Speaking purely in terms of entertainment, the first few months of 2017 have been spectacular. Peak TV has not let up one bit, with promising newcomers like Legion joining continuing successes like The Americans. Movies, especially more “popular” releases like Get Out, Logan, John Wick 2, and Lego Batman, have been exceedingly great.. But both still pale in comparison to the gaming landscape, which has seen a historically excellent slate of games, right in the middle of a period notorious for being a slow.
I already wrote about my love for Resident Evil 7, a game that is beginning to get left behind in the larger cultural conversation. February saw the release of Horizon: Zero Dawn, one of the greatest Playstation exclusives in Sony’s history and an enormous step forward for developer Guerrilla Games. But even that title, a massive Ubisoft-esque open world action game, was shortly eclipsed by the hype surrounding Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a game that was universally hailed as an instant classic and one of the very best games ever made a full week before it even released.
I haven’t finished either Horizon or Zelda, but have been playing both on-and-off since their release. It’s amazing how well they represent the varied nature of the open-world genre. Horizon is heavily focused on its combat systems. It provides the player with an enormous number of potential tasks, but just about all of them are clearly marked on your map and involve fighting the various mechanical dinosaurs that prowl the open-world. The extensive number of ways the player can approach combat prevent it from feeling like a collection of busy work. Still, the environment, while varied in appearance, in no way affects the player’s experience. You navigate a snowy mountain top in the same way you would a desert.
Zelda, on the other hand, is all about its environment. The varied landscape is more than just cosmetic, and many of the game’s challenges revolve around how to navigate Hyrule. It’s a game all about freedom of approach, encouraging the players to get creative in how they overcome adversity. Do they find a village and buy coats before venturing into the snow and mountains, or do they cook really spicy meals to heat their insides and brave the cold? Do they buy expensive armor and brute-force their way through enemy encampments, or sneak by them altogether? Do they follow clearly-marked paths and engage with any nasties that may block the way, or do they scale cliffsides and cross rivers to forge their own path? In Breath of the Wild, there is no wrong way to progress.
Unfortunately, it’s a mechanical mess, with a control scheme that takes hours to feel remotely natural. Other bold design decisions, such as the inclusion of breakable weapons and a clumsy inventory system, also hurt the experience. Nobody is going to argue that Zelda excels in combat, but the freedom that the game provides overshadows these shortcomings, as evidenced in the game’s universal critical acclaim.
But what both games have in common is that they are long, and exhausting. As an adult with a full-time job, it’s hard to experience everything even one of these games has to offer, let alone both. It’s true that one could make a beeline for the “main quests” of each game, but doing so means missing out on a lot of Zelda’s most satisfying moments, and Horizon’s best items and upgrades. The vast freedoms that prove so appealing to one person are intimidating to another. Which camp you fall into often depends on how much free time you have.
Most consumers won’t buy both of these titles, which are both exclusive to their respective platforms. But for those of us who do, it’s hard to garner up much enthusiasm for EVEN MORE open-world games. Imagine being a game critic who was assigned to review both Zelda and Horizon. These games came out within four days of each other. Even with the generous pre-release windows provided to critics, it is simply impossible to review both games without rushing them and getting burned out. So imagine how hard it must be to have to review Mass Effect: Andromeda mere weeks later.
Full disclosure: I have not played one second of Mass Effect: Andromeda. I can’t speak to it personally, but critics have been less-than-enthusiastic. Complaints include awkward facial animations, frequent glitches, a terrible UI, weak writing, and last but not least, an over-abundance of uninspired “go fetch this” errands for side-quests.
Grouped together and placed next to a low metacritic score, Mass Effect: Andromeda appears to be a real mess of a game. But when you begin to break down the complaints one-by-one, it paints a somewhat different picture. It’s true that some of the facial animations and various other visual effects are weak, even in comparison to the 10-year-old original game. But none of the Mass Effect games really excel in this area, and unconvincing facial animations plague nearly every game release. Even a game like Horizon, which is utterly gorgeous, seems unconvincing when the characters stop to actually talk to each other.
The glitches and UI are definitely irritating, but again, a staple of the Mass Effect franchise. They have always been clunky, with awkward menus and imprecise controls, but people have generally given the series a pass on these elements because the stories were interesting. The supposedly weak writing DOES give me pause, but it’s difficult to tell if this is in comparison to other modern story-driven games, or earlier Mass Effect titles. The original Mass Effect stood out for its story, at least in part, because so few games were telling stories of a similar scale or quality. In 2017, that’s not necessarily the case. Titles like The Last of Us and The Witcher 3 have upped the ante. Where it was once admirable that characters would clumsily tell Shepard their entire life stories to form some kind of bond, such a lack of subtlety is less passable in today’s environment.
Instead, it seems like most of the complaints are taking the heat for the most significant change from previous Mass Effect titles: its adherence to the modern open-world gaming structure. Mass Effect: Andromeda is apparently full of fetch-quests, collectibles, and “go here and kill something” style missions. Many reviewers have complained that they are unsatisfying and overwhelm the game. I’ve written about dotted-map games and their proclivity toward needless filler before, and the problem has only increased in severity since.
But Bioware’s previous release, Dragon Age: Inquisition, suffered especially from a litany of needless tasks and errands, just like Mass Effect: Andromeda. Like Andromeda, Inquisition also featured awkward animations, unsubtle shoehorning in of character backgrounds, and an absurd number of glitches. But unlike Andromeda, Inquisition was critically praised. Its issues were generally considered minimal, given the scope of what it was trying to achieve. It’s also true that The Witcher 3 released later that year and changed people’s expectations for what is possible in an open-world RPG, but regardless, it’s fascinating to me how upset people are for flaws in ME:A that were also present in Inquisition.
It starts to make sense when we go back to the current gaming climate, though. Critics have just rushed through Horizon, Zelda, and Persona 5, three excellent and enormous games. So when Mass Effect: Andromeda releases and refuses to respect reviewers’ time, they’re going to be extra sensitive about it. The things that were minor annoyances in previous titles are going to stand out all-the-more, because they’re just not having fun anymore. The experience of playing Andromeda will feel less like the culmination of five years of anticipation and more like another chore to check off the list.
Maybe Andromeda’s poor release timing is a good thing. My “dotted-map” article above was written more than two years ago, and has only become more relevant over time. Yet, there’s still an underlying assumption in game development that quantity is more valuable than quality. In 2017, It can be hard to justify $60 for an 8 hour experience, while a 10 hour experience loaded with 50 hours of fluff gets praised for its size and scope. With Zelda, critics and fans are finally experiencing an alternative to meaningless collect-a-thons in the form of a world that begs the player to discover it at his or her leisure.
It’s entirely possible that, had Mass Effect: Andromeda released in, say, June, a critical community hungry for experiences would have awarded it higher scores. But I’m glad that it released when it did. Bioware is going to have to kick it up a notch with their next game, and it will serve as a cautionary tale to other open-world game designers (Ubisoft, I’m looking at you). We deserve better, and we’re finally starting to ask for it.