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Games Reviews

Mass Effect: Andromeda – Not Actually the Worst Game Ever

Mass Effect: Andromeda came out a few months ago, but if you wanted a quick review from me I can only disappoint you. When the game came out, it was bombarded by the internet because of the animations and glitches. In fact, EA managed to unwittingly create a perfect storm by releasing the game early to some people – so for the majority of people, the marketing of the game was stuff like this:

Which was a bit of a disaster for sales in an environment when so many things can go wrong, and if any of them do, the sales of a game can completely fall over. Big games like Mass Effect: Andromeda need to sell well because they cost so much to make. A lot of casual fans dismissed the game because of the footage of the animations and glitches they were seeing all over YouTube, and while the reviews of the game weren’t actually bad in general, they were just not as good as most people need. At least it got over 70% on Metacritic, which is the threshold it needs to cross in order to be not a complete disaster, but it was just not good enough for casual gamers – especially at the £50 price point. The game didn’t sell well enough and it’s no surprise to anyone that EA has (apparently) ‘shelved the series’.

I would love to go into the details of why the game failed so badly on a technical level, but other people have already done that a lot more effectively than me, and with better knowledge. Firstly by Jason Schreirer of Kotaku who did some excellent investigative reporting on the subject, and secondly, there’s a great video which also covers animation in RPGs generally:

But if you can’t be bothered with that, here’s a summary: EA is in love with their Frostbite engine (and has been for years) and recently decided that all their games must use it because then they’ll all look really good. The problem with that is Bioware had barely used the Frostbite engine in the past, and because the engine is only really a graphics rendering engine, they had to rebuild a lot of the systems they had before for the other games when they used the Unreal engine. A combination of poor management and staff changes throughout the project lead to everything falling apart. A lot of the animation ended up (probably) being untouched by human hands and was left mostly to the computers to work out using advanced cyberspace computer magic. I’m surprised EA didn’t delay the game again, but I suppose this is EA we’re talking about, who would throttle a starving orphan to get an extra £10 in sales of FIFA.

Considering the nightmare of a development Andromeda had, I was genuinely impressed they managed to get such a complete game out the door. Yeah it was glitchy and the animations were often hilarious, but overall the game is playable, and I only encountered 2 game-breaking bugs, causing me to have to reload from an early save and redo some bits. It’s even quite fun. Yes, even after all the bad press it got, I still bought it (for cheaper than the normal price) fully expecting to find that I had made a horrible mistake. Given my expectations, I was very quite surprised by the game – in a good way.

Andromeda takes place after the events of Mass Effect 3, although none of the characters are aware of the events of Mass Effect 3 (probably a good thing). This is because, as the narrative dictates, after Mass Effect 2 the council decides that just in case the galaxy is wiped out by the Reapers after all, they should send a few colony ships to the nearest other galaxy: Andromeda. They all set off just before Mass Effect 3 begins, and arrive 700 years later. Thorugh some kerfuffling, you become the human Pathfinder – the person who is in charge of establishing new colonies throughout the galaxy and also sorting everything else out because apparently, no one thought to send any kind of military with the colonies to do the dangerous stuff. But that’s fine, I think all government officials should be trained in the art of combat and sent into war zones – it would more fun that way. Some stuff and things happen – you meet an alien race who are hilariously called the ‘Kett’ and some purple humanoid lion people who are all quite nice but don’t really trust outsiders. The story, in general, is okay – nothing too interesting or engaging but at least it drives things forward. I could fairly well predict the plot points that were coming up as I played through the story.

Getting into the characters for a minute, it’s worth setting this up by mentioning that the characters in the original trilogy were definitely one of the strongest points of the games. They were all interesting, varied and had rough edges – like real people. They could joke around but knew when to get serious. You knew you could depend on them in a crisis. Through the games, you got to know them very well – if you spent enough time talking to them – and because of this, I got to quite like some characters that I had, at first, disliked. This was only because I actually talked to them and helped them out with their loyalty missions. It was all very well done. Andromeda’s characters are all a lot more childish and light-hearted. The majority of the characters are people in their early 20s and not from a military background, so they aren’t hardened and they often joke around, sometimes inappropriately. I don’t want to give the impression that I hated this, I was just a bit confused by it for a while and I definitely don’t prefer it. It’s a little bit jarring if, like me, you’ve come straight from the original trilogy. I suppose it was an attempt to distance this set of characters from the characters of the Normandy. I can respect this direction, even if it comes off a little bit cheesy at times. My biggest problem was the lack of variety in the crew. Nearly everyone failed to interest me at all. I didn’t really want to get to know my crew particularly in the same way that I wanted to get to know my crew on the Normandy as Commander Shepard. Ryder (the Pathfinder) is much less of a leader on the ship than Shepard and more of a friend to everyone. I’m not such a fan of this direction, personally.

One thing I am a fan of is, however, is the new dialogue system. The original Mass Effect series had a dialogue morality system where one could choose either the good option or the bad option for what they want to say to people. If you do a lot of good things, you will be able to do special good things which will mean you can persuade other characters to do stuff – and the same for the bad dialogue options. It doesn’t amazingly matter whether you pick good or bad, It’ll just affect whether Shepard is nice to people or not. The problem with this system is that one only has to choose at the start of the game whether they want to be nice or nasty and then from that point on simply only pick the relevant dialogue options in order to unlock the late-game persuasion options. This system is abandoned in Andromeda and replaced with what emotion you want to respond with. Do you want to respond to a person emotionally, logically, professionally, or casually? This means that you’ll end up spending a lot more time thinking about your options rather than always going for the good or the bad option. In the originals, it would sometimes even point out to you what the good option and bad option is for a moral choice. Would you like to do the good thing or the bad thing to these people? Oh no! How am I going to decide?! What a conundrum!

The original idea behind Andromeda was to go back to the roots of Mass Effect, which was fantasy fulfilment and exploration. While I think the term ‘fantasy fulfilment’ sounds dodgy, I can confirm my fantasies were fulfilled by this game more effectively than in the first three games. I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation recently, and I’ve got to say, Andromeda got me feeling like I was in charge of a little spaceship, like in TNG, and that’s a great feeling. I loved the idea of flying around the galaxy and visiting new planets with my loyal crew at my heel, ready to take a pounding whenever they fail me. But that’s just my fantasy, I don’t know about you.

As for the exploration part, well I dunno about that. The game features 7 planets to wander around. They are very large areas and I only found the border of one once. However, these planets are all a bit empty. One planet is literally just a big sandy desert a la Tatooine or Jakku from the Star Wars franchise of movies. Originally, there were going to be infinite planets like No Man’s Sky, but people in Bioware questioned how that would possibly make a good game and how they could tell a story in a game world like that. The idea was scrapped and the number of planets was eventually reduced to 7. I feel as though they could have trimmed it more if it meant more variety and features on the more important and interesting planets. I didn’t feel at all compelled to properly explore the planets I was on. I quite quickly got bored of all of them before even the game would allow me to move on to another planet. I found I was rushing through the missions just so I could go somewhere else. In open world games, I’m a strong believer in ‘density over size’ of a game world. Just Cause 3’s world was big and empty – I got bored pretty quickly, the same is true for the Mad Max game. You can try to impress me all you want with how big the world is, but if there’s not a lot in it, I don’t care – I would even prefer the world were smaller. This is why open world games like Skyrim, The Witcher 3 and Horizon Zero Dawn work so well – their worlds are only as big as they need to be in order to comfortably fit all the actual stuff in them. The reason I wanted to move on to a different planet in Andromeda was that I wanted to see a different horizon and be somewhere else. I would say Bioware didn’t do an excellent job of the exploration part of things.

They didn’t screw up combat too badly at all, however. Well, that’s not entirely true – the biotics wheel is gone and you can only equip two powers before a mission which you’re stuck with. This was probably an attempt to streamline the combat, but I just think it makes the combat a lot less varied and a lot more shooty. Strategy is no longer much a concern in Andromeda and combat is a lot messier. That said, I think it still is very fun in its own way – it’s certainly more fun than a lot of third person shooters I’ve played, and a lot more varied in terms of the enemies you’re fighting, which need you to do different things in order to take them down. It’s quite like Destiny. I had fun with the combat, but I did still miss the strategy and planning involved with the previous games. I suppose you could explain it away by saying that Commander Shepard was an actual military commander and Ryder has almost no military training at all – but that just leads you to question why Ryder has been put in charge of a military team when there are people on the ship who are actually qualified to do that very thing. What are they even there for?

The game was a lot of fun and I did play it for thirty hours. However, the final four of those hours were rushed because I could feel myself getting very bored and I didn’t want to abandon the game when I felt so close to the end. The plot left lots of things unexplained – clearly setting itself up for a sequel which will never happen now (probably). Maybe the (potentially) forthcoming DLC will explain some of these things. I would say that the game is worth playing if you’re a fan of the series. And if you can get it cheap. And if you have nothing else to do – which you clearly don’t because you read all the way to the bottom of this.

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Games Reviews

Enderal – Just Fantastic

EDIT (28/09/16) – You may want to disregard my comments regarding the loading times, as it turns out it was an issue with my motherboard. I got suspicious when every one of my games started to have an eternity for a loading time. Blame me; I should have investigated further rather than blindly assume. I’ll try not to make that mistake again.


So, with the Elder Scrolls VI not coming to us until the year one million and a half, I suppose we’ll all have to compromise. And compromise we shall, with the new, highly anticipated mod from Sure AI, Enderal. Sure AI was behind such mods as Cube Experimental – for Fallout 3, Nehrim – for Oblivion, and now Enderal – for Skyrim. But what is Enderal? Enderal is a “total conversion mod for Skyrim” which literally changes everything about the game – the world, the story, the quests, the character system, levelling, skills, graphics, the UI – in short, it’s basically a whole new game using Skyrim’s engine. It’s incredible what this small team of twelve people, with no budget, have managed to achieve – they’ve created a game with “at least 30 hours of gameplay”, a massive, beautiful world to explore, and an epic story line. But is it actually good, and does my title allow for any kind of suspense? Let’s find out.

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The Map of Enderal.

Enderal  is fantastic – it’s even beyond fantastic – it’s bloody impressive and I think I love it. I’m saying this although I haven’t had too much of a chance to actually play that much of it, but the amount I have played has really impressed me. Starting with the world, it’s actually quite large and very pretty – even without ENB enabled (you can’t use ENB with Enderal) – and a lot of fun to explore. I can see myself getting lost in the world in the same way I often get lost in Skyrim’s, the world is full of rolling hills and expansive countryside which gives you a real sense of being in the open world and being able to explore anywhere you like. To put it neatly, the world is pretty great, and on par with the beauty of Skyrim’s.

And then there are the cities. There is only one city, Ark, which sits roughly in the centre of Enderal, but I can tell you, Sure AI have addressed the many voices crying out for better cities in Skyrim. Many people, including me, were unsatisfied with the cities in Skyrim; they’re all very small and aren’t very complicated. Ark, on the other hand, is pretty damn large and pretty damn complicated – it involves five quarters (yes, I know, I was confused as well), a whole “under city” below ground and a large palace type place, where clever people live.

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Pretty massive if you ask me.

It’s worth pointing out the Ark is, in fact, the only city in Enderal, but I don’t think I need another one – I can accept that with the smallish total size of Enderal that they’d only have one city. There are towns, however, about 4 or 5 of them, all of them quite big and are laid out in ways which feel unique to each place.

I will just quickly jump to Bethesda’s defence before you started thinking that Bethesda should have done the same thing with their many resources and infinite time, by saying this: the reason the cities aren’t unimaginably huge in Skyrim is because, A, Skyrim is not the kind of place to have humongous cities and vast towns; they’re a simple people up there and aren’t into that sort of thing, and B, the world designers were probably trying to keep the world feeling concise and neat, because I will admit that the vast size of Ark and the towns can feel a bit messy, and a little bit empty. The engine is not capable of having a crazy amount of NPCs hanging about and doing their thing – it was never built for that. It’s weird, then, that Ark is so large yet there simply aren’t very many people about – it’s quite like Aberystwyth in that way. I’m not the only one to think this.

Returning to things about the world I do like, I like seeing adventures hanging about the place. In Skyrim, it seemed that you were the single adventurer in the whole world and you never saw anyone else doing anything of the sort. In Enderal, I saw several people kitted out in gear for adventuring about the place, which is a nice touch. And speaking of characters, there are some. People seem much more alive and real than in Skyrim; people speak more casually and say things that, you know, a real person might say to another real person – the writing and voice acting is superb.

 

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The Hero menu, where you can see your character and stuff.

 

It’s pretty clear to me that Sure AI share the opinion of many about what some refer to as “the dumbing down of The Elder Scrolls”, because they’ve made this game a lot more Morrowind-ey, by removing the ‘learn by doing’ system of Skyrim (which I think is actually very innovative and a great way to do character progression but whatever I suppose), and replacing it with a more traditional, “here are some skill points where ‘d ya wanna put ’em?” system, they’ve also completely removed the fast traveling system (which, again, fast traveling I think makes the game a lot more accessible and if you don’t want to use fast travel then just don’t but whatever), and replaced that with a more traditional, “just walk for hours on end” type system. Okay, I’m exaggerating, there are these things called “teleport scrolls” which you can use to get to places, but there is a limited supply and you have to use the right one to get to the place you need to go. Also, in Ark, you can interact with sign posts to move around the city a bit quicker than by walking. I wish you could, like in the Witcher 3, use sign posts to fast travel to any other sign post in the game; I don’t feel like Ark is so big that I need to fast travel around it, but I suppose that’s to cut down on the number of loading screens you’ll have to endure.

 

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You’ll see this a lot, for a very long time, and you’ll go mad looking at it.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but my God! What is going on with the loading in this game? I have had serious problems with actually getting this game to load at all past the main menu. Just this morning I had problems getting the main menu to load at all – I eventually gave up. I’ve done some research to suggest that this is a common issue for many people, some saying that for them loading times are on average between 5-10 minutes, and that’s for every loading screen – not just the first one. I count that as unplayable. I can’t wait that long for the game to load, I simply can’t – show me anyone who can. I’ve more than a couple of times gotten out of my chair and leant over my window sill to contemplate life while the game loads the next area – I’ve come to some interesting conclusions in that time, but perhaps I’ll discuss this another time. You know how bad the loading time is? It’s worse than GTA V. Not even joking.

 

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This game is too cool for horses, apparently.

I should reiterate if I have not mentioned already, that I haven’t played a huge amount of this game, so how I should feel entitled to review it is anyone’s guess, but I’ll discuss the parts I have played. The game starts off with some very intense/creepy/disturbing gameplay, and then you end up on a ship with a friend. Through the dialogue, you discover that you and he are stowaways aboard this vessel. Anyway, plot, plot, plot, and you have a creepy vision and end up on a beach.

Before we continue I would just like to mention a few things. Firstly, damn these guys are good at the cinematic stuff, and second, I found the character creation to be a bit lacklustre; at the start, you are introduced to your father, who is most definitely a human man, which means you are forced into being half human. You can’t even be fully human – you have to be half human and half something else. The variety of something else includes four options: something that looks like an orc and an elf, something that looks like and elf and an orc, something a bit orkcey/elfey and something this is, I suppose, kind of a cross between an elf and perhaps some sort of orc. They each look slightly different from each other and they have different stats tied to them, but in terms of looks, you’re stuck with one. Although it should be said that the inclusion of ApachiiSkyHair was very much appreciated.

 

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My character, Amber Stottlesworth.

 

What then follows carries the title we all fear, the tutorial, and it’s a long one. It is actually quite an interesting tutorial that sets up the story, the information about nearly all the gameplay and sets you up with the basic equipment you need to do your thing, before dumping you in the world. It involves crawling through a cave, killing some things and then wandering in the wilderness for quite a while, which is a good way of letting you appreciate the beauty of the world, but it is quite a lot of wandering at the start, a time when a game needs to hook the player and keep them going until they stop resisting and follow willingly.

Speaking of quite a lot of wandering, I want to discuss this issue of fast travelling. It’s not in Enderal, so you need to do a lot of walking to places, and probably getting ambushed on the way. In the world of this game, there is a thing called the “Red Fever” which basically means everyone in the wilderness hates you and wants to kill you. I’m not a fan of this, It’s not a good way of encouraging exploration when you’re worried that if you step your foot out the front door, a crazy loon will start gnawing it off. Makes a man want to just fast travel everywhere. I had a nasty surprise when I discovered that fast travelling wasn’t in the game. I had just run for miles as every creature and person in the world was trying to hack me to bits for whatever reason, so I could talk to a nice old man about something I wasn’t paying attention to because it wasn’t super interesting. After the conversation finished it told me I had to go back to the person I’d been sent by, which meant going all the way back the way I came. Needless to say, discovering that fast travel isn’t a thing upset me slightly, but luckily I know the following three commands to type into the console: “tcai”, “tcl”, “tgm”. With my new abilities of an infinite sprint, flying and being ignored by people who had wanted to kill me a minute before hand, I flew through the terrain to my destination. Cheating, I know, but I didn’t have the mental stamina to fight my way all the way back.

 

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What I value is KNAWLEDGE!

 

Getting back to the point, while playing I noticed something I liked: Sure AI clearly have played Skyrim quite a lot because they’ve added some pretty cool features. For instance, if you have a follower who walks too far away from you or gets lost somehow (which happens all the time in Skyrim), the games puts a marker above their head. It’s simple, but it made finding my follower a lot easier than it would have been without it.

Another little nice feature was the way they’ve done dialogues. Some ideas have been borrowed from the Witcher, including how the dialogue options point out which options will move the conversation on, and which will just give you more information. It makes sure you don’t say something that you can’t unsay which might cause issues later. The other thing is the knowledge system. The knowledge system is one which tells you that this option will give you information  about the world. The interesting thing about is that it’s set up in a ‘collect them all’ type of system. This is good because I’d have never asked about these things otherwise, and I actually learned quite a lot about the world of Enderal this way. Now I’m looking for them and actively wanting to know these juicy, interesting facts.

 

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Looks… familiar…

 

The whole theme of this game is a bit weird and conflicting; it looks like Skyrim, but it’s all a bit darker and more brutal. While playing Skyrim I never, for instance, come across a corpse hanging from a tree or had characters effin’ and jeffin’ all over the place. I quite like it, but I also don’t. It’s like a halfway point between the themes of the Witcher and Skyrim – I find that bizarre, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it with many hours of playing.

After all that you might be wondering why it is that I said that I loved this game/mod. Well, it’s more Skyrim, innit. Between thirty and  a hundred hours of it. I’ll take it. I’ll take it and run with it. It gives me something to do with myself until Skyrim Special Edition comes to us in October. To sum up, play this mod if you have Skyrim; you’ll probably enjoy it. If the loading screens don’t bore you to death, that is.