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??

Mass Effect 3 Finished (Spoilers)

Whoops. Forgot to publish this dramatic conclusion to Mass Effect week.

I finished Mass Effect 3 on Friday night, March 31st, completing my play through of the original trilogy. I spent a total of 42 hours playing it, but I restarted it twice so you can probably throw 6 or 7 hours away. (And if you’re keeping tracking of days and hours played, yes I played these games a ton in March.)

Massive spoilers below.

I forgot to mention the bug where people turned their heads around backwards in ME3. If you stand behind someone and talk to them, characters sometimes turn their heads around way farther than a human neck could possibly move, and you can just feel the bones crunching. But they just keep on talking like they didn’t just show you they were possessed by demons.

I was pretty much right in my “halfway” post. Everything led up to a final conclusion that was extremely final. There could never have been a Mass Effect 4, and they made it very clear from the beginning of the game that they meant for this game to end the trilogy.

I have to admit I had trouble following the story when it got to the quarians. There were two competing factions of quarians but I couldn’t quite keep them straight, and then Legion showed up again. It was very, so I just sort of followed where the quests told me to go and tried not to make Tali angry. Legion turned out to be yet another ME2 character who didn’t survive. This time because I shot him/it. I said in my ME2 posts that I never really bonded with him/it. Plus I don’t think robots have souls. So there.

Then we went to help the asari at a temple and ran into Samara again. I didn’t care for her that much in ME2, but it was a touching little storyline here. Continuing the theme, yet another character died making a sacrifice, but it wasn’t Samara, so at least there was that. Samara almost killed herself in the name of her code, though. Fun times abound in ME3.

Then the story took us to a Cerberus base and we finally got to find out what Miranda was up to the whole time. I found it unsatisfying as a major plot moment. Miraculously, nobody died.

After that, we went into the final mission to rescue Earth. Man, if it wasn’t clear this was the End Of All Things before the end, those last interactions with your squad mates should have sealed it. Every single person said something like, “Goodbye Shepard, it’s been an honor working with you.” You had a chance to talk to just about everyone you’ve ever met in the game before. Then it was off to the final push.

I played the original ending first. I found it confusing. I wasn’t angry, like apparently most of the Internet was, just confused. I just sort of sat back and thought, “Huh, well that’s a thinker. I wonder what that was about?” I didn’t particularly like or dislike the ending. I felt it was lacking in punch, but it didn’t make me angry. I was sad that there was no more to see, but I expected it and accepted it.

I take it back, one thing did annoy me: At the very end you have to make a choice by walking to one of two places. It wasn’t super clear which one would do what. I went to the one I thought was the choice I wanted to make, but it turned out it wasn’t. But you can’t walk away and pick the other one. Your choice is locked in when you arrive at your destination. I had to re-load an auto-save so I could walk to the other choice.

Admittedly I was a tiny bit distracted during the ending, and probably missed the information that would have made it obvious which way to go. I was making supper at the time, and stove timers were going off, so I had to keep getting up while trying to listen to the cut scenes from a distance. Still, I think you should let players change their mind.

Since I knew that the Internet had lost its mind over this ending, so I went Googling to find out what their problem was. I found a Kotaku article that did a good, if totally biased and clickbaity, job of summing it up.

To be fair, the article makes some valid points. But I’ve been totally into these games, having played ME1, ME2, and ME3 all in a row, and I didn’t put together half of what that article sussed out. I never thought for a second that the whole universe got wiped out. Even after reading the Kotaku article and their completely valid reasoning for why the universe got wiped out, I still didn’t think that’s what happened. It sounded like a crazy superfan theory. I mean, obviously no epic story would ever end with, “And they all died and everything was for nothing. The end.”

Later that night I found the free “Extended Cut” DLC and replayed the ending. I made the exact same choices, and it was definitely better. I recommend installing it before you get to the end, unless you’re curious to see the difference between the original ending and the new ending.

My personal feeling is that they simply ran out of time and couldn’t polish the ending like they wanted to. They didn’t have to make that Extended Cut and it probably cost them a fair amount of money to do it (bringing back all the voice actors, etc.). I, at least, appreciate that.

It was a much better resolution, but I still have questions after the Extended Cut. The most obvious one is what the heck was the Normandy running from?? They were at Earth, so the only thing that happened there was the big discharge of energy that was Shepard assuming control of the Reaper technology (in my game). Was there Reaper technology on the Normandy? Not that I know of. Would EDI have been affected by that energy discharge? Is that why Joker was trying to avoid it? That doesn’t make any sense. No other ships were shown to be destroyed by the energy pulse. So what the heck? The Extended Cut didn’t address that.

Not that it matters, they all survived, and weren’t stranded on a random planet for no apparent reason. The Extended Cut made that perfectly clear. Everybody lived happily ever after. Except the ones who didn’t. But their sacrifices were not in vain!

There’s a little scene after the credits finish, by the way, with presumably a grandfather and a child in silhouette talking about The Shepard. It’s a nice little scene, but the child’s shadow was very off-putting because it looked like a regular-sized human outline shrunk down to child height. The arms and legs were too skinny. It looked more like a hobbit than a child. It was odd.

One last thing on animations in Mass Effect 3: The female running animation was terrible. Shepard should not be running around like a Barbie doll. Come on.

I haven’t played any other DLC and don’t plan to. Overall I’m not a huge fan of DLC. (Unless it’s for Dark Souls, then I’m a huge fan of DLC.)

I’m now moving on to Mass Effect Andromeda, which was the whole purpose of playing the trilogy.

P.S. My enjoyment of the end of Mass Effect 3 was slightly ruined for me because my roughly 6-month-old 4 TB external USB hard drive died about 3 hours from the end of the game. The drive and the game aren’t related, except that I had been recording my entire playthrough of Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3 and storing the video files on that drive. They’re all gone now, unless by some miracle the drive magically starts working again some time in the future. (Even if it does, I was so bummed out that I didn’t bother recording the last 3 hours of the game, so my complete play through would be incomplete.)

Mass Effect 3 Halfway Point (Spoilers)

Mass Effect week continues…

I don’t know how far into Mass Effect 3 I’ve gotten at this writing (March 29th), but I’ve just gotten the Quarrians on board the Normandy. Percentage-wise, I have no idea where that is in the game. I’m just guessing it’s the half-way point.

I have some initial impressions which I’ll write down, and as usual, I’ll follow it up with another post when I finish the game.

It’s pretty clear that there was a big game engine update for Mass Effect 3. (I don’t know that for a fact, but I can’t think of any other reason for these obvious changes.) I guess this was because of the newer generation of consoles? I don’t know. The rendered cut scenes are still 30 fps though, which I find annoying. It looks lame to go from 1440p 60 fps game video to lower res 30 fps rendered video.

The point is that because of the game engine update, I guess they added a lot of bugs, which still aren’t ironed out 5 years later. I’m seeing a lot more quirks than I did in Mass Effect 2. There’s this one spot at the front of the Normandy, right behind Joker’s seat, where you can get stuck so bad you have to re-load your game. I’ve gotten into a habit of hitting Quick-Save on the way up from the CIC to talk to Joker.

They did some horrible things to the hair. With ME2, I imported my Jane Shepard character from ME1 and accepted the defaults. The hair changed a bit but it was otherwise pretty similar. (Depending on the angle, she looked like one of Lena Heady, Felicia Day, or … I can’t remember the other one she looked like.) But when I imported my character from ME2 to ME3, they selected a hair style that I think was supposed to look like Jennifer Anniston from late-era Friends, but actually looked like some weird animal had been glued to Shepard’s head. I tried to play it but had to abandon it and re-start with a different hair style after about 5 hours. I just couldn’t get used to it.

Unlike the previous games, I started out trying to play on Normal difficulty. I figured I would take my time with it and really get into the game mechanics, because surely ME3 would represent the pinnacle of gameplay in the series (so far). (I played The Witcher 3 on Hard difficulty and it was a very satisfying experience.) Also, the longer I take with ME3, the more likely Andromeda will be discounted by the time I’m ready to play it.

Sadly I only got to the Turian planet before abandoning Normal difficulty and resorting back to Casual. Dying is a super annoying experience in Mass Effect, and I wasn’t too fond of how everything was a bullet sponge. At least on Casual, a head shot actually kills people (usually).

There’s been yet another re-design of The Citadel for ME3. I didn’t like the change in ME2 but at least it made some sense, story-wise, because of Sovereign’s attack in ME1. This time it’s a change for no apparent reason.

The story of Mass Effect 3 picks up about six months after the end of ME2, and makes every effort to erase ME2 out of the timeline. Shepard is back with the Alliance after a mild slap on the wrist, and The Reapers are attacking in force. It’s kind of like picking up at the end of ME1. Story-wise, this is fine, considering that, as I wrote before, most of the events of ME2 are meaningless from a galactic perspective.

I said that ME2 was a bit darker than ME1. Well, Mass Effect 3 is pretty grim as well, but for entirely different reasons. ME2 was dark because Shepard seemed like a fundamentally darker character, perhaps as a result of dying and being rebuilt by the hated Cerberus. (I can see how that might ruin one’s day.) This time, the tone is dark because the galaxy is at war and everyone is miserable.

At the time of this writing, I don’t know how the game is going to end. All I know is that there was a big controversy when the game launched about the ending, and I did and still do suspect that Shepard doesn’t survive. From what I’ve played so far, everything is pointing to that. There’s a fatalistic attitude that pervades everything, from not only Shepard, but all the other characters and plots around him. There is also very much a sense of “wrapping things up.”

I’ll now discuss some major, major spoilers, so feel free to skip.

Many of the characters from ME2 return in ME3, though most in supporting roles. I’ve already met Miranda, Jacob, Mordin, Grunt, Jack, Thane, and Samara.

Kaiden (and presumably Ashley) and Liara return from ME1 as selectable squad-mates. Wrex returns, but not as a squad-mate. Tali returns as a squad-mate, at least temporarily. (I don’t yet know whether she will stay with the crew or not.)

As far as new characters, the first new guy is James, a steroid-pumped beefcake marine who for some unknown reason tags along at the beginning of the game. I can’t remember ever hearing an explanation of how he got on the Normandy, but presumably he was under Kaiden’s command. (Kaiden apparently captained the Normandy after Shepard was “grounded.”)

Later we meet EDI, the Normandy’s AI, who becomes a selectable squad-mate. She’s kind of a cliche but I think she and Joker make a funny pair, and their humorous interactions from ME2 continue into ME3.

I’ll now get into why I get a fatalistic, things-are-winding-down vibe from the game, and it has to do with the mortality rate of the ME2 characters.

As I said, Mordin returns, but he dies, and it was a heart-breaking but perfect story moment. I could not decide whether to cure the genophage or not, so I let him decide, and he sacrificed himself to cure it. It was pretty much a complete reversal of his character to go from fighting to preserve the genophage in ME2 to dying to cure it in ME3, but I let it slide because it was so well played. (They threw a few lines of dialog in there to try to smooth that over but basically he changed his mind.) Anyway it was such a huge relief to hand off that decision to him, and he bore that terrible burden with immense grace and professionalism. I can’t say enough about how much I loved that character.

(My instinct was to “pretend” to cure the genophage and leave it in place, but it was hinting that I would have had to kill Mordin to do that, and I don’t think I could have.)

Thane died a bit later, and it wasn’t quite as sad (I mean, we knew he was dying when we met him in ME2, and he might as well have been wearing a neon “I’m going to die to serve the story” sign when we first saw him coughing in ME3) but it was still very poignant and I really appreciated the spiritual twist there at the end.

Grunt almost died, but I had to commit genocide on the Rachni to save him. I wanted to let the queen live, for the same reasons I saved her in the first game, but it was clear Grunt would have to die to save the queen, and the Reapers were using the Rachni against us. Because I was tired of all the ME2 characters dying, I decided to save Grunt, and then the game went and almost killed him anyway, and man was I mad about that. But then he staggered back covered in gore and I celebrated. I never really liked him much but that was a good story moment.

Those three events, and their laser focus on death and sacrifice, not to mention the recurring dream about the kid, lead me to be 100% certain Shepard is going to have to sacrifice himself for the galaxy at the end of the game. It makes playing the game a bit grim. At least Jack and Jacob seem to be doing well.

As if the grim events of the main characters weren’t enough, most of the little vignettes played out by the “extras” standing around on The Citadel are pretty depressing too. There’s an asari suffering from PTSD in the hospital, a human solider losing his legs, an old demented woman trying to find her son, etc. The voice acting in those tiny little background stories are some of the best in the game, by the way.

Speaking of which, Jennifer Hale has stepped up her voice acting in ME3. In the previous two games, her tone was mostly flat, but there’s a lot more nuance and range in her voice in the third game. It’s a big improvement.

(I don’t like the sound mix in ME3 though. With the voice volume level set at 100% the speaking voices barely reach -21dB in my OBS recordings.)

There’s a baffling story twist where Counciller Udina betrays The Citadel and lets Cerberus in to attack. I have literally no idea where that came from. It seemed totally out of character for him. He was always kind of a jerk, but I never saw him as actively hostile or subversive. And I haven’t yet seen any explanation for that behavior. (I did sort of kill the guy, so I guess I can’t interrogate him.) It was an interesting twist in the game, but it just didn’t make any sense coming from Udina. I guess the point was to throw Shepard and Kaiden into direct conflict.

I’m also pretty baffled about the Illusive Man’s general behavior in ME3. I’m assuming that there will be some kind of resolution and explanation for that toward the end of the game. I can only guess his goal is to take over control of the Reapers so that humans can rule over the other races. (As opposed to just destroying the Reapers.) I imagine there will be some decision points later in the game revolving around that. (I can’t help but wonder how the game would have started if I’d decided not to destroy the Collector ship in ME2–I almost decided to keep it, because it seemed like a good idea to study it, but my whole squad was like, “Oh hell no” so I gave in to peer pressure.)

More later when I finish the game. It might take a while, because after every mission, I have to walk around the whole ship and talk to everyone, and every time I go to The Citadel I have to check every floor for new things. In ME3, the crew moves around to different places all the time, and they go on shore leave too, so it takes a lot of methodical wandering to experience all of their incidental dialog. [Ed: It did not take a while, as it turned out.]

Mass Effect 2 Replayed (Spoilers)

Continuing with Mass Effect week…

I’m writing this Mass Effect 2 “review” on Tuesday, March 28th. I finished ME2 on Saturday. It took 31 hours, according to ManicTime, which is actually a lot less than I expected. I thought ME2 was huge compared to the first one and would take at least twice as long, but apparently it only felt bigger. There were definitely more cut scenes to watch in ME2.

Mass Effect 2 is a far better game than Mass Effect 1 (an action game rather than an RPG, though). However, I think the Mass Effect 1 story is better, and that’s what I’m most interested in. Again, I would have preferred to consume this content as a movie or television series. My patience for getting through the game parts was very limited: Anything that got in the way of reaching the next cut scene (ie. getting lost or hurt or dying) was an annoyance.

Interrupting the cut scenes to play the game was sort of like having to interrupt a show to watch commercials. :)

I saw that @Braxwolf started ME2 without playing ME1. That makes me want to cry. I saw so many callbacks to ME1 throughout the course of the game. So many times you run into a character from the first game who says, “Oh hi, remember me? You did such and such and now I’m here.” Also, most of the major plot decisions that carry through the series are made in the first game (Ashley vs. Kaiden, Wrex, the Rachni). I only remember one big decision at the end of ME2.

Granted, those ME1 decisions didn’t impact ME2 very much. Kaiden was only in the game for a couple of cut scenes on Horizon (I assume Ashley would have had the same role). The Rachni were only mentioned with one NPC encounter on Illium.

Wrex, on the other hand, had a significant role in ME2. I wonder who the Urdnot clan leader would have been if Wrex had died at Virmire? A whole new person? Or that other Krogan who obviously had Michael Dorn’s voice (Worf from ST:TNG)? Would the genophage plotline have been any different? It probably would have all come out even in the end somehow.

In my last ME2 post I had just reached the Justicar and the Assassin (who I now know as Samara and Thane). I didn’t care for Samara too much, but Thane is a decent character. (The perfect memory thing seemed like an unnecessary gimmick, though.) Tali joins the team as well, and she’s still one of my favorites in the series (I like her more than Garrus). I wish I hadn’t waited until the end to get her.

Legion was the last person (“thing”) I picked up, but I wasn’t around it long enough to form any attachment. It didn’t have much of a personality to like anyway. (The name “Legion” made me roll my eyes.) I probably missed some interplay between Legion and Tali because I picked them up so late.

I faithfully went through the loyalty mission for every one of the characters. Of the new characters, I liked Mordin, Jack, and Thane the best. And EDI, now that I think about it. The interplay between Joker and EDI was really funny. Mordin had the best loyalty mission with the genephage. I didn’t think much of Jacob but his loyalty mission was pretty heavy.

As for the overall Mass Effect 2 story arc, I thought it was much weaker than the first. The problem was that it got really bogged down with “assembling the team.” I’d guess that at least 75% of the game involved character sub-plots that had nothing to do with saving the galaxy, not to mention the entire concept of the “Collectors” seemed like a really weak leak with the first game. As I’m writing this I’ve played about 10 hours of ME3, and it seems that ME2 has that classic “middle book” problem in trilogys: It was essentially just “filler.” Frankly you could skip from ME1 to ME3 and not miss anything but character development.

There was no urgency about stopping the Collectors at all. You could take all the time in the world to wander around the galaxy and assemble your motley crew, then take your time running errands for them to earn their friendship. Only the extras on the Normandy seemed to be aware that the Collectors were still out there raiding human colonies for hostages.

In my last ME2 post I wondered if all of the team members were really needed to complete the story. As it turned out, most of them weren’t, story-wise. After the team is assembled, there is only one other thing to do in the game: Assault the Collector ship. (I wasn’t aware that going on that mission was the last thing in the game, but it was.) You need one tech specialist, one biotic specialist, one “leader” for the second squad, one volunteer to take the crew back to the Normandy (maybe optional?), and two squad-mates for three or four different missions. I suppose on harder difficulties it would matter who you choose, but not on casual.

I gritted my teeth and sent Tali as the tech specialist through the vents, terrified that she would die on what was described as a suicide mission. Despite playing on casual difficulty, I came close to being unable to open the vents in time for her. Garrus led the secondary team both times, and whatever drama happened there was entirely off stage. Mordin led the captured Normandy crew back to the ship. Jack held the biotic sphere against the bugs. Nobody died.

I couldn’t help but notice that the music at the end of the game sounded a lot like the saving-the-day music from the days of the Tenth Doctor.

The sound design was much better in Mass Effect 2. I’ve recorded almost all of my play time* and chopped them up into videos and MP3s, so I’ve gotten to see and compare the levels between the two games. The first game had horrible problems with inaudible background voices and mismatched volumes (like on The Citadel), but the second game fixed most of that. (Sadly ME3 appears to have backslid into terrible audio problems.)

All games should have more fine control over their audio mixes. Voice volume, music volume, sound effects volume are absolute minimum controls. I would like to see voice volume broken into “main actors” and “background voices.” I would also like to see sound effects broken into combat sounds and environment sounds. And I always want a volume control for footsteps.

Failing that, a way to route game sound channels to different output devices so I could remix it all myself. :)

One last thing: The end credits weren’t as good in ME2. The music over the end credits in ME1 was a masterpiece.

So that’s ME2 in a nutshell. Much better game, but worse story. Some good characters and side missions, but lacking in overall plot advancement.

* Videos now gone due to a hard drive crash. :(

Mass Effect 2 Halfway Point (Spoilers)

Continuing with Mass Effect week here on the ol’ blog…

I’m starting this draft on March 22, but again I probably won’t publish it until after I finish Mass Effect 3. There are story spoilers below if you haven’t finished the game.

Mass Effect 2 is a much, much larger and longer game than Mass Effect 1. I’m well over 20 hours into the game, and I don’t even think I’ve gotten to the halfway point yet. There are a lot more opportunities to get distracted with side missions. Omega, The Citadel, Illium: All teeming with entertaining vignettes to watch and interact with as you pass by.

The game part of Mass Effect 2 is an improvement, although it morphed from more of an RPG-style game to more of an action-style game. I find that the cover mechanics work a lot better, and the combat is more fun. (Although sometimes it drags on far too long.) I’m still playing on Casual mode, though, because I’m more interested in the story than the game.

Mass Effect 2 has a much darker tone than the original. Perhaps because of the way it starts out with the total destruction of the Normandy and Shepard’s resurrection from the dead. (It was a pretty exciting opening scene, I’ll give them that.) But beyond that, the locations seem to be darker and seedier, like Omega, the first place you visit. Shepard’s attitude seems a bit darker, too, or maybe it’s just that my choices have gotten darker. I feel like she would be bitter after being resurrected by what she would have previously considered a “terrorist” organization.

The best new character by far is Mordin the Salarian (voiced by Michael Beattie). I mean, so, so obviously. What an amazing character. Not only is he an amazing character with amazing voice acting, but the subject matter of his personal storyline is really meaty and thought-provoking (the Krogan genophage).

Miranda is okay (the fact that Yvonne Stahovski’s voice is very pleasant saves that character), Jacob is meh and fairly pointless. Garrus is still Garrus, except even more of a bitter old cynic. Jack is pretty good, but her character feels like a cliche and I thought she reformed from a sociopathic killer to a loyal squadmate unnaturally quick.

Thankfully there’s no blatant sexism in Mass Effect 2.

Grunt is probably my least favorite so far. He’s nowhere near as interesting as Wrex was. (Are Krogans supposed to be uplifted dolphins? At first I thought they looked like some sort of big featherless hawk head but now I can’t see them as anything but dolphin heads.)

I’ve just gotten to the Assassin and the Justicar, so I don’t have an opinion on them yet. (I can’t even think of their names offhand.) My first impressions weren’t that great, though. At first glance, they seemed very much like cliches (the gentle assassin and the warrior monk).

Now about the story in Mass Effect 2. Remember how I said the story was really focused in Mass Effect 1? You always knew that you were chasing Saren to stop his nefarious plans. I feel like that’s not the case in Mass Effect 2. I understand that the goal is to “stop the Collectors” but it’s not super clear exactly what needs to happen to stop them (it’s not entirely clear what a Collector even is, except another agent of the Reapers).

I feel like the “assemble the team” part of the game is becoming a big distraction from the real story. I enjoy getting to know these new characters, and I’ve enjoyed seeing the new areas, but it’s not at all clear why these particular people (what’s the word for “people” when you mean humans and aliens?) are the only ones who can get this job done. They just seem like random people whose main qualifications are that they are interesting characters.

In Mass Effect 1, the characters were clearly there for story-related reasons. Alenko was a member of the crew to start with–he had to go because Shepard captained the ship. Williams joined the crew after her squad was lost on Eden Prime, and again, had to follow orders. Garrus and Wrex and Tali joined the crew because they believed in the mission (more or less). And Liana joined the crew because she was an expert on Protheans.

Maybe it will become clear later on–maybe there will be some cut scenes that show exactly why Jack and Grunt and the rest are vital to completing the Mass Effect 2 story. But right now, right after picking up the Justicar, I feel like they are non-essential to the story and it should have been optional to complete these quests. I feel like I’m spinning my wheels, bogged down in a slow, irrelevant part of the game, and I’m anxious to get back to the main plot and learn more about the Collectors.

More on Mass Effect 2 when I finish it.

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.

Mass Effected

Over the weekend I tried to do three new gaming things: Play Mass Effect 2 (to finally finish it), play Mass Effect 3 (for the first time), and play Mass Effect 1 (over again).

I installed Mass Effect 2 from Steam, hoping beyond hope that by some magical time-space temporal vortex I would be able to pick up where I left off years ago (probably at least two computers ago), but of course I had to start over. My goal was to play through the game quickly so that I could then finally start Mass Effect 3, a game I’ve had for years but never played.

I got through the first cut scenes, remembered what great characters these games have, wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, then reached the point where I first have to control my character and do stuff and immediately remembered how awful the game part of these games are. I gave up after about 15 minutes and uninstalled the game. I couldn’t stand the thought of playing double-digit numbers of hours with that clunky, ancient-feeling control scheme and weird squad and cover mechanics.

I was left with no choice but to install Mass Effect 3 (on Origin, blech) and jump right into it. At the time of this writing, even though it happened literally two days ago, I have zero memory of what happened. There was a cut scene, then there was some running around, there was a kid (so obviously a plot device it might as well have had a neon sign), there were explosions, there were people I vaguely remember from Mass Effect 1, there were people I thought died in Mass Effect 2, there were people missing from when I played Mass Effect 2, there were other people I’ve never seen before, and there was a dream sequence.

The gameplay was marginally better but not by much. I was dumbstruck that there was no controller support in the game. There were like 3 actions bound to the spacebar: Running, jumping, and for some inexplicable reason, activating things.

I played ME3 in four different sessions over Saturday and Sunday, playing for about a half hour or less each time before having to put it down because I just didn’t “get” it. As I’m typing this I’m remembering more and more of what transpired, but it was obvious that I was jumping into the third act of an epic story and there was no hand-holding to catch me up on the story. I can deal with weird gameplay if the story is engaging, but the *story* felt alien, and I couldn’t deal with it.

So I thought I’d look for some YouTube videos that summarize the Mass Effect 1 & 2 stories. I found some 10-minute summaries, but I found them unsatisfying. They were so short that I couldn’t really follow them. I got the basic gist of the Mass Effect 1 story but it’s because I played it before. Having only seen half of the Mass Effect 2 story, I didn’t understand that one at all.

Next I looked for full cut scenes. I found a 3 1/2 hour YouTube video showing all the cut scenes from Mass Effect 1. I started watching it. I remembered that I really enjoyed that game, despite how godawful the gameplay was.

As I watched, I realized I didn’t particularly care for how the video was put together (it skipped stuff for brevity), so I re-installed Mass Effect 1 from Steam and started playing it again.

The gameplay remains godawful, but I feel like I have to play it to get into the story again. I set it to casual and maximum auto-aim and everything I could think of to move from cut scene to cut scene as fast as possible.

To make things more interesting, this time I’m playing a female Shephard, which I’ve never done before. I like it.

Mass Effect is a great example of a series that raises the question: When is a game *too* story-rich to work as a game? This is a topic I hope to explore in another post someday.

P.S. I will not be buying Andromeda when it comes out. I’ll just wait for the inevitable $10 Origin sale.