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Role-playing computer games are judged on two independent things: narrative, and gameplay. An RPG has to tell a good story, while also serving the basic functions of a video game — and the gaming studio often delegates the two realms to completely different teams. It needs good dialogue just as much as it needs good combat, and this is true whether you’re talking about Fallout, Final Fantasy, The Witcher, or any BioWare game. And the latest entry into the latter’s catalogue looks like it will serve as an absolute base breaker: unlike any Mass Effect game, unlike any BioWare game in a long time, Mass Effect: Andromeda enjoys deeply-layered, well-thought gameplay, including exploration, combat, and multiplayer — at the expense of truly unfortunate cut-scenes and story.

ME:A is not a game that will see universal acclaim once press embargoes are lifted and full reviews go online Mar. 21. It falls gravely short of the exquisite quality demanded of BioWare writing, characterization, and animation. I was honestly surprised to see its PC-version Metacritic score just barely break 75%. But on the other hand, its bread-and-butter gameplay — the shooting, the leveling, the crafting, the exploration, and notably, the multiplayer — stands taller than any other Mass Effect entry, or arguably even any BioWare product since the original Knights of the Old Republic. This game is going to divide Nerdworld more decisively than The Dark Knight Rises. Great gameplay with a forgettable story is the way of Mass Effect’s brother-from-another-mother and one of its greatest influences: the Gears of War series. And geeks are having a bit of a crisis over seeing BioWare, of all studios, putting out a game with better wham-bam action but worse storytelling than Gears of War 4. What follows is an overly long post about the game’s glaring negatives — followed by its impressive positives. Either way, most players should wait for full reviews before making any decisions.

This dissertation comes from the 10-hour PC preview.

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Any conversation on ME:A’s narrative shortcomings has to start with its animation. Twitter and gaming media has focused on this to the point where it’s basically a meme, as seen here:

— me (@etdragonpunch) March 16, 2017

mass effect face animate

How did this happen? Such amateurism is catastrophic when your franchise, and in fact your entire gaming studio, is known more for its storytelling than its combat. Sure, uncanny-valley facial animations would barely even warrant mention for a routine shooter game. The aforementioned Gears of War franchise is just mesomorphs with arms and necks the size of your thighs shooting at each other; the “story,” such as it is, is just a paper-thin excuse to railroad the player from one shootout to the next. Similarly, nobody cares much when Bioware’s cousins at DICE (who, incidentally, furnished the Frostbite 3 engine used here) screw up a Battlefield game’s story mode, because if you buy a Battlefield game for a story, you’re doing it all wrong.

But any Bioware single-player campaign will have at least as much time spent on cutscenes as on fighting. It is inexcusable in 2017 that their animation department put in a showing that is easily outclassed by the the original 2007 Mass Effect, especially when it winds up highlighting some dodgy writing.

To understand why geeks are in crisis mode over this, you have to know a bit of the history of one of Bioware’s biggest franchises.

This recent post about Mass Effect 2 over at usgamer illustrates just how much power over the fans BioWare has harnessed through pure storytelling. It talks about the movie-like quality of the game’s final mission, the characters, the drama, the music. The dialogue. How the player’s narrative choices influence just about everything. Let’s face it: the bread-and-butter gameplay of Mass Effect 2 was forgettable at best. (Mining probes, anyone?) And the writer does acknowledge in passing the mediocrity of the final boss fight. But ask any gaming nerd what they remember about ME2, and they won’t talk about the gunplay parts. They’ll talk about the high drama of Commander Shepard’s suicide mission, the relationships they built with the characters, the anguish if one or more of these crewmembers died, the romances, Martin Sheen’s shifty Illusive Man.

The shooty parts of the franchise got an upgrade with Mass Effect 3, but even there, all anyone talks about to this day is the story. Specifically, they talk about how let down they were by the ending. The gameplay, the combat, the character-building was a major improvement over its predecessors; even the writing was better up until the final movie started. Didn’t matter. Everyone’s expectations of BioWare were so lofty that one slipup involving a final cutscene that the player cannot interact with in any way once it has begun became all that anyone remembered, and not the 30+ hours of top-flight gaming beforehand. They actually filed lawsuits with the FTC; I am not making this up — that is how invested they were.

Basically, people would not be freaking out on social media right now if it were just the annual Call of Duty game that had bad facial animations.

But ME:A’s narrative failings don’t end there. The story also suffers from a lazy reverting to a cliched “Chosen One” background for the main character. In the original trilogy, Commander Shepard went through hell and earned the ultra-elite military N7 designation before we even met her. And she’s still disrespected by a galactic Council of aliens, who are all vaguely racist against humans. In ME:A, though, Ryder is a “Chosen One” novice, bestowed the Andromeda Initiative’s most legendary title through no merit of her own, garnering respect and admiration from other characters just because the writers said so, and would’ve been a nobody if it weren’t for her dad who also happens to be an N7. In an early scene whose symbolism is lost to noone, this Shepard-equivalent character gets killed off, passing his legacy and this Spectre-level “Pathfinder” title on to his completely unqualified child. The uplifting of some regular nobody and obvious audience avatar with the privilege of being the most important human in this galaxy is a hallmark of uncreative speculative fiction. Consider Luke Skywalker starting off as a nobody in Episode IV vs goofy little Anakin gaining the attention of the entire Jedi Council in Episode I. Thank God that at least they had the mercy to spare us some ancient prophecy that foretold Ryder’s coming.

Things don’t improve with the crew either, at least the ones we meet in the early game. The game’s replacement for EDI, SAM, completely lacks anything resembling a personality and talks like Jarvis on a fistful of Valium. I cannot remember anything meaningful about Ryder’s initial squadmates, other than one’s a soldier and the other is some sort of biotic. We meet a young Asari adventurer early on as well, one who will become a potential squadmate and romantic option; gamers have complained that she is not all that physically attractive, yet I think this was an intentional break from the Asari-as-sex-object Mass Effect standard. Your new, hyperactive Salarian pilot is the most interesting crewmate so far; he has some big shoes to fill, coming in after Seth Green’s Joker.

Not all reviews are pessimistic about the game’s story — this one gives a thumbs-up, with caveats — but it doesn’t look good so far. We won’t know for sure until the full game unlocks.

The enemies are also less than inspiring from a narrative standpoint, at least so far. Sure, every Mass Effect game needs an Always Chaotic Evil race of goons for the player to mow down by the dozens, but the original trilogy at least gave the Geth and the various Reaper infantry forces some personality. Here? The kett are just generic Star Trek bad-guy aliens without a single redeeming quality and with no discernible motive other than mindless slaughter. Andromeda’s extinct Remnant race offers the game’s secondary opponents, their still-active defense robots; while this offers a welcome change of pace with the fighting, it’s not like they’ll offer much personality either. As for the greater galactic threat this go-around, the Scourge, we just don’t know if it will measure up yet. I’d be happy if it were at least half as memorable as the richly layered Reapers.

Maddeningly, though, just as much works with this game as it doesn’t; this is not a No Man’s Sky debacle or Street Fighter V no-brainer pass. If you looked purely at static screenshots, the game is admittedly gorgeous. I played through the trial with settings on ultra, and even though it only uses DirectX 11 protocols, the game keeps up with its modern peers. The planetscapes are also quite pretty, which is crucial to a game of planetary exploration. I hear it only gets better if you have a 4K monitor and the hardware to run it. Note to EA: More screenshots, less YouTube in your promo materials.

andromeda_screenie

Another reason why screenshots look good: they leave off the lousy UI. The interface has been clunkified, with such basics as the mission journal and level-up screen confusing, slow to access, and slow to get out of. The time-pausing button makes its return, but all you can do in its interface is swap guns; there’s no way to pause the action so Ryder can choose which of her three abilities to activate.

Oh, about that: Yes, you can only have three active powers available at a time. It comes with a tradeoff, however: you can now eventually access and switch between every single class in the game. No longer are you locked into just one for the duration of the game. Getting sick of the Vanguard’s run-and-gun playstyle? Switch to Infiltrator, get out your sniper rifle, and enjoy some sweet brain-exploding headshots.

On that note, character creation is far less fraught than with the original trilogy. Just about everything is purely cosmetic (it deserves mention that face creation isn’t any more advanced than the original trilogy, which is another reason everyone’s up in arms.) You’ll get to change out of your starting class in just a few levels of XP, so don’t sweat that choice. In fact, all class impacts anymore are some passive bonuses and one or two unique actives. Wanna go as a Soldier with tech and biotic powers? Sure. Just as long as you have enough XP to unlock everything, why not?

The only history the game asks for at character creation is the gender of Commander Shepard; no game imports here. The Andromeda voyage sets off some time in between the events of ME1 and ME3; nobody around seems to know even of the existence of the first trilogy’s genocidal Reapers. As noted above, the game explicitly passes the torch from an N7 character to the new generation. They were right to go for a completely new galaxy and new narrative; at the same time, I often found myself missing my old Shepard and her ragtag crew of misfits. (Liara does make a voice-only cameo, offering hilariously wrong predictions about the Protheans we learn all about in ME3.)

But your new squaddies aren’t there just for chatting. They’re there for shooting, and this is where we finally land on the game’s strongest suit.

The new combat is practically a revelation, coming after the original trilogy’s low-mobility Gears of War-inspired cover system. Yes, cover still plays a role, but the addition of a jump-pack launches the game from trench warfare into a faster, more frantic game. Ryder can leap to higher ground; jet over obstacles and then back down to the ground to quickly flank an enemy; or backwards simply to hide and heal. She can even hover, picking off baddies from above. Dodging is also tied to the jetpack now, letting the player pull off some impressive acrobatics. Ryder can jump, blast an enemy with a shotgun mid-air, jet backwards to find new cover — or even jet forward, land and start brawling with the game’s expanded melee options. We’re a long way from a Commander Shepard who only learned how to jump in her final game.

The combos from ME3 make a return, and the fact that you only have 3 powers at a time make the player put far more thought into their build than ever before. Taking a primer plus a detonator takes 2/3rds of your precious slots — or do you forego it for more versatility? You also have a return of ME3’s weight-based system: fewer/lighter guns allow faster cooldowns on your power; lots of big heavy guns will destroy your cooldowns but might be worth it for sheer firepower and versatility. Having a big-ass sniper rifle AND a big-ass shotty sometimes makes the loss of your magic spells a fair trade-off.

While on the subject of combat: ME3’s horde-mode PvE multiplayer also makes a return. The broad strokes remain the same (waves of AI-controlled baddies with the occasional secondary objective), but the combat improvements from the campaign all carry over to here as well. It’s a far more three-dimensional effort, literally, where both players and enemies using height as an essential part of combat due to the jetpacks. And, like before, you build, level up, and equip your various multiplayer avatars. The only things I can really ding it on are the lack of PvP (understandable, giving balancing issues; this ain’t Overwatch) and the microtransactions (also unfortunately understandable; it’s just the state of the industry today). If you enjoyed ME3 multiplayer, then stop right now and preorder ME:A — its multiplayer alone makes it worth the $60 investment even if you don’t spend a second on the campaign, it’s just that good. It’s even better than GoW4’s horde-mode due to better mobility and character customization. Also, no awkward facial animations to deal with!

The open planets of Mass Effect 1 make a return in campaign mode, complete with a new land vehicle to explore it. We only have one planet to go off of in the trial, but it is far more developed than ME1’s — or Elite: Dangerous’ — empty landscapes, complete with a landmark system stolen from inspired by Bethesda’s flagship titles. Besides main and side quests, things to do include mining; random encounters, including Kett vs. Remnant battles; exploration of minor ruins and structures. The environmental hazard system from ME1 also returns, and now acutally means something; both your suit and your vehicle have limited life support available past the safe zones. Note that you won’t actually build any settlements yourself, which is a shame. All you get to choose are the settlement’s main theme (science vs. military) so those hoping for a Fallout 4 settlement-building experience are SOL. One nice feature the game does have is summonable, permanent forward operating bases. These FOBs are just supply probes with small auras that push away any toxic atmosphere, but that’s plenty. The player can heal, resupply from its infinite ammo capacity, re-summon the land vehicle, completely redo her loadouts, or just chill and enjoy the view without worrying about life support draining away. (On that note, the PC version supports Nvidia Ansel, a great screenshot tool that can create panoramas or gigapixel high-res shots. Activate it with Alt-F2.) Finally, I should mention that your land vehicle is unarmed. This is actually a good thing, as boring turret sniping from ME:1 does not make its unwelcome return. If you want to fight, fight on foot.

As far as your obligatory cool ship goes, the Tempest superficially looks much like its Normandy predecessor. The interior, however, has a much more open and light interior, commanding impressive views of whichever planet you’re orbiting. Mass Effect is not a franchise about scifi ship battles; someone else is the actual pilot. Your ship is in effect your home base. Still, in this role, the Tempest represents a beautiful upgrade to the dark, cramped corridors of the Normandy. It’s also capable of landing on planets — your pilot will even complain if you jump onto its roof.

The Platonic ideal of a Mass Effect game would have Andromeda’s combat, 3’s storytelling, 2’s ending, and 1’s boss fights.

The fact that what I set out to be short blurb about Mass Effect: Andromeda turned into a 3000-word filibuster shows just how maddening this game has become. The meme-worthy animation fails come from the same game that represents BioWare’s finest combat system to date. Either a complete flop or an epic win of a game could be summed up with just a couple of tweets; the fantastic uneven-ness of this game, no doubt reflecting behind-the-scenes drama and corporate politics, render it one of the most controversial triple-A games of the modern era.

If you think about Mass Effect games purely in terms of combat and gameplay, or love you a good PvE multiplayer game, this latest entry blows the roof off the franchise. The jetpacks, the huge inventory of possible weapons, the flexible skill system, the expansive worlds, and especially the multiplayer all combine to make Mass Effect: Andromeda the best BioWare triple-A game to date. Lay down your 60 bones for the preorder and don’t look back. If you’re here for that famous BioWare storytelling, though… cutscenes, writing, facial animations, romance, drama, all that… you’re better off waiting for this title to go on sale, and should think twice even then.

(update 3/20: switched out a dead YouTube link with a gif; noted first Metacritic scores)

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