.

Whilst the combat system has been further honed since Mass Effect 2 and 3. The addition of a jet pack has lead to minutes lost frustratingly impacting against a wall, or cliff, that appears impassable as your squad mates look on from above, helplessly. I felt like telling them to get on with the mission whilst I returned to the comfort of the Tempest.

Then there's the Kett. Rock folk who prefer to shoot first and ask no questions. If these are the big bad in Andromeda, then they're Z-List canon fodder compared to the Geth, Cerberus, Collectors and the godlike Reapers.



Much has been made of the inferior character models, especially female Ryder's default appearance. Meet Jyn 'Erso' Ryder. Whilst the customisation control isn't cutting edge, a few minutes tweaking settings, and with a little help from a YouTube tutorial, I was able to create Felicity Jones' likeness.

It's odd that for all the secrecy surrounding Mass Effect: Andromeda, EA would enforce a piecemeal embargo that's culminated in the next installment imploding into nothing more than merciless memes mocking animations, online, within 24 hours. This is compounded in a month where The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn have released to critical acclaim. The latter is Sony's most successful new IP launch in the history of PlayStation.



Further to the above. Michael Gamble, producer of the original Mass Effect trilogy and Andromeda, has responded to criticisms on Twitter.

"We appreciate the critiques (and memes!), but I am very happy to see how much y'all like the game after 10 hours...and...it gets even better."



Despite coming into this with a prejudice based on memes and early impressions from other gaming sites. I've enjoyed playing the trial over ten hours. It's a slow burner that maybe too slow for some. Standing in the Pathfinder's quarters aboard the Tempest, gazing out upon the great expanse of Andromeda, I had an epiphany: this is the Mass Effect I cherish. Can't wait to properly explore the new galaxy with my Ryder. FemShep's watching from beyond...

Lastly. I did smile when FemShep was already selected as legend during character creation. BioWare, you get me!

Are you playing the trial? Are you enjoying it, or do you want to see fixes before making a final decision to buy? Let me know in the comments below.