Mass Effect Andromeda: Finding the Good Amongst the Rushed

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

We picked up a copy of Mass Effect Andromeda the other day for our PS4. We've heard all the talk about the facial animations and some of the weird movement and I can confirm that these issues do indeed exist and are prevalent enough that they detract from the overall experience. I'm just as disappointed as many of the players out there, but instead of ranting and raving about how ridiculous and unacceptable the situation is, I've been trying to understand how the game came to look like it does now and focusing on the things the game has done well.

First off, let's talk about the animation. Game animation isn't easy. It takes a lot of dedicated time and resources and eats a significant amount of development time for even relatively straightforward shooters, but that time grows exponentially for an RPG, especially one as large as Andromeda. Many large studios focus on an iterative development cycle that moves many parts of the game forward and test as they work towards their final development goals. The animation process is likely built on algorithms that mix phoneme shapes for the mouths and emotion shapes for the faces. This process allows character models to speak VO lines fairly early in the design process, but is usually worked on a few more times to smooth out the rough edges as development moves forward.

It seems clear that the team ran out of time. Where the pressure to release came from remains unclear but most would point fingers at publisher, EA. No matter where the blame lies, many of the game's human characters and more than a few asari characters have stiff facial animations and rough, sometimes jagged movement. In the development of any AAA game, there are things that get missed or put on a backburner when crunch happens. I'm guessing that these animations were set aside to focus development assets on less developed areas with the hope that the team would still have time to work on them before the game went gold. I can't fault them for that; it's disappointing, but the animations aren't so bad that they ruin the game entirely.

There is still a great deal to love about Andromeda. Some have said that there isn't as much to explore as the hype seemed to imply, but I'd argue that there is a great amount of density to the activities on the planets you can explore. In the original Mass Effect, you could do a lot of wandering around in the Mako but any given planet only had four or five different things you could do. Andromeda, by comparison, has a great deal more in store for the pathfinder. The Nomad takes some getting used to,but once you've packed a few upgrades into it, it is very close to the experience of great, mountain climbing Mako. My greatest frustration in exploring the various worlds in Andromeda lies with the quest system. With so many side quests popping up on so many places, the early game gets cluttered quickly and doesn't allow the player to sort quests. The organization of the quests in the journal is great, but I would love it if I could set up a list of quests in-game and have my objectives chain from one to the next depending on my location.

The story, so far as I've uncovered it at least is fairly engaging and provides the sort of scope I've come to expect from the Mass Effect series. At 15 hours in, and only two outposts established, I feel as though I'm taking the slow route through the game's story, but I'm happy to linger in the universe for as long as I can, even if its stars are unfamiliar.. I will say that I'm less excited about some of the character dialogue. Sure, the characters themselves have interesting backstories and their own motives and they will regularly remind you of them by agreeing or disagreeing with the choices you make, but there is a critical mass of cliche reached early in the game and after reaching that point it is hard not to look at the dialogue as though it were written for a CW show. Not bad, just formulaic and rote.

I'm still pleased with Andromeda on the whole. I enjoy the depth of discovery I'm allowed, as well as the wealth of options I have for crafting new and dangerous weapons and armor for my pathfinder. the environments are gorgeous, even when the facial animations falter, and I love exploring every inch of the new worlds.