The last few entries have been much too negative. Okay, most of the last 19 entries have been pretty negative. Sorry. Let’s switch things up and talk about something good. Let’s talk about…
The Ark Missions
We started the game on the Human ark, but there are three other arks out there: Salarian, Asari, and Turian. Like the Human ark, each of these is a ship with about 20,000 sleepers on board. All three are intercepted by the KettThe story never explains how the Kett are so magically good at finding these silent ships in the void. Then again, the story also never explains why the Kett never invade the easy-to-find settlements on the ground. Whatever., who begin doing genetic experiments on the inhabitants.
At various points you’ll track down one of these arks and find out what happened to them. I like these missions because all three of them tell a nice self-contained story. It presents a question like “what happened here and how do we get out of it?” and then it lets you work through to the answer without distracting you with a half dozen other questlines. The plot points happen every minute or two as you move from room to room, rather than being separated by driving around in the open world or passing through the tedious planet-hopping loading screens. The ark missions are where the game feels the most like a proper Mass Effect game and not a series of Ubisoft-style open-world distractions.
Also, the arks are often dark, which provides a nice quasi-spooky atmosphere. Seeing the familiar ark layout after it’s been looted is unsettling in a way that blasting your way through Kett Heinous Medical Science Lab #267 isn’t. I suppose it helps that on the arks, the beige foes stand out from the white scenery, while Kett installations usually feature a soup of beige-on-beige that all blends together.
I spent some time in the last couple of posts talking about the unsatisfying choices in the game. We get another one at the end of the Turian ark.
The Turian Pathfinder
You team up with Avitus, the second in line for the position of Turian Pathfinder. You search the ark for Macen, the current Pathfinder. At the end you discover that Macen is dead.
Avitus, filled with doubt, doesn’t want the title. You’re given a binary choice where you can either accept his refusal or attempt to give him a pep talk. The first time I went through this quest I thought Avitus sounded like too much of a mope. I figured the last thing the poor Turians needed was an unmotivated Pathfinder. So I let him pass on the job.
And then it turns out that this means the Turians don’t get one. No Pathfinder. Avitus wanders off and leaves his people in the lurch.
This choice is a failure on two counts. One, it’s not clear that you’re choosing between “Loser depressed Pathfinder” and “No Pathfinder at all”. In fact, our entire adventure is taking place because the Pathfinder title was passed to unqualified Sara instead of the fully-trained Cora. Apparently the rules of succession are incredibly flexible. It’s pretty reasonable for the player to assume that the job can just pass to whoever is next in line or whatever. If this is not the case, then the dialog should make that clear.
The second problem is that this is a simple right answer vs. wrong answer choice. It’s not like you’re balancing two desirable but mutually exclusive outcomes. You’re not trying to decide between the lesser of two evils. You’re not weighting idealism against pragmatism. If you choose one option then you get a bad outcome. If you choose the other then your pep talk basically changes Avitus’ entire outlook and he transforms into a confident hero.
In a game with so few choices, it’s a shame that the few we do get are so uninteresting. This is frustrating because they wrote the lines, recorded the dialog, scripted the different outcomes, and created the different cutscenes. They spent the money, but the entire premise of this choice was flawed from the beginning. I know this game suffers from an overall lack of polish, but this choice wasn’t going to get any better in the polish stage. The problems with this scene go all the way back to the dry-erase board.
I realize I promised I was going to be more positive. Look, I’m doing what I can. I still think the ark missions are pretty okay. It’s just tragic to see so much money and so many manhours of creativity were squandered building missions on top of scripts and ideas that needed a total re-write.
Let’s get back to the main quest…
So after dicking around on Kadara and putting up with Sloane, Ryder has finally obtained a “transponder” that tells her where the Kett flagship is.
When we follow the signal, we find that the flagship has captured the Salarian ark. The Kett are unpacking the ark and experimenting on the Salarians. So this mission is actually doing double duty. It’s both an ark mission and part of the main story. In the first half of the mission you explore the ark, wake up the Salarian Pathfinder, and tell her to get the ship ready to launch. In the second half you go over to the Kett flagship to steal the map that tells you how to find “Meridian”, and do some sabotage to the flagship so that the Salarian ark can escape.
Again, this stuff on the ark is pretty good and I liked the Salarian pathfinder. The pacing is good, the visuals are not too bad, the premise is fine, and the dialog manages to tell a story without contradicting itself.
Halfway through the Kett flagship there’s a cutscene where you blunder into a forcefield and end up…
Trapped in a Cutscene
Your three-person squad is held in an immobilizing field while the Archon comes in and mocks you. Then he stabs you in the neck and injects you with something. Then he leaves you all alone, with no guards, still holding your weapons, with a promise that he’ll come back later. This isn’t just cartoon villain behavior, this is Saturday morning cartoon villain behavior. It’s just silly.
But Shamus! This is actually part of his plan that you escape so that…
Right, right. I get that. I do. But the writer 100% needed to lampshade this. Yes, it’s true that possibly this half-hearted capture was deliberate on the part of the Archon. His real goal was to inject Ryder and let her go so he could follow her to Meridian. That explains why we were left with our weapons and no guards. Fine. We know this, but Ryder doesn’t. This situation ought to strike the team as inexplicable.
In Star Wars, our heroes escape the Death Star in the Millenium Falcon. It seems pretty incredible that such a small group of people could escape something so impossibly powerful. Our characters notice this, and they talk about it. Leia is intelligent and reads the situation correctly: They let us go because they’re tracking us. The prideful Han Solo assumes they escaped due to his great skill. Two lines of dialog manage to lampshade this situation to preserve believability in the minds of the audience while also characterizing two of our leads. At the same time, it creates tension because we realize maybe we’re not actually safe and this escape may simply be setting us up for something worse. That’s efficient dialog!
Andromeda doesn’t do this, so instead of creating character banter, building tension, and making our bad guy look cunning, it makes it look like our villain is a dumbass and our leads have short attention spans.
SAM points out that the field is only active if you’re alive. He proposes stopping Ryder’s heartJust to be clear: He resuscitates her as soon as she’s free. so the field will turn off. It works. Then Ryder frees the other two squad members and they continue with the mission.
But this lack of lampshading is a minor nitpick. The real problem with this scene is that this is the big set-up for the villain’s plan at the end, and it doesn’t work.
The Idiot Ball is Given to The Audience
We know Ryder was injected in the neck with something. SAM immediately identifies it as a “biological transmitter”. After the mission, someone says that the Archon was able to use it to access Sara’s memories. I’m not sure how we know this, or how we know what specific memories he accessed, but… fine.
The problem is that nobody makes any further effort to remove this transmitter. My trust in the writer was pretty low already, but I sort of assumed that this removal happened off-screen. I actually went to talk to the ship’s doctor, assuming I’d get some post-op dialog making it clear she removed the item. When she had nothing to say on the matter, I thought that perhaps there was a scene where this thing was extracted by the doctor, but it had to be cut to get the game out the door. I just couldn’t imagine that the story as written would have the heroes forget about it, because that’s just too brazenly stupid.
Everyone knows this happened. It ought to be everyone’s top priority once the mission is over. The bad guy has injected some technology into our hero. What could it do? Read her mind? Mind-control her? Kill her? Poison her? Broadcast her position? It could do any or all of these things. We don’t know.
And yet apparently everyone just forgets all about this. I faulted the earlier games for inflicting “cutscene incompetence” on our lead, but this is maximally worse. This isn’t just stupidity on the part of one character for one scene, this requires that every single character on the Tempest be inflicted with a case of writer-imposed stupidity that goes on for the rest of the game. It also assumes the player is a dum-dum that can’t remember what happened five minutes ago.
The big reveal at the end will be that this biological transmitter has been broadcasting Ryder’s experiences to the bad guy, so that as she unravels the alien technology, he gets all the answers at the same time. This would be a fun and clever move if it were properly set up, but it’s not.
How I’d have done it:
You could fix this with just a couple of lines of dialog. Have the doctor extract the transmitter after the mission. So we in the audience think she’s in the clear. Then at the end the bad guy would say something like, “What, did you think I only put ONE transmitter into you?”
Sure, that’s dumb action schlock. But that’s fine. That’s all I’m asking for. Just do the bare minimum of effort to act like these characters have memories and planning horizons longer than five seconds.
Save the Krogan
I guess I should mention the choice at the end of the mission, if only because it’s one of the precious few choices in the game that actually works. As you’re escaping with the map to Meridian, you get a call from the Salarian Pathfinder. She’s pinned down by Kett and isn’t going to make it. At the same time, Drack’s team of scouts are here, and they’re about to be exalted. You can save the Pathfinder or you can save the scouts, and both choices have repercussions.
If you save the Pathfinder, then the scouts get exalted. You’ll face them as mini-bosses from time to time in future missions. An exalted Krogan really is a handful, so you will feel the brunt of this choice directly. (Also, Drack will be disappointed in you.)
If you save the scouts, then you won’t have to face them in the future and Drack will be grateful. But the Salarians won’t have a PathfinderAgain, the rules of succession are a little vague here. Did the Salarians really just give up instead of passing the job on?.
It’s a good choice. The game needed more like this. I’m pretty sure this is the only meaningful choice in the game.
Give Appeasement a Chance
After the flagship, we return to the Nexus and Sara announces her plan to voyage to Meridian, where she thinks she’ll be able to activate all the climate-control vaults at once and make the entire cluster habitable.
Director Tann opposes the idea. That’s fine. There are a lot of good reasons to oppose Ryder’s scheme:
- Meridian will no doubt be guarded by the enemy. For whatever reason, we only brought one Tempest-class ship on this voyage. It’s designed for exploration, it has no weapons, and there’s no reason to risk it on a military endeavor like this.
- You’re the Pathfinder, not a military general. Your job is to find habitable places for our people. If you die when picking a fight with the Kett, then we’re all screwed.
- Our colonies are coming along just fine without this Meridian thing. (Assuming these puny four-acre outposts are as valuable as the game pretends they are.) You’re risking everything for a technology we don’t apparently need.
But instead, Tann opposes the plan because he doesn’t want to “provoke the Kett”. This line is ridiculously out of place considering that you just got done with a mission where the Kett tried to harvest the entire Salarian ark. Tann is Salarian, so the Kett harvesting ought to have left an enormous impression on him!
Sure, you can argue that Tann is just dedicated to the way of appeasement, but that doesn’t fit with the other parts of the story that are trying to pretend he was a brutal dictator during the Nexus rebellions before becoming a timid weasel when he met you. This character is all over the place and the writer has no idea what he’s supposed to be.
I’m sure this scene is here to mirror the bit in Mass Effect 1 where the Council takes away the Normandy and grounds Shepard. Except, this scene doesn’t work because the story has already established that Tann has no real authority over Ryder.
In fact, after the meeting Ryder and the remaining pathfinders immediately get together and begin to make plans to ignore Tann, because who cares what he says? Even if he really is a secret tyrant, he has no real military muscle and can’t impose his will on you.
It’s a scene where Tann uses a nonsense argument that’s wrong for his character to give you an order he has neither the means or authority to enforce in order to set up a conflict that’s completely irrelevant to your efforts. Once again, the writer is using established tropes but doesn’t seem to understand what they’re for, how to use them, or how to integrate them with the story.
 The story never explains how the Kett are so magically good at finding these silent ships in the void. Then again, the story also never explains why the Kett never invade the easy-to-find settlements on the ground. Whatever.
 Just to be clear: He resuscitates her as soon as she’s free.
 Again, the rules of succession are a little vague here. Did the Salarians really just give up instead of passing the job on?
Best. Plot Twist. Ever.
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Quakecon 2012 Annotated
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