Friday, May 24, 2024

Mass Effect Andromeda Aims For the Stars and Surpasses Them

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Mass Effect Andromeda is finally here, and it has been a very, very long five years since Mass Effect 3. To say that expectations were high for Bioware’s return to their flagship series is a hilariously massive understatement. Over the course of development, several project directors jumped ship, and E3 after E3 passed with no notable progress being showcased. The fact that the project was kept more or less entirely on radio silence until November 7th of last year had most of the fandom deathly worried. It’s not uncommon to play your cards close to your chest, Bethesda does it all the time, but that’s not usually Bioware’s style. Most people were convinced it was a sign that something was horribly, horribly wrong.

Oh, ye of little faith. We never should have doubted.

The Mass Effect series is the epitome of the saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The gameplay ranges from serviceable to clunky. The environments get more polished with each installment, yet ultimately are all just collections of appropriately decorated chest-high walls. The dialogue trees are the best around, but you are still restricted to a small number of pre-designated paths. On paper, Mass Effect as a series seems unremarkable, but that’s why it’s so fascinating. It really is impossible to put your finger on why it evokes such a strong emotional response from such a broad audience. Is it the music? I mean part of it is definitely the music. But it’s more than that. It’s an intangible and almost indescribable feeling. It’s “Mass Effect.”

At the end of my ten-hour demo, once I had stopped screaming in protest because the game abruptly rocketed me out of the immersive trance I had been in for most of the day, I felt a humongous sense of relief. Because while it was a brand new galaxy, with brand new characters, brand new mechanics, and a brand new story, it still felt like Mass Effect.

They did it. Thank God.

For this review, I’m going to keep things spoiler free, save for what has already been revealed in press releases or promotional material. There will be a couple of screenshots of teammates, and that’s about it. A big part of the magic of the Mass Effect universe is experiencing it for yourself firsthand, and Mass Effect Andromeda deserves to be experienced unspoiled.

Let’s start with some technical details. I played the PC version of the game, and let me say that this is one of the few titles in a while that I’ve been able to just… play. No messing around with graphical settings, no SLI hiccups (though I am assuming SLI wasn’t engaged at all, as I was running at a consistent 90-120 FPS at 1080p and I will be shocked if that’s the best that two GTX 1080s can do with this title,) no hard crashes, no soft crashes, no suspiciously long loading screens, just…. playable. I did have a really weird nosedive in my framerate to about 17-20FPS the first time I landed on Eos but downloading the NVidia GameReady driver released yesterday for Andromeda popped that right back up to the 80-100FPS range. In a PC port environment that’s currently drowning in bad adaptations that drop below 60FPS on literally the best GPUs money can buy on medium or high settings (*cough* Dishonored 2 *cough cough*) this was a hugely pleasant surprise.

A gorgeous, gorgeous surprise.

That being said, my experience will not be typical. The Beast is an i7 6700K GTX 1080 SLI system with 32GB of RAM and an SSD. From what I’ve seen in reports on the subject, the game scales nicely from low to ultra settings, and even on medium settings at 30FPS it still looks pretty damn good. Much better than I expected out of Bioware, at any rate: Dragon Age: Inquisition was a damn pretty game, but it’s hard to believe that they went from that to this. It’s clear that a lot of care was put into this PC port; in the ten hours I played it, I had exactly one framerate hiccup, and that was because I didn’t have the right drivers installed. I guarantee I won’t have another equally painless PC gaming experience for a very, very long time. So snaps for Bioware on that!

What I can’t give them snaps for is the player character face engine. I’m sure you’ve already heard by now, but the mouth animations for your player character can be… rough. Even a very well designed character will consistently take nosedives into Uncanny Valley territory, though I will say it’s far less distracting than people make it out to be. Besides; hasn’t this been a running joke with Bioware games since the dawn of time? No need to be excessively mean, folks. And there are some ways to trick the engine into cooperating. First; note that your character’s head is angled down slightly in the character creation menu.

Note that the camera is above Ryder’s head, not at level with it. This makes this process a lot harder than it has to be.

You will need to place the mouth a bit lower than what looks natural because when they straighten their head, it will look correct. You will also need to push the mouth back really far into their skull, as the engine pushes the lips out during the animation process. With some fiddling, you can get a Ryder who looks fine about 90% of the time.

What’s a bit more difficult, however, is getting a Ryder that looks like you. The character generation engine is bafflingly limiting. You have a handful of templates to work off of, but many options present in Inquisition (my favorite editor of all time) are missing. I wouldn’t exactly call this a deal breaker, but it was definitely a source of irritation for me because all I really needed to get my Ryder to look like me was a few more options for the size of the eyes, the slope of the jaw, and the width of the skull. It certainly didn’t utterly destroy my ability to connect with the game as some others claim. It’s something I’m sure will be a priority in DLC and future patches, so I’m okay with letting it go for now.

Close enough!

Even if your character looks a little odd, everyone else looks fantastic. I know some people have an issue with the “Corpse Eyes” effect on Bioware characters, but I just don’t see it. The emoting with the muscles around the eyes, the mouth, and the tilt of the head more than picks up the slack in my opinion. If you were expecting any level of photorealism from Andromeda, then clearly you’ve never played a Bioware game, buddy. Besides; is it that important? Considering the mind-boggling number of fully animated, voiced characters you interact with in the first few hours of the game alone, I’m willing to give them a pass on the humans being a little rough around the edges. There’s only so many hours in the dev cycle, guys, and this game has to be about more than just talking to people.

Nope. This is it. The whole game. Just chatting people up until the heat death of the universe.

Speaking of; there are some drastic changes to the environment engines and the way you navigate them. Dragon Age: Inquisition had a jump button, but it was more of a novelty than a practical use mechanism. Andromeda embraces verticality in its environments full-stop, and it was hard to get used to that in a Mass Effect game. Not that it was badly done; in fact, it was brilliantly done in my opinion. It just wasn’t what we’re used to. The run cycle for Ryder looks great, and the platforming feels tight and intuitive. I have played straight platformers that didn’t make me feel like I was this much in control of my character’s movements. When I say jump, Ryder jumps. In the right direction, and at the right height.

Considering how rich and beautiful the first two worlds I visited were, I can’t wait to dive deeper into this brand new exploration mechanic, especially since the worlds are just… breathtaking. I’m sure someone will come and tell me how some other game renders its environments better. I don’t care. It’s not just about pixel density and raster engines and lighting simulation. It’s style and color palette that makes the world feel like it breathes, and like Inquisition, Andromeda shot for the stars on its environmental design. It is breathtaking in every sense of the word. It is literally killing me that I can’t skip out on finishing this review to go exploring right this second.

Adventure awaits!

Like the exploration controls, the combat controls feel polished and responsive. It’s functionally identical to Mass Effect 3’s gun-and-cover type gameplay, though you feel a lot more in control of what you’re doing and where you’re going. This might be the first game that really nailed the ‘stick to the wall’ mechanic. It’s hard to describe in words, but I never felt like I was fighting the game to get Ryder to take cover or come back out of cover when I wanted her to. As someone who is a hardcore fan of the Infiltrator skill set, this was a welcome change. Otherwise, the combat feels the same. You can command your buddies to do things for you; you can use your skills to gain an advantage in the battlefield, you have to be somewhat strategic about your loadout because you can only take so much gear with you (at least at first). The combat is tight, precise, and most of all, tons of fun.

So that brings us to the story, which I promised I wouldn’t spoil. Without giving away any details, I can say that it definitely feels like “Mass Effect.” It wouldn’t be a Mass Effect game without things going completely tits up in the first half hour, and boy does Andromeda live up to that legacy. It’s not entirely unpredictable; after all, when it comes to space travel, anything that can go wrong will probably go wrong. But Andromeda hits the ground running with high stakes and intense moments, really driving home the importance of your mission here in this new galaxy. You are the Pathfinder, and only you can do this job. You must succeed in your mission of finding a new home here, or the 20,000 people who made the journey with you are going to die. No pressure, right?

Angry Krogan in your face. Must be Tuesday.

I am particularly susceptible to Bioware’s brand of emotional beats. The first tearjerker moment of the game, other than the tears of pride and happiness over the opening cutscene and overture (embarrassing, I know, I had a box of tissues and everything) was only about an hour in, and it landed hard. Not just because it was well staged, but because I was given the option to respond to a tragedy in a way that is… let’s say socially frowned upon, but true to who I am as a person. The dialogue options in Andromeda drop the paragon/renegade dichotomy altogether (a very wise decision) and opt for a system that’s more based on emotions and logic. When you respond to people’s inquiries, it feels more like you’re cultivating a personality for Ryder, as opposed to trying to rack up points for an arbitrary Red and Blue scale. It feels natural, and it’s absurdly immersive. I thought I was caught up in Commander Shepard’s personal drama; Operative Ryder just might be a whole new level for me.

There’s not much else I can say about the story without actually spoiling a part of it for you. I can say that it’s well paced and engaging thus far, with a major mystery set up very early on that you are, of course, personally tied to. It’s similar to Shepard’s connection to the beacon in the first Mass Effect, but not quite. I’ll leave it at that. Another minor thing I’d like to praise is Bioware’s ability to deliver exposition without it feeling like a lecture. Plenty of the characters in Andromeda are directly connected to people and places you already know and love from the original series, giving veterans of the series a lot of ‘ah-HA!’ moments. Newcomers won’t have to feel overwhelmed by the depth of the lore and can uncover it through the dialogue rather than having to read it out of the codex. Because let’s be real; the codex should be supplementary, not required reading. I’m looking at you, Dragon Age series. I’m here to play, not to read. Thank you very much.

I am also here for this.

Finally, the soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal. It’s thematically similar to the original trilogy but deeper and with a slightly darker tone. Like everything else in Andromeda, it feels like it’s grown with the series. And really, half the emotional impact is sold by the soundtrack. It wouldn’t be Mass Effect without it.

So, bottom line: is it worth buying? Dear god yes why aren’t you entering your credit card info into EA Origin right this second? If the first ten hours are an indication of the next 120, I guarantee this will be my favorite game of this console generation, bar none. You might be tempted to say that my opinion is biased, as I am a well known Mass Effect fangirl, but that actually should give more weight to my endorsement, not less. I can’t accurately describe how absurdly high my expectations were, and yet the final result was so much better than anything I could have possibly imagined. There aren’t words to describe it, really. I guess you’ll just have to play it.

She made me swoon a bit. In real life. A+ Bioware.

At the beginning of next month, our contributor Erin will have a full review of the entire game ready, and we’ll see if my predictions of jaw-dropping greatness are correct. Until then, buy the game! I know it’s only March, but I’m calling it now; this will be GOTY for me, bar none.

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