There are a total of five (eventually) viable planets in the game, and early on the game makes it clear that your goal is to heal them all using the alien monoliths. Each planet has some sort of environmental problem: Radiation, extreme heat, extreme cold, caustic water, and out-of-control wildlife. We’re fresh out of the introduction, and already these alien gizmos have lost all sense of mystery. We know what they do and we’re confident we can use them. They’re reduced to obvious mechanical contrivances.
Fine, we’re not doing a sci-fi mystery anymore. Instead we’re doing simple action adventure. We can argue about whether or not that’s a good idea for a Mass Effect game, but it’s not an inherently bad idea for a story. But even if we’re going to use Andromeda’s galaxy-sized canvas to tell a simple story, there’s no reason to portray it in such a boring way. Everyone just assumes that the alien monoliths can fix the planet and they assume they’ll be able to figure out how to use them. You could make this plot significantly more interesting by just having the characters show some level of apprehension or uncertainty.
Eos is our first step on our tour of the Heleus Cluster. It’s the first of two orange desert worlds we’ll encounter. The surface is bathed in radiation, making it uninhabitable.
The lack of narrative ambition is just staggering. Even if we’re committed to this shallow plot, this new setting should give us lots of leeway to introduce wild landscapes. Does this planet really need to look like the Mojave Desert? Can’t we get some purple sand? Strange rock spires? Creepy “breathing” flora? Luminescent jellyfish creatures floating around? Steam vents? Bones of giant creatures killed by the radiation? Some dead trees? Pools of glowing liquid? Massive crystal structures jutting out of the ground? The artists made a bunch of scenery objects for this place. They could just as easily have made assets that don’t look like pedestrian Earth scenery.
SAM scans the surface of Eos and finds another alien monolith. We land, and it turns out there’s already a colony here. Or was. It failed, and now everyone is dead or scattered.
On the surface we get the vehicle we’ll be using this time around, so I guess it’s time to talk about…
Mass Effect has always had a strange relationship with vehicles. The first one had the Mako, a bouncy tank. It served an important purpose within the world for giving things a sense of scale and distance, but a lot of people found it frustrating to drive. Also, the random planets you explored with the Mako were often ugly single-texture monstrosities with nothing along the lines of flora or fauna, which made them barren and dull. Which means that driving around them lacked a sense of wonder and discovery. This was actually a problem with the worlds and not the vehicle itself, but it made people dislike the Mako sections and so it was cut from later games.
Mass Effect 2 gave us the Hammerhead, which was completely pointless since it was only ever used on Hammerhead-specific planets. It felt like someone had grafted a terrible hovertank game onto this RPG.
Mass Effect 3 got rid of vehicle sections altogether, and turned them into cutscenes.
So now Andromeda brings us back to the original idea of using a six-wheeled vehicle to get around on a large world. And I think the series finally got it right. They left the tank turret off this time, so the Nomad doesn’t get mixed up in the combat systems of the game and the designers didn’t have to design two different classes of enemies for vehicle and on-foot combat. Instead, the Nomad is just a tool for transport and exploration. This also helps underscore that the Initiative is a civilian enterprise rather than a military one, showing that they didn’t bring a friggin’ TANK on a mission of peaceful exploration.
Thanks to the Nomad, planets can now be largeBy videogame standards. I mean, they’re still only a few square miles. and offer lots of different areas to explore without forcing the player to trudge through miles of empty wilderness.
My complaints about the Nomad are mostly limited to the environments where you pilot it. Some of the terrain is too obviously contrived to force you to drive huge distances around a mountain. That’s good for making the world feel larger than it really is, but it gets to be tedious after a while. The maze of cliff walls can feel smothering and blocks your view of the horizon, which is a shame because being able to see to the horizon is what gives you that fantastic trailblazer vibe.
This isn’t helped by the fact that all the worlds are all single-biome locations, which causes them to get old fast. The fact that the sun is always locked in place with no day / night cycle doesn’t help either. Once you’ve driven on a planet for sixty seconds, you’ve basically seen everything that planet has to offer in terms of visuals.
Even though the maps are large, their single-biome nature makes them feel small. Sure, I understand it wouldn’t make sense to land on tundra and then drive half a kilometer to find yourself in jungle, but that’s no excuse for having the planets be so relentlessly same-y. You can change the color palette without needing to go to a new climate. You can have grass in some spots, lifeless dirt in others, and rocky wastes elsewhere.
As it stands, these planets are basically devoid of life. No forests, no migrating wildlifeAlthough all planets do draw from the same library of attack-on-sight monsters., no shifts in weather, and no change in color tone. And like I said, two of our five planets are orange deserts.
How I’d have done it:
Yes, I get that the point of the game is that these planets have been knocked off-kilter by malfunctioning alien technology and are therefore uninhabitable, but certainly there’s room for a little artistic license. The alien technology in this game is so random, unexplained, contrived, and arbitrary, that I doubt it would shatter anyone’s immersion to have a couple of grassy patches here and there. If anything, the irradiated planet ought to give you an excuse to make a place with intensely strange and interesting flora. If you’re going to abandon the pretense of hard sci-fi and have a universe that runs on space magic, then you might as well take full advantage of it and use that to create fantastical environments.
The maniac in charge of the Mass Effect 3 color filter still shows up sometimes, but his vandalism isn’t quite as bad as it was in the previous game. Having said that, we could still do with more variety. Grass here. Giant mushrooms over here. Rolling plains in one spot, spiky hills in another. How about some Fisher Towers? Some contrasting colors between dirt and rock? Even if we can’t have living trees, how about a forest of dead ones?
The planets do have a little variety. The ice planet has snowy mountains surrounding a mostly flat frozen lake. There’s a lake on the irradiated planet and fields of sinkholes on the furnace one. The designers were on the right track, but they didn’t go nearly far enough. If we gave each planet three or four regions of distinct color, topography, and soundscape, it would go a long way to making these planets feel large and interesting. We could put each monolith in its own biome, which would relieve some of the tedium of doing the same thing three times.
In this section we get into our first real gunfights of the game, so let’s talk about the…
Combat and Leveling
While the Mass Effect combat system has evolved a great deal over the years, it’s always been built on three basic pillars:
- Guns. I’m sure you’re familiar with this concept by now.
- Tech / stealth powers like turning invisible, hacking robots, destroying shields, and that sort of thing.
- Biotic powers that let you fling the bad guys (or even yourself) around the battlefield.
Tech powers are often associated with sniper rifles and biotic powers are often associated with melee or shotguns at point-blank range. This isn’t a rule or anything. If you like, you can carry a sniper rifle and use biotic powers, or you can use tech abilities in melee range. But there are often bonuses built into the system that assumes tech specialists are snipers and biotics are close range fighters.
For the record: I never mess with tech powers. Every time I start a new game I tell myself I’m going to do something different this time. And then I end up playing as a close-range biotic again. I’m a fan of run-and-gun style shooting, and I like games where you have a lot of combat mobility. I strongly dislike sitting behind cover and playing whack-a-mole with guys as they poke their heads up. There’s nothing wrong with that sort of game, it’s just not my thing.
Which means that I’m not an expert on the Mass Effect combat system. I’ve always ignored a third of it (tech) and tried to minimize another third (firearms) because I enjoy the mobility of biotics. But in my non-expert opinion, this is the best Mass Effect has ever played. (At least, in the moment-to-moment mook fights. The boss fights are usually a joyless slog against predictable enemies with massive HP bars.)
As in the earlier games, you get a handful of skill points every time you level up. You spend these to upgrade your skills. The cost of each rank increases by 1, so it costs you 1 skill point to get Charged Shot level 1 but 6 skill points to upgrade from Charged Shot 5 to Charged Shot 6. Normally this would incentivize the player to generalize. If the low-rank skills are cheap, then why not just buy the first couple of ranks in everything? The game balances this out by making the first few upgrades weak, and the final upgrades really powerful.
The other thing that encourages you to specialize is the fact that you can only equip a measly three powers at a time. I suppose this makes sense if you’re using a dual analog controller, but if you’re using a keyboard it feels very silly. This also means that once you hit level 40 or so, there’s nothing left to spend your skill points on. By 40, you’ve maxed out all three of the abilities you’ve chosen and all of the passive powers. What’s left? Invest points in some skill you can’t use because you don’t have room to equip it? I suppose you can buy additional powers and swap them around as needed, but it’s a chore to pause the game, open the skills menu, find the skill you need, and add it to your hotbar just because you met a guy with lots of armor and you didn’t have any anti-armor stuff equipped.
The selling point for me is the way your jump jets integrate with combat. They allow you to do a dash-dodge move, or you can jump straight up in the air and hover for a few seconds to deal with an enemy that’s shy about poking their head out of cover. You can also jump up over cover and then hit the melee button to do a ground slam move. It’s all pretty fun and it manages to look cool.
Just before you officially found the colony on Eos, you meet up with Drack and he joins the party. As much as I think it makes no damn sense to bring the Krogan with us, I admit he’s a pretty cool character.
There’s this odd quirk with his story though. At one point during the main story you’re assaulting a Kett location and then you hear the Drack’s scouts are being held prisoner here. In my first two playthroughs, this came out of nowhere.
What? Drack has scouts? He apparently commands a team of guys that he personally recruited and they went missing at some point?
On my third trip through the game I did see a single line of dialog that made passing reference to the scouts, but it didn’t even make it explicit that the scouts in question were a team that Drack had a personal attachment to or that they had gone missing. There are also a couple of intra-party conversations you might hear while you’re driving around, assuming they don’t get truncated / interrupted by other chatter.
Still, this is a really important plot point and it feels like his sudden attachment to these scouts comes out of nowhere. Which means it doesn’t quite have the emotional punch it ought to. I imagine this is another detail that would have been smoothed out if the game had been given more time for polish.
 By videogame standards. I mean, they’re still only a few square miles.
 Although all planets do draw from the same library of attack-on-sight monsters.
Starcraft 2: Rush Analysis
I write a program to simulate different strategies in Starcraft 2, to see how they compare.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
Quakecon 2011 Keynote Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
A video Let's Play series I collaborated on from 2009 to 2017.
A look at the main Borderlands games. What works, what doesn't, and where the series can go from here.