This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Mass Effect Andromeda.
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!
- 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