A bit of background stuff before I get started, though.
So, about two months ago BioWare released a trailer for Mass Effect: Andromeda. To be honest, I watched it and just shrugged and moved on. I'm still holding a grudge after Mass Effect 3 turned out to be such a huge, steaming turd. Well, it's not just that. Every writer has at least one story that doesn't turn out as well as others, or is just plain bad. I've certainly written my share of stuff that was just awful.
Here's the thing, though. When I write something that doesn't work and someone points it out in a critique, I fix whatever's wrong in the next draft. Even if the person commenting is rude about it, part of my job as a writer is to think it over and decide whether or not that person had a valid point. Sometimes they do, and I make the necessary corrections while rewriting. That ... was not what happened after the backlash from fans of the series who disliked the ending (or, in some cases, the entire game). Rather than listen to criticisms and consider that the critics had some points, and maybe do something to fix the issues, BioWare reacted like petulant children. There was a lot of demand to change the ending, which wouldn't have been unprecedented (the name Arthur Conan Doyle comes to mind), but even though a DLC was released a few months later, it did not change the endings. BioWare's wording in the announcement came across as if they were saying, "We're not going to change the endings, but because you're not smart enough to understand our artistic vision, we're going to spell everything out so maybe you get it this time."
They did add a fourth ending, which is triggered if players refuse to go along with the bullshit spewed by the Catalyst at the very end -- and results in the Reapers harvesting humanity and wiping out all other advanced species in the galaxy. Then there's a cutscene explaining that the Reapers were stopped the next time they invaded 50,000 years later. So ... when faced with three "choices" that are complete and utter bullshit, Commander Shepard makes what I feel is the only in-character choice, and refuses to play along with any of it ... and that gets the entire human race harvested (melted into organic goop and used as the core or essence or whatever of a new Reaper, as we learned at the end of Mass Effect 2) and all other advanced species exterminated. Billions of people were counting on Shepard (rather, the players), and the only sane thing Shepard could do got all of them killed in a wide variety of horrible ways. Instead of coming up with another option, which is what Shepard did time and again throughout the two previous games, he/she just stands there and lets the galaxy burn.
The only way to "win" is to do exactly what BioWare wants you to do. If that's not a big ol' middle finger to everyone who didn't like the original endings, I don't know what the hell is.
An article on Kotaku goes into detail about why so many people were disappointed or angered by the endings, and Forbes has a review of the "Extended Cut" DLC, so I won't rant on and on about it here. (Okay, as it turns out, I did launch into quite a rant, but I needed to get all my thoughts on the matter down in one place.) For me, though, it comes down to a few things.
After saying that the story wouldn't end with an "A, B, or C choice" ... it ended with what is essentially an A, B, or C choice. And that choice resulted in an almost identical cutscene no matter which option was chosen.
The utter crap at the end is nonsensical and contradicts themes that were running throughout all three games up to that point, one of which was the mission set on Rannoch, where, if you made certain choices throughout all three games, you could convince the quarians and geth to stop fighting each other. For me, it was one of the most satisfying moments in the whole trilogy (it wasn't flawless by a long shot, but overall I loved the way it played out) ... then, at the end, the game insists that AI/synthetics will always wipe out the organic species that created them -- and it doesn't even give you the option to point to the quarians and geth and say, "Hey, wait just a fucking minute, here. Look at them, they're not only coexisting now, they're also working together to fight against the Reapers! Synthetics are trying to save billions of lives!"
The ending also gave us a completely nonsensical reason for why the Reapers harvest one species and kill the rest every 50,000 years. It boils down to, "The Reapers, which are synthetic, are killing us all to prevent us from being killed by synthetics." Uh ... what? If you're going to explain the motives of the Reapers, apparently it's too much to ask that your explanation makes sense. But to be honest, I think the Reapers are actually much more terrifying if we never find out why they do what they do. It makes them that much more alien and threatening.
The ending also comes out of nowhere and veers off in a completely different direction, to the point where it feels like the end of a totally different story was just tacked on to this one. It's like watching The Wrath of Khan and, just as the USS Reliant is about to explode, suddenly you find yourself watching some artsy-fartsy indie film someone made for a college course, and you spend the next twenty minutes thinking, "What the ever-loving hell is going on, here?!"
The choices themselves ... well, of those three, the most logical one was to destroy all the Reapers in the galaxy (basically, a Reaper "off switch," which was another thing BioWare said wouldn't happen). The problem is, this destroys all AI/synthetic life in the galaxy, which means the geth became collateral damage. Even if you played your cards right and got the geth and the quarians to coexist peacefully and fight the Reapers alongside you and your other allies, they got thrown under the bus. Not only that, but EDI also gets shafted. After completely averting the AI is a Crapshoot trope, helping Shepard save the galaxy, and potentially starting a relationship with Jeff Moreau, the Normandy's pilot (which was one of the few good bits in Mass Effect 3) ... she becomes a casualty of war. It's especially painful because, in a conversation just before the final battle, EDI basically tells Shepard, "Only now do I feel truly alive, and that's because of you." And only a few minutes later, she dies because of the choice Shepard makes.
Another "choice" is to take control of the Reapers, which results in Shepard dying (and becoming an AI, I guess, so it's really the AI-Shepard who controls the Reapers, since the real Shepard is vaporized) and then forcing the Reapers to stop their attack and begin rebuilding what they've been destroying. That's just creepy. Imagine suffering through the war, seeing friends and family killed or worse ... and then the Reapers stop their attack and begin rebuilding, and afterward they keep hanging around as protectors or guides. So imagine going through all that suffering and witnessing all that death and destruction caused by the Reapers ... and then having to spend the rest of your life with those very same Reapers everywhere you look.
Not only that, but controlling the Reapers is what the Illusive Man wanted, and if you made certain choices throughout Mass Effect 2, that in itself should be a huge red flag. And even if you made different choices, the Illusive Man is responsible for some damned horrific things, and shouldn't be trusted with a burned-out match, let alone the fate of the whole galaxy.
For me, the most repugnant of the three original "choices" was Synthesis, which is what Saren Arterius wanted in the first game, and players spent the entire game fighting against that. Synthesis results in every living thing in the galaxy being merged with technology and becoming half organic, half synthetic -- without their consent, or even their knowledge. A green light washes over everyone, and suddenly they're converted into creepy cyborgs with glowing green eyes and glowing green circuitry patterns on their skin. BioWare tried to pass this off as the "best" ending to the story, but to me it's the most horrific. It was forced on everyone in the galaxy. I'd probably be okay with the idea of replacing some body parts with cybernetic components, or even having my brain put into a Ghost in the Shell-style prosthetic body ... if it were my choice. I'd wait until all the bugs are worked out and it's a safe procedure (not to mention affordable) ... but the most important thing here is that I'd only be okay with it if I were the one who got to decide whether or not to go through with it.
If it just happened one day, coming out of nowhere, with no choice in the matter and no time to prepare for it, I think I'd be absolutely fucking horrified.
A character like Javik would probably commit suicide if he were converted into a partially synthetic being. Assuming he wasn't being controlled by a hive mind, at least.
YouTuber Archengeia summed it up perfectly: Synthesis is the Borg winning.
And then there's the Refuse ending added in the Extended Cut, as mentioned above. For me, at least, the Extended Cut didn't fix a single goddamn thing about the ending, other than changing the destruction of the mass relays to heavy damage to the relays. This matters because, in the Arrival DLC for Mass Effect 2, it's revealed that a relay's destruction releases an explosion equivalent to a supernova, which would mean the obliteration of every star system that has a relay -- including Earth, the Citadel, Thessia, Palaven, and every other homeworld of a major spacefaring species. So, that was an improvement. But, in my opinion, it's the only one, and in many ways, the Extended Cut made things even worse.
The ending was by no means the only problem with Mass Effect 3. Aside from a few genuinely good moments here and there (such as the development with EDI's and Joker's relationship, which I thought was sweet), it was a piss-poor story from beginning to end. The ending, however, was so atrocious that it overshadowed all the other issues. Seriously ... Uwe Boll could've come up with a better ending by scribbling it on sheets of toilet paper while taking his morning dump.
As a result of this and BioWare's treatment of their own fans, I'm having trouble getting excited about Mass Effect: Andromeda. Though, I'm amused by the thought that BioWare choosing to set the story in a different galaxy is pretty much a tacit admission that they completely fucked up the Milky Way. At least, that's what I choose to believe. I'm sure as hell not going to preorder the game. I did that with Mass Effect 3, and paid $80 for the Collector's Edition, and I got burned. That's a mistake I won't make again. So, I'll wait to hear the opinions of people who actually played the game after it's released. Not the professional critics who gave 3 "75 perfect scores" without bothering to play through the whole game. Actual players. Especially the ones who hated 3 but are still willing to give Andromeda a chance. Those are the opinions that will matter to me.
Anyway, having said all that, let's get to the actual topic. As mentioned above, there was a trailer released about two months ago. And about a week or so ago, there was a tech demo video released showing how the game will look in 4K.
First, the trailer from a couple months ago:
Okay. The visuals are certainly impressive, and I like the idea of exploring a whole new galaxy. But since nothing about the story was mentioned, I'm not going to gush all over this. I'm not hoping for this game to fail. I want it to be a good story. I want to enjoy Mass Effect again. I want to be able to buy the game and not feel like I need a shower afterward. But I'm not going to preorder it or rush to the store on release day and thereby send BioWare the message that they can crank out any crap and we'll buy it just because they slapped the Mass Effect name on it. I want to be sure they learned from their previous mistakes and won't repeat them.
On to specifics. It starts off with a few images from modern-day space exploration before switching to a CGI view of a nebula.
And then a ship appears, the Tempest, presumably the one we'll be using to explore the galaxy. And oh, look, it looks an awful lot like the SSV Normandy.
I would've preferred something a bit more original, but this isn't a deal-breaker. Hey, at least it looks cool.
Anyway, we then get a glimpse of what's probably the Tempest's bridge or CIC or whatever it ends up being called. And there's a krogan on the left and a salarian on the right, so we'll be seeing at least one of each of those species in addition to the humans.
I'm not sure how many, or if there'll be any others aside from these two and one other, at all. The trailer's narration talks about "finding a new home for humanity," but doesn't offer up any information on any of the Milky Way's other alien species. And, given Mass Effect 3's emphasis on saving humanity and taking back Earth, when every species and homeworld in the galaxy was at stake, I'm not exactly confident that we'll be seeing many others in the new game.
Anyway. The planet surfaces we see in the trailer look genuinely alien. A lot of thought and effort seems to have gone into these. I can only hope just as much went into the story.
I love that floaty thing. Plus, I've always been a sucker for desert landscapes -- another reason I enjoyed what little I saw of Rannoch.
Then we get a glimpse of a huge creature, possibly a sentient life form, but maybe just an animal. Either way, it looks cool.
We get another brief look at a different alien environment, and this one is gorgeous, with a flying/floating creature in the background. Again, very imaginative and quite alien-looking, as it should be.
Next, we finally see another familiar alien, an asari. I'll have more to say about her once I start talking about the 4K tech demo, but for now I'll just comment on the "raccoon" face paint. It's different from the "lines" face paint we're used to seeing on asari, and it looks a little weird, but I'm assuming there's a specific reason for it in this character's backstory. Whatever it turns out to be, I doubt it could make less sense than Mass Effect 3's ending.
Then we get a few more awesome planet-surface environments, and they're all equally beautiful.
Next up, there's a quick look at a ground-exploration vehicle similar to the Mako from the first game. I hope it's a lot easier to drive than the original Mako, because I fucking hated that thing.
Here we have a tower thrusting up out of the ground. It's spinning, so maybe it's drilling its way out. Another really cool, imaginative image, and appropriately alien. I'll give the developers credit for that. A lot of "alien planets" in games, movies, and TV shows don't look very alien. I often don't get any sort of "otherworldly" vibe from them. The images in this trailer, though, really do give me the impression that these places are somewhere else.
Brief look at what's probably the female version of the protagonist, Ryder, in the middle of a battle. Not much to say, since I have very little information about her.
Cool ship here, possibly a shuttle or a cargo transport. I'm liking the design. It's quite different from ships like the Normandy and the Kodiak drop shuttle, so that's a plus.
Looks like this guy's hosed.
Next we see a planet which is probably Earth, with a squadron of Kodiak shuttles on the way to ...
Another very cool design, though it reminds me a little bit of the Citadel. One thing I really like is how it appears to be enormous. Again, I'm really hoping there'll be more than just humans on this ship (or several ships with different species on each). We're clearly going to see at least one krogan, salarian, and asari ... it's probably a long shot, but I'd really like to see some quarians and turians, and maybe even some geth, as well. Could happen, depending on how the Andromeda expedition was set up and when it launches (before the Reaper invasion, or during the war but before the reprehensible ending of 3).
And finally, we get our first clear look at Ryder as she wakes up from cryonic stasis and gasps for breath.
I have to admit, this sequence sent a few chills up and down my spine. As Ryder sits up, still gasping, and the lights in the huge chamber flicker on, it's quiet except for her breathing and a few mechanisms starting up. This really does make it feel like she's reached the end of an incredibly long journey. There's a palpable sense of being so far from anything familiar that there's no chance of going back home.
And we end on a close-up of Ryder. Gotta say, the animation is amazing. Her expression as she finishes waking up really gets across a sense of wonder and joy at her realization that the ship's arrived at its destination. The image fades to black and she whispers, "We made it!" And I got another chill from that. It makes me hope this will be one hell of an adventure ... but again, I'll wait to find out more about the actual story and the characters before I invest my time, money, and emotions into this franchise again.
One thing I really like about this character's design is that she doesn't have a supermodel's face and giant breasts. That's something I've seen a lot in games, movies, and TV shows -- female characters (protagonist or supporting cast, at least) always have to be hotter than hell. I could go on a whole other rant about that, especially since I've seen some comments about Ryder being "ugly" (same with the asari character pictured above) ... which I just don't see at all. Here, Ryder looks like someone you'd see in real life, everyday life. So I'll give BioWare props for making the female version of their protagonist a bit of a girl-next-door rather than a Lara Croft.
I'll have more to say on that later, particularly when it's time to talk about the asari character. But that brings us to the 4K tech demo video from a week or two ago.
So ... that happened. Okay, I'm hoping the trailer coming in November will tell us something about the story and characters, because all they're talking about so far is how good the game looks. Sure, it's pretty, but that's not the only thing that matters. It could have the most gorgeous graphics in the history of the medium, but without a coherent, entertaining, good story and compelling characters, it won't make any difference. If you want me to buy another one of these games, you need to show me that you can put the story and characters above everything else. Otherwise, there's no reason for me to make an emotional or monetary investment in it. Last time I did that, I got burned. Show me that you've created a story worth getting into, and I'm onboard.
A few thoughts on the video ....
Here's the male version of Ryder in what appears to be a cave, but as we see a few seconds later, there's also technology seemingly built into the surroundings. The characters call it a "vault," so it was likely built or modified by an ancient, vanished species called the Remnant. So ... we travel to a completely different galaxy and find ourselves investigating a long-extinct alien species ... just like we did in the first Mass Effect game (the Protheans).
In fairness, the "extinct precursor civilization" trope is an old stand-by of the science fiction genre, and I have to admit I'm kind of a sucker for it, so I'll let it slide here. One of the best uses of the idea, in my opinion, happened in Babylon 5, which got a lot of mileage out of it. I probably should complain about lack of originality because this sort of thing has been done so many times before, but I'm always intrigued by the idea of ancient civilizations that vanished, leaving only a few tantalizing remains and bits of technology. I love a story that has a sense of wonder about it, and that was lacking in Mass Effect 3 aside from a few moments here and there. So if Andromeda can pull that off and not screw it up somewhere along the way, that'll be some serious points in its favor.
Next up, Ryder continues exploring and uses a low-powered jetpack to hop from one platform to another. I've heard that it can be upgraded (just as the Mako-like ground vehicle and the Tempest), which I presume will let you jump higher, but I'm not sure whether it'll become a true jetpack and allow you to fly when it's maxed out, or if it'll just be used for jumping walls and whatnot.
Here, Ryder scans an alien plant and comments, "No sunlight, no water. They should all be dead." Um, not necessarily. Granted, this is only a glimpse at the game and I don't have any information about whether they've run into a lot of plants like this ... but a couple of things popped into my head instantly.
First of all, this is an alien plant. On an alien planet ... in an alien galaxy. Assuming Ryder hasn't seen anything like this before, well, if I found something like this, I wouldn't assume right off the bat that it functions anything like the plants I'm familiar with. Since it's alien, it could draw the energy it needs to survive from something else entirely, possibly trace gasses in the atmosphere, if there is one. (Ryder's sealed inside an envirosuit, but that could just mean the atmosphere is toxic to humans. On the other hand, a few moments later we see Ryder with his helmet off, so ... shrug.) Or maybe it drains the life force of animals who pass by.
The other thing that came to mind is, there are technologically advanced devices all over the vault. Maybe the plant is being fed the nutrients and sunlight it needs from a mechanism built into the platform under it. It's possible that Ryder or someone else has already investigated and learned that this isn't the case, but I'm just going by what I saw here.
Then we see Ryder access a console and, I guess, download something from it. Again, I have to give the developers props for designing alien technology that actually looks alien. One thing that bugged me about the previous Mass Effect trilogy was how so many of the alien control panels looked just like QWERTY keyboards, even the ones used by aliens with three digits instead of five.
Here, in the distance, there's a group of floating things that appear to be robotic, with several tentacles dangling under them. They seem to be drones, and dialogue points out that they won't pay any attention to you unless you get too close and they perceive you as a threat. Until I got a closer look at them, these things reminded me of the hostile aliens from the Babylon 5 TV-movie, Thirdspace.
Ryder sprints across a floor that appears to build itself a few feet ahead of him as he runs. So, credit where it's due. This is a cool idea and another example of alien technology that comes across as genuinely alien in both its form and its function. I'm reluctant to get my hopes up, but BioWare appears to have gotten their imaginations back.
At the far edge of the platform, there's another thing that looks like it might be an alien drone. It doesn't appear to be a part of the surroundings, like a console or some other device built into the vault, so it might be able to move around on those long "legs." And again, it's quite alien-looking and more than a little unsettling. And, if I'm not mistaken, after Ryder moves a little closer and then turns away, I think I heard it release a burst of electronic chatter off-screen, like it was reacting to his proximity and maybe getting ready to pounce or start shooting.
I just have to mention those two straps dangling from his belt. I'm guessing they're for attaching a backpack or some other equipment, to hold it in place, but here they just keep swinging around and slapping his ass. That's a good demonstration of the advancement in graphics, because they move around as Ryder starts walking, stops, or jumps. From what I've heard, the characters' hair will also move around a lot more realistically, rather than being stuck into one solid chunk.
Ryder opens a door and this beam of light instantly reminded me of ...
... that goddamned A, B, or C choice at the end of Mass Effect 3!
Thanks for reminding me of that travesty's existence, BioWare. You sons of bitches.
Ahem. Moving right along ....
The interior of that vault is, once again, very well done and it makes me want to take a thorough look around.
Here we suddenly see two other people with Ryder (they seem to appear out of nowhere, but that's because this was edited together, either from more than one cutscene, or just trimmed out of a longer one). There's already been a lot of speculation about who they are, so I won't rehash any of it except to say that because there's going to be a family dynamic in the story (when you choose either a male or female Ryder sibling to play as, the sibling you didn't choose becomes a character in the same story), so it's possible the female here is the male Ryder's sister and the other guy is their father. Or they could be other characters on Ryder's team. Or just placeholders for the purposes of testing the game.
A holographic map of the "Helios Cluster" appears. It's the kind of thing we've seen a thousand times before in movies, TV, and games, but at least it's a cool visual and it does a decent job of helping to get a bit of information across.
And now we come to the asari character. People have pointed out similarities to Liara T'Soni from the previous trilogy -- an archaeologist studying the extinct Prothean civilization ... and here we have another asari studying the extinct Remnant. We don't know if this new girl is an archaeologist or something else ... it's possible she's a scout or a scientist in some other field, and picked up a lot of info about the Remnant.
Another kind of comment I've seen a lot under YouTube videos and whatnot is all about her appearance ... as if that's the only thing that matters. "She looks like shit" or "She's ugly as fuck" or whatever, is a type of comment that came up a lot under these trailers and other videos analyzing them. And y'know what? I'm just not seeing it. I actually think she's cute. As I mentioned above, the raccoon-paint is a little odd, but there's probably an in-story reason for it.
So she's not a supermodel. That's not a bad thing at all, and making a character's looks the top priority sends the wrong message, especially if the character is female. Enough people have self-esteem issues as it is, feeling as if they'll never live up to the Hollywood-beauty standards saturating our society. Can we please stop being so damned superficial?
Besides, Liara was beautiful, but I found her completely uninteresting until the Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC. Before that, I just thought she was bland, personality-wise, and as soon as more interesting characters joined Shepard's team, I brought them with me on missions and left Liara on the Normandy. What interests me about this new asari character is her personality, which really comes across in only a few seconds on-screen. Of all the things in Mass Effect: Andromeda that I'd like to learn more about, she's at the top of the list.
Here's a better look at the floaty drone thing, just before it tries to cook Ryder's team off. This was my first good look at one, and it's where I saw that it wasn't all that similar to the Thirdspace aliens after all.
Now we come to my only complaint about the asari (so far, at least). When she's running from all the bad stuff happening all of a sudden, she does this stupid hopping-on-one-foot thing while changing direction. Seriously, who the hell does that unless they're just deliberately being goofy? And when something is trying to kill you, that is not the time to be fucking around.
And I had to toss this screenshot in just because of the look on her face. The characters' faces being so expressive is a definite "plus," but that expression right here made me burst out laughing.
I'm sure I had the same look on my face almost every day when I worked in the one-hour-photo lab in a Walmart in the small Oregon town I used to live in. If you've ever worked in a photo lab, you probably know exactly what I'm talking about. I'll never be able to unsee any of those images, and only managed to forget some of them thanks to the passage of time. Every now and then, though, something will remind me, or one of those photos will just pop back into my mind out of nowhere, and there it'll be, as if it happened only a few seconds ago, a memory of seeing some of the evolutionary mishaps in that town posing naked or humping it out. And with a shudder I'll say to myself, "Fuck me, that looked like two bags of wet laundry slapping together." And then ...
Anyway. Moving on before I make myself sick ....
Fortunately, she turns back into a badass a few seconds later, dodging lasers (or whatever they are), hopping over an obstacle, and returning fire before running off again.
Then the scene ends on a cliffhanger, without revealing whether anyone escaped. So ... now that I've finally gotten through all that ... final thoughts.
So far, it looks like a net-positive. Not just the graphics, though of course those are impressive. The asari character really stands out ... I haven't seen enough of Ryder or the others to know whether they're compelling or not, but I'm already a fan of this asari. The vault and the technology inside are convincingly alien, and I do like the focus on exploration as it reminds me of playing through the first Mass Effect game for the first time, nearly a decade ago. Setting the story in a different galaxy gives BioWare the chance to start over from scratch without actually starting over, with a whole galaxy to explore.
The thing is, the Mass Effect universe was already a story-rich environment. The Milky Way had tons of places and characters who could've had their stories told ... but BioWare completely borked it at the end, leaving the galaxy in such a ruined state that there was really nowhere else to go with it.
Bottom line -- I'm mildly curious about how this is going to play out, but I'm not getting my hopes up. BioWare needs to earn my trust back. They need to show me that they've learned from their mistakes, colossal as they were, and won't repeat them. They need to show me that they can still tell a good story. So I'll wait and see how this develops.
But I really want it to be good. I want to enjoy Mass Effect again.