No other game series defined a generation as completely as Mass Effect. Developed from the ground up as a trilogy, the Mass Effect series told the story of one space-faring superhero and his or her motley crew of badasses. Taken individually each game contains major flaws, but the series collectively struck a nerve over its five year release window. They were AAA action games full of lasers and explosions. But the focus was always on your crew members and developing strong relationships, whether romantic or platonic.
In many ways Mass Effect represented a critical intersection between the Play Your Way freedom that RPGs can provide, and the linear theme park structure and spectacle of big-budget games. Add in one of the most well-constructed sci-fi universes since Star Wars and you have the recipe for one of the most beloved and memorable game series in modern gaming.
It’s five years later. Five years since the release of Mass Effect 3, and a controversy surrounding the ending that proved the passionate fanbase could turn on a dime. BioWare would infamously take this vitriolic feedback to heart, eventually releasing post-launch patches to update and tweak the ending. The ending of the trilogy is still one of the most divisive and sour notes in gaming, brought on because the Mass Effect series has become such an important cultural phenomenon for gamers.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the fangs came out for Mass Effect: Andromeda.
Mass Effect: Andromeda proves that you can’t go home again. I mean that in the figurative sense, though literally Andromeda takes place hundreds of years and light-years removed from the Milky Way galaxy and the time period of the original trilogy. You arrive in an all-new galaxy after a 600-year journey, ready to explore and colonize a new slice of the universe.
That’s an exciting premise, but Andromeda has a steep hill to climb. It has to separate itself from the original trilogy and its beloved heroes like Commander Shepard, Garrus, Tali, and Wrex. No more Reapers, no more Geth. Much of the beloved universe-building and lore has to evolve to fit a new narrative within a new galaxy.
Yet it also has to feel like a Mass Effect game. Thus the Andromeda Initiative brings along gigantic colony ships full of Krogan, Salarian, Turian, and Asari. All their conflicts are still there, like the genophage and hostility between Krogan and Salarians. You get to take the Milky Way with you, which prevents Andromeda from crafting a new journey into the unknown.
The biggest problem with Mass Effect: Andromeda, however, is technical. Awkward animations and poorly optimized graphics often destroy the immersion and cohesion in many dialogue scenes. If Andromeda was more about pure run and gun action that may be forgivable, but the Mass Effect series prides itself on role-playing and character interaction. During a tensely emotional scene the last thing you want is for your character to stare ahead dead-eyed, or look the wrong direction. It feels sloppy and unfinished, and we’re talking about a AAA spin-off sequel that should have been given all the time and money it needed.
The general gaming public turned on Mass Effect: Andromeda with startling alacrity. Excitement melted away to cynicism as clips and images began circulating of the awkward and laughably bad animations and character models.
It began with playfully pointing out the goofy animation weirdness, like the ones below.
But things quickly grew cruel and sinister in a way the No Man’s Sky developers are all too familiar with. A subsection of gaming troglodytes picked an ex-EA developer to heap all their blame on, and targeted her in a vicious harassment campaign. The Metacritic User Score currently sits at an ugly 4.6 with over 2500 user reviews.
When people are disappointed they look for someone to blame. But most video games, especially AAA games are a hugely collaborative process. The animation woes in Mass Effect: Andromeda are the result of time management and prioritization.
Jonathan Cooper, a veteran animator at Naughty Dog (formerly BioWare), put together an informative twitter thread explaining how the animations in Andromeda are built using algorithms rather than by hand. You can start the thread below.
BioWare responded this week, and teased out future plans and patches: “We’ve received quite a bit of feedback, some of it positive and some of it critical. That feedback is an important part of our ongoing support of the game, and we can’t wait to share more of our immediate plans with you on Tuesday, April 4.”
A lot of the controversy boils down to the simple fact that for many game development remains an impenetrable, mysterious process that most people are wholly unfamiliar with. The level of time, work, and money it takes to make a game, let alone a gigantic undertaking like Mass Effect: Andromeda is vastly underrated and under appreciated. It takes talent, skill, passionate, and often a detrimental work-life balance to produce video games in a highly competitive industry. To see the level of vitriol beyond standard criticism is disappointing, but not shocking to a series with such a passionate fanbase.
It’s not all bad. Critics and fans were ultimately mixed on Andromeda. Technical issues aside, the story has a poor opening but gets better the further along you play (a common complaint for many big JRPGs as well). The new cast members are generally praised as being worthy of BioWare’s past efforts, the flexible combat system is well-received, and some side quests offer compelling writing and scenarios. Andromeda’s biggest failing is trying to survive in the shadow of the trilogy, and the technical difficulties don’t do it any favors.
Constructive, thoughtful criticism is important and valuable to elicit the right kind of feedback and push people to make better games. Harassment and frothing hatred doesn’t do anyone any favors, however, and could easily push many budding game developers out of the career altogether. I do worry that BioWare created a dangerous precedent in tweaking the ending to Mass Effect 3, opening the doors to harsher and more possessive criticism than most. We all want better games, and no one wants an amazing Mass Effect game more than BioWare. Hopefully they can still deliver one.