It should come as no surprise that someone who writes science fiction with romance would enjoy the Mass Effect universe created by Bioware. Yes, I played the trilogy. Despite its flaws, I still consider it one of the greatest RPGs of all time: it did something no other RPG series had done. It created a trilogy, with unique choices from each game carrying over into the subsequent games. You can argue about how the ending of ME3 made those choices superfluous, but that is for a different day. That third game had a weight that few roleplay games have matched. I still remember tearing up during Liara’s conversation with my lady Shepard about the time capsule. I cried when Mordin died. That game hit so many emotional beats there were times when I had to walk away because I needed a break to process what had happened.
So to say that I am excited about Mass Effect Andromeda’s release would be a huge, massive understatement. Sure, I have my reservations; as stated, ME3 wasn’t without flaws, and I’ve been burned by Bioware before (Dragon Age: 2 was pretty terrible). But that being said, I enjoyed the heck out of Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I’ve been excited to see how Andromeda turned out ever since.
I played the first five hours last night, once EA Access opened up their ten hour trial early. But before it did, I’d already seen some early “first impressions” posts go live. The scathing one at Rock, Paper, Shotgun by John Walker being the one that got the most play, largely, I think, because the internet loves nothing so much as a good roasting. What struck me about it, however, was the absolute delight he seemed to take in writing the most negative “review” possible…while then admitting in the comments that he never even played Dragon Age Inquisition. Since his post went live, some other “mixed” reviews came out. And one thing is very clear: there are people absolutely loving the game, who love how it feels like Mass Effect, and people who are ripping it apart for following the same basic formula Bioware always has, and because it…feels…like…Mass Effect.
No lie. A camp of people, including the most scathing review above, seem inclined to hate the game because it “retreads familiar territory”. They also aren’t getting too attached to the characters yet, some going so far as to call the writing or voice acting clunky, or worse. Others really dislike the “chosen one” format, where your character becomes the chosen one hero who can lead everyone to salvation within the first hour of the game. After my play experience last night, I would like to address these from my perspective, and I suspect it is a perspective that will match many other player experiences – I mean, I can’t be the only one enjoying the game!
- The “retread complaint”. Well, speaking as a writer, I would like to point out that Andromeda is a new entry point into the series. They actually have to retread some ground to introduce new players to the universe. I suppose they could have handled some of that exposition better, more smoothly. A lot is accomplished through conversational options with the NPCs…and if you are a veteran ME player and don’t care to hear what the genophage is again, or how it affects the krogan in Andromeda, you don’t have to ask. So…rather like the fetch quests that some say bogged down DAI – you can just skip a lot of it.
- The characters – your squadmates. Okay, just how iconic were Garrus, Kaidan, Wrex or Liara in ME1? I challenge you to think about that game, in particular the first few hours. I think you only really met Kaidan, Ashley and Garrus in that time, and certainly they seemed a bit generic, even forgettable at that early point. Time was needed to really get to know them. To experience major story beats alongside them, to feel that Garrus became your best bro, or that your character was falling for anyone. Time is irreplaceable. No one is going to feel totally involved in Cora or Liam, Vetra or PeeBee in the opening hours of the game. Give it a chance! Give Bioware a chance. Their characters are something they’re known for, especially in this universe.
- The writing. Yes, in some places the writing is clunky. A couple lines of dialogue are just “meh” (I cringe every time I see the opening sequence where Cora says “It seems centuries since we spoke.”) But the story is just getting started. I think if you review any game, there will be moments of clunkiness in the writing, easily ignored. I mean, Gears? Gears 4 had some clunky writing, y’all. And in DAI, it didn’t click in and really feel like Dragon Age to me until the first confrontation with Corypheus. I remember the moment clearly. My character uses the trebuchet to blow up a mountain and bury the village, and then must struggle through a storm to escape, and wakes to a camp full of arguing companions and advisors, and then a song breaks out. That whole sequence put me back in the emotional place of playing DA:O. When you are playing games as massive as these, give it time to settle in before you make a judgement. I’ve already felt a glimmer of that ME magic, in a significant if short cut-scene between Sara and her Dad that I can’t be more specific about without major spoilers. (Not to mention all of the little nods – anyone else notice the dialogue happening during the tram transport from your ship to the Nexus? Remind you of, oh, any elevator rides at The Citadel?) I also love that Ryder’s Dad is an N7. That is a great tie back to the trilogy. To me, this already feels like a Mass Effect game, and that is a huge win at five hours in.
- The voice acting. I really don’t see an issue at all with this so far. Like, what are these complainers even talking about? The voice acting, as with most Bioware games, is superb. (I know there were some complaints about male Shepard’s monotone, but I played as lady Shep, so…no comment, I guess.)
- “The Chosen One”. Dude. Seriously? One, you are playing an RPG – your character is the hero. They are supposed to be special and awesome! Two, you are playing a Bioware RPG! This is the format! The one they’ve been using for…forever! If you want something different, play some other RPG and hope it doesn’t use the same trope, I guess. After how many games of “The Warden”, “The Champion”, “Spectre”, “The Inquisitor” – if you are upset that Bioware is using a “chosen one” story, I have news – you probably shouldn’t be playing their games. As to it happening in the first hour of the game, well. Yes, it might have been nice to get a little prologue with some interaction between Dad Ryder, Bro Ryder and Sara, maybe back in the Milky Way before the Initiative began. If I were writing this as a book, it’s what I would have done. Joseph Campbell calls it establishing the Ordinary World before you sink your hero into his or her new, heroic world. I call it establishing an emotional link to the characters and who they are before events start to change them. It’s one of the reasons that Pirate Nemesis has a prologue, introducing Mercy as a thirteen-year-old. But, it’s not like we have a long history of getting that ordinary world piece in Bioware games…or any RPG. As I’m thinking of The Witcher 3, one of the best RPGs of all time, it, too, starts Geralt off right in the middle of things, chasing Ciri and Yen.
And I think that is my biggest takeaway. How many companies are making big, character driven RPGs like this? Personally, I can only think of two – Bioware and CD Projekt Red. Maybe there are more I don’t know about, but the Japanese RPGs I have played don’t really seem to allow you the same choices or be as character driven (to me), and Bethesda’s games, while entertaining, are what I call “beer and pizza” RPGs. Beautiful, sprawling open worlds. Very little actual characterization. I don’t really care about anyone. It’s a dungeon crawl with a big story I almost never really care about or finish. I have never cried at a Bethesda game. In fact, as excellent as Dragon Age: Origins and DAI were, I have only ever cried in two game worlds: Mass Effect and The Witcher. (Although, if I had romanced Alistair in DA:O and he died at the end, I probably would have cried. As it was, it was the first time I ever sat and just let all of the credits play at the end of a game, because I felt so emotionally invested I didn’t want it to end. The Witcher 3 was the same.)
I get that ME:A has some graphics problems, particularly with the faces. I was stunned to find my customization options limited to a few alterations to a handful of presets. DA:I you could take the preset and literally change everything about it. ME:A, not so much. I get there are flaws. I understand that, and I hope there are some patches that come out addressing some of them. I hope the next game improves on the character animations. (But didn’t we all say that about ME1, 2 and 3 as well? Who can forget the horror of no eyelashes on your character during cut scenes? Or the “giraffe neck” problem of lady Shepard?) I view these as minor annoyances, not game-breaking issues.
So everyone out there posting these scathing first impression reviews, I guess I just want to know: what is it you want from Bioware? What game out there emulates the perfection you are seeking? And before you answer, yes, there are certain things CD Projekt Red does better. Just like there are certain things Bioware does better. For me, both of these companies do a great job, and yes, I did like The Witcher 3 slightly more than DA:I, but it also feels a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Both are excellent roleplay games, with very different feels, systems, strengths and flaws. I think Andromeda is going to be an amazing game. I can’t wait to be 20 or 30 hours in and totally immersed.
Oh, and one more thing: I haven’t played multiplayer yet, but from everything I hear it is an updated version of ME3 multiplayer, and that is perfect for me. To those complaining it isn’t “like Gears 4 Horde”, why would you want it to be? G4H is an awesome bullet-sponge horde and I really enjoy it. ME was never like that. It’s about different classes and powers and killing the bad guys in whatever way best suits your mood or style of play. Gears is building fortifications and a base and shooting until they’re dead. It’s okay that each game is different, and I’m super excited to be able to play both.
If anyone from Bioware happens to read this, kudos to you for producing a game I think I’ll be enjoying for many, many hours to come. Don’t let the haters get you down! Always remember that the negative is the most vocal online, and the positive are too busy actually playing the game.