Anyone who has played games on consoles (and especially the Xbox) over the last ten years will have fond memories of Mass Effect, Bioware’s critically acclaimed sci-fi action RPG. It’s expansive story, exciting combat and focus of choice have made it a favourite among gamers who have traditionally taken on the role of galaxy-saving protagonist, Commander Shepard.
This Month, EA published the fourth entry in the series – titled Mass Effect: Andromeda – which takes place hundreds of years after the original trilogy and introduces a new cast of characters. Launching on the Xbox One, PS4 and PC, it promised to be a fresh start to the franchise, with a new engine, a new studio, and a new galaxy to explore.
If you follow the world of gaming at all, you’ll know that despite the goodwill carried over from the three previous titles, Andromeda has experienced a rocky launch, and has become one of Bioware’s most polarizing works to date.
To understand why Andromeda has been so poorly received, you first have to identify the trend in triple-A titles that has become apparent over the last 5 to 10 years. Annualising of franchises like Call of Duty, Battlefield and the EA Sports stable has meant that incremental changes and a lack of innovation have become synonymous with big budget gaming. Activision’s Call of Duty games are the worst for this, often only changing the setting and textures prior to slapping some variation of “XXX Warfare” on the box and charging 60 pounds to the consumer for the privilege to play it.
If I sound salty, it’s because I am. Stagnant innovation in the narrative and technical areas of gaming has meant that I, and many other gamers, have become disillusioned with the industry at large, and its focus of profit before plot. Many would argue that this is the reality of investing in a hobby whose focus has been drawn more and more toward how many units have been sold, and less toward the functional and emotional experience that gaming can deliver. Gaming is big business, with million of dollars of investment pumped into AAA titles – The industry has become risk averse, and so the content and the technology follow the beaten path.
That leads us to Mass Effect Andromeda. I’m going to give full disclosure here: I haven’t played Andromeda, and I don’t intend to play Andromeda (At least not in the immediate future). I don’t think that should disqualify me from commenting on what I’ve seen play out in the media and online over the last week or two. Context, is of course, important; but only in the sense of a review, which is not what I’m doing here. I want to talk about why Andromeda, and other games like it, should allow gamers to send a message.
Mass Effect has never pushed the boundaries graphically (the original game had a notoriously poor frame rate and load times on Consoles), but Bioware has always excelled in immersing players in the world, with realistic player and NPC models and detailed environments. The series has also gained fans through its brilliantly written narrative and voice acting, which featured well-known professional actors amongst talented newcomers. It’s the story, the interactions between the characters that inhabit the world – their reactions to the events unfolding – and the players ability to change the way the narrative progressed that made the series so popular.
With Andromeda, Problems first started to appear in early impressions of the game. Those with EA Access were able to play the game pre-release, and critics were embargoed to only giving their thoughts on the first few hours of the game (I’ll go into my thoughts on Embargos a little later on).
Facial animations looked…off. Something about the character movement presented an almost uncanny-valley like quality. Many likened the characters to android’s impersonating humans. “How could this be intentional?” many wondered, “Surely this is a procedurally generated reaction, that’s why it looks the way it does.”
It wasn’t long before gameplay began to emerge. Videos of characters speaking of the death of a loved one, whilst wearing a huge grin across their face. Other complaining of their “face being tired” while holding an expressionless, robot-like stare.
The dialogue didn’t help matters. Constant references to “We got this”. Awkward interactions between the protagonist and NPC’s that would never occur in any normal, real world situation. An overwhelming sense that this had been slapped together, like some kind of fan fiction.
Then came the bugs. Odd walking animations. Enemies floating in the air. The player character dropping through the world geometry. Game-breaking side quest glitches. The list goes on and on.
Gamers – those who enjoy video games at large – have a tendency to be forgiving. Or that is to say, they will complain to no end, but will never do enough to actually influence change.
There are a few examples where the opposite is true: In 2012, when the last of the previous Mass Effect Trilogy was released, fans were outraged to find that the decisions that had been made in the previous games had no bearing on the outcome of the final game. For a series that touted player agency as one of its core principles, ME3’s ending was woefully underwhelming. Bioware gave in after intense pressure, releasing an “Extended Cut” DLC, which went some ways to resolving the issues that fans had with the original outcome.
But in the vast majority of cases, gamers will let sleeping dogs lie, and allow companies to sell them a sub-par product each and every year. It’s true that the best games – those that win awards every year and are often the best selling – deserve to be there. Witcher 3, Uncharted 4, Overwatch; all games that deliver on the AAA promise. And there are always those who try to get away with it, and quite often do; Call of Duty, FIFA/NFL, anything from Ubisoft…
In the case of Andromeda, a lot of fans are willing to forgive its many issues because its Mass Effect. I have friends who are more than happy to purchase and play this game, because “it’s fine most of the time”. This is not only a poor reaction to a game that does not meet the high standards of its predecessors, it also raises the question: when we are willing to fight back against a creative work that – perceived or otherwise – does not perform to expectations?
It’s not an overblown reaction to want more from those creating for a genre, a platform or a type of media: holding a developer and publisher to account for the poor quality of their creative work provides valuable insight for future improvements and does not allow said parties to engage in the creation of a sub par experience. Much in the same way we look to critical analysis of film and literature, criticism of games as a creative work allows the creator to build a better experience in the future. Especially when that creator – Bioware Montreal – are inexperienced in the creation of big budget works such as Andromeda.
We need to care about this stuff. As Gamers, we need to push back when something doesn’t meet our expectations.
Let’s finish with a couple of stats: Andromeda currently holds a 76 score on Metacritic, the worst score by a mainline Bioware title in the studios history. It also performed poorly during its first week of sales, failing to match the sales of its predecessor (Note: This is for physical sales). Retailers are already cutting the price of certain distributions of the game, and that is only set to occur on a wider basis if the sales fail to meet expectations.
I’d also like to mention the embargo. Gamers have learnt over time than an embargo on reviews pre-release rarely leads to anything good. Embargos are more often used to hide the bad or poor performing aspects of a piece of media, and so my advice is this: If you see an embargo, don’t preorder (Not that you should be anyway, as Preordering is a shitty practice, but that’s another blog for another day).
Perhaps the poor sales and reviews are a good thing. Maybe gamers – sick and tired of being told for years what the can and cannot have – are finally voting with their wallets. I hope this is true, a turning point: Because if it is, maybe it will be the push developers need to invest time, money and passion in telling memorable, influential stories.