Mass Effect: Andromeda

(SPOILER FREE) So, months after it released, I’ve finally gotten in to Mass Effect: Andromeda. As an unabashed fan of the original trilogy, I had preordered it and been salivating at the chance to get back into the ME world until a week before its release. But then I bought into the negative release hype, disappointed with what I was seeing regarding facial animations, and in protest returned to a mostly unplayed Witcher 3 instead. I got sucked into Witcher 3 and took my time with it, deciding to finish its main storyline (and not rush it) before I came back to Andromeda.

Now that I’m over 10 hours into it, past the prologue, colonized the first world, and exploring the stars, I think I have a good feel for the game. Bottom line up front: For an unsuccessful game with some flaws if we’re being fair, it’s very good. I would say that this is the “Star Trek” side of the series, compared to the “Star Wars” side that the original trilogy served up. There’s definitely the basis of “boldly going where no Milky Way person has ever gone before” from the first scenes in the game.

There are times when I wonder if my age affects how I view video games. I’m a Gen-Xer, and when I first got into video games, ANYTHING that made pixels on a screen move because of a controller input was MAGIC to me. OMG, how much time I spent on Defender on the Atari, Dungeons and Dragons on the Intellivision, or Ultima IV on an Apple ][. Stick figures and 7-color sprites fired the imagination. Of course by now, that’s no longer the case… I won’t waste time on games where I feel like I’m fighting the interface, or that I need to “practice”. I don’t do well with ‘twitch’ games, or hard mode, or multiplayer games. I want an immersive experience, and so now I’m very choosy on what I commit to.

On the other hand, I have the perspective of the road behind, which younger players may not have. They expect a level of graphical excellence as a norm, and have very little tolerance for technical imperfections. I look at a game like Andromeda and the things they get right immediately hit my nostalgia buttons to the point where, “Oh man, if I had seen this when I was growing up this would have blown my mind and made me fail out of high school.”

So, my judgment of video games is imperfect. If I like it, it must be a good game because it’s doing something right to get through my “I’ve played too many games filter”. On the other hand, my indicator of whether I think it’s a good game is: “Did I like it?”

So with that in mind, the flaws. The biggest is the wooden character faces (even after their patches), which is a letdown after coming off the Witcher 3.It’s unfortunate the alleged drama and abandonment of resources/support by the company for the studio making it, which is most visibly seen in stiff or awkward character facial animations. There are other flaws too, the biggest being that the game executes everything well, but very little to the outstanding level.

In spite of all that, it’s the overall blend that serves up an expansive space faring experience. If the original trilogy was a Star Wars – esque experience in the ME universe, then this is a Star Trek -esque experience. Or maybe a bit of Farscape. But, it’s a world that blooms slowly, as the pace of a multi-season sci-fi TV show and not at the pace of a blockbuster movie. So far, the journey is worth it.

I’m not going to get into a systematic look at each feature of the game. I wanted to capture the positives that I’ve noticed, that have made me take a step back from the game while I’m playing it and note that, “Wow. I’m really enjoying the heck out of this. It’s an immersive sci-fi galactic space exploration experience that I don’t think I’ve seen before in a video game.” It does some things better than the original Mass-Effect trilogy.

Disclosure: I am a passionate fanboy of the original ME trilogy. To this day, I think it’s the grandest computer RPG ever made. I didn’t hate the original ending, but the expanded endings they published were immensely more satisfying.

The original ME trilogy had the impending sense of Reaper doom looming over your head. It created an epic war movie, reminiscent of LotR In Space. Actually, more like Lovecraft in space… the Reapers were existential threats to all civilizations across the galaxy, and they looked like giant squids in space, so yes. Lovecraftian.

With Andromeda, we get a different premise. It’s a massive colonization effort to a galaxy. It starts with the threat that all pioneers and explorers face: things go wrong. Where you’re going isn’t what you thought it would be. Gradually, layers of problems are added as the game grows from pure survival to first contact, and understanding the situation into the new galaxy.

In some ways, the threat (at least at this stage in the game) is less immediate. I can see something big looming on the story horizon, but it’s not in our face quite yet. The sense of urgency is about survival, and making smart choices (e.g., develop military or science?) as things unfold.

As I move around the galaxy map, even for things as simple as mining for minerals, I find this game communicates the vastness of space a bit more than the original trilogy. Not to say it wasn’t there in the original, but there’s some je ne sais quois that hits right. I like the fact that I get the feel, each at different times in the game, of “being on a star ship and talking to my crew”, “walking through space stations and getting a glimpse into station life”, “driving with a rover around alien terrain”, “exploring with the space ship around many star systems”, sci-fi combat, sci-fi weird alien exploration, drama, and romance, and all that stuff.

Did the original ME have all that? For sure. But so far in this one, there’s a more, I don’t know, feeling of hope and the decision to cling to hope and determination in the face of the unknown.

Maybe it’s just me, but it’s scratching my gaming itch right now.

This is NOT the kind of game you can have on a list of games to “get through.” Meaning, if you’re looking to get through this game so you can get to another game, you probably won’t enjoy it. It’s the perfect game for just having finishing something else, and you have MONTHS before you see anything else you want to play. Give it 10 hours to unfold, and then spend the next few months relaxing into the experience of exploring a new galaxy and all the different facets that entails. And, you have to relax into the first several hours of “talk to everyone on the Nexus” before you get the freedom of your own starship.

Star Trek vs. Star Wars. Yeah, that’s probably the best way I can think about it.

Overall, I give this game a B+. Yes, the faces are wooden. The animations can be wonky. The lighting on the characters are off at times. Nevertheless, it’s still a big, juicy game that simply leaves me with a childlike sense of galaxy exploring wonder as I go through it.

Oh, and on top of all that, I’m playing a gunslinging/melee ninja that can create miniature black holes over opponent’s heads with the power of my mind. So, there’s that.

Plot Blooms

Since Through Rose-Colored Goggles came out, I’ve been diligently working on the 2nd book in the trilogy. And by diligently, I mean off and on and not forcing it. So, that means my usual timeline of a trilogy in 2 years isn’t going to happen this round, but that’s okay. The end of 2016 has been rough for all of us. What that’s translated to in my writing life is that I haven’t been screaming with creative energy. Nevertheless, I’ve not disengaged.

I’m pleased to say now that I’m fully into Act 2 of the next book, The Clockwork Goddess. I’ve hit the plot bloom.

What’s a plot bloom?

So, I’m a discovery writer. Or what some people call a gardener. Or a “pantser” (writing by the seat of one’s pants). I don’t write via outline. I have a general impression for where I want the major themes to go, and a feel for the characters. After that, it’s up to the characters to get there. The process of writing is the process of discovering the details of the plot. This doesn’t work for every writer, of course, and I salute those who can build a full outline and then write the scenes to follow.

So, as I discover my characters in their new situations, I write scenes. I write conversations. I introduce conflicts. And I’m multi-threading various characters and plots.

A plot bloom is when the writer sees all the various threads arc-ing together. It’s as if each set of characters’ arcs are blossom petals, and you’ve finally discovered for the first time how they will eventually all come together in the center. In other words, the flower blooms, and the author has an “ah ha” moment when he or she finally sees the way ahead.

So, yeah. That might be an overly poetic and pretentious description of the process. We writers like to romanticize our work to ourselves. And to others.

I’m pleased to say, the plot has finally bloomed for The Clockwork Goddess, and I can see the path to the book’s climax and the stage set for the finale in the final book of the series. Yay! Now back to making words happen…