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This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Mass Effect Andromeda.

Transcript Edit

So after Mass Effect 3 boiled down three games' worth of complex politics and character-building to an ending in which all we did was choose what flavor of ice cream got handed out to everyone in the universe, there were going to be obvious difficulties with the next sequel. How do we continue this story that could have gone one of three ways? How can a story set in the universe where we picked pistachio ice cream possibly also follow on from the universe where everyone got Neapolitan?

BioWare's solution seems to have been to wash their hands of the business completely. "Whatever you picked, everything just worked out, all right? The Milky Way galaxy's fine. Well done. All the races are getting along, and they just bought a new puppy together. Peace and prosperity forever! Kind of boring, actually; you probably wouldn't be interested. Oh, gosh, what's that over there? Looks like a whole new galaxy just packed to the gills with intrigue and peril! Why don't you go look at that one instead? Off you go! Don't bother sending postcards! You mustn't dwell! Shoo, shoo!"

And that's how Mass Effect Andromeda starts. The Milky Way galaxy is going so great that four giant shiploads of people decided they'd rather live literally anywhere else and piss off to Andromeda; maybe they're all lactose intolerant. So the overall theme of the game is new beginnings, which I've figured out from how the main characters subtly mention it once every five fucking minutes, but hey, it wouldn't be a BioWare game if characters didn't spend most of their time verbally explaining their personalities while staring boggle-eyed at you like you just dropped your trousers.

We're not Shepard anymore; now we're Ryder. You'll note that "Shepard" and "Ryder" are both kinds of people one might find on a farm with poor standards for basic spelling. But while the shepherd is the guard and protector, a rider is a pioneer who explores untamed lands to find a fresh graze for their herd. And so in the spirit of exploration, our hero travels to strange new worlds, seeks out new civilizations, and offers to do their laundry. Let me ask you something: if an alien came down from space and walked among us as ambassador to beyond the furthest stars, would it ever occur to you to call him over and ask if he wouldn't mind bobbing down the shops to run you a couple of errands?

Maybe that's partly why BioWare games always speed down the uncanny valley like a herd of autistic wildebeest. It's not just that all the characters look and act like department store dummies with snap-on plastic hairdos; the game feels like it was written by one, as well. Ryder finds himself thrust into the role of head pioneer and the promotion requires him to have part of his brain cut out and an AI put in that talks to him inside his head, does all the difficult adding up, and occasionally fucks around with his bodily functions. He takes this in his stride and reacts with bemusement when other people think that that's slightly fucked-up. It does all rather come across as a plot written by someone who learned about human emotion from children's pop-up books.

Anyway, it's not just the characters pursuing a new beginning here; Mass Effect Andromeda is what is termed in the modern vernacular a "soft reboot", technically a sequel that refuses to move out of the original's apartment, occasionally steals its clothes, and maybe plotting a deranged Single White Female-esque murder-and-replacement fantasy. It's the familiar Mass Effect setup: explore galaxy, build party, solve problems, occasionally come back to home base so that the space police chiefs can shake their tiny, impotent fists at how much cooler you are than them.

Like an aging barfly, Mass Effect Androgynous looks like a mess on the surface, with its Gerry Anderson puppet show aesthetic and its hilarious bugs; I got a fun one where all of Ryder's animations were replaced by spastic jumping jacks like someone cut his omni-gel with MDMA. But you just get that barfly home after closing time and slip their pants off, and then you'll discover just how much of a mess it is internally, as well!

Ingredients from all the previous games have been thrown in like BioWare are throwing a fucking high school reunion: the driving around planets from Mass Effect 1 is back, except the planets are now sandbox maps with actual stuff to do rather than one square kilometer of sweet Fred Astaire, and the planet-scanning that Mass Effect 2 replaced the driving with is also back and badger-buggeringly boring as ever. Going to every random planet, pointing to each one, and getting a teaspoon full of crafting resources isn't exactly stimulating, Mass Effect. "Hmm... would it help if we made the journey to each planet excruciatingly slow and dull and force you to watch it every single time you travel anywhere?" No, I don't think that would help, Mass Effect, but keep trying; I hear there's a lot of money in anesthesiology. On top of that, you can send strike teams to complete off-screen missions, create and manage new colonies for your people, research and develop new equipment, level up your own combat abilities, and then if there are any hours in the day left, you can bum around your ship trying to decide which of your crewmates are eventually going to flip over and give a ruddy good seeing-to behind the coolant pipes.

But as much as this extensive feature list looks good on a pitch, none of it addresses the question of what exactly is Mass Effect Automata's core gameplay. Core gameplay is what this ancillary fucking-about is ultimately supposed to serve; in most games, it's some kind of combat. In Far Cry 3, for example, all the tower-climbing and vehicle challenges and crafting gorilla scrotums all somehow serve to help you fuck up enemy soldiers, as well as vengeful, scrotum-less gorillas, with greater efficiency and variety, but Mass Effect Andrew Lloyd Webber's combat is bollocks. Combat in BioWare games is like managing a swimming trip for five-year-olds; you put all this effort into making sure everyone's properly equipped with floaties and carefully work out a schedule based around the skill levels of each group, and then once you actually get to the pool, everyone just jumps in and pisses about for twenty minutes.

But there are plenty of RPGs with shitty combat, because the core gameplay of an RPG can also be character-building: making your character fit a role, a role that you are playing, as it were. But just about the only prior Mass Effect mechanic that has been slung in the bin is all that Paragon/Renegade business, and now, whether we respond to each dialogue with wit, with intelligence, with aggression, or like we've pounded ourselves between the eyes with a mixture of Botox and horse tranquilizer - trick question; that's every response - doesn't seem to matter one chafed mosquito nipple.

And besides, to what end are we building our character? See, after the last game was popularly considered to have a worse conclusion than the fucking 1930's, I felt duty-bound to power through the story end in the limited time I had available; the result was a rather tepid "The Adventure Continues!" affair, but what's important is that, having skipped a large degree of the side stuff, there were three entire planet sandboxes I hadn't so much as set foot in! So what the hell is all this tedious side-bollocks for if I can do in the final boss perfectly comfortably without it? To see the grateful looks on the quest-givers' faces? It's a BioWare game; they'd make the same face if I pissed on their shoes!

Addenda Edit

  • Still keeping that mass erect: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
  • In the BioWare universe people with the ability to emote get employed by circuses as contortionists
  • I hope Elon Musk invents fast travel
Episodes
2007 - 2010
2007
Q3 The Darkness Demo · Fable: The Lost Chapters · Zero Punctuation (Episode) · Heavenly Sword and Other Stuff · Psychonauts · Console Rundown · BioShock · Tomb Raider: Anniversary · Manhunt · Peggle
Q4 Halo 3 · Tabula Rasa · The Orange Box · Super Paper Mario · Medal of Honor: Airborne · The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass · Clive Barker's Jericho · F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate · Assassin's Creed · Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock · Mass Effect
2008
Q1 Super Mario Galaxy · Silent Hill: Origins · Crysis · The Witcher · Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles · Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare · SimCity Societies · Yahtzee Goes to GDC · Uncharted: Drake's Fortune · Devil May Cry 4 · Burnout: Paradise · Turok · Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure
Q2 Army of Two · No More Heroes · Condemned 2: Bloodshot · Super Smash Bros. Brawl · God of War: Chains of Olympus · Mailbag Showdown · Grand Theft Auto IV · Painkiller · The World Ends With You · The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion · Haze · Metal Gear Solid 4
Q3 Webcomics · Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures · Alone in the Dark · Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures · The E3 Trailer Park · Ninja Gaiden II · Prince of Persia Retrospective · Soulcalibur IV · Braid · EVE Online · Too Human · Spore · XBLA Double Bill
Q4 Mercenaries 2: World in Flames · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed · S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky · Silent Hill: Homecoming · Saints Row 2 · Dead Space · Fable II · Fallout 3 · Guitar Hero: World Tour · Mirror's Edge · Left 4 Dead · Sonic Unleashed · The Year in Review - 2008 · Prince of Persia
2009
Q1 Awards for 2008 · Tomb Raider: Underworld · Far Cry 2 · Gears of War 2 · LittleBigPlanet · Thief: The Dark Project · Skate 2 · F.E.A.R. 2 · Spider-Man: Web of Shadows · The House of the Dead: Overkill · 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand · Resident Evil 5
Q2 X-Blades/Halo Wars · Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars · MadWorld · Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X · Siren: Blood Curse · The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena · Valkyria Chronicles · Velvet Assassin · Duke Nukem Forever · Bionic Commando · InFamous · The Second Annual E3 Hype Massacre · Prototype
Q3 The Sims 3 · Ghostbusters: The Video Game · Overlord 2 · Red Faction Guerrilla · Wii Sports Resort · Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood · The Conduit · Silent Hill 2 · 2.5-D Hoedown · Tales of Monkey Island · Wolfenstein · Batman: Arkham Asylum · Beatles Rock Band & Guitar Hero 5 · Darkest of Days
Q4 Scribblenauts · Wet · Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story · Brutal Legend · Washington D.C. · Uncharted 2: Among Thieves · Dragon Age: Origins · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 · Assassin's Creed 2 · Left 4 Dead 2 & New Super Mario Bros. Wii · Demon's Souls · Holiday 2009 · The Saboteur
2010
Q1 Awards for 2009 · Torchlight · Darksiders · Bayonetta · Dark Void · Borderlands · Mass Effect 2 · Dante's Inferno · BioShock 2 · Aliens vs Predator · Heavy Rain · Battlefield: Bad Company 2 · Final Fantasy XIII
Q2 April Fools 2010 · God of War III · Red Steel 2 · Just Cause 2 · Silent Hill: Shattered Memories · Splinter Cell: Conviction · Nier · Dead to Rights: Retribution · Monster Hunter Tri · Alan Wake · Red Dead Redemption · Alpha Protocol · Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands · E3 2010
Q3 No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle · Super Mario Galaxy 2 · Singularity · Crackdown 2 · DeathSpank & Limbo · Shadow of the Colossus · Split Second: Velocity · Transformers: War for Cybertron · Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days · Mafia II · Metroid: Other M · Video Game Voters Network · Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Q4 Halo: Reach · Dead Rising 2 · Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow · Enslaved: Odyssey to the West · Fallout: New Vegas · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II · Call of Duty: Black Ops · IPhone Games · Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood · Splatterhouse · Epic Mickey · Holiday 2010
2011 - 2014
2011
Q1 Top 5 of 2010 · World of Warcraft: Cataclysm · Fable III · Minecraft · A Shadow's Tale · Dead Space 2 · DC Universe Online · MindJack · Two Worlds II · Bulletstorm · Killzone 3 · Kirby's Epic Yarn · Dragon Age II
Q2 Pokémon White · Yakuza 4 · Crysis 2 · Nintendo 3DS · Portal 2 · Castlevania: Symphony of the Night · Mortal Kombat · Brink · L.A. Noire · The Witcher 2 · Hunted: The Demon's Forge · Duke Nukem Forever (for real this time) · InFamous 2
Q3 Alice: Madness Returns · Shadows of the Damned · F.E.A.R. 3 · The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D · Call of Juarez: The Cartel · Bastion and From Dust · Catherine · Red Faction: Armageddon · Deus Ex · Deus Ex: Human Revolution · Driver: San Francisco · Dead Island · Resistance 3
Q4 Gears of War 3 · Hard Reset · Rage · Kinect · Batman: Arkham City · Battlefield 3 · Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 · The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim · Saints Row: The Third · Assassin's Creed: Revelations · The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
2012
Q1 Serious Sam 3: BFE · Top 5 of 2011 · Super Mario 3D Land & Rayman Origins · Sonic Generations · Star Wars: The Old Republic · Amy · Resident Evil: Revelations · Darkness 2 · Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning · NeverDead · Syndicate · Mass Effect 3 · Twisted Metal
Q2 Yakuza: Dead Souls · Ninja Gaiden 3 · Silent Hill: Downpour · Kid Icarus: Uprising · Fez and I Am Alive · Prototype 2 · Risen 2: Dark Waters · Sniper Elite V2 · Diablo 3 · Max Payne 3 · Dragon's Dogma · E3 2012 · Lollipop Chainsaw
Q3 Quantum Conundrum · Spec Ops: The Line · Walking Dead · Inversion · The Amazing Spider-Man · Half-Life · Wreckateer and Deadlight · Steam Roundup · Sleeping Dogs · Darksiders 2 · DayZ · Guild Wars 2
Q4 Borderlands 2 · FIFA 13 · Resident Evil 6 · Dishonored · XCOM: Enemy Unknown · Medal of Honor: Warfighter & Doom 3: BFG Edition · Assassin's Creed 3 · Halo 4 · Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 · Hitman: Absolution · Far Cry 3 · ZombiU
2013
Q1 Top 5 of 2012 · Paper Mario: Sticker Star · Black Knight Sword & Hotline Miami · Anarchy Reigns · DMC: Devil May Cry · The Cave · Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch · Dead Space 3 · Aliens: Colonial Marines · Crysis 3 · Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance · Tomb Raider · SimCity
Q2 The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct · BioShock Infinite · Lego City Undercover · Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon · Injustice: Gods Among Us · Star Trek · Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon · System Shock 2 · Metro: Last Light · Next Gen Buyer's Guide · Fuse · Remember Me · E3 2013
Q3 The Last of Us · Deadpool · Animal Crossing: New Leaf · Ride to Hell: Retribution · Dark · Mario & Luigi: Dream Team · Rise of the Triad · Papers, Please & Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons · Pikmin 3 · The Bureau: XCOM Declassified · Saints Row 4 · Killer is Dead · Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
Q4 Grand Theft Auto V · Lost Planet 3 · Beyond: Two Souls · The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD · Batman: Arkham Origins · Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag · Call of Duty: Ghosts · Exclusives Showdown · Ryse: Son of Rome · Dead Rising 3 · Super Mario 3D World
2014
Q1 Top 5 of 2013 · Knack · Killzone: Shadow Fall · Survival Special · Broken Age · Might & Magic X: Legacy · The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds · Dark Souls · Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII · Strider · Thief · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 · Dark Souls II
Q2 Titanfall · InFamous: Second Son · Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes · The Elder Scrolls Online · South Park: The Stick of Truth · FTL: Faster Than Light · Child of Day-Light · The Amazing Spider-Man 2 · Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure · Wolfenstein: The New Order · WATCH DOGS · E3 2014 · Murdered: Soul Suspect
Q3 Tomodachi Life · Enemy Front & Valiant Hearts: The Great War · Shovel Knight · EarthBound · Transistor · E.T. · Firefall · Sacred 3 · Risen 3: Titan Lords · Daikatana · Lichdom: Battlemage · The Sims 4 · Destiny
Q4 D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die · Hyrule Warriors · Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor · Alien Isolation · The Evil Within · Bayonetta 2 · Sunset Overdrive · Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare · Assassin's Creed: Unity · Far Cry 4 · Dragon Age: Inquisition · Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric · Top 5 Games of 2014
2015 - 2017
2015
Q1 The Talos Principle · Elite: Dangerous · Five Nights at Freddy's and This War of Mine · Lords of the Fallen · Saints Row: Gat out of Hell · Dying Light · Grim Fandango · Evolve · The Order: 1886 · The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D · Resident Evil Revelations 2 · Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number & Ori and the Blind Forest
Q2 Battlefield: Hardline · Bloodborne · Half-Life 2 Update · Axiom Verge & Stealth Inc 2 · Mortal Kombat X · Grand Theft Auto Online · Broken Age: Act 2 · Wolfenstein: The Old Blood · Cyberpunk Double · The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt · Splatoon · Hatred · E3 2015
Q3 Alone in the Dark: Illumination · Batman: Arkham Knight · Yoshi's Woolly World · Cave Story · Godzilla · Rocket League & Tembo the Badass Elephant · King's Quest: A Knight to Remember · Nom Nom Galaxy & Freedom Planet · Everybody's Gone To The Rapture · Volume · Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain · Mad Max · Gears of War Ultimate Edition · Until Dawn
Q4 Super Mario Maker · SOMA · Rock Band 4 · Assassin's Creed Syndicate · Halo 5: Guardians · Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 · Rise of the Tomb Raider · Fallout 4 · Star Wars: Battlefront · Just Cause 3 · Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water
2016
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2015 · Devil's Third · Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam · Assassin's Creed Chronicles · Xenoblade Chronicles X · The Witness & Bombshell · Gravity Rush · XCOM 2 · Firewatch & Layers of Fear · Far Cry Primal · Stardew Valley & SUPERHOT · The Division · Salt and Sanctuary
Q2 Republique · Shadow Warrior · Quantum Break · Dark Souls III · Ratchet & Clank · Star Fox Zero · Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door · Uncharted 4: A Thief's End · Doom · Homefront: The Revolution · Overwatch & Battleborn · Mirror's Edge: Catalyst · E3 2016
Q3 Mighty No. 9 · Inside & Shadow of the Beast · The Technomancer · Furi & Song of the Deep · I Am Setsuna · Headlander & Quadrilateral Cowboy · Quake · No Man's Sky · Grow Up · Deus Ex: Mankind Divided · Metroid Prime: Federation Force · The Curious Expedition & Mother Russia Bleeds · ReCore
Q4 Capcom Five · Clustertruck & Lichtspeer · Paper Mario: Color Splash · Mafia III · Gears of War 4 · PlayStation VR · Battlefield 1 · Titanfall 2 vs Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare · Dishonored 2 · WATCH DOGS 2 · Final Fantasy XV · The Last Guardian
2017
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2016 · Let It Die · Dead Rising 4 · Hitman · Gravity Rush 2 · Resident Evil 7 · Yakuza 0 · Nioh · For Honor · Nintendo Switch & Breath of the Wild · Horizon Zero Dawn · Nier Automata · Ghost Recon Wildlands
Q2 Mass Effect Andromeda · Yooka-Laylee · Persona 5 · Remastered Editions · Outlast 2 · Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 · Prey · Wilson's Heart · The Surge · Injustice 2 · Vanquish · E3 2017 · Strafe
Q3 Get Even · Hollow Knight / Dead Cells · Fifth Console Generation · The End is Nigh, and Yonder: Cloud Catcher Chronicles · Pyre · Splatoon 2 · Hellblade · Agents of Mayhem · Sonic Mania · Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

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