Blind-fire mode is a lighthearted (and occasionally serious) column on games and the industry at large; trying to have fun while everything collapses around us. This time tackling Mass Effect Andromeda
Mass Effect Andromeda’s reception has been mildly divisive, criticisms of its technical problems and it’s now famous animations are among the most criticized but it’s biggest problem is the most damaging: it’s writing. Here we detail some of the biggest narrative failures we’ve encountered so far on the run up to our review. We have not witnessed the ending so thoughts on that will come later. Spoilers for the game’s introduction and minor characters exist within, so take caution. Also contents include some bitterness and additives: salt.
If you were to judge Mass Effect Andromeda from its opening hours then you might be staring in abject horror at the game box and scrutinize whether those words really do spell out Mass Effect, and are we sure that’s really Bioware’s name down there underneath? The opening is an utter mess of narrative design and characterization, the game throws you into interpersonal relationships and family squabbles before even giving you a reason to care about anything or anyone. It’s not long after that the game pulls an emotional turn in a heavy handed and self congratulatory way, again you might find yourself glancing back over to the box while asking who any of these characters are. Early game spoilers ahead.
Alec Ryder, the ‘Pathfinder’ and father to the main protagonist is killed in what we’re supposed to feel is in a very heroic way, problem is we’ve spent about 5 minutes interacting with his character. The game proceeds to imply daddy issues which made me question if I had missed whole scenes or not, is there a reason we should have cared about him? Hold on, we are now the chosen one, who’d of thunk it, a Bioware game where we play as the sole person who can save the galaxy. Innovation! Even after the ‘prologue’ the story continues to stumble, upon learning of our fathers death the main character seemingly shrugs it off and gets right back to work, why should we care when the main character doesn’t expend any emotion himself.
You’re set about exploring the Nexus where a lady exclaims that her face is tired while she stands rigidly before you, following it by wryly asserting that ‘you’re not a Pathfinder until you’ve Pathfound something’ right…. well that’s us told then, you badly written, stiltedly acted ‘character’. But wait, surely some emotional wrought-ness can be gleamed from everyone else, finding out the person in charge died. ‘Where’s the pathfinder?’ One of the directors questions after a long pause staring at the camera, ‘you’re not Alec Ryder’ he astutely points out. ‘He’s dead’ we reply, ‘Dead?’ Tired face women interjects. There’s a long pause where the characters awkwardly stare dead-eyed at each other before face-tired women turns and says ‘the entire initiative is at risk’. Apparently they cared as much about him as we did, or maybe their faces were too tired to convey emotion. Thankfully things markedly improve after leaving the Nexus and obtaining the tempest (your ship) but how did the opening get released in the state it’s currently in (along with the amount of technical problems), did it get rewritten a dozen time?
The solution? Don’t talk about relationships that already exist without showing them, you can’t tell an audience to care just for narrative ease, you have to give them a reason to be invested. Don’t front load a story with swathes of exposition delivered at a breakneck speed, ease players into the world and build upon lore throughout. The introduction could have worked with more screen time given to the characters that matter like Alec Ryder, with more personal and emotive acting and writing. Other games have managed to achieve emotional responses in short periods of time such as The Last of Us or Horizon Zero Dawn, the introduction to a game acts as a first impression and that needs to be a good one because thats the only one you get.
If you’re playing a Bioware game then there’s a good chance that sex or hanky-panky is gonna exist somewhere in the forefront of your mind. The game and the developers have played up romances heavily, unfortunately in some ways – too much so. The main issue is that, upon meeting your crew, you can, for all intents and purposes, start flirting right off the bat, even if it doesn’t quite seem appropriate. It comes across as rather stilted, especially with certain characters where it doesn’t quite fit with who they are – that they would be interested in you so quickly after barely being introduced.
Cora, who appears to be the most ‘canon’ of the relationships in terms of how much running time her relationship scenes get and the explicitness of the dirty deed, she starts with a chip on her shoulder about you becoming the Pathfinder. It’s a story thread that barely leads to anything but even then after she laments the passing of her mentor and how she misses him (yes I was asking ‘who are we talking about again’ too) you get the opportunity to flirt and tell her that ‘I wont leave you’. Urgh. Urgh. Nearly every companion can be flirted with alongside each other, there was a humorous 15 minutes where I walked from character to character and gave them ‘the sign’…. Liam was not interested.
Elsewhere certain romances have been left at bottom rung, Bioware once again throws in a token gay character that lacks substance and makes Cortez from Mass Effect 3 appear godlike by comparison. His character model isn’t even a unique one – sharing the same hair as my Ryder. The ratio of M/F, F/M, F/F and lastly M\M is worrying for a studio that prides itself on being progressive. It’s no longer just ‘good enough’ to throw in LGBT characters, if you put them in your game they’re up for criticism. The bisexual male character fares much better, perhaps because the scenes are the same for female Ryder but in both M/M scenarios Bioware comes across as fearful to show anything more than kissing with a fade to black. Dragon Age Inquisition this is not. Despite these problems though, this is one of the areas where the writing evens out and gets glimpses to shine, including charming and charismatic scenes depending on who takes your fancy.
Uh oh indeed. Often cited as the strongest element of a Bioware game, characterization plays a big role in the Mass Effect series. That’s no different here, unfortunately in an effort to populate their empty worlds Bioware has created an inordinate amount of throwaway characters with barely a thread of personality or purpose – apart from that of giving you a side quest to scan a dozen items. Dull is the word of the day. They’ve taken the oft mistaken philosophy of quantity over quality, yes there are thousands of characters but when most of them are about as interesting as talking to a delusional gamer about how politics are ruining the games industry then maybe they have no reason to exist. You have a side NPC who is trans just so Bioware can give them a barely thought out reason why they joined the initiative because that’s the only backstory they can think of for these inconsequential characters. Nearly every minor character can be asked the question of why they joined and none of them have anything interesting to say as to why they left their whole life behind, ‘I kinda live it, do it’ professes Gil, the ships engineer. I see. Don’t take this the wrong way Gil but you’re a moron.
Traveling back to the trans character because this is something that needs addressing. So you meet this character for the first time and about a minute later she laments about how she left her old life behind because she didn’t like to be called by her dead name (biological gender given name) and traveled to another galaxy to get away from that. A deadname she actively gives to you. Gives to you after just meeting her. Gives to you after explaining that was the main reason she LEFT a GALAXY behind. Did no one see a problem there? I understand that the writer might be a cis male but if you plan to write a trans character, you consult actual trans people. It’s like the character exists just so the writer can pat themselves on the back for a job well done concerning diversity.
Going from character to character is like jumping between writing styles, clearly the game has an army of writers but there’s no coherence between them. One NPC could have well written dialogue and the next one you encounter may be totally incoherent. It’s a game with too many fingers in the pie, designed by committee. The biggest character blunder is the introduction to a new alien species. That scene speaks for itself and no further comments need to be made over how deep my head was in my hands. The more prominent issue with the character writing exists mainly within side quests and one note appearances, fortunately the main cast are given ample time to develop, despite some extremely questionable lines here and there. But for a game that asks you to spend so much time listening to dialogue tied to the side missions, they have no right to be as poorly handled as they are. Quality over quantity, the game could have had half as much content and it would be a better game for it.
Tone is an extremely subjective topic, therefore the tone of Mass Effect Andromeda has the chance to both infuriate and entertain. From the off it’s apparent that there’s been a huge tonal shift with this new entry, to an almost entirely lighthearted and, one could say, juvenile tone. I’m sure some people will claim it’s ‘millennial’ targeted, any chance to blame us darn millennials is one taken but I’d rather just call it rubbish, which might be the same thing to be fair. At points the game turns into a comedy, sorry ‘comedy’ because frankly about 90% of the jokes fall absolutely flat, to such an extreme that fanfiction comes to mind far too often while playing. Some corkers include a scene where the crew of the tempest have a meeting which ends with everyone leaving, Ryder whines ‘I didn’t say meeting adjourned… meeting adjourned’, in theory it’s a joke that could work but in execution it’s just cringe-worthy. As is shouting ‘speedbump’ when running over things in the Mako, and don’t get me started on the ambient battle dialogue. What often constitutes a joke in the game regularly boils down to a casual line read like it’s a punchline, a punchline to nothing. It’s like they had ‘joke setups’ written down on a to-do list and never got around to it.
I have no problem with the game being more lighthearted, Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC proved how effective that can work…..when you have good writing. Comedy is also hugely subjective so maybe others will get kicks out of it, Liam’s loyalty quest sure has some of the most genuinely well thought out jokes that provs how it could work, but to me it honestly feels very childish for huge portions of the game.
I could continue, we didn’t even cover the wild inconsistency of the writing and how disjointed a lot of scenes feel. However it’s worth noting that the game has qualities elsewhere….. perhaps not the music, but the gameplay has never been better and the visuals look outstanding at times. Is that good enough in a month of Zelda, Horizon and Nier? That’s up to you. It gives me no pleasure to have to write this piece, I’ve never been quite so disheartened playing a sequel and while the game isn’t terrible it’s unremarkable in just about every way, and that’s not Mass Effect. Yes it really does say that on the box.