UPDATE (APRIL 6TH): With the 1.05 update, Mass Effect: Andromeda’s contempt for your free time has thankfully become far less flagrant, as BioWare has given us the ability to skip the endless cutscenes you’d previously be forced to watch every time you entered a planet’s orbit or investigated an anomaly. As of 1.05, when the traversal animation begins you can simply press the square button (or X if you’re on Xbox, or whatever key skips cutscenes on PC) and be taken directly to orbit. Sadly, you still can’t skip the cutscene while travelling between star systems (my guess is that it’s there to disguise loading, so I don’t expect it to be gone anytime soon), but this change already makes the galaxy map a million times less obnoxious to use and the game considerably less frustrating to play. They also fixed a bunch of bugs (my strike team menu works again!) as well as touched up the character models (the improved eyes make a huge difference) and animations. Who knows, maybe in six months this will look and feel like a finished Mass Effect game!
Anyway, that’s the update, the original post continues below.
How about that Mass Effect: Andromeda, then? You can probably tell from the title of this post that this is not going to be me extolling the virtues of BioWare’s latest release. I have a full review planned and partially written, but that’ll still take some time to finish so I figured I’d talk about something that really grinds my gears about this game. Full disclosure: I don’t think Mass Effect: Andromeda is quite as terrible as the internet at large would have you believe, and there is an enjoyable BioWare RPG in there somewhere, buried deep in a pit filled with technical problems and baffling design decisions. That latter aspect is what I will be focusing on today.
Mass Effect: Andromeda resembles 2014’s Dragon Age: Inquisition in many ways, the most obvious of them being the overall mission structure. You have a handful of missions driving the main plot forward, as well as loyalty missions for each of your party members much like Mass Effect 2 also did. If that was it and there were a couple of big sidequests on each major planet you visit, that’d be fine. However, much like Inquisition, Andromeda is absolutely riddled with bloat. Every time you visit a new location, you get several new side missions that consist of finding and scanning a number of objects somewhere in the open world, or maybe bringing back the space equivalent of ten bear asses. These are commonly known as “MMO sidequests” because collecting bear asses is a time-honored tradition every MMO player is very familiar with. You might think I am going to complain about these quests, but that’s not really what I’m going to do either because BioWare has wisely made the collectathon optional for the most part. No, there is another way in which BioWare decided to take an N7 Piranha shotgun to Mass Effect: Andromeda’s kneecaps.
Side missions that take you all over the world map are nothing new in RPGs. If done wrong, they can get rather irritating because why am I running all over the place doing all this bullshit? Still, travelling between locations on the world map is normally a quick process and just involves clicking on a destination and warping there, so it’s not like you’re wasting huge amounts of time doing it, so even if the quests are a bit annoying it’s not a major issue by any means. Now, here’s a hypothetical scenario, a thought experiment if you will: What if, say, every transition between locations on the world map (or in Mass Effect’s case, galaxy map) was an unskippable cutscene that lasts ten seconds, followed by another unskippable cutscene of the same length when you enter a location? How would that make you feel about doing these galaxy-spanning sidequests, even if the quest itself had an interesting premise?
Sounds like the most self-defeating and idiotic game design decision one could possibly come up with, right? 20 seconds or so isn’t a lot of time in the grand scheme of things, but when you’re playing a 60-hour RPG that is going to add up, and as such the last thing you want to do as a designer is to make the act of getting to the quest locations feel like a massive chore.
Too bad the Mass Effect: Andromeda designers didn’t get the memo.
That hypothetical scenario up there? That’s not something exaggeratedly awful I made up to make a point. That is straight up how the galaxy map in Mass Effect: Andromeda works. You click on the galaxy map as you would in the old ME games, choose a destination, click on that and then watch a lovingly crafted transition animation. Ten seconds later, you’re in the planet’s orbit and click on the landing zone (of course, you must move the excruciatingly sluggish cursor — did they learn *nothing* from Mass Effect 2’s planet scanning? — to the EXACT POINT WHERE THE LANDING ZONE IS because fuck you, just pressing a button to land on the planet is for plebs), which means you get to watch your ship land in another finely crafted animation that you are not allowed to skip, ever. You loser. I have no words to describe how utterly boneheaded a design decision this is, it almost feels like intentional sabotage. You have to land on different planets dozens of times, probably a hundred times over the course of an average playthrough of this particular Mass Effect game. Making that aspect, one of the most important yet most basic of aspects of your gameplay this cumbersome is something you simply don’t do as a designer. Period. To be fair, I am a translator, not a game designer, so perhaps this IS how you’re supposed to do it and I’m just a moron who doesn’t get it, man.
One of the many sidequests in Mass Effect: Andromeda involves one of your party members, Liam, planning a movie night because the crew could use some relaxation every once in a while. This seems like a quest you’d want to do, because the interactions with your party members tend to be one of this game’s strong suits and it might be fun to just chill with them for once. It all starts innocently enough, with Liam asking you to go to the Nexus (this game’s version of the Citadel) to download some movies from the archives there. Sure, that seems doable enough, Nexus is a major area so I’ll wind up back there sooner or later. Then, everything goes to hell. Here’s how the entire quest plays out:
Liam: “Hey Ryder, go get some movies from the Nexus!” Okay, sure, I had some business there anyway so I’ll do that.
(Watch transition cutscene > watch Nexus landing cutscene > run to the Nexus archive to download films (loading screen) > run back to ship (another loading screen) -> watch Nexus takeoff cutscene > return to Tempest for the next part of the quest)
Suvi: “I heard you’re planning a movie night, and I thought I could make some weird alien snacks so go to Aya to buy this gross plant.” Well, Aya is a major hub as well so I’ll keep an eye out next time I’m in the neighborhood.
(Watch transition cutscene > watch Aya landing cutscene > run to market, buy plant, run back to ship > watch Aya takeoff cutscene > return to Tempest for next part)
Vetra: “Those snacks Suvi made are awful and I’m also a turian so I can’t eat them without dying, so could you go buy some better snacks on Kadara? Not just the turian stuff either, I hear someone brought actual popcorn from the Milky Way!” This is getting a little bit annoying at this point, but anything for my spiky girlfriend, I guess. To Kadara it is, we still have a couple of quests to mop up there as well so we can pick up those snacks along the way.
(Watch transition cutscene > watch Kadara landing cutscene > you know how this goes by this point)
Jaal: “Your Milky Way movies are terrible, you don’t even use our superior angaran VR tech! Luckily, me and Gil can rig something up, but we need components so go to Aya and buy those!” *Sigh* Back to Aya it is, even though we already did all the side content there, and let’s just buy these components FROM THE SAME FUCKING VENDOR WHO SOLD US THE PLANT EARLIER ARE YOU KIDDING ME
(Watch all that shit again and wonder where your life went wrong)
Lexi: “Drack and Peebee are making krogan moonshine or something, and I’d rather drink something that doesn’t make me blind so could you go to the Nexus and grab a bottle of asari wine for me? Strictly for medicinal purposes, of course.” Sure, I’m still playing this so it’s not as if I value my free time any more than you do.
(Watch all that shit again and burn the effigy of the lead quest designer that you built during all the previous cutscenes)
Liam: “Aw man, I just wanted to have a simple movie night but all you jerks made it into this huge project. Since you’re all putting so much effort into this, I gotta step it up as well; we can’t watch the shitty theatrical cut of Last of the Legion, we must get the super extended director’s cut edition. You know, the super rare one that went out of print 600 years ago. I heard they might have it on Kadara.” Guess which merchant on Kadara has it? That’s right, the exact same one who sold us the snacks! Are you having fun yet?
(Watch all that shit AGAIN and vow to cut your wrists with a plastic spoon if there’s ONE more step to this nonsense)
This is not just BioWare not caring about your free time, it’s them actively having contempt for your free time. Just shut up and watch our cutscenes if you want to get to the scenes you think you want to see, you nerd. After all, it’s not like you have anything better to do and if you do, you don’t need to play the game in the first place, right? Thing is, I know I am wasting my time playing video games, but I don’t need the game to rub it in my face in such a blatant manner. Mercifully, though, at this point the game has decided you’ve done the amount of work it expects you to put in if you want to enjoy a fun scene where you bond with your party members. And credit where credit’s due, the movie night scene itself is actually a really nice moment. Seeing all these people goofing around and being allowed to show a bit more character than usual is quite wonderful and reminds me of the best parts of the Mass Effect 3: Citadel DLC. It really begs the question, though — why in the bluest of blue hells did the designers of Mass Effect: Andromeda choose to make us go through all of those bullshit hoops and sit through 17 hours of cutscenes and loading screens to get to this scene? None of the items you went out of your way to procure even make any difference to the scene from what I could tell, you could easily have had that exact same scene the moment you brought the movie to Liam the first time.
There is no challenge to any of the steps of the movie night quest either, unless testing your tolerance for unskippable cutscenes and load screens counts. You just buy the items and bring them back. Why not have some fun with the whole thing? Show the effects of the krogan moonshine (which doesn’t even appear, so we don’t get to see Drack eat a lamp) and/or show Lexi letting her hair (well, tentacles, I guess) down while drinking her asari wine. Show people getting horrified by Suvi’s awful plant snacks. Speaking of snacks, why not have our human party members astonished by the fact we managed to find popcorn? Maybe have the last known copy of the director’s cut fall into the hands of the local Comic Book Guy type and make the player negotiate with him to secure it. Maybe some outlaws have stolen the copy of the film because they know it’s worth a lot of money (it’s supposed to be, but only costs ten credits at the store) and you need to negotiate with them or just shoot them (this is Mass Effect, we’ve shot people for far less severe offenses). Some of these ideas are probably kind of lame, but they also took me less than five minutes to come up with and I’m sure a talented writer could’ve done a lot better.
There are many things wrong with Mass Effect: Andromeda, but I find the movie night quest really encapsulates all of those things and serves as a microcosm for the game as a whole — some enjoyable moments buried underneath endless busywork and borderline malicious design decisions. I want to invoke Hanlon’s razor here and believe none of this happened on purpose and was simply a result of project mismanagement causing trouble for an inexperienced development team, but you’d think someone at some point would have brought up all these serious fundamental issues and tried to get them fixed. BioWare has stated they have plans to fix the game’s problems, but how (if) that is actually going to work remains to be seen because there are a lot of issues that must be addressed. Not to mention that the damage to BioWare’s reputation and Mass Effect as a brand is already done, and after the debacle of Mass Effect 3’s ending that is something they surely wanted to avoid.
It’s really a shame things turned out this way, because I was really looking forward to Mass Effect: Andromeda even after the initial facial animations controversy. It seemed like the sequel to Mass Effect 1 that I had always wanted. I guess I’ll keep waiting a little bit longer, maybe start another playthrough of the original trilogy in the meantime. Despite having their own problems, those are still really good games and after the initial shock I don’t even mind the ME3 ending that much.