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LONG BLOG

On Mass Effect Andromeda: An Introduction.

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This is going to be quite lengthy so I'm going to go into things without much of an intro beyond this. Reading this intro isn't necessary but it explains what you should expect and my approach to writing this.

When I put down the gamepad and reflected on the 70+ hours I'd spent playing Andromeda, I was emotional. I felt like I'd wasted my time. One of my favourite game series, and the experience I'd just had playing its latest entry just didn't stand up to expectations even though I lowered them going in. I did what many disappointed gamers do nowadays: instinctually reached for the keyboard and started typing. As I wrote my angry rant, I realised that I was just shitting over the game to get back at it, that it wouldn't be worth anything, and that I wasn't doing it for the good of myself or discussion at large. I wasn't being fair or honest. I could do better, and I knew it, but to do better I needed time to reflect on my experience. I deleted what I'd written and felt a little ashamed for even doing so in the first place. Not that there's nothing wrong with angry rants. It can be funny and cathartic to read them. But there are enough of those out there already and that's not the content I want to make.

 

As a result, I won't be ranting about the game or writing a 'why it sucks' series. The Mass Effect series means a lot to a lot of people, myself included; I wanted this game to be good, and more than that I wanted to like it. I'm trying to be fair. Though I think the game is bad so my analysis of the game and my conclusions will be mostly negative (so if you wanted salt, it will be there in abundance). After engaging with the fandom more, I get that it sucks to hear or read something long about why something you like is the worst thing ever and far too much like that already exists - I don't want to make fans feel bad. My point is that even if you disagree, I'm willing to discuss it and hope you can learn something from this if you persevere through it. I don't think there's anything wrong with liking this game and far be it from me to tell you what to enjoy. My aim is to write something that (at least the latter entries) will be able to explain or dispel some of the myths around the game as well as criticise it from angles that I haven't seen most of its critics take.

You can stop reading here. Everything past this point is not necessary, but does explain my approach to criticising games and a few minor points about Andromeda. No other part of this series will be like this. Seriously. Stop here, close the tab, unless you're ready or like me you really enjoy talking about criticism and writing.

 

First things first, I have to stress this: making games is hard. Very, very hard. It's a herculean task which requires many hands and minds, and because of this the creative process has many potential points of failure. Most of us have no experience with game development (I don't have any at AAA level) and don't realise simply how the sausage is made, and this leads to some criticisms being simply calling out imperfections. I don't want to be Captain Hindsight - I hope the things I hold against the game are issues that reasonably could or should have been changed during development. I don't think Bioware suck and I'm not judging them as people. This game was in all likelihood made by intelligent, driven, passionate, skilled individuals. Just that sometimes, things don't work out for a myriad of reasons regardless of talent or motivation. Reasons that the average gamer isn't privy to.

 

Part of the reason why I'm motivated to write this, beyond getting out my own feelings on the game, is trying to come to an understanding of myself as an amateur critic. There's one particular piece by Film Crit Hulk which talks about logic and criticism, and that was particularly formative to me the first time I read it years ago. I feel that storytelling logic and actual logic are two different things and I want to criticise things based upon that belief. I also feel like criticism has gotten too 'logical', which isn't reflective of the actual experiences we have.

Where FilmCrit Hulk kinda falls down is when he attempts to seamlessly transfer critical ideas from film to video games. He doesn't question how the interactive and mechanical nature of games affect them from a narrative or artistic standpoint, and how that affects notions of logic. He walks back his criticism of ME3's ending a little because of this.

 

It's probably no surprise that I'm also aware of how the other games were criticised. Shamus Young (formerly of the Escapist) is one of my favourite writers on videogames. He's experienced and very insightful, but I actually quite dislike his most famous long crit, a novel-length series on the Mass Effect Trilogy. While I admire its detail, and it's well written and well-argued, I dislike it because sometimes Shamus comes close to a lot of things I feel hold back criticism, things I'm desperately trying to avoid:

1. Nitpicking. Taking small flaws and making them out to be more impactful on the experience than they would be for anyone playing reasonably and not looking for things to criticise.
2. Assuming the intention of the creators beyond a reasonable degree. No, Kai Leng is not a DM waving his dick in your face. He's just a badly written face for an organisation which needed a hyper-competent dragon but didn't have the time to develop him.
3. Confusing 'This thing is not what I wanted' for 'This thing is bad in of itself'. The latter is fine as an opinion, but utterly worthless as a criticism. It's important to engage with the inherent subjectivity of, well, a person playing a game, but that doesn't mean that a bad subjective experience makes for a bad game, especially when that subjective gamer is somewhat unfair in their expectations or not engaging honestly with the game itself. I dislike criticising based on prescriptive criteria because it creates an environment where people can't play around with ideas for fear of being 'unfaithful' to a skewed ideal of fidelity. It's why I really don't have time for a lot of the criticism of the Last Jedi. it's also why I will try to identify the core ideas of Mass Effect and how well Andromeda lives up to them with this in mind.
4. Focusing too much on logic and to the detriment of theme and drama, themselves having their own strange, effervescent logic. Bonus points for logic being based on imagined details, rather than specific details in the text.

But, beyond that, and perhaps worse, is his 'no politics' rule. While I understand the intent is to keep his site welcoming and free of flame wars and tribal arguments (and it genuinely works in that regard, and I admire his approach to moderation), it ultimately prevents him from discussing the political ideas inherent in many games, something necessary for any complete analysis of a game like Mass Effect. So he ends up either not fully exploring a game's ideas, or breaking his own rule to do so anyway, all the while trying his best to not lean into the skid. Mass Effect is an inherently political series, and that is one of the major ways in which I'll be criticising Andromeda.

But, by that same notion, Film Crit Hulk's de-emphasis on logic leads him to a point where he considers the ending to Mass Effect 3 to be good. Clearly, there needs to be a midway point between the two approaches. One which doesn't throw away all sense of logic and consistency for the sake of drama and theme, but also that recognises why we actually play games and what we should get out of them - and is fully equipped to use whatever ideas necessary, political or otherwise, to do that.

 

What I'm trying to say is my approach was to simply ask 'what is the game trying to accomplish?', and then to go from there, usually to question how sensible it is for the game to attempt to accomplish whatever and whether or not it succeeds.

From this perspective, for the most part there seem to be two key failures with the game: a failure in execution and a failure in direction. The first is straight-forward enough. It's the second which is more devastating. In my view, bad ideas are almost always worse than bad craftsmanship. As I'll go on to point out, the game at times doesn't even know what it wants to be or how it wants to get there, which leaves it a jumbled mess of broken elements.

I won't be talking about memes or animations except for when it's absolutely relevant because they're far from the only failure of execution and not the worst (at least how the game stands today). There's not much to say, the animations are better now (but still leagues behind the game's contemporaries and a series low) and I have no interest in beating that dead horse.

I won't be going in depth on the development for numerous reasons. First of all EA are notoriously tight-lipped about the internal workings of its studios. There's far too much that we don't know so most of what I'd say on the subject would probably be based on assumptions and not evidence. Second, I don't have enough knowledge of game development beyond the indie/hobbyist level so I don't feel confident commenting on a project of this scale and actual experts have weighed in with their own criticisms (especially re: animations), including former Bioware devs. The third reason is that Jason Schreirer of Kotaku already went into detail about the development (I suggest you read that before going into this) and I feel confident in saying that, based on everything that's been said, mismanagement along with a lack of creativity are what caused the game to fail. Almost every flaw, design decision or broken aspect of Andromeda was caused by those two factors. After reading that article I actually have more respect for the game: given how turbulent its development was it's kinda impressive that we got as much game as we did. I don't have anything more of value to offer on the subject and I'd rather explore the way we respond to and criticise games than the way they're made.

 

For the criticism itself, I'm gonna start with the combat, then story and characters, before finally talking about the themes, ideas and fandom itself. It's a common problem among critics, especially those with backgrounds in literary or film criticism, that they tend to weigh too heavily on narrative and not gameplay, and it's a problem I've been guilty of in the past. I don't want to 'get the gameplay out of the way' before I get to the good stuff. I want to be able to refer back to things I've said about the gameplay when I discuss other aspects. I've tried starting this other ways and gameplay first was best because the it was easiest to discuss without having to explain the context of the other elements.

I'm also going to refer to other games, most notably the Original Trilogy (OT) and the Dragon Age series (DA), but also similar RPGs, open world and sci-fi games. I'll mark spoilers when relevant but for now assume full spoilers for every Mass Effect (ME) game, alongside every Mass Effect novel, comic and other associated media, and full spoilers for the main Dragon Age series. One argument I've heard among the fandom is that it's somehow unfair to compare Andromeda to the OT because the latter games in the OT had two games building their world and characters. I think this is little more than an excuse. No game exists in a vaccuum and comparisons are fair game. I don't want to use other games as a stick to beat Andromeda with, but rather to explain my points about good and bad game design or storytelling in detail. And I think it goes without saying that none of these games, especially the OT, are perfect, but they are at least good overall and they excel at many things that Andromeda doesn't.

A few other quick points that I won't be mentioning apart from when absolutely relevant. The character models are pretty bad. Asari especially seem to only have a few repeated face models which really hurts the game and is much worse than even ME1. Even after the patches many characters don't quite look 'right'... many emote too much or too little which hurts a lot of scenes.

An example of Asari face models... Credit: Vlad Bacescu

 

Many of the environments look amazing. Remnant Vaults, vistas and loyalty missions especially have interesting geography and architecture.

 

The soundtrack is decent enough, even if it doesn't feel as distinctive as the OT's soundtrack. The main theme especially continues in ME3's trend of mixing simple piano melodies with booming synths and horns, however the effect of the rising melody feels more hopeful, which matches the generally more optimistic tone of the game. I will say that I dislike most of the Kett's music, it's generic 'space villain' stuff, and there's nothing as memorable as ME1's Vigil, ME2's Suicide Mission or ME3's Leaving Earth, even if the instrumentation is technically more complex (expecially compared to ME1's soundtrack) However, it lacks anything as experimental or unconventional as ME1's sparse synthesization, or the syncopation used in 'The Illusive Man'. The OT's soundtrack used musical effect to mirror thematic elements of the narrative, but that isn't really attempted here. Jack Wall (composer for ME1 and 2) was clearly the most inventive and daring of the three and I'd say his soundtracks are far ahead of Clint Mansell's ME3 and John Paesano's Andromeda.

Andromeda's Main Theme

 

I won't be talking about the ending to ME3 apart from where it's necessary. Again, I don't want to beat dead horses but I do have my own take which will be relevant to a greater point later. I just won't be focusing on it. Don't expect me to verbally beat down the games even if Andromeda gets a bit of a lashing, and don't expect me to have the same problems as everyone else - that's the benefit of being a contrarian with years of hindsight.

Origin has no built in screenshot feature so I have no screenshots or footage of the game. My screenshots will come from MKIceAndFire's youtube let's play series unless otherwise stated. It should be fine fair-use wise, after all I chose a no-commentary let's play specifically because its purpose is different to my written criticism. But, on the off chance MKIcaAndFire is reading this and has an issue with me using stills of his videos, just PM me.

 

Lastly, I know not everyone wants to read thousands of words about Andromeda. I'm not an idiot and I wouldnt be surprised if I got 0 faps. While I want it to be good to read for fans of game criticism I'm writing this for 2 other reasons. If it's online somewhere, it can be cross-posted or referenced. Secondly, writing this has helped me grow as a gamer and a wannabe critic. Playing Andromeda got me to think about games in a way I hadn't done before and I think a lot of us who like writing about games have had a similar experience. Writing this series is important to me and, while it may be selfish and indulgent, I feel like if I didn't get this up somewhere I wouldn't have the motivation to finish it. I enjoy reading long crit and I've enjoyed writing it. Nevertheless, I don't want to be known as 'the guy who won't shut up about Mass Effect' (even though that's inevitable) so I'll mix things up and spread this series out with other blog entries. And no, from this point on I'm not going to vacillate or jump down tangents of how to criticise games. This is it as far as that rambly stuff goes. If you made it to here, congratulations. Let me know so I can mail you a cookie.

And shout out to Kerrik52 for giving me the idea/motivation with his Let's Bitch about series, and TricksterX who has his own (mercifully shorter) take on the game (read it, it's good).

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About Saladorone of us since 6:33 PM on 08.18.2016

I swear I will one day shut up about Bioware.