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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Heleus Cluster Blues

“Dear BioWare: Stop making open-world games” is the title of an op-ed recently posted on Polygon. I’ll leave it up to you if you’d like to go find it and read it; I agree with some points and disagree with others, but it sparked a discussion with Scott and Erich that I’ll build from here. Essentially, I stopped playing Mass Effect: Andromeda very early on – I’ve landed on Eos, but haven’t even walked over to the first outpost after you land – because I was losing interest rapidly, and what I’ve seen when watching my roommate Oz play does not endear me towards continuing.

The basic through line of the Polygon piece is that BioWare excelled when they focused on story-driven games that – while allowing for some freedom of mission order and exploration – were more linear in structure than ME: Andromeda’s vast planets. Neither Knights of the Old Republic was truly open-world, they simply allowed for freedom within set boundaries; Dragon Age: Origins was structured linearly; Dragon Age 2 was notoriously “restrictive” according to most players, though I like the way Kirkwall was set up; finally, the first three ME games weren't open-world in the same way as games like Skyrim, Dark Souls, or Witcher 3. Even DA: Inquisition, which provided the player with more options for moving around the world map and featured huge environments, isn't as open-ended as Andromeda.

Except that ME: Andromeda isn’t actually an open-world game, but rather a game which features open-world segments which you can (or are forced to) visit and explore both on foot and in the Nomad. These segments are interrupted by times when you need to revisit your ship the Tempest to progress a quest, or even travel to other regions of the Heleus cluster to converse with different characters. Now, I realize none of that is beyond the pale for any game of this genre, but the implementation is sorely lacking. Here are some cleaned-up versions of my rambling thoughts from earlier, which you didn't specifically ask for, but by Andraste you're getting them.

Transitions are a major issue, especially given how frequently they’re put to use while doing even the simplest of tasks. I spend too much time moving from between the Tempest, the galaxy map, things on the galaxy map, and the surface. This is even more egregious in a game with an inordinate amount of loading screens. Witcher 3 loads when you boot the game, or load a save. All other transitions - including fast travel – take you out of the game for the briefest of intervals, and don’t even require a full loading screen. The cumulative effect is that you rarely have time to lose your sense of immersion; in Andromeda, I found myself keeping my phone handy just in case I walked through a door and the game needed thirty seconds to powder its nose.

Right after landing on Eos I realized I had equipped the wrong armor, so wanted to go back in and switch it out; despite the Tempest’s boarding ramp being lowered, I got to watch the whole launch sequence as we took to the stars once more. Why does the Tempest lift off just because I board it? Does it really have to be in space for me to run around inside? In that same vein, as cool as it is to watch your view sweep from one interstellar object to the next when you’re moving around within a system, it quickly makes exploring new areas tedious. An option to turn that animation off would be nice, except those transitions are obviously miniature loading screens, so mapping the entire cluster will involve one repetitive camera sweep after another. Also, in case you’re thinking “Trey already said he hasn’t done much, though, so how can he have these gripes,” let me share some thoughts from folks who have already played most of / beaten the game. I think you’ll find some common ground.

Scott: “When you are on a planet and then go to the Tempest to find out you have an email saying someone needs something ON THE PLANET YOU WERE JUST ON!”

Scott: “This is why I wondered why people complained about Witcher load times. It was loading a no transition open world. I will wait on it to do that. Thank you.”

Next up: The. Fucking. Nomad. No three-hour session of an ME game should be spent driving around in the latest semi-functional space SUV. Yes, thankfully it is slightly more durable than the Mako, and the controls don’t make me want to break my controller. I personally was a fan of the Firewalker missions – which I might apparently be in the minority about – because they were self-contained enough for it not to get repetitive. Traversing terrain in an open-world game / environment is obviously going to be a major piece of the puzzle, though, and so you’d think BioWare could have come up with something more interesting than what essentially amounts to running errands with a dysfunctional family where one of the children is a seven-foot bird woman with a shady past. (That’s not a shot at Vetra, by the way. I already love Vetra. More on that later.)

Erich: “A lot of the character bits are amazing.  The story stuff can be great, but the places n between can be so boring. I spent hours the other day running side quests, and other stuff, without anything interesting happening except for a great conversation between Vetra and Liam.”

That ties neatly into my next point: There's so little of substance to do on the planets. All the myriad bits and quests and collectibles and crafting work in other open-world games because they're interwoven with the crux of the main game. I don't have to board a ship, sail to an island, and then ride Roach for ten minutes to find the one person in that region who plays Gwent. I can play Gwent with just about fucking anyone, because Gwent is a part of an organic, living world. Even if I did have to travel that far, at least there’d be something to look at. Hell, if we’re talking about running the roads in games, I actively enjoy spending time in the Regalia in FF XV because it’s executed almost perfectly. Rarely has a game done a better job of showing you a majestic landmark and then given you a sense of wonder at actually making your way there. Huge stretches of the planets in Andromeda are just barren wastelands, separating myriad tasks such as finding a mining spot, or exploring an alien ruin for a bit of loot or research data.

While I get that these worlds are supposed to be inhospitable when you first arrive, that doesn’t cover for what is essentially a lack of cohesive structure tying different bits of content together. From what I've read / heard / seen while watching people play, these are things that Horizon: Zero Dawn and Zelda: Breath of the Wild get right. Horizon has an entire storyline woven into it that reveals itself organically through exploration. Meanwhile, BotW "hides" rewards and shrines all over the place; according to Tycho, co-creator over at Penny-Arcade, basically if it looks like a puzzle / secret within the game then it almost certainly is. Open-world games necessitate more effort in keeping the player engaged, be it in the form of areas populated by flora and fauna, free-form quests that emerge as you play, or even just stunning landscapes and vistas.

Erich: “Yeah, all the backstory for the world itself is told in the most organic way possible. There have been a few times where I wished Andromeda had taken mechanics from Horizon. I know that that would have been difficult timing wise, though.”

It was at this point in the conversation that I realized Andromeda shares numerous similarities with another game in a beloved franchise which tried to go open-world.


Literally, exclamation point! It's MGS V! That is, it's got some of the same inherent flaws, at least. Both are games that aren't willing / able to commit to being either open-world or linear. Both force you out of the free roam environment, sometimes for little more than a cutscene or to be given an objective back in the area you just came from. The Tempest taking off just because you get on it really, really bothers me; now I’ve realized it’s because my mind correlates it to the constant helicopter trips between the main game world and Mother Base. Both feature meta-systems for sending out teams, gathering resources, and managing R&D projects which – if we’re all being honest – aren’t really critical to the core gameplay. Erich did point out that Andromeda’s story is executed in a more approachable manner, and I agree on that point; that doesn’t alleviate any of my frustration at having that story buried under a mountain of lackluster content, though.

I want to play Andromeda. Or maybe, I want to want to play Andromeda. Your crew seems to be pretty great, and Oz says some of the story moments and set pieces are really cool. I love the concept of the Initiative, and unlocking your father's memories via SAM has struck a real chord with me. Vetra and Jaal both interest me from the word go; a few of the others feel like archetypes we’ve already met, but one area I’ll always give BioWare the benefit of the doubt is characters. More than once, I’ve booted up single-player to check on my loot from strike teams – I might be addicted to that particular meta-system – and almost decided to just play for a while. Then I'll realize I have to spend hours listening to the whine of the Nomad, or shooting yet another Kett / Remnant / outlaw patrol, or swooshing between stuff on the map, or looking at loading screens. In contrast, if I really wanted to dive back into even DA: Inquisition, I could mitigate most of my impatience by just forging ahead for a while and ignoring my need to tick all the little boxes. That goes even more so for Fallout 4, or Witcher 3, or FF XV, the latter of which rivals even Witcher in terms of making an open world feel populated and fun to traverse.

Does that mean BioWare should give up on open-world games? I don’t think so, although they certainly need to tweak the formula. That’s something they’ve been doing since Knights of the Old Republic, though, and so maybe they can pull it off. To that point, all three of the original ME games are vastly different; the exploration, mission structure, dialogue and combat mechanics were tweaked with each successive entry. The changes were praised by some players as helping streamline the tedious sections, while others lamented the loss of features they felt were core to the spirit of the franchise. I won’t delve into the divisiveness of ME 3 here – there’s plenty of info out there if you’re interested – but suffice to say many fans did not share my enthusiasm and sense of closure afforded by the ending. Not having reached that point in Andromeda myself, I’ll let some other folks weigh in.

Scott: “The ending of Andromeda makes me want to play more but I don't want another game like Andromeda.”

Erich: “Yeah, I really like how straightforward the first game is.”

So while maybe it's not that BioWare can't make an open-world game, perhaps they shouldn't make a straightforward story-driven RPG with one hand, make a mediocre sandbox space exploration game with the other, then try and shove them into the same box. Truly successful open-world gameplay requires a marriage of the macro and microscopic; there’s a way to do it that allows for and enriches narrative-driven gameplay, but clearly that’s not what happened in this case. You don’t have to take my word, or even the word of my friends, and I’m not trying to dissuade you from giving Andromeda a try. If you’re like us and came in expecting “Mass Effect,” though, I can’t help but advise you to temper or at least adjust your expectations. I said earlier that I want to play Andromeda, but I have no qualms about admitting most of that impetus is because of my love of the franchise as a whole. I’m a huge proponent of making up your own mind about media, rather than just relying on reviews, but in this case general critical reception – and, one would suspect, the sales numbers over the rest of the year – seems to have hit the nail on the head. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go send my strike teams out one more time before bed; at the very least I don’t have to watch the Tempest take off to make that happen.


Bryant Burnette said...

(1) " “Dear BioWare: Stop making open-world games” is the title of an op-ed recently posted on Polygon." -- I'm reflexively opposed to the author of that article, because, like, just don't play 'em. A simple solution!

(2) Of course, if it's an issue purely of success/failure in the execution, then that's a different issue. It sounds to my admittedly-uneducated ears as if what's going on here is that BioWare is tossing a bunch of stuff into this game to cause players to spend more time -- and, I'm assuming, money (in some way) -- with their product. But it also sounds as if they have maybe not done a very good job. My perception of it is that this is the video-game equivalent of putting out a comic book with shitty art just because the publisher knows XX% of people will buy anything with Wolverine on the cover. How close am I?

(3) "I want to play Andromeda. Or maybe, I want to want to play Andromeda." -- I don't know squat about gaming, but I know plenty about lack of investment. Dutiful consuming with a paucity of actual interest is likely the same for any medium.

(4) "Truly successful open-world gameplay requires a marriage of the macro and microscopic" -- In other words, BioWare wants to want to be epic?

Xann Black said...

(1) Hehe. You know as well as I do how entitled fanbases have become of late - or maybe the Internet is just amplifying a pre-existing condition - and gamers are maybe the worst of the lot. People who play BioWare games in specific add a whole extra layer of "I want it my way!" Just look into the bitching about Mass Effect 3's ending I mention in the post.

(2) Close! I don't think it's BioWare's intention for it to be shitty, though; I think they really felt Andromeda was ready for launch, and that the mechanics work well together. Open-world games are pretty much the norm these days, to the point where developers who shouldn't necessarily be going that route are using the formula. There's some of that in the Polygon article, albeit presented in a way which just makes me grind my teeth.

Now, as far as the publisher - which would be EA in this case - that I can't speak to. For the past few years they've cultivated a bit of a rep for forcing devs to release games which aren't necessarily done baking.

(3) Exactly. You read my GOTY piece and saw this same concept playing out there; I'm not made of free time, and so I'm increasingly more discerning about where it gets spent. It's difficult to allot those hours to Andromeda when I could both have more fun and progress further in another game, to save nothing of using it for another hobby altogether. In a world where I haven't finished Luke Cage or even started NOS4A2, driving around in the space-SUV is not going to get prime consideration.

(4) It's actually the "epic" where BioWare has the least problems! All of the other games by them I mention in the post excel at making you feel like a player in sweeping events which affect the entire world / galaxy. The problem with Andromeda is that, like some sort of bullshit homeopathic "remedy," the good bits are 100 parts-per-million to mediocre sections of criss-crossing barren world maps while collecting widgets and ticking boxes.

Bryant Burnette said...

(1) I wonder if gamers actually ARE the worst of the lot? I'd argue that all most politics is is a fanbase mentality writ large, and if there's anything worse than a dug-in political mindset, I've not encountered it and don't want to. All this stuff reflects one thing upon the next, though. Consider how certain aspects of the 2016 election(s) are mirrored in fannish concerns, such as the "Ghostbusters" backlash, the backlash against the backlash, etc. Bottom line is that it probably comes down to investment, and since gaming sort of by definition requires a HUGE amount of investment, it would stand to reason that that then becomes the "worst" of the fandoms.

(3) I don't know how any any American with even a modicum of free time and leisure money wouldn't be in the same boat. So many options! It's honestly kind of oppressive. I try to just not think about it all that much and cut corners where I feel I can. For example, I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that I would love "Legion." But, for various reasons, I'm just opting not to watch it, at least for now. Sacrifices must be made. On the plus side, I'm finally getting "The Fireman" read.

(4) Makes sense.

Xann Black said...

(1) Gamers are a fickle, vindictive lot; that doesn't necessarily make us any different from the rest of humanity, but it’s certainly not a point in our collective favor. New game in a franchise is too similar to past offerings? You’re not being “innovative.” Next game tries an entirely new concept? You’re “shitting on long-time fans.” Third offering goes back to formula? You “don’t have the balls to keep innovating.”

I will say that – like with most things – sticking to the established formula is the option most likely to keep your sales numbers in the black. This is especially true if you’re the established top dog in a genre, like Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, or World of Warcraft. CoD especially is the Fast & Furious of the gaming world: announce it, hype it, release it, sit back and make money.

(3) You should make time for Legion. It’s only eight total one-hour episodes, and it is as good as any Marvel Netflix offering – including DD season one – on top of being just fan-fucking-tastic television. On the subject of The Fireman, I literally just finally bought a copy this week, although NOS4A2 will get tackled first… eventually. The point remains that lackluster media experiences simply aren’t worth the time or effort, and I’m thankfully getting better at recognizing them early and not feeling obligated at pressing on with something I don’t enjoy.