Mass Effect: Andromeda: somewhat broken, still beguiling


As previously covered, Mass Effect is one of my favorite video game series, and now, having given Mass Effect: Andromeda about five hours of my time, I’m firmly into the meat of the game. All the systems have now been explained to me, and now I’ve reached that point (there’s one in every ME title) where I’ve got full control of my ship, and can now decide when and how to tackle the game’s various gameplay strands.

It’s reassuring how similarly this plays to the other games in the series. I think that’s perhaps not been too obvious from the coverage. All the focus seems to have been on what’s changed, like the more dynamic combat, complex crafting, and how the worlds you visit are far more open than previous games. The illusion of vast spaces has given way to…well, actual vast spaces. But much of what imbues that feel of an ME game is still there — a ship to fly about in, a crew to chat to, stat points to invest — and it makes the experience much more comfortable than I was expecting.

Of course, the vast majority of all attention has been on the game’s most obvious shortcoming.

Yes, the animation’s pretty bad. For me, not deal-breakingly so. The ridiculous amount of criticism coming from some people has been disproportionate in the extreme. And for the record, I simply won’t believe, as some people have stated, that nobody at Bioware cares that their flagship franchise is coming in for this amount of criticism.

But reports that the facial animation is at The Sims 2 levels of technical achievement are, sadly, actually not that far off the mark. It seems mapping the customisable features onto these character models has had some pretty mediocre results.

Often expressions just don’t look quite right. Like, bizarrely so; twitchiness and oddly-rotating eyeballs abound. But sometimes the opposite is true, too. Characters attempting to convey some pretty extreme emotions simple stare blankly, wide eyed and straight-faced. The result is what I imagine an American sees when they watch British reality TV — a whole lot of people that definitely say they’re upset, excited, nervous…but you sure-as-hell can’t tell from looking.

Obviously for some, this is a problem purely because they’d like to have paid for a game that’s not broken. I get this, but also point people in the direction of the jank-tastic Elder Scrolls series, which seems to get a free-pass whenever a new game is released with a far worse collection of bugs and animation issues. Facial animation in Skyrim, for example, is uniformly poor, and is made even worse by the lack of voice talent — not a lack of talent itself, just the breadth of actual actors (I swear there must be like three people credited in that voice cast). Technical issues in these games, including poor animations, tend to be overlooked, partly because it’s accepted that they’re so huge that some bugs just can’t be squished. But also, I believe they avoid criticism partly because that’s the way it’s always been.

 This is what hurts most about Mass Effect: Andromeda for me, that in this series, we actually have had it better, even ten years ago:


(Via asdftit on Reddit)

It’s obvious that 2017’s texture has more fidelity and a much smoother overall appearance (clown makeup and all). Aside from that, though, the 2007 model wins in every department — the lip syncing looks more natural, the expression is more nuanced (in that there actually is some discernible expression), and the overall result is a character that feels much more investable as a ‘real’ person.

This isn’t actually a problem with the game’s use of the new Frostbite engine, but rather the team’s inexperience with it, coupled with the use of character creation tools. At least, that’s my opinion, based on the look of Battlefield 1’s facial animation. It can’t be a coincidence that BF1 comes from a team that is much more familiar with the tech they’re using, and working on a game that doesn’t use user created characters at all, preferring mo-capped actor performances, which look great, by the way.

The bottom line is, despite all this, I’m enjoying Andromeda immensely. In particular, the way the game thrusts you into the task of finding a new home for thousands of colonists feels suitably high-stakes, and I’m finding that really gripping. But I’ll always wonder how much more invested in the characters — for me the most important part of a Mass Effect game — I’d feel if they were presented in a way that was even just as technically accomplished as the last game in the series. Yeah, that would’ve been nice.


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