Funny To A Point – So, About Mass Effect: Andromeda...
This week's column goes where no moron has gone before.
If you're a regular reader of Funny To A Point, you've probably noticed that many of these dumb columns are devoted to recently released games. There's a simple reason for that: I write about certain games because that's what I've been playing recently, and as such, that's also what I've been thinking (read: obsessing) about. Sometimes a game enchants me with its creativity or addictive gameplay. Others literally keep me up at night with their infuriating flaws or satanic game design.
Regardless of the emotion, most of my thoughts come with a thick coating of humor, because that's the way my beautiful brain works. While this is super unhelpful when your wife is already upset over some dumb comment you've made, it comes in handy when you have a bi-weekly humor column to write.* Like a lever-flipping lab monkey, FTAP has trained me to jot down every dumb observation I have if it might be mistaken for humor. If I manage to collect enough goofy anecdotes on a given game before my next deadline, then voila – I've got a column! (If not, there's always Plan B...)
As you might have guessed, my recent misadventures in Mass Effect: Andromeda didn't take long to fill up my notebook with juicy source material. Maybe you've read some criticisms or seen a groan-worthy compilation video or two from the game already. Well, I hadn't – at least not before I started the game. Like usual, I was secluded in my spoiler bunker before release, avoiding any and all media. A few concerns seeped into the bubble, but by and large I went into Andromeda relatively "pure" and was looking forward to a new, post-Shepard adventure.
That's not to say I could just forget my experiences with Mass Effect, however, which set a high bar of Olympic proportions. I still feel the original trilogy features some of the best stories and characters of last generation. Granted, there were some stinkers thrown in there (choosing whether to save Ashley or Kaidan was like deciding which bag of space trash you wanted to lug across the galaxy with you). But even underappreciated characters like Grunt (who still paled in comparison to my BFF, Wrex) and Jack (whose damaged-goods routine was the definition of trying too hard) ended up growing on me.
Part of what made Mass Effect's characters so great were your interactions with them, and BioWare served up amazing choices in the original trilogy. I remember being shocked by some of the decisions my fellow coworkers made. Like Hanson playing virtually the entire trilogy without Wrex because he shot him in the first game (I always knew he was an anti-Kroganite). Or Cork heartlessly wiping out all synthetic life in the galaxy – including Legion and EDI (she was Seth Green's only chance for love!**). Or Tim romancing Miranda – for the love of God, Tim, WHY?!?!
Mass Effect's choices were so sweeping and surprising that sometimes they shaped my own character in ways I didn't anticipate. I spent the first Mass Effect wooing Liara (because DUH), only for her to give me the cold shoulder in the sequel. The sense of betrayal was palpable; we saved the freaking world together, and she can't even chat for five minutes after I literally rose from the dead and made a beeline across the galaxy to see her? I mean, I know hunting the Shadow Broker is important and all, but she still has to eat dinner, doesn't she?
With that door promptly slammed in my face***, I shacked up with Tali – only to have Liara show up again in ME 3. Reconciling this unexpected love triangle (well, more of a "V" I guess) presented a more difficult choice than the game's color-coded ending. After much deliberation, I ultimately stuck with Tali. She had been at my side during all three games; her loyal companionship deserved my loyalty in return. Well, at least until I jumped into that giant green laser and turned into a computer, anyway.
Fun Fact: Based on Google Image results, every Mass Effect character's name is apparently a synonym for "creepy porn."
Those kinds of surprise decisions made my incarnation of Shepard more interesting, and gave the entire narrative more weight. Even thinking back on the trilogy now fills me with fond memories (as well as lingering questions about how Shepard and Tali got it on through her full-body space suit).
Anyhoo, all this is to say I was looking forward to seeing where Mass Effect would go next, with the benefit of a completely fresh start. But as far as first impressions go, Andromeda showed up to my blind date a googly eyed mess. Actually, nine googly eyed messes – the preset characters look like an intern spent five minutes putzing with the editor before shrugging and saying, "Eh, those look face-ish."
I wasn't too discouraged by the presets, however; I always make my own characters in RPGs when given the chance. Not in my own image, mind you – in BioWare games especially, the goal is simply to make someone who looks human enough that I won't hate staring at them for 30 hours. But Andromeda doesn't make it easy. After five years of development and a multimillion dollar budget, BioWare couldn't make more than 12 sub-Great Clips hairdos? Or beards that don't look like a five-year-old drew them on with a sharpie?
My wife and I spent 30 minutes crafting a not-hideous Ryder, only to be hit with the double whammy of then having to create her brother. Unfortunately, the auto-generated model hit every branch during his fall out of the ugly tree. My wife and I debated every potential nip and tuck like the pig surgeons from that one Twilight Zone episode.**** "Is it his chin? Can you move it in more? No, that's way worse. What's going on with those cheekbones? Why can't you make the eyes smaller?" After doing our best for 30 minutes, my wife just frowned and somberly stated, "I feel sorry for him." Brutal.
It turns out her sympathy was unnecessary; Ryder's mutant brother fits right in with the majority of Andromeda's fugly NPCs. But that's the least of their problems – after waking up and actually chatting with some of my fellow Ark members for 10 minutes, I was ready to be put back on ice. Your first two squad members are total duds. First there's Cora, whose most striking personality trait is her haircut (which isn't even an option in the character creator, not that I'd opt for the Edgy Millennial anyway). Then there's Liam, whose accent is more mysterious than even the weirdest talking frog man. Is that Australian mixed with village idiot? I play Mass Effect for the thrill of grand sci-fi adventures – I don't want to hang out with a bunch of lameos you'd run into at Trader Joe's.
That ain't my Ryder, but her expression is dead-on...
Naturally I tried to remedy the situation by ditching those sapien squares and find some aliens, but Andromeda's introductory ETs don't fare much better. You've got Lexi T'Perro, an Asari doctor with a drooling problem; Nakmor Kesh, who sounds less like a Krogan and more like a drunk Alison Janey; and Suvi Anwar, whose species is...resurrected Chucky doll? I guess Suvi is technically human based on her Scottish accent, which I assume was chosen to fulfill the obligatory Scotty quota. On the bright side, Kumail Nanjiani does a fine job as a nerd Salarian wrestling for political control of the Nexus space station...though that thread isn't particularly convincing given the fact that everyone just stands eternally in their designated spot waiting to squawk dialogue at you. I'm starting to think my popsicle bro is the lucky one.
My first disillusioning night with Andromeda got a little hazy at this point because I was starting to doze off. This happens frequently when I play games, so I'm not blaming Andromeda outright, but the intro certainly wasn't doing anything to wake me up. One thing I do remember through the Memento-esque, microsleep haze was a crew member desperately pleading (while dead-faced, mind you) for my help – some piece of machinery is on the fritz and needs to be fixed ASAP! I nodded off for another 10 minutes or so, then woke up, scanned a thing with my wrist doodad, and flipped a switch. "PHEW!" the crew member said (still dead-faced), "That could've blown up the whole ship!" Riiiiiiiiight.
I called it quits for the evening shortly after the reveal of my new ship, the Tempest. The next day, I replayed a good 20 minutes leading up that because that's how much I want to get into this game – I'm not reviewing it or under any other such obligation to remain objective. I want to enjoy Andromeda. But that doesn't blind me to its glaring problems.
Say, for instance, a bug I ran into on Planet Prologue, where one of the characters I was there to rescue hovered around the battlefield in a "T" position. I'm definitely not equipped to deal with whatever space disease she's got – better cross her off the potential romance list.
At points during my playthrough it feels like I'm the alien, sent to observe my weird human crew like an intergalactic Jane Goodall. "Subject likes to casually walk up onto furniture and then be confused as to how it got up there. Subject also frequently goes out of its way to jump over waist-high objects instead of walking around them. On the bright side, I believe I have observed some sort of primitive courtship ritual."
Stilted animation transitions and chuggy framerates also surprisingly frequent occurrences. These are honestly problems I never anticipated. It's hard to overstate how far the bar has moved for triple-A games over the past half-decade; adding a boost jump to your combat isn't enough to keep up with the status quo.
After my second disappointing night with Andromeda, I began questioning my own feelings. I just got done playing one stellar open-world game – maybe I'm just not in the mood to start another one. This is essentially the it's-not-you-it's-me argument of video games, but in this case it's not entirely true – a LOT of it is you. Andromeda's most intriguing systems – character progression, crafting, and even just your damned objectives – are buried in dozens of nested folders, and the UI for navigating them is worse than Windows' File Explorer. Wait a second...I think I just figured out why you're called the Pathfinder!
But the biggest letdown so far has been the story. The setup is all well and good: An unproven crew ventures out into the unknown to colonize new worlds and push the boundaries of interspecies humping. So far though I've just been driving around a big desert planet, running errands and playing an extraterrestrial version of Sudoku (seriously, the worst encryption method EVER). The Kett, Andromeda's deadly new threat, are just a bunch of boring boneheads who blindly lumber towards you in battle even as your squadmates shoot them at point-blank range. It doesn't help that characters look like they've been run through a random-expression generator during cutscenes. Is that a pain-induced grimace, or did you just smell a fart? Either way, I blame Liam.
I'm also going to go ahead and blame Liam for whatever this mess is.
I'm still waiting on the whole meaningful-choices-thing too. BioWare decided to get rid of the Paragon/Renegade system, which is fine – the world is full of shades of gray, and video games should reflect that. But so far I've only had two "interrupt" choices. The first was to push PeeBee off of me (quit your damn roughhousing, PeeBee!). The second was to literally jump in a hole. The option almost feels sarcastic; I'm guessing its creation went something like this:
Employee #1: Hey, the
boss insists we add more interrupt choices. Any ideas?
Employee #2: Go jump in a f---ing hole.
Employee #1: That will work.
Employee #2: ...wait, what?
Like far-off stars in the night sky, I've only seen the occasional twinkling glimmer of what I love about Mass Effect in Andromeda so far. But my criticisms come with a huge, silver-lining caveat: I'm only about a dozen hours into the game, and I'm still hopeful for what's to come. Maybe my dull squad mates will be more interesting once I delve into their loyalty missions; maybe Andromeda's other planets will contain more intriguing surprises and activities. Maybe some freaky new alien species will come swaggering in and rock my world. Maybe I'll find out what the deal is with this sentient roll of tape. Part of what I love about science fiction is that it makes the outlandish seem possible, and those possibilities still exist in Andromeda.
I'm also encouraged by BioWare's commitment to improve the game, as evidenced by yesterday's patch (I haven't gotten to check it out yet, but here's hoping "dead face" is a thing of the past). BioWare has always taken fan feedback seriously; they were even willing to change the ending of their years-long trilogy (a decision I was against and still am so eat it, haters), so you know they're willing to tackle larger problems. With that in mind, I figured I'd end today's column with my own special list of improvements and additions I'd like to see going forward, which are guaranteed to make the game super popular. You're welcome, BioWare!
#1: Make SAM Wacky
Ryder has an A.I. companion that speaks to her via neural implant, but its personality is just another monotone HAL-wannabe. SAM is a great opportunity to liven things up; he's already literally in Ryder's head, so he should try to get in her head by constantly messing with her. Just imagine the possibilities: Ryder is in the middle of a heated debate with her crew over a life-or-death decision, when all of a sudden SAM starts making farting noises that only she can hear! The comedic possibilities are endless (though 99 percent of them involve more farting noises)! SAM is with Ryder for every step of her journey – he should have the witty quips and one-liners to go along with it.
#2: Better Sound
Andromeda could really use better sound effects, and I'm not talking about the pew-pew-pews of your laser guns. Just imagine how much Andromeda's romance scenes would be enhanced with a well-timed slide whistle (the "boyoyoyiiinggg" of an oversized spring would also work). Also, BioWare would have a much easier time conveying the dramatic tension of a scene with the classic "Bum-bum-BUUUUMMM!" music cue. Is Yakkity Sax public domain yet? The developers should look into that ASAP.
#3: MAD LIBS
As I mentioned, I'm just not feeling a connection to my new squad mates, but maybe it's because I haven't gotten to know them yet. What better way to bond with your crew than if you all periodically gathered around the command center and played the classic fill-in-the-blank word game? "[CREW MEMBER'S NAME] was [VERB ENDING IN -ING] with their [ADJECTIVE RELATED TO SIZE], [COLOR] [BODY PART] when they accidentally [VERB ENDING IN -ED] it into [DIFFERENT CREW MEMBER]'s [BODILY ORIFICE]." Adding Mad Libs to the game would also accommodate Andromeda's facial animations – it no longer matters if you can't tell whether an NPC is laughing or horrified, because both are appropriate responses!
#4: Nomad Customization
Forget weapons and armor plating – I'm talking obnoxious flame decals, personalized bumper stickers ("Honk if you're horny, and I don't mean literal bony outgrowths, you weird alien freak"), and truck nuts. That last one would be even better if you could customize which species you're talking about...though ground clearance might be an issue if you go Krogan.
#4: Better Personalities
Practically all your crewmates need personality makeovers, and I've got some great suggestions. First, there should be a character who is also trying to bang everyone else on the ship, because it's a little unseemly for our hero to be the horniest person in the galaxy. Second, how about an obnoxious guy who is always injecting space politics into every damn conversation – just make sure to also include the option to flush him out an airlock. Finally, give one of your squad mates a cool catchphrase that they say in response to everything, like "A-sari 'bout that!" or "Give Mama Krogan some sugar!" If you feel the need to explain why they all randomly woke up with different personalities one day, just say they flew through a Personality Shifting Vortex. It makes as much sense as those giant Scourge clouds...
#5: More Aliens
Come on, BioWare! Where are the cool new aliens?! Here are a couple suggestions to patch in. First, I know it's probably a glitch, but you should make that sentient can of space beans Hanson ran into an official squad mate. Other options: machines that transform into other machines, another machine that's made out of liquid metal, and an alien that has a smaller mouth inside its mouth and then another even smaller mouth inside that one. Oh, and throw in Alf, too. That dude's hilarious!
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*I realize this probably isn't applicable to a lot of people. (back to top)
**Yes, I know the character's name is actually Joker, and Seth Green is voice actor. I stand by that statement. (back to top)
***At that point EA had yet to peddle Liara's relationship in paid DLC like a gross pimp. (back to top)
***Look, I know I'm screwing up the episode's metaphor again because he'd actually be normal-looking in this scenario, but YOU STILL KNOW WHAT I MEAN. (back to top)