Mass Effect Andromeda Impressions

No razors in the future.

There are no story spoilers below, but I totally understand if you’re on complete blackout and want to skip. (I was, and did, and still do.)

I finished the first three Mass Effect games and finally started Andromeda.

First, if you’re like me and were way behind on the series, there is no connection between the original trilogy and Andromeda. Much to my chagrin, there is no need to play the first three or know anything about the previous story. I can’t explain why without spoiling the very beginning of Andromeda, but it’s a clean break and the start of a brand new thing. (And it makes sense, too, it’s not something like, “It was all just a dream.”) You don’t get to import your game from Mass Effect 3, so it doesn’t matter what you did in the past.

Still, you should play the first three games, because they are awesome, and you probably have them anyway since they’ve been on sale for years. (I did.)

Andromeda’s gameplay is also brand new in the series. It’s not like any of the previous three. It’s a much more open world game. Combat is similar to 2 and 3, but a bit more complex. I’m playing on Normal this time, so it’s considerably harder. Everything is now a bullet sponge.

My cynical side wonders if they started out making an entirely new intellectual property and then halfway through, the bean counters decided they had to put the Mass Effect label on it to sell it. It really feels like a ground-up rewrite.

I saw the buzz from the Internet about terrible animations, but that didn’t deter me in the slightest from buying it. As of this writing, I’ve played about 12 hours and I haven’t noticed anything even remotely justifying Internet outrage. To be honest, I think people are still mad about the end of Mass Effect 3 and projecting that anger onto Andromeda. There’s nothing wrong with the animations. Since the Internet pointed it out, I’ve been staring at everything, intently waiting for something bad to happen, and maybe there’s 1 second of “bad” animation for every hour of gameplay. If this weren’t the age of Twitch and memes and replaying of video clips, I doubt anyone would have noticed anything.

The facial tech is vastly improved from ME3. Better than Fallout 4, in my opinion. Skin tones are amazing. There’s a bit of oddness in the eye movements and blinking–they aren’t quite as realistic as previous games. They are sluggish, almost slow motion. You can sort of see the pupil move from side to side, and it moves farther than I think it should. So it ends up looking just a tiny bit cartoonish. The blinking looks sort of exaggerated, as when you blink on purpose instead of involuntarily.

Hair is also a tiny bit weird. It’s as if they are all in low-gravity environments, because the hair doesn’t quite “settle” on the head as fast as it should. The “waviness” is really exaggerated. Almost like Disney animation.

Is that what “hyper-realism” is? I don’t know. It doesn’t detract from the game at all, it’s just an odd thing I noticed. (I notice these things because the entire time I played Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3, I wondered how I would go about programming facial animations, because I always wonder that about software, so I kept looking at eye movements and changes in expressions.)

The game chugs a bit on my GTX 1070. On the default settings it picked (ultra, no resolution scaling), it doesn’t quite maintain 60 fps but it seems to stay over 30.

As for the story, there is a distinctly different tone to the writing. A “younger” tone, if you will. Sometimes it sounds like a blogger or a “social media expert” wrote the dialog. There’s a lot of modern vernacular slang. (It was in the old games too, but it’s really obvious in Andromeda.) Here’s a fun drinking game: Take a drink every time you hear, “We’ve got this.” Have an ambulance standing by. “It gets better” gets repeated a lot, too. I actually heard a character say something like, “I don’t want to do that … for reasons.” For reasons. I also heard a random line, “These ones don’t seem hostile.” Presumably somebody wrote that line, and an editor okay’ed it, and then the voiceover guys said, “Yeah, that sounds normal.” Meanwhile I’m over here having a grammar stroke. I’m old, and that writing sounds wack, yo.

This is still space opera, by the way. Science is noticeably lacking in this science fiction, more so than any previous game. It doesn’t bother me, but sometimes I chuckle when they try to pass things off as realistic instead of magical.

I can’t say I’m feeling as much of a hook for the story as I did with Mass Effect 1. I wrote that the ME1 story was very focused from start to finish. Andromeda’s isn’t, although I can only vouch for the start. Perhaps it’s because of the new open world nature. I have an overwhelming urge to complete every zone before moving on, but the overall story does not progress that way. (To be fair, I felt that way in the previous games too, but in Andromeda there is a thousand times more to see and do per zone.) You have to leave zones behind to continue the main story.

So far the story beats are good, but not quite great. I’m not fond of their attempts to explain open world game mechanics within the narrative. (Collect all these things out in the world for reasons.)

I’d say Andromeda is a solid triple, if not the home run of Mass Effect 1. I’m definitely planning to finish it. (And that’s despite the new Dark Souls 3 DLC being available!)

Mass Effect 1 Replayed (Spoilers)

I’m writing this draft on March 21, launch day for Mass Effect: Andromeda. I probably won’t post this until much later, because I’m very paranoid about exposing myself to Mass Effect story spoilers right now, and my vivid imagination sees everyone running to the comments to post their Andromeda thoughts even though this post has nothing to do with Andromeda. Not only do I not want to hear about Andromeda, but I also don’t want to hear about Mass Effect 2 and 3.

So since I can’t look at the Internet for a few weeks while everyone gets Mass Effect out of their systems, I thought I’d write about the old ones. As of this writing, I’ve finished my replay of Mass Effect 1, and I’m somewhere around halfway through Mass Effect 2 (I’m in the second stage of crew recruitment), which has caught me back up to where I left off with the series several years ago.

Mass Effect 1 was fairly short for a Bioware RPG–I finished it in about 23 hours. I didn’t do every single side mission in the game, but I did a bunch of them. I played on casual difficulty with maximum auto aim, so I pretty much blew through the “game” portion. I think I only died one time. (I’m pretty sure it was on that one side mission where you have to kill the AI computers at a Lunar base, where the mechs keep shooting rockets at you.)

I’m a sucker for the humans-join-galactic-civilization plot device so I loved, loved, loved the Mass Effect 1 story. I found the “worldbuilding” fascinating, if not particularly realistic. It was totally worth putting up with the sub-standard shooter game controls. Honestly after a few hours with it I didn’t even think about the controls anymore. Maybe because I was playing on super easy mode so there was almost never a point where there was any danger of failing. It was mostly a matter of running from point A to point B and shooting everything like ducks in a barrel on the way.

Given that they removed it from the sequel, I think I might be the only person in the world who actually enjoyed driving the Mako around on planets. I loved driving off of cliffs and bouncing around the mountains and seeing how much I could get it to flip over. But like a cat, it always lands on its wheels! A Mako-driving demolition derby-style game would be awesome. [Ed: I know now that there’s a vehicle in Andromeda–it’s not as good.]

Back to the story. There may be some spoilers from here on out if you haven’t played the game yet.

I liked that Mass Effect 1 was very focused from start to finish. You always knew what your mission was: Find and defeat Saren. The journey took you through all kinds of strange and spectacular places, and uncovered secrets about the history of the galaxy along the way, but the basic plot remained the same from start to finish. (More on this when I write about Mass Effect 2.)

I loved the last several hours of the game. The final set piece was amazing, when you had to go outside the Citadel and make your way to the Sovereign ship. The end reminded me a bit of the FBI helicopter crashing into the Nakatomi Plaza building in Die Hard, which was an awesome action scene. It was like that except on a more mind-blowing scale.

I guess what really fascinates me about the story is how they manage to combine thought-provoking science fiction with action-packed space opera without completely ruining both. On the one hand there’s the in-your-face examinations of culture and racism, and on the other hand there’s guns and explosions and yelling.

Racism was the major theme I kept seeing over and over again in Mass Effect 1. Alien races hating humans, humans hating aliens, Krogans hating Salarians, everybody hating Quarians. It was pretty much a celebration of racism all the way through Mass Effect 1. I learned a valuable lesson that racism is A-OK!

Just kidding. The biggest complaint I have about Mass Effect 1 is how they homogenized the alien races. Each race was a stereotype. There was no diversity of thought among the alien characters, in other words. Granted, I suppose there’s not much they can do in a 23 hour game to show the entire breadth of every alien culture, but still. It would have been nice to see a Krogan with a squeaky voice. (There is actually a female Krogan in Mass Effect 2, but I have yet to spot a female Turian–that race must all be misogynists.) [Ed: I also now know that female Turians exist in Andromeda.]

My favorite parts: I loved the “hold the line” speech given by the Salarian captain on Virmire. It really stood out because the Salarians are the least warlike of the alien races. Also because it was a major emotional moment in the story delivered by a random side character.

This time I knew what was coming, but that moment when you had to choose the fate of your two crewmen on Virmire was still pretty heart-rending. They did a really good job of crafting a situation that ensured you could only save one of the two, and that feeling of knowing you were cut off and could only save one still hit like a ton of bricks. (I saved Kaiden this time, which is the opposite of what I did the first time, I think. I actually find both of those characters slightly annoying, but Ashley’s expendable since she’s just a combat trooper, redundant with my Shepard’s abilities.)

I think Tali was my favorite squadmate character in terms of personality. I know a lot of people like Garrus but I’ve never liked him that much. He’s just kind of there. I like Wrex and Liana better.

I loved the dialog with “Vigil” toward the end. That whole scene was really spine-tingling because of the thumping heartbeat sound in the background the whole time.

Some of the best dialog moments occurred while riding elevators in The Citadel, when your two squadmates would talk to each other. I just wanted to keep going up and down listening to them, but sometimes you only get the galactic news (which was also good). I wish there had been a more controlled way to trigger those interactions.

Even though Doctor Chakwas (Carolyn Seymour) had a teeny tiny part, I loved listening to her voice. She might have been the best voice actor in the entire game. Joker (Seth Meyer) was a close second. (A good voice actor infuses the dialog with a distinct personality, in addition to or instead of reading the lines with a distinct tone of voice.)

I think I mentioned that I played a female Shepard this time. It was a different experience but not as much as I expected. On Jennifer Hale’s voice acting performance: I thought her tone was pretty flat throughout most of the game. But I recall the male Shepard being pretty flat, too, so I guess “flat affectation” was what they were going for as a character. Or maybe those actors were chosen more for their technical competence at consistently delivering the massive number of lines they needed to read than for their acting abilities.

Speaking of Femshep, here’s a potentially controversial topic that I’ll mention as something that bugs me in these Bioware games where characters can be male or female in cut scenes. I first noticed this phenomenon in the background characters of cut scenes in Dragon Age (the first one), and now I can’t un-see it. They apparently use the same motion capture animation for characters regardless of whether they are male or female. What that means is that sometimes the female characters move around with body language that looks more like a dude, and it’s very jarring.

Most of the time it’s not that noticeable, but sometimes they capture exaggerated dudebro walking animations or postures for the male characters–you know, where they really swagger and swing their arms wide with their elbows out like gorillas or football players. It’s comical enough when a man does that, but when a woman walks that way it’s like watching a caricature. Like a movie or sitcom where the plot is a woman who is pretending to be a man and hilarious hijinks ensue. (Or like that Futurama episode where Leela pretended to be a man to join the DOOP army.)

I’m not saying that every woman in a videogame has to walk like a stripper, but there’s some body language that you tend to associate more with men than women (like the dudebro gorilla walk), and it would be nice if they would try to think about that when they do the motion capture if they’re going to use it with a female model.

All in all, Mass Effect is one of the best story games I’ve ever played. Like others of its ilk (eg. Bioshock Infinite, Dragon Age), the story is so good that the game gets in the way of it. I would have preferred consuming it as a movie or television show. It’s one of the rare games that I completely lose track of time when I’m playing it, and have a really hard time putting down, like a great book.

Morrowinding

I was sick a lot last week, so I’ve spent a lot of time in the world of Bethesda games lately. First it was New Vegas, but I got a little burned out on it so I turned to Morrowind and now I’m totally into that.

Morrowind is enormous. I thought Oblivion and Skyrim were pretty big, but Morrowind seems to dwarf them. (Admittedly part of that could be because the movement speed is so slow it just feels bigger.)

The story seems quite a bit more complex, too. I can’t even remember Skyrim’s story except it was something like “kill that dragon.” And Oblivion was something like “kill those demons.” (I might be misremembering them.) Morrowind seems a lot more grandioise and interesting in scope.

I solved the problems I was having with the graphics settings. Apparently you have to run the game as Administrator to actually save your settings from session to session. I still can only run it in 1280×960 though, one of those old timey resolutions that used to be so high you could only dream of running a game that detailed. (I once had a roughly 100-pound 19″ monitor which could run graphics at 1280×960.)

I also discovered that the unofficial Morrowind Code Patch (MCP) which I thought I’d installed in the beginning wasn’t installed. I downloaded it in the Nexus mod manager thingy and clicked “install” and thought that was all I had to do. But nope, you have to actually run the MCP setup program so it will then patch the Morrowind executable. Whoops. (Also the Nexus mod manager installed it in the wrong place.) Fortunately there doesn’t seem to be any harm in installing it after I’ve started. My saved games are still working.

I got curious about the first two Elder Scrolls games, too. I didn’t see them on Steam or GOG (the only two places I even know about to look for non-EA games anymore), so I wondered if they were gone forever. But it turns out you can just download Arena and Daggerfall from the Elder Scrolls site for free. The first one is about the size of a floppy disk, and the second one is about the size of a CDROM. So adorable! I haven’t tried to run them yet since it involves a DOS Emulator and I’m a bit skeptical about it actually working on my PC.

Anyway Morrowind is a cool game, even if the graphics are dated. The real meat of the game is in the NPC interactions and story anyway. And it’s really interesting to see how little their core formula has changed from Morrowind to Oblivion to Skyrim. They have a laser-focused vision for the world of Tamriel in that series. And I have always loved the flexibility of the character progression system in Elder Scrolls. (I’m playing a Witchhunter this time, something I’ve never done before.)

Dark Souls III First Playthrough Complete

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I finished my first playthrough of Dark Souls III Sunday morning. I think it took around 84 hours and 87 levels, using a Knight build based mainly around strength and vitality. All bosses defeated solo, although I almost cracked and summoned help on the Twin Princes. (After the rather dismal experience I had with the Dancer of Boreal Valley, and when it looked like I might be heading in the same direction with the Twin Princes, I did summon help twice, but both times I died very quickly, which I took as a sign that I should stick with my original plan to get all the bosses solo on the first playthrough.)

If you’re interested I recorded the whole thing and I’m putting it on my YouTube channel, all 96 parts.

Dark Souls is a very alt-friendly kind of game (in the sense that the gameplay is completely different depending on which weapon you use and how you build your stats), so I plan to play through again with a sorcerer build and a dexterity build. (Or perhaps I might combine those two, since my sorcerer is currently tearing up the Undead Settlement with a rapier.) Naturally I missed a bunch of things the first time through, including about 5 optional bosses and a few areas, so I’ll be looking forward to uncovering those things.

It also makes me want to play Dark Souls 1 and 2 again, too. Have I mentioned how great these games are? They’re really great, if I haven’t mentioned it.

Okay, that’s the end of my Dark Souls evangelism.

But oh my god you guys Dark Souls is teh greatest!!!

That being said there are a few things that I found troublesome about Dark Souls III:

Disconnects. The absolute worst thing about Dark Souls III that I hadn’t seen in previous games is that when it disconnects from the network, it throws you out of what you’re doing and sends you back to the main menu. Yes, including in the middle of boss fights. Though it didn’t happen to me, it could have happened as I was swinging the final blow that would have otherwise ended the fight.

Crashes. It crashes a lot. I mean, not like ten times every play session but it crashes a good once or twice a week, which is a pretty bad track record in my opinion.

Lag. The network play is very laggy, far worse than previous games. I assume it’s because everybody in the world is playing now, but still. It sucks every bit of the fun out of the online play. The completely seamless online play was one of the best features of previous games.

UI. While the tool belt is a very nice addition in DS3, there are still some areas of the UI that are a bit clunky. For example, they still haven’t worked out how to let the player efficiently crush a lot of souls in your inventory at once.

Dark Souls III

Fantastic game and a worthy sequel. Nothing new or radically different, mind you (except a mana bar), just more of the same, excellent quality gameplay in different yet somehow familiar settings. Visually it resembles the first game more than the second one, in my opinion, but at the same time it’s got its own bleached-film style. My only complaints so far are that I seem to get stuck on terrain a lot and sometimes the camera is more wonky than I’d like.

The new FireLink Shrine.
The new FireLink Shrine.

If you’re someone who hasn’t played any Souls games before and you’re wanting to start with III, be aware that this game does not pull any punches. It is much more like I than II, in other words. I encountered the first boss about 25 minutes into the game, at the end of an extremely sparse tutorial area, leaving you very little space to practice before getting thrown right into the fire. There is also a very tough monster in the tutorial area. Practice your blocking, dodging, and stamina management. :)

Dark Souls II is a friendlier introduction to the series, in my opinion. It at least gives you some time to learn the controls before throwing you up against the bosses. (I can’t really recommend the PC version of the original Dark Souls because it’s a pain to get it running. Whereas you can install and play II right out of the box.)

P.S. The Knight starts with a 100% physical block shield!!! That’s a huge improvement over DS2. :)

Games Of My Year 2015

Here’s my year end “Best Of” list, because if you’re on the Internet, you have to do a year-end list of some kind. It’s the law.

2015 Contenders

After studying my Steam purchase history and searching my memory, I’ve come up with the following list of new games that I purchased and played in 2015. These are only games that were released in 2015, not every single game that I purchased or played in 2015. In other words, this is the pool from which I’m going to pick my games of the year.

  • ARK: Survival Evolved
  • Besiege
  • Fallout 4
  • FFXIV: Heavensward
  • Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns
  • GRAV
  • The Park
  • Rocket League
  • Savage Lands
  • Shelter 2
  • Skyforge
  • TOXIKK
  • The Witcher 3

Not a huge list, very few AAA titles, and of course they are all PC games. I should also say that my controversial definition for the “release date” of a game is the time at which anyone can purchase or download a playable game. So, for example, Trove, which “launched” in 2015, does not appear on the above list because I purchased and played a substantially similar version before 2015. And Prison Architect, which I bought in 2015 and Steam lists with a launch date in 2015, does not appear because its Early Access release was before 2015. (Steam overwrites the Early Access launch date with the Release launch date, but the Internet remembers.) Similarly the Early Access titles ARK, GRAV, and Savage Lands appear on the above list because they became available to buy in Early Access in 2015.

So yes, in a way, I’m punishing developers for releasing games too early.

Game of the Year

The Witcher 3. Not much of a contest, really.

witcher3 2015-06-28 07-09-32-09

Biggest Disappointment Of The Year

ARK: Survival Evolved. Why do people buy this broken piece of unplayable crap? Why don’t the developers fix it instead of putting out new dinosaurs and holiday events? Do they not have any programmers working there? Are they all artists and modelers? I simply cannot understand why the Internet hasn’t lost their minds with rage over this game.

Standing on a turtle, the most fun thing I did in ShooterGame. I mean ARK.

Most Emotionally Devastating Game Of The Year

Shelter 2. A unique, beautifully atmospheric game, but if you fail at this game, it feels like your heart is torn out and stomped on. You must be an unfeeling robot to actually play this game more than once.

And because this is mostly an MMORPG blog…

New MMORPG Of The Year

Skyforge … but only because there is literally no other choice.

Polo shirt dude is going to defeat the world.

MMORPG Expansion Of The Year

FFXIV: Heavensward, because even though it’s a bit of a slog, I keep going back to it, whereas I have no desire to go back to the new zones in Heart of Thorns. I didn’t include Knights of the Fallen Empire here because, while I technically “bought” it (having a subscription) and have access to it, I don’t have any characters high enough in level to actually see it yet.

Heavensward

Now for some other categories.

Best Game That I Played in 2015

Dark Souls. Along with Dark Souls II, it completely took over my summer.

The Depths

Most Consistently Played MMORPG In 2015

I’m going to have to go with Star Wars: The Old Republic. I’ve played it a decent amount in six of the twelve months in 2015, and leveled a Jedi Knight from around level 13 in January up to (as of this writing) level 56.

SWTOR Screenshot_2015-12-18_15_33_11_000300

Best Game With Art From People I Used To Play Quake With

GRAV. A nifty survival/building game, check it out. Or not, because I’m totally biased.

 

Fallout 4 – Wrapping Up

I finished the main story in Fallout 4 (I think) and I don’t see myself going back very much any more.

I reached a point where I almost decided to quit the game. Like a lot of people, and like the game almost forces you to do from the beginning, I kept trying to maintain my Minuteman settlements. I was under the illusion that it was a side quest chain that would eventually end, at which point I would resume the main story. Well at some point it dawned on me that I was on an endless treadmill. I’d go out and rescue a hostage or help a settlement or build a radio beacon, then come back to Preston Garvey only to discover another settlement in trouble. It became pretty obvious that the cycle would never end and they were random quests intended to keep me busy forever. When I started having to clear out the same places over and over again, I got fed up with it.

After that I turned back to the main story until the end, which saved the game for me. The main story gives you a lot of interesting choices to make. So if you’re getting bored and/or irritated with the game, I recommend just sticking to the main story. Once it’s done, you can still run around in the open world if you want to.

Fallout 4 Torso

While I enjoyed the story of the game, I started to notice more and more gameplay problems the longer I played. For one thing, I was a bit too complementary about the game engine improvements. While it is definitely better than Fallout New Vegas, which I had played a little bit (for the first time, if you can believe it) in the weeks leading up to Fallout 4, there were plenty of situations where I felt like I was playing a very old game. Particularly if I tried to play it like a first-person shooter. I got stuck on terrain a lot, which is my number one pet peeve of any 3D game.

Of course the most glaring problem with the game was the loading times. I mean holy geez did it take a long time to “fast” travel around, and I dreaded walking through doors. That’s probably the biggest reason I don’t feel like loading it up again. There’s some stories and places I’d like to visit, and I enjoyed just wandering around, but I feel like I need to clear my calendar and block out a whole afternoon to sit down and play it, and that’s just not going to happen.

The Pip-Boy interface became a little frustrating over time too. So many different buttons to press to get anywhere. (I was playing on a controller.) I tried the iPad app for a little while, which was a neat concept, but it took me out of the game and I found it a bit of a cop-out that they chose that route instead of trying to improve the actual interface.

I had quite a few companions disappear on me, especially Dogmeat. I was always terrified to dismiss him for fear I’d never see him again. Paladin Danse got stuck inside a warehouse once and I had to track down a workaround on Reddit to get him back. (Solution: Use the summoning bell.)

I also realized something about myself: I don’t like games where you have to explicitly save your progress. I guess this is a side effect of playing MMORPGs for so long, where you just log in and log out and the “saving” is all automatic. It just feels so antiquated to have to save your game. And there’s nothing worse than getting killed and realizing you haven’t saved your game for an hour.

Trying Bound By Flame

Normally I would write about a new game I tried, but since I never have the time or energy to write anymore, I thought it might be fun to record my first hour of play instead. (Fun for me, at least.) This time I tried out Bound By Flame, an action RPG I got for around $5 in the recent Steam sale. In short, it’s pretty average.