Stormblood Very First Impressions

Glad I got the memo about the dress code here.

It’s here! Well, if you pre-ordered.

Upon first logging into Stormblood, I was greeted by this very prominent window explaining the new Song Gauge for the Bard job.

“Here we go,” I thought, sighing heavily. This was exactly what I was afraid of: Huge changes to my class that will require mental energy and work to learn. The FFXIV equivalent of a talent point respec. I skimmed the window but didn’t really absorb any of it, so I took a screenshot, closed it, and hoped that, by ignoring it completely, it would magically go away. That didn’t work, so a bit later I decided to bite the bullet, picked a spot in the world, picked some random mobs, and started attacking them.

I was very relieved to see that the basic function of the Bard seems roughly the same. The base rotation that I worked out in Heavensward still mostly works: T-R-4-5-shift V-V. (Everybody uses those keys, right?)

The big difference is in the Ballads, which changed from passive buffs that you turn on at the beginning of a fight to long cooldown damage abilities that you have to repeat periodically. It’ll take some time to get used to it, but it’s not as bad as I feared it might be.

Also: Bards can move again!!

I’ll have to redo my hotbars, though. Eight of my abilities appeared to be obsolete right off the bat. That’s good though because I’ll need to put more Ballads on there for easier access.

Hrm, Swiftsong is gone too?

The other most obvious change to the HUD (other than all your hotbar abilities being crossed out) is the addition of a prominent reminder of where you are in the Main Scenario in the upper-left corner.

It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that if you’re not doing Main Scenario Quests, you’re probably falling behind the power curve, drifting back into the obscurity of the dreaded “casual player population,” where you won’t get to do much of anything cool on the launch day of the next expansion.

Another visual change I noticed was in the map. I’d be hard pressed to tell you what actually changed without seeing the new and old side-by-side, but something is definitely different. I think they added details instead of making it an artsy-style hand-drawn map.

Samurai and Red Mage

I can’t look into any new Bard stuff until I finish the Heavensward story, so I went looking for the new Samurai and Red Mage jobs. Unlike the previous expansion, you can access the new jobs right away without any gates. You do have to be level 50, though.

I started with Samurai. When you talk to the job-giving-guy, you get the usual soul crystal thingy and a samurai sword, but you also get a chest with level 50 gear appropriate for the samarai. That’s a fantastic new feature that I don’t think they’ve ever done before. Previously I seem to recall you had to scrounge around in your inventory to find job- and level-appropriate gear, or walk around nekkid.

Yeah I have no idea what any of those buttons do but I still beat the master samurai from the East.

The problems begin when you go into your first Job Duty because, since the job begins at level 50, you have a whole slew of hotbar abilities that you don’t know how to use. Maybe everyone else has been studying Samurai guides for weeks, but I was looking at it cold for the first time. I just pressed keys and flashy effects happened on the screen and eventually I won. (Against a supposed master no less.)

Despite not knowing anything about how to play a Samurai, I was very surprised to find that I liked it. (I expected to have zero interest in it.) I love the starting Samurai gear set, and you look cool as hell running with the samurai sword out, so that’s a big plus.

Then I found and unlocked the Red Mage. (Both of them unlock from Ul’dah, incidentally.) This is the one I expected to like more, but I’ll be honest, I was a little underwhelmed. It seems to be considerably more complex than the Samurai, what with managing “white mana” and “black mana,” and since I again didn’t know how to use any of the new abilities effectively, I felt pretty useless and underpowered and thoroughly confused. I even failed the first Job Duty because my instructor went and got himself killed on the last boss. (I am sure it was entirely his fault, and it had nothing to do with any shortcomings on my part.)

My instructor’s outfit was more redder than mine.

I didn’t really care for the default Red Mage gear, either. So at least on first impressions, I have to award the win to the Samurai.

On a side note: While in the first Duty for the Red Mage, I got really annoyed at how many flashing spell effects my character was doing. Every time you do anything, melee or spell, there’s a huge bright effect centered on your character. It completely obscured the character and most of your target, so I finally went into settings and set the spell effects to partial, which helped a lot. (I tried no spell effects but it makes ranged casts look very weird, since nothing travels from your character to the enemy.) I don’t remember ever being so annoyed with the spell effects before. Maybe it’s always been like that and I’m only just now noticing it.

After playing the Red Mage I went back to the Samurai. I learned that both of these new jobs are pretty complex. I went into Palace of the Dead to try to work out how to play Samurai from a simpler starting point (a tip I learned somewhere on the Internet but I can’t remember where) and thought I had a decent handle on it. Then I went out to fight some level 50 mobs in Coerthas Western Highlands and got thoroughly confused again. It’s a bit like the Dragoon in that there are a lot of combos and you have to use them in the right order to maximize your potential. It’s not a 1-2-3-4-5 rotation, it’s more of a 1-2-1-3-1-2-4-1-5 kind of rotation. The kind that takes a lot of practice to get it in your head and your muscle memory, in other words. The kind that would be great if you could start from level 1 and slowly build up the rotations over time, instead of having the whole thing thrown at you at once.

As for the inevitable launch issues, I had some queues and got kicked off a few times, but that was about it. Certainly not the worst launch I’ve ever seen. There’s apparently a quest in the new area that’s completely broken though. I imagine the only people who care about these kinds of issues anymore are the ones who are trying to zoom through everything and finish first, or the people who are trying to be the first to post guides, or the game sites who are trying to post something controversial so people will read it.

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

I bought Prince of Thorns back when it was relatively new on the market (a few years ago?). I read the first chapter, didn’t particularly care for it, put it away, and moved on to something else.

Recently I found it again in my Kindle library after I wrote that bit about the grimdark genre, remembered that I’d only read a single chapter, and decided maybe I didn’t give it a fair shot. It’s at least popular enough to have spawned two sequels, so somebody must like it.

So I went back into it using my patented “read the first sentence of every paragraph until something catches my eye” method, which is a surprisingly fast way to read, if not entirely comprehend, a book. (Then again you might be surprised how often the first sentence of a paragraph summarizes the whole paragraph. It’s a trap I fall into myself quite often.)

This time I got to Chapter 24, the 49% mark, before I reached the same conclusion as the first time I tried to read it. (Actually I had reached that conclusion at about the 10% mark but I kept skimming through it because I had nothing else at hand to read.)

It’s a first-person narrative where the narrator is kind of a bastard (figuratively, not literally). It’s set in a medieval-Europe-like setting during the “Hundred Wars” which presumably is supposed to resemble The Hundred Years War (by most accounts one of the worst times in European history). It’s heavy on dialog and light on description and exposition, so it’s a fairly fast read. The story begins with our hero (cough cough) in the middle of a rampage of vengeance for something that happened earlier.

In the interest of learning to be a better writer, I’ll try to diagnose why I don’t like the book.

I don’t mind the grimdarkishness of it. I don’t mind that our character is a bastard. The problem I think is that it’s shoved into my face so fast that there was no time to get accustomed to it. We are introduced to our main character in the first chapter and the author tells us through this character’s actions and thoughts that he’s consumed by hate, bent on single-minded, bloody revenge.

Um. Cool?

The classic story of revenge doesn’t bother me. But the author fails to give us any time to get to know our main character and develop any kind of sympathy for him before we see him rampaging. Revenge stories are supposed to start out by showing our hero being a great person who doesn’t deserve the bad things that happen to him or her. This book does not start that way. It starts out with, “Eww, this guy’s a creep.”

Compare with Arya from The Game of Thrones. She launches into a classic tale of (albeit slow-motion) revenge, too, but we root for her because GRRM gave us three-quarters of a book to get to know and like her before bad things happened to her. Compare also with that guy Glokta from The Blade Itself. He was kind of a bastard, but Abercrombie was able to make him sympathetic enough (through humor and crippling injuries) that we could turn a blind eye on his monstrous behavior.

Our main guy Jorg in Prince of Thorns is just a straight-up monster. He says monstrous things without a trace of humor. He thinks monstrous thoughts. He doesn’t struggle with the moral implications of his monstrousness. He doesn’t wish he wasn’t a monster. He just jumps up and declares, “Yes, I’m a monster, and I want things, so don’t get in my way.” Even his companions are scared of him. And not only is he a monster, but he’s a teenaged monster. (Redundant, I know.)

Now it’s true that Bad Things happened to him when he was younger. His behavior is partially a product of his time and his upbringing. (His father is also a monster.) It’s the kind of thing you might see in a supervillain origin story. In fact, the author is doing a decent job of building up Jorg as a complex villain.

Except, you know, he’s the protagonist.

Maybe that’s the whole point of these books. “What if there was a book where the protagonist is the evil villain? Ha ha! The joke’s on you, reader! Trope subverted!”

Well unfortunately it’s not really working for me. I’m all for subverting tropes but this either goes too far or it isn’t executed well enough for me. It’s not very satisfying to read a book and root for someone to kill the main character the whole time. It’s destined to end in disappointment. (Because there are two sequels.)

The worldbuilding falls a bit flat for me, too. It’s some sort of alternate Earth I guess where some things are the same (the pope, Jesu, Roma, the Hundred Wars) but some things are different (place names). I think there might be some kind of magic but it seems unimportant. It feels a bit lazy to me.

On my precisely-calibrated rating scale, I give Prince of Thorns a “meh.”

SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson

I’m back with another book report. This time it’s SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson (I have to look up the proper spelling of his name every single time), which I read sometime last year. (Hey, at least I’m writing this post this year!)

In my Cryptonomicon review, I said Neal Stephenson is hit-or-miss with me, but this time he delivered a solid hit. I loved this book.

It’s about the moon breaking up and destroying the world, and the steps taken to save the human race. I have always been a sucker for “disaster” stories so it had me as soon as I heard about it. (I can’t remember where I first heard about the book.)

The reason the moon broke up isn’t really important to the story, and in fact is never fully explained. I think there were some theories (a high-speed something hitting it in just the right way), but the characters were kind of busy and didn’t have time or resources to investigate.

The book is in three parts. The first part of the book deals with the immediate aftermath of the moon breaking up and the cold realization that all life on the surface of Earth is going to end. (Apparently all of the increasing number of moon pieces falling into the atmosphere would eventually reach a point where the air superheats and cooks everything. It sounded plausible to me but I’m certainly not an expert on exploding moons.) Part one follows the efforts of launching as many people into orbit as possible, as fast as possible, to save the human race. (They had a two-year deadline.)

The second part of the book deals with events after the “white sky” event which kills everything on Earth, and the efforts of the remaining space-faring human race (numbering about 1,500 by then) to get to a stable place to survive for thousands of years in space until the Earth is habitable again. (Remaining in orbit was still not safe, due to constant bombardments from “bolides,” a term you will understand thoroughly by the end of the book.)

In addition to all the scientific, physical, and emotional obstacles to overcome, there are (of course!) political obstacles as well. It’s all woven together in a way that I found riveting from the beginning of part one to the end of part two.

There aren’t enough words to say how much I loved these first two parts of SEVENEVES. (I am rendering the name in all caps because I think it’s supposed to be that way, because of the symmetry of the word, or at least that’s how I imagine it should be.) I was glued to my Kindle screen for hours on end, which is somewhat of a rarity for me these days. The characters were compelling, the drama was compelling, the action was compelling, the science was compelling, the politicking was compelling, the sociography was compelling. And there were robots!

Then there is the third part of the book. It begins 5,000 years later, and deals with returning to Earth. If I remember right, it started with a truly epic amount of exposition. I can’t say much more about it without spoiling things a bit.

The only criticism I have of SEVENEVES is the decision to include this third part. I don’t want to say it wasn’t good, because it was, but it was a bit of a letdown, because it’s an entirely different story and tone. It is essentially a sequel to parts one and two. You can probably guess that after 5000 years pass, none of the characters from parts one and two appear in part three.

I actually had to put the book down after part two and leave it for several days before I picked it up and started reading again. I had a very strong emotional connection to the characters and events happening in parts one and two, but when it came to part three, I was a lot more detached. It was still fascinating, but it was such a different narrative that it didn’t quite fit with the rest of the book. It was almost like a really long epilogue. I would have preferred to see it expanded and made into a full-blown novel on its own.

But other than that, this was a fantastic book. I rate it as … *drumroll* … great!

Snap Judgment – Quake Champions (Open Beta)

I don’t know how many people know this, but I used to play a lot of Quake CTF with Crayola Clan in the 1990s. Back then, “eSports” were community-run tournaments with no stakes and no prizes and barely any organization. We played mostly NetQuake, QuakeWorld, and Quake 2. We played a little bit of Quake 3 Arena but I personally never liked it and by then gaming started to get commercial with sponsors and cash prizes and it was more work than fun and it was all too stressful to deal with.

Fast forward to this past weekend, when I got my first look at Quake Champions, the newest iteration of multiplayer Quake from Bethesda. I’ve played a total of about an hour, which, when you’re playing a fast-paced shooter, feels like an eternity. I think I have a pretty good handle on what this game is and what it’s trying to do.

It’s clearly based heavily on Quake 3 Arena. Most of the sound effects and weapons are the same. You move incredibly fast and the default FOV is about 800 degrees so it feels like you’re playing in that trippy ending in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In deathmatch, your base strategy for every match is to grab the lightning gun, then grab the quad damage, then insta-gib anything you touch, just like in Q3A.

In addition to recreating that classic Q3A experience, they’ve bolted on all the useless bells and whistles of modern shooters: Match-making, levels, unlockables, lockboxes, stores, and most importantly, manly voiceovers telling you how much you suck at the game when you die.

With the match-making, you no longer browse a list of servers to play on, you simply click the giant Play button and wait for it to deposit you in a game with other people. One might assume that it would put you in a game with people of similar skill levels, but I think we all know by now that those other guys who appear to be level 1 and 2 are probably not noobs like you who just installed the game, but kids who have played in the closed beta for months, perfected their games, then made new accounts just to whup up on the noobs like you.

At least that’s how it feels. The point is, you’re going to die a lot. And everyone is probably cheating. And also get off my lawn.

Overall I found it to be a good shooter experience. It’s fast and responsive. So fast that I can’t really play for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time.

The biggest negative I saw (besides dying constantly) is that it takes a really long time to load after you click the icon. It sits there on a loading screen for a minute or more before you can even think about getting into a match. And then there is the time to find the matches, which for me took up to another minute. That’s a long time to wait after impulsively deciding to jump into a 15-minute deathmatch.

How does it compare to Overwatch, the obvious competitor? I don’t know. I don’t have Overwatch. I can only say that I felt more at home playing Quake Champions than I did playing for that hour I played the Overwatch open beta. There is no reloading in Quake Champions, which is awesome. You start out with only one “champion” available to you and you pick up weapons from the map, which suggests that everyone has the same weapons, which is awesome. The standard free-for-all deathmatch game mode is really nice because you don’t have to worry about everyone else on your team being terrible, which is awesome. The chat is hidden by default, which is awesome. If there was any voice chat, I didn’t hear it, which is awesome.

But, it’s not as colorful as Overwatch, and it doesn’t have Blizzard behind it, and it’s late to the party, so it’s probably dead before it even gets out the door.

Apparently Quake Champions will be free-to-play. At that price, I could see myself leaving it installed and playing a match now and then. But I doubt I would sink any real money into this game.

Mass Effect Andromeda Completed (Spoilers)

Not a Movie Night picture! Instead a random frame of video from early in the game.

I declared myself finished with Mass Effect Andromeda on Saturday, April 29. I finished the Priority missions and basically everything else except the sillier busy work under the Tasks section. ManicTime shows that I played for 99 hours. I reached level 59 in the end, and the save page showed I completed 92% of the game.

Before I get into this I need to reiterate that I enjoyed most of those 99 hours and would never write this much about something I didn’t like overall. Except for possibly the final week when I was starting to suffer from Mass Effect burnout, I couldn’t wait to fire up the game every day and keep going.

So now that I’ve finished the main story and seen the end credits, I feel like I can finally say what I think of the story, because the story is really the main reason to play any Mass Effect game.

It was a disappointment.

It wasn’t terrible. But it wasn’t great or even good, when compared to the previous games.

The Big Bad was a cartoon bad guy. The kett were cartoon enemies. They had zero depth. There was no reason given for any of their evil schemes, except, “hey, we’re ugly and we’re evil, deal with it.” They were thoughtless, remorseless, emotionless genocidal killing machines. Ho hum.

Let’s compare to Mass Effect 1, the best story of the original trilogy, in my opinion. Saren, the Big Bad, had reasons for his evil schemes. It was clear why he thought he was the hero of his own story. In my game, he actually redeemed himself, sort of. Same for his second, the Matron Benodryl (I might be getting that name wrong).

Cut to The Archon. He was doing evil because … well, just for the sake of doing evil, I guess. He wanted to destroy all the worlds in Heleus. Why? Just because, apparently. Why were the kett even in Andromeda? Who knows? I don’t even remember seeing any hints about it from the start all the way to the finish.

Even the Reapers in the first trilogy, whose goal was to wipe out all organic life, had a reason for doing it. One could argue its plausibility, but there was at least a reason given.

The kett and their Exaltation seemed like thinly-disguised Borg, whose only goal was to absorb everything in their path, like locusts. Even locusts have a better reason for their destructiveness–locusts have to eat.

Then there was the Remnant technology. What the heck was that? Who are these mysterious “Jardaan” and why did they build a super convenient network of terraforming machines and deploy them to sit around and wait for the Andromeda Initiative to show up with their Pathfinders to activate them? If and when there is an Andromeda sequel or two, I hope they will delve into that more. Although frankly I’m a little afraid to hear what kind of reasons they come up with.

Many story items seemed arbitrarily shoe-horned in simply to justify open world mechanics. Like, say, the Remnant vaults. And the entire thing about collecting memory fragments, which turned out to be a total bust, in my opinion. When I collected all the memory fragments and reached the end of the Ryder Family Secrets quest line, I eagerly flew back to Nexus to see the final memory. That was going to be my first major story payoff in the game.

It was … nothing.

I expected to learn who the Benefactor was, but didn’t.

I expected to learn more about the nature of SAM and the implants, but didn’t.

I expected to learn why SAM can interface with Remnant technology so easily, but didn’t.

The “big reveal,” if you can call it that, is that mom isn’t dead … she’s frozen in cryosleep. And dad saved Scott so that mom wouldn’t be sad when she was unfrozen. To be fair, it was a surprise, and I didn’t see it coming. And it’s great and heart-warming and all, but it’s not like we can wake her up, because she’s still got the disease. (I don’t remember what it is … cancer I guess?) It’s kind of a weak emotional payoff considering how much time it took to “unlock” those memories. (The Movie Night payoff was better.)

Beyond that, all we got was a lot of fan service and rehashing of events from Mass Effect 3. All of that made me roll my eyes and groan. I thought this was supposed to be a new game with a new story. The “Benefactor” apparently got involved because of concern that the Reapers were going to destroy all life in the Milky Way. That points to the Illusive Man, and if that’s who it turns out the Benefactor is, I’m going to eyeroll super, super hard.

Previous Bioware games have made a big deal about the consequences of the choices you make. As far as I can tell, there were no consequences for any choices made in Andromeda. Nobody died. Nobody got mad. Nobody refused to help. Nobody tried to kill you.

For example: Creating the outpost on Eos, you can choose to make a scientific outpost or a military outpost. It was supposed to be a “statement” of your intentions in Andromeda. I created a scientific outpost, because duh. (I couldn’t even conceive of choosing a military outpost because no part of Ryder’s story or the Andromeda Initiative had been militaristic up to that point, but that’s beside the point.) Cora expressed some doubt about the decision because maybe the outpost would be vulnerable (a legitimate concern). It wasn’t, and nothing bad ever happened to the outpost.

Later, there is some fallout from the decision in the form of a protest on The Nexus from military people who I guess wanted something to do. You couldn’t leave them because for some reason, the protest interrupted the food supply. The leaders wanted to remove them by force. That seemed silly to me. I resolved it by caving in to their demands. Kandros scolded me because he thought there would be more protests from people who wanted things (a legitimate concern), but nobody ever protested again. Waking up more people was supposed to be a strain on the station’s resources (a legitimate concern), but nobody ran out of food or even complained about it ever again.

So … none of those decisions had consequences, except maybe a line of dialog here or there to the effect of, “Hey you shouldn’t have done that.”

Now maybe in the next game there will be some consequences. But it seems a little … I don’t know, arrogant? … to simply assume that we will come back for the next game to see how our choices turned out.

All of that probably makes it sound like I hated every minute of the game. But the characters were pretty good, and that made it fun to hang around them even if the story wasn’t going anywhere. I liked Ryder and the new group of folks. Since the characters were so likable, it didn’t really matter that the story was weak. I really enjoyed riding around in the Nomad listening to the squad mates banter. A lot of characterization came out in those moments.

Oh wait: I liked Ryder except for one minor character flaw: The thing where he occasionally commits cold-blooded murder to solve his problems. Most of the dialog choices basically resulted in the same outcome: Fairly peaceful, agreeable conversations that led to everyone getting along and hugging it out in the end. Except, you know, when you spontaneously shoot people. I still can’t believe it gave you the option to shoot Kalinda in the back so that Peebee would keep that Remnant gizmo. (At least I assume that’s what it was. It just said, “Shoot” and I was appalled.)

One of my favorite pairings was Drack and Peebee. She opened up more to Drack than anyone else, and they seemed to bond in a way that only long-lived species can.

Vetra and Liam was also an interesting pairing. Liam was kind of a jerk to Vetra, calling her “irresponsible” for bringing her kid sister to Andromeda. Vetra was having none of that, though. They sort of worked it out in the end.

Vetra and Peebee were interesting as well. Vetra, of course, is an older sister and Peebee, it turns out, is a younger sister. They had plenty to say on that subject, and they didn’t always agree.

(I changed squad mates a lot to see how they would interact with each other. In terms of combat, it didn’t seem to matter who I brought with me. I tried to cover every combination of pairings but I’m not sure I got them all.)

Narratively, I liked the brother/sister thing with Scott and Sara Ryder. I also thought it was a very clever way to allow the player to choose a male or female protagonist. However, when it got to the part where you had to play as the other sibling, I questioned the gameplay choice. You were suddenly thrust back into a newbie character with terrible weapons where it took 20 head shots to kill a single kett. I understand the reasons for the story, but it was not fun to play that little section.

Another thing that saved the game was that, unlike the original trilogy, the game was as engaging as the story. The combat was fun. The cover mechanics were really intuitive. The weapons had a lot of interesting variety (though I personally used the same weapons for 95% of the game–Mattock assault rifle and Sidewinder pistol).

I didn’t care for the “bullet sponge” effect though. We live in a gaming age where we expect headshots to kill enemies in one shot. Pumping a whole clip into an enemy’s head feels weird.

Still, I can’t complain about the difficulty. I played the entire game on Normal difficulty. The hardest part I remember was the mission of rescuing the Moshae, where I died three or four times at various points. I think I died twice fighting the first Architect on Eos. Other than that, I felt like I was overleveled and blowing through most of the combat.

I did not try multiplayer even a single time.

Overall I enjoyed the game, but after 99 hours I was tired of it and glad for it to be over. I definitely noticed that they “front-loaded” a lot of the content so that it occurred early in the game. There were long stretches of time when nobody said anything new on The Tempest. At a certain point, around Elaaden, I started to feel like I was on a death march to reach the end. I remember especially the search for the Drive Core on Elaaden seemed to go on forever and ever, an endless march from fight to fight across the yellow sands, and I couldn’t think of a single reason why it was important.

Addendum

I’m writing this little addendum after listening to Totally Legit’s spoilercast on Andromeda. Those guys apparently played a totally different game than I did. :)

To reiterate, I played Scott Ryder, and it sounded like literally everyone else was playing Sara Ryder.

I never once thought Cora was whiny; I thought she was one of the only “responsible adults” on the crew.

I played my Ryder as a responsible adult most of the time too–I usually did the upper-right option or the lower-right option. He ended up sounding like a dork most of the time. But once, I picked the upper-left option at the end of a meeting and Ryder said something like, “And let’s all be kind to each other,” and I just rolled my eyes, as did most of the crew, it seemed.

Here’s what I thought of the crew, in order of meeting them:

Lexi: I liked her, but her part was too small. She was one of the few people on the ship who seemed to have a level head. I loved that scene where she got drunk on The Nexus, and I wish they had done more things like that to give her more personality. Her best moments were in the background conversations with shipmates, and her concern for Drack.

Cora: I didn’t especially like or dislike her. She didn’t really have much of a personality or backstory. She had no flaws other than professionalism. The only notable traits that I remember is that she liked gardening and she had an unhealthy hero worship of one particular asari commando. I brought her on a lot of missions.

Liam: I disliked him almost immediately. He had some humorous moments here and there but overall I feel like he embodied everything that is bad about the younger generation. :) “I know, I’ll leave my loving family and head to Andromeda! See you!” Still, I brought him on a lot of missions. I liked his grenade spam and that melee slam move he did, and I enjoyed trying to mimic his accent.

Vetra: I liked her, and I wish she had gotten more attention, but I never understood why she was on the ship in the first place. She had a nice story with her sister, and she had great interactions with the rest of the crew. I found her to be one of the better squad mates for my style of combat because she tended to use mid-range weapons and that’s usually where I fought most of my battles.

Gil: Meh. I didn’t hate him, but I found him generally off-putting, except when he talked about poker. I didn’t really “get” that whole thing with him and Jill. What was the point of that? I didn’t like Jill that one time we met. There was a guy on The Nexus who was interested in Gil, but that went nowhere.

Suvi: I adored her, but admittedly I was instantly seduced by her accent. Her part was far too small. I thought the “religious scientist” was an interesting choice when religion is largely mocked by kids today (see: Totally Legit podcast :). They didn’t dig nearly far enough into that subject though. It could have been a very meaty character study but it was mostly just a throw-away quirk that had no bearing on anything.

Kallo: No salarian will ever match Mordin from ME2 and ME3, so it’s hard to even rate this guy. I enjoyed his interactions with Suvi on the bridge. He was mostly comic relief, and in that role I suppose he was okay. Otherwise not much to write home about. (Now that I think about it, I wanted to know more about his story of becoming a pilot.)

Peebee: I liked her. She had that sort of irresistible quirky charm. I can strongly relate to that “leave me alone to do my thing” attitude of hers, although she was far more outgoing than I am. She had one of the more complex personalities and backstories with that whole Kalinda thing. Of all the squad-mates she had a tendency to die the most, but I brought her on most Remnant-related missions.

Drack: I liked him a lot. At first I thought he was just Wrex-lite, but he developed into an interesting character on his own, and I especially liked his interactions with Lexi on the Tempest, and Peebee in the Nomad, and Kesh on the station, and Vorn in his loyalty mission. His jumping sounds annoyed me a great deal though.

Jaal: Another meh. He had one of the most interesting voice performances of the crew, in terms of pitch and intonation and inflections and so forth, and I still have no clue what his accent was, if it was anything from Earth at all. He had some hilarious lines during combat (“don’t let them flank you!”) and some of his jumping grunts had me in tears (“hoooeeeeeyaaaah!”). I think he had his best conversations with Liam, and maybe Peebee. But as a character? I didn’t really relate to him. I don’t feel like I learned much about him. I brought him along a lot on Voeld and Havarl but I never felt like he was any good at combat.

I totally sided with Gil in his Kallo argument. I am amazed that anyone could think otherwise. I sympathize with Kallo, but yeah, let the engineer do his job.

I never got any romance options for Suvi, which sucked because she was the only one I was interested in. I had to settle for Cora.

No, they never explained the Architects. They were only there to present a challenging foe I guess–and little or no reward for defeating it. I never got much of a sense that the developers cared about whether any of the story held together under scrutiny. Another thing I wonder: How the hell does a kett race even evolve without any reproductive capabilities?

Also no, they never explained why Alec Ryder chose his son/daughter instead of Cora to become Pathfinder, other than the super amazingly thin reason I mentioned above about not wanting to tell his wife that her child had died.

I’m not planning on playing any DLC for Andromeda, particularly anything relating to The Benefactor and the Quarian Ark, unless it gets stupendous reviews. My general philosophy is that if they setup a story in the base game, fail to include the resolution in the base game, and then try to force you to buy the DLC to see it play out? I will vote with my dollars against that.

One last thing: I never experienced any game-breaking bugs. There were never any quests I couldn’t complete, at least that I know of. (Although I did have to reload in the last mission because mobs weren’t spawning or something… it kept saying “we’ve got to fight through these things!” and I couldn’t find anything to fight. That last fight was actually very confusing in terms of what you were supposed to do.) However a lot of times I would drive up to a place or structure on a planet, fight the people guarding it, and then find no lore or loot or anything and I wondered what the point of it was.

Next up: Dark Souls III, The Ringed City.

Mass Effect Andromeda Halfway (Spoilers)

This post is going to be a brain dump of my thoughts about the Mass Effect Andromeda story at what I’m guessing is around the halfway point. Spoilers, obviously, if you haven’t gotten to and completed Kadara in the Priority missions. I’ll wait until I finish the game before posting this, in case anyone feels compelled to jump into the comments and explain how everything turns out.

Yes, that means I’ve finished the game as I’m posting this. Another post is coming tomorrow with my final thoughts on the game.

By the way, none of my criticisms should be meant to imply that I’m not enjoying the game. Far from it. I’m having a lot of fun with it. I would never in a million years write this many words about a game that I wasn’t enjoying.

One of the best things about Mass Effect 1’s story for me was how focused it was. Shepard’s goals were clear (find Saren), and it was clear how to obtain the goals (follow Saren’s trail), and it was clear what would happen when the goal was met (save the Citadel). The journey had many twists and turns, but the core story was pretty simple.

They got away from that in Mass Effect 2 and 3, but you still had at least a vague idea of the goal in those games: Save the galaxy from the Collectors and the Reapers, respectively.

Andromeda is a whole new ball game, in many ways, both metaphorically and literally. There’s a line that one of the background extras on the Ark Hyperion says near the beginning, something like, “Andromeda is about new beginnings, it’s not about funerals.” I took that as a not-so-subtle message to fans of the Mass Effect games: This is a brand new game, nothing like the old ones, so suck it up and deal with it.

There is no clear goal in the Andromeda main story. I suppose you could say that the goal is to survive the new galaxy, but it’s a really nebulous goal. (Ha! Nebulous. Get it? Astronomy humor!) Granted it makes sense that an open world game would have nebulous goals, because otherwise it wouldn’t be an open world game.

Theoretically, if you ignored the open world and did nothing but follow the Priority missions, you should get a tightly-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end. But when I think about the priority missions I’ve completed, I don’t get any sense of a narrative. Let’s break it down.

We arrive in Andromeda. (When I say “we” I mean a sort of hybrid entity of me the player and Scott Ryder the protagonist.) It’s not spelled out but we know we left the Milky Way after Sovereign attacked The Citadel and after Normandy blew up at the beginning of ME2, because The Citadel attack and Project Lazarus are specifically referenced by background characters (both on Kadara, coincidentally).

We get marooned unexpectedly in The Scourge, a mysterious dark energy cloud which inexplicably causes physical ship damage. (That’s when I knew this game wasn’t written by astrophysicists.) We crash land on Habitat 7, the human “golden world.” It’s a hellscape. We encounter alien kett, who try to kill us. We find a Remnant structure which dad somehow uses to fix the hellscape and push back The Scourge. We break our helmet and choke on the corrosive atmosphere. Dad sacrifices himself to save us, transfers the SAM AI to us, and we become the new Pathfinder.

All of that happens in like the first hour of gameplay.

Now free of The Scourge, we fly the Ark Hyperion to The Nexus, the rendezvous point. (For unknown reasons, we completely abandon Habitat 7 even though we fixed the atmosphere.) None of the other Arks have arrived, so we’re the only Pathfinder. We learn the SAM AI implant is more than it seems. Director Tann tells us to go to Eos to establish an outpost. We trigger a Remnant vault there which magically fixes the atmosphere. The vault tells us there is another Remnant vault on the planet Aya. Apparently Remnant vaults were made to terraform planets. On the way to Aya, we encounter The Archon, the kett boss, who tries to capture and/or kill us for our knowledge of the Remnant. We escape to Aya and meet the angara, another alien species. They are understandably skeptical and demand we prove our loyalty.

Here’s where the plot gets a little fuzzy for me. We rescue the Moshae to gain angaran favor, and then for some reason our next goal is to confront the Archon. (Personally I would think we’d want to avoid the Archon.) We rescue an angaran from Kadara who can tell us exactly where to find the Archon, and then Drack and Peebee both bring up different priorities they think we should pursue. That’s where I am in the main story. (I think I may have gone down Drack’s path a little bit when I went to Elaadan for his loyalty mission, but I’m not entirely sure.)

I thought it would make more sense when I wrote it down, but it doesn’t. It’s kind of all over the place. And it’s confusing to reach a point in a linear story where you can take one of three different paths.

The more I play Andromeda, the more I think of plot holes.

I have yet to see a concrete reason for why the Andromeda Initiative needed or wanted to go to Andromeda, besides, “we felt like it.” In reality, I can’t see how any government would fund it, because it would be throwing money away–it’s a one-way trip so there is literally no way to bring anything beneficial back. So the Initiative had to be privately funded. They have mentioned a “Benefactor” but who is it and why? I haven’t progressed far enough into Ryder Family Secrets to find out. Obviously the Benefactor would have had to come along on the mission to get any benefit from it, so I am expecting to discover the identity of the Benefactor and talk to him/her/it before the end of the game. If I don’t, I’m going to be disappointed. I imagine it’s going to be a big time crime boss running from the law.

My biggest plot problem is with SAM, the AI implant in Ryder’s head. Or arm. Or leg. Or wherever you put AIs in a human body.

I understand why SAM exists from a gameplay perspective: It’s basically the game’s help system, and a flimsy narrative to explain “classes” and “profiles.”

But I can’t help but wonder why Scott Ryder had a SAM implant in the first place. I understand why Alec Ryder, the father, had the SAM implant–because he was chosen/elected/anointed as the Pathfinder and all the Pathfinders have a SAM. I don’t know why all Pathfinders have SAMs, though. Having a SAM implant I suppose is what makes a person a Pathfinder. It turns into a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Can you be a Pathfinder without a SAM?

I understand that Alec did some kind of “transfer” thing to his son before he died. (I have some problems with that death, too–I feel like experienced space explorers would have a backup breathing system in case of that exact situation.) But Scott clearly had a SAM implant before then, even back on the ship. Asking about the SAM implant is one of the very first dialog choices you get in the game. SAM was talking to Scott long before the death of his father.

But then they showed a weird thing where Scott’s blood vessels or synapses or something turned black after the transfer took place. What was that all about? Was that SAM taking over? Are there two different kinds of SAM implants? Like a SAM client implant for anyone, and a SAM server implant just for the Pathfinder? Or is SAM–wait for it–an alien organism infecting the body?? They told us that the SAM hardware actually exists in the SAM Node on The Nexus (or maybe the Hyperion, I forget), so whatever happened during that transfer was pretty special. That whole scene where Scott wakes up in SAM Node was extremely vague. They talked about SAM’s integration with Scott in almost magical terms. They better explain that better before the game ends.

At first I figured the answer was that the Pathfinder-in-waiting would also have a SAM implant in case the head Pathfinder died. But we know from Cora’s dialog that she was supposed to take over as Pathfinder if Alec Ryder died.

Also, when we saved the asari Ark in Cora’s loyalty mission, the asari Pathfinder-in-waiting did not have a SAM implant. It was implanted after she “ascended” to full Pathfinder status.

I can only assume this will be explained later, after I progress farther in the “Ryder Family Secrets” plotline. (I have only reached the point where you investigate Jien Garson’s death.) Maybe Alec Ryder implanted his whole family for some specific reason.

Also, it’s not entirely clear to me whether people can hear SAM’s voice or not. Sometimes it seems like people can, and sometimes they can’t. (It’s like Stewie Griffin on Family Guy.) They’ve referenced a “private channel” which SAM can use. But how does that work? Does it communicate sound directly through Scott’s brain? Or does it communicate through an earpiece? Does Scott carry around a “speaker” so SAM’s voice can be heard by others? I’m pretty sure other squad mates have referenced hearing or talking to SAM.

They need to explain these things in ways that programmers can understand. :)

Now about this “Pathfinder” concept in general.

Again, I’m not very clear on what makes a person a Pathfinder. I’m assuming that the main qualification is having a SAM implant in your brain. But I don’t understand why that makes a person more suited for flying around alien planets than a normal person. In the real world, the process of finding and/or making a place for people to live on a planet would require a huge team, not just one guy with a computer.

I suppose one could surmise that military experience is another prerequisite of being a Pathfinder, based on Alec Ryder’s N7 experience and Cora’s Alliance (I assume?) experience. However Scott Ryder’s military experience is vague at best. The most I remember him saying is that he “guarded a Mass Effect Relay.” I have no idea what that entails, but it doesn’t seem like something that would require a great deal of ground combat, considering that Mass Effect Relays float around in space.

So are Pathfinders a kind of para-military organization? Well, no, because there’s no “organization” to it. There’s the Pathfinder and there’s … nothing else. There are no ranks in the Pathfinder hierarchy. The entire Andromeda Initiative is a civilian operation, one assumes. There’s no real chain of command on The Tempest.

And don’t even get me started on how SAM the AI is somehow the only thing in the universe which can interface with this alien Remnant tech. That makes no sense, unless they are leaving something out which will be explained later.

When we first saw the kett on Habitat 7, my literal first thought was that they looked like Collectors from ME2. We know that the kett, too, arrived in Andromeda on their own “arks.” I’m really hoping that’s not the big reveal at the end.

Near the beginning of the game, there was a reference to a Quarian Ark, but that it had technical difficulties and couldn’t launch on time. I wonder if that means it will show up later in this game, or whether the game developers literally had trouble with fitting quarians into this game, and that’s their excuse for leaving them out.

To end on one final positive note, I absolutely love what Bioware did with the Ryder brother/sister thing. It makes so much sense from a narrative perspective. Want to play a male? You’re Scott Ryder. Want to play a female? You’re Sara Ryder. The one you don’t pick remains in a coma. It makes so much more sense than picking whether the Shepard in your universe is male or female.

More thoughts later, when I find out if the game delivers any of the answers to my questions.

Ed: Yes, I know none of my questions above were answered within the game, and I was disappointed about it.

Rogue One (Spoilers)

I did not see Rogue One in the theater. I regretted that decision for a day or two, then felt good about it. I decided that it was “fan fiction”–a term I don’t use in a particularly positive sense. (Sorry superfans.)

I waited until it came to FIOS VOD. Then I forgot about it. Then I remembered it. I went into the movie with very low expectations. I wasn’t expecting “real” Star Wars. (I am expecting to repeat this behavior for the “Han Solo” movie.)

And the results are now in: Rogue One was “okay” but it wasn’t great.

Honestly I think it would have been better if it hadn’t been a Star Wars movie. It seemed like a weird mashup of Star Wars and World War II genres.

I mean, it wasn’t terrible. It just wasn’t great. It was not as good as The Force Awakens. I got pretty bored with the first two acts, actually. I didn’t feel any sympathy for any of the characters. I don’t even know why Forest Whitaker was in the movie, his part was so meaningless. I have literally no clue why these characters suddenly decided it was important to get the Death Star plans.

(Later I learned that the movie suffered from extensive re-shoots and re-edits, which might explain why the first two acts didn’t make much sense.)

On the plus side, the last act of the movie was a hell of a good action ride. There was some really top notch CGI work there. Actually, if you start the movie at roughly the 1:20 mark, it’s pretty good.

Overall I kept getting confused though because sometimes it looked like a Pacific War movie. The rebel uniforms clearly were inspired by Pacific War marines. Star Wars really doesn’t look right on a tropical beach. Other times, especially early on, it looked like a samurai movie. I mean, was it just me? Why in the holy hell was there a blind samurai in this movie?

The K droid was funny as hell. (I’m sure everyone else has his exact designation memorized but I don’t.) But does every Star Wars movie really need a funny droid? It’s sort of a cliche at this point.

It was a real treat to hear Gold Leader again.

The most memorable scene in the entire movie was nearly the last one: Darth Vader trying to get onto the rebel ship. The scene was completely out of place and unnecessary in the overall movie, but man was it bad ass. That was Darth Vader like we’ve literally never seen him before. (It was almost out of character, it was so different.) It was the embodiment of how we always imagined this evil Sith, but seeing it right there in front of your eyes was frightening as hell. That tiny scene was like a miniature horror movie.

Tarkin looked like a talking wax doll. It was very bizarre and off-putting. (His scenes looked like a Bioware game.) His voice sounded wrong, too. How could they spend so much time trying to get the visuals right and blow the voice? Wax-doll Leia looked a little better but only because she didn’t move or say much.

Rogue One was a good try, I suppose, but it didn’t quite do it for me.

Mass Effect Andromeda – 50 Hours In

Possibly some spoilers below if you haven’t reached Kadara.

So this game has pretty much taken over my life, as I figured it would. Honestly I think this is why I put off playing Mass Effect 3 for so long. These Bioware games are really hazardous to your health. :) The first three games took over my life, too, but I played them more quickly than I might have at the time they came out. With Andromeda, I can savor it at my leisure, because it could very well be another five years before the next one.

Except I’m still kind of paranoid about story spoilers, so I feel like I need to get out ahead of the Internet. I think for the next Bioware game that comes out, I will quickly speed-run through the main storyline only, and then go back and play it a second time to do all the optional side stuff (ie. the fun part).

Here’s my dilemma with Andromeda: I’m torn on whether I should pursue the main story and go back to do side quests, or “finish” each planet before moving on with the main story.

I want to explore all the planets and do all the things there are to do (narratively, at least, I don’t care so much about “collect X things” quests which are just busy work with no story payoff). But I want to do it in a way that optimizes the narrative as much as possible. Right now I don’t know what’s tied to what. I don’t know what things trigger other things. What if I miss something because I did something in the wrong order? It’s maddening.

And it bugs me that I always have to pick only two squad mates. I want to see every squad mate’s reaction to every situation. Not just the two I happen to have with me at the time. Grr.

This game is so massive I’m not going to play it a second time, at least not for a long time. (I might one day play as Sara I guess.) So I feel like I have to get it right the first time. My goal is to time it so that I’m ready to head into the final story ending just as I’m finishing up all the open world side quests, then put the game away forever. I’m probably not going to play anymore after the main story ends, in other words. (For example, after finishing ME3’s story, I had zero desire to continue playing to finish up all the side missions. I mean, why bother?)

Here’s where I am: In the “priority” story arc, I’ve gone to Kadara, sprung the dude, and had the meeting aboard The Tempest where you have to choose your next destination, one of three places I think. I’ve done Cora’s and Liam’s and Jaal’s loyalty missions. I’ve gotten 100% viability outposts on Eos, Havara, and Voeld. I’ve done a lot of exploring on Eos and cleared away most of the quests there.

I feel like I went “too far” in the main story, and went back to catch up on the planets. Somehow I initially skipped right over Havarl and settled Voeld, so this week I settled Havarl. After that, there are a lot of quests left to clean up on Voeld. Then I have the entire world of Kadara to deal with. Not to mention I’ve been ignoring what I assume is Drack’s loyalty mission this whole time, the investigation of Spender and The Nexus. And of course every time you turn around on The Nexus, somebody is piling more quests on you. Then maybe I’ll continue with the main story by picking one of those three directions.

I haven’t been this overwhelmed by a game since Black Desert Online.

I’ve gotten used to the “Normal” combat, by the way. It’s not as hard as I initially thought. With my Engineer build, my squad can do most of the work while I sit behind cover and watch. I have turrets and “Zap” to rely on. (One time on Voeld I literally ran in circles while my squad and turrets killed three big monsters.) I do agree that it’s the best the combat has ever been in the series. It’s challenging but doesn’t overstay it’s welcome…

…except for those Architects, that is. There have been some boss fights in Mass Effect before (Saren and Big Half-Finished Reaper Guy), but there’s never been anything like these monstrosities. These are more like MMORPG boss fights. That is, they are mechanically fairly simple, but because the boss has so many hit points, the fight goes on and on forever until you start to go stir crazy from the constant cacophony of explosions and gunfire in your ears and will do anything to get it over with. I hate those kinds of boss fights. The “challenge” is to stay attentive for what seems like an endless amount of time. It’s like they’re trying to make a therapy program to cure ADHD more than trying to make a game.

But I digress.

The other thing that irks me about the Architect is how the best strategy is to abandon cover and run constantly. That goes completely against the Mass Effect series combat model, which has always been to stay in cover. (Maybe it was just my build, but my Ryder got decimated when trying to remain in cover, because the Architect shoots right through it.)

I haven’t done any multiplayer. Can’t say I’m terribly interested in trying it, either. I could see where it might be fun with this combat, but, you know, random Internet people. Yuck. Admittedly I’m in a cynical mood these days, but random people pretty much ruin multiplayer games.

Overall Andromeda is a fantastic game (the jury is still out on the story), but there are a few things that bug me:

I would like the jump jet a lot better if it weren’t for that annoying pause of animation lock every time you land. I’d also like to meet whoever thought that jumping puzzles was that one key thing the Mass Effect series really needed. (I don’t usually have a problem doing them, it just bugs me whenever there is a time sink between me and my destination.)

Speaking of animations, it’s really “immersion-breaking” to see Ryder doing anime-style jumps. Makes me think Andromeda started as an open world fighting game or something. :)

I get literally angry with rage every time one conversation is interrupted by another one. First there is the problem of walking around crowded spaces where incidental background conversations overlap each other and you hear them simultaneously. And of course you can’t trigger them again.

There are a lot of audio balance problems where conversations are just too darn quiet. I have the sound on “Medium” dynamic range so there isn’t that ridiculous 20dB difference between dialog and gunfire, but it sure doesn’t help those background extras.

What really irritates me is when you’re driving around in the Nomad, and your squad mates start talking. That part is awesome, right? But if you happen to drive close to something that triggers more dialog, it interrupts and ends your squad’s conversation. And as far as I can tell, they never repeat the same conversation twice. So that interrupted conversation is gone forever. Whenever I hear the squad start talking, I now stop the Nomad to make sure I hear the end of the conversation.

There is another issue when fast traveling inside the Nomad. When you arrive, the squad will often start a conversation, but you usually miss the first part because it fades the audio in. So you’ll hear like the punchline to the joke but not the setup. Arg!

The dialog issues particularly annoy me because that’s literally the main reason I’m playing this game. I couldn’t care less about the design of the combat or how much fun it is to fight the bosses. (I would enjoy Mass Effect games exactly the same if you simply walked from NPC to NPC without encountering a single enemy.) But missing a few words of dialog is a punch-the-monitor rage-quit kind of moment for me. (Possibly that’s an eccentricity on my part.)

Also: The Nomad is still not as fun as the Mako was. Where are my guns??