Mass Effect: Andromeda

I didn’t play Mass Effect: Andromeda when it originally released in part because of all the controversy around the bugs but primarily because I felt the series was done. Three games was enough for me in the same way as I’d rather play Cyberpunk 2077 than another Witcher game despite loving The Witcher series very, very much.

But eventually, a year and a bit later, aided by the fact that you can get the game as part of Origin Access, curiosity got the better of me and here I am.

My entire knowledge of the game boiled down to seeing some funny gifs of awful facial animation so I went in to the game fully expecting this. Probably because in that year and a bit that has passed since launch some patches have happened, the facial animation wasn’t as awful as I was expecting – I mean, it’s far from great – and far from what you would expect from Bioware and their flagship franchise – but I’ve seen worse, and much of it comes down to one or two of the phonemes being hugely over-pronounced. Every time there is a ‘p’ or an ‘f’ in the word there’s some horrible gurning going on but you can sort of tune this out to a degree or, at least, learn to live with it.

But it’s not really about the quality of some of the character stuff in an absolutist way which is surprising, it’s more how bad it is relatively to the rest of the game content. I don’t want to sound cruel here but it really does feel like the art team was comprised of some of the most talented environment artists in the industry working alongside some of the least experienced character artists in the industry. It’s bizarre, and I’m trying to picture an art director who would sign off on both aspects – especially as it’s not as if everything about the characters is poor – it’s really specifically just the facial textures and animations. The texture overlays for scars are particularly awful, the makeup options look like what someone who has never seen a woman apply makeup would draw, and the tattoos are so half-arsed as to be pointless.

The character creator is a step backwards – there’s very little you can do the modify the model itself so what your character looks like comes down to which face texture you want. They call this “complexion”, but it’s not – this texture comes with what eyebrows you have and other features which would normally be customisable in themselves and even though there’s also a “skin tone” slider, the face textures are not tonally consistent and therefore those two sliders haven’t been sufficiently decoupled. In an indie or AA game, you’d say, “whatever, it’s not a big deal”. In a Bioware / EA game? It’s a surprising lack of care and attention.

What makes this all the more baffling is that the most glaring of the issues seem fixable – repaint and improve the “complexion” textures and make them tonally consistent and tone down those couple of phoneme facial poses and boom – a lot of the issues go away.

So, that’s the elephant in the room out of the way – what of the game itself? Well, this also surprised me. Firstly, due to all the negativity surrounding this game on launch I was rather pleasantly surprised to find that the game was actually really rather good. Combat is solid, fun, quests are interesting, the colonising aspect is compelling – it’s all good stuff. But what was most surprising – given the premise of the game (moving the setting to the Andromeda galaxy, 650 years into the future, all of this sidestepping most of the plot of the later Mass Effect games and therefore all the baggage which would come with that) was that Mass Effect: Andromeda fundamentally feels like a remake.

Instead of Prothean ruins, we have Precusor ruins. Instead of Geth, we have Remnants. “Pathfinder” is really just a different word for “Spectre”. Ryder has the Shepard macGuffin of being able to interact with and activate these relics. The Nexus is basically The Citadel. Your squadmates follow the franchise rule of established Mass Effect species plus one new one.

The biggest disappointment to me is the quality of the villains. The art design for them struck me as incredibly odd – when we’re first introduced to the main villain in a scene which I think was intended to come across as menacing and enigmatic, well he’s just got these big sad puppy-dog eyes and is… kind of cute in a weird way. And while their language is initially incomprehensible – a choice which worked to great effect with the Collectors – it’s not long before you’re finding datapads in English. The cardinal sin of not showing but just telling is in full force – everybody’s referencing this species as monsters but I’ve personally seen nothing of it. Remember the opening of Mass Effect when you arrive at a colony to find people on spikes with weird implants, terrified colonists hiding in shelters? There’s nothing like that. It’s all pretty poor storytelling, to put things bluntly.

So that’s Mass Effect: Andromeda in my experience so far. A well made game – a compelling game, with a bewildering disparity of art quality, not-so-great storytelling, wasting an opportunity to forge a brand new path in a new galaxy, slightly cute villains, and a squad generic enough that whenever I get a message that I have to speak to one of them I have to consult their profiles to work out which one it’s talking about. On the whole and given Bioware’s reputation with these aspects, it’s not so much bad as baffling and tragic – issues aside, there’s a nugget of what could have been a wonderful new Mass Effect saga and it’s perhaps that squandered opportunity which is the greatest shame.

More detailed and spoilerific thoughts here.

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