Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect: Andromeda (PC)

So I’m going to drop way out of my usual tree and actually review a game. Mass Effect: Andromeda, to be precise. A sci-fi game, but still. Not generally my field. I’m reviewing this one because the original Mass Effect trio made for one of my favourite games ever (admittedly the last one had the kind of god-awful SNAFU of an ending that should go down in the history books, but enough people have flamed ME:3’s ending that I don’t need to repeat).

Anyway, even with the ME:3 ending that made me give serious thought to tracking down the developers and introducing their heads repeatedly to a wall while repeating ‘Do NOT fuck up an otherwise awesome series with an ending like that’, I jumped on Mass Effect: Andromeda. You know, just in case they’d pulled their heads outta their asses and gone back to ME:2 levels of awesome.

Having played it through, my answer is a qualified ‘meh’. As you can see, I rated it 3 stars, rather than the 100 out of 5 I’d’ve unhesitatingly awarded ME:2. Why am I being so mean, and who the hell do I think I am to comment, anyway?

First off, I write sci-fi plots. I have for over twenty years, and so I have a solid base of experience to pull on when I say that this plot was weaker than lite beer. There was no character development; the crew comes across as a bunch of teeny-boppers on a road trip compared to the originality and depth of the ME original crews. The dialogue was bloody dull; I’ve never skipped through so much character interaction on a first play through in my life, and the romancing…well, let’s not get started on that, I’d be here all day. High-level overview: they got a ten-year-old American boy to write it. Which is a shame, because someone had clearly put a lot of work into the actual programming since the days of ME:1. Not that there’s actually anyone interesting to shag in the Mass Effect: Andromeda universe: Reyes Vidal is about the only one with any life in the character, and he’s really a walking, talking Hispanic bad-boy stereotype. At least he’s an entertaining one.

So I loathed the crew, the dialogue was insipid, and the plot had weak points you could drive a cruiseliner through. Why did I keep going? Fair question. I guess I enjoyed the original ME so much I hoped Andromeda would miraculously pick its ass off the floor and get back in the fight, and also, the graphics were stunning. If you take Mass Effect: Andromeda to the cleaners on every other point (and you pretty much can) all the inspiration the rest of the game so badly needed ended up in the planet building. Varied, gorgeous, and by and large very solid – I didn’t end up stuck up to my knees in a rock, which made a welcome change from other games that shall remain nameless.

Kedara was my top favourite Mass Effect: Andromeda location – think of Kedara as the Omega station of the Andromeda galaxy, and you’re not too far off. Whoever came up with it had also clearly spent some time in Iceland, or somewhere very similar, so as well as offering the best range of characters who actually, well, had some character, the scenery was great, and not too tortuous to explore (Havarl, to take a totally not-random example, was a right shit to get around in).

In terms of opposition, there isn’t that much variation planet-to-planet. There’s your good mates the kett, in their four basic flavours of Chosen, aka redshirts, Destined (or something) which are redshirts with shields, Anointed, which have armour, and Ascendant, which are multi-level bastards whose main challenge lies in killing their regenerating shield so you can kill them. There are planetary monsters which also don’t vary all that much: some places they’re called adhi, other places challyrion, and if the kett get their paws on them, they’re called wraith and can cloak until shot. Basically, they’re much the same creature, and if you think Komodo dragon crossed with a porcupine you’re not far off. The Remnant bots are very consistent everywhere (logical when you think about it) and none of them are too hard to kill until you come up against destroyers and architects, either of which can repeatedly spoil your day. You’ve also got rogues of all species, called Roekaar if they’re angaran (because double vowels make everything sound more official), and exiles if they’re human, turian, krogan, or asari.

It’s in facing the opposition and gearing up to face the opposition that a major weak point of ME: Andromeda comes to light. You don’t have one convenient location to buy new and exciting ways to introduce people to their next life and another convenient location to decide which armour / weapons you and your team will actually use on a given mission. Oh no. You have merchants – separate ones – for armour, weaponry, car parts, and any other items the space-faring teeny-bopper needs, or you have to scan shit (lots and lots and lots and lots of shit) to accumulate ‘research points’ so you can build and mod instead of buying. Once you’ve got your research points, you have to scroll through a lot of options (over a hundred), research your gun or armour or mod, and then go somewhere new and different to actually build the damn thing. Once built, you go somewhere else AGAIN to equip it – and you can’t select weaponry for your team at all. In fact, short of taking a series of action stills, there’s no way to even find out what your team’s carrying, which makes mission planning rather more hit and miss than any of the previous MEs. Basically, kit is a major pain in the ass. If you have the patience, there are some pretty kick-ass bits of mayhem you can build. My personal favourites were the Dhan shotgun and the Isharray sniper, but then I derive malign enjoyment from a good sniper perch and exploding heads.

And let me not miss the opportunity to bash the bloody, benighted scanner missions. Oh yes. Someone in game design had a serious hard-on for that damn scanner. You have to trace conduits to achieve missions, scan beasties (preferably not when they’re gnawing your face off), and scan everything up to and including email terminals and cots to get your research points. Kill me now.

The other thing you do repeatedly on most stops is drive. Your vehicle is a six-wheeled ATV that’s a step up from your wheels in ME:1, a step down from ME:2 (because, seriously, how do you beat a hovercraft with a super-speed option???), and doesn’t blow up too easy. However, it’s unexpectedly entertaining, because the one part where the Mass Effect: Andromeda team must have gagged and bound their usual dialogue writer and got someone else to write is for the chats between your team mates while spending time with you driving around. Peebee and Jaal are especially awesome for long drives, even if you pay for bringing Jaal along in most serious fights. Never, ever, take Liam anywhere unless you really need the sanctimonious little shit, but Cora and Drack are also surprisingly funny, and Peebee and Vetra have their moments.

And the ending? I felt free to smear the ME:3 ending (along with almost everyone else, BTW), so what of ME: Andromeda? Well, to be honest, the Mass Effect: Andromeda ending was kind of the mwarp-mwarp-mwarp variety. You shoot a metric shit-ton of things you’ve shot a hundred times before, and Tann and Addison promptly do what they do best after snarky comments and road-blocking – make you make the actual decisions. There’s a lot of open plot threads left over, making this ending more of a cliffhanger than anything else. I’m not a big fan of cliff-hangers in books or anywhere else, because, while it makes a certain amount of sense in terms of desperately trying to attract people back for the sequel, a cliff-hanger makes unflattering comment on your ability to write something that will lure them back whether or not the heroine is poised on the precipice in your final scene, and it’s also damn annoying, especially with the persistent rumours going around that the ME:A’s developers’ delicate egos were so bruised by the less-than-flattering reviews that any sequel is likely years out, if it happens at all.

So, overall? I’ll probably play it again, road-test another character type, think longingly of the ME:2 game before the epic fuck-up propagated at the end of ME:3, and then go and play the original ME again for contrast, because I am desperately short of sci-fi games that aren’t just Alien vs Predator ego-shooters. However, overall – this could have been a great game, and spawned another clutch of relatively intelligent, well-plotted sequels. Instead, it flopped like a pregnant pole-vaulter, and the plot and dialogue team have a lot of that shame to wear.

Meet the author:

Website

Twitter

Caresaway, D J Cockburn

Caresaway, D J Cockburn

Caresaway

Edward Crofte has developed the ultimate cure for depression, the single most successful and most sought-after drug on the market, legal or otherwise. Its outstanding success makes it a must-have for anyone who needs a confidence boost, and despite the growing number of conspiracy theorists claiming a list of side-effects including pyschopathy, Caresaway sales are booming. It’s doing so well that Edward stops using Caresaway after his coup to take over the position of CEO is successful. After all, he has everything he wants in life – why does he need to keep taking an anti-depressant? However, as he’s about to discover, much in life depends on your attitude…

Caresaway is an original, well-written and well-developed dystopia novella, playing on the themes of modern society’s obsession with prescription medication and money to create a very realistic scenario. D. J. Cockburn’s characters are expertly developed and plausible, adding their own layers to the storyline as the plot unfolds. The real strength of this book for me, however, lay in the way each new development built on the preceding ones. There was no sudden save halfway through, just a continuous exposition leading to the final twist that managed to be more chilling than many abrupt exposés. Definitely one of the best-structured novellas I’ve read this year, with a thought-provoking plot.

Salt in the Water, S Cushaway and J Ray

Salt in the Water, S Cushaway and J Ray

Salt in the Water

In a setting with strong overtones of Mad Max, Salt in the Water is the kind of gritty, kick-ass sci-fi dystopia that punches you in the teeth to get your attention.

The political balance of the small enclaves was complex, nasty, and well-thought-out, and the results weren’t ever saved at the last moment by a deus ex machina moment. In addition, the contrast between the high-tech weapons so very rarely available against the predominance of knives, fists, and rocks was a nice accent to the setting.

While opting for a wide range of character viewpoints can be a recipe for disaster in terms of reader confusion and choppiness in the read, I found that authors J. Ray and S. Cushaway did a pretty good job of managing their plot through the various viewpoints. While to some extent the sympathy I built with each character was limited by the amount of time I spent with them, the individual characters carrying the viewpoint were, without exception, well-developed and strongly individual across the range of species – twisty, traumatised, and dark.

I did find that the background to the Toros shards could have used a bit more explanation. What comes through the story: These artifacts stud the landscape; they caused a disaster; they still do bad things – but that was really about the extent of the information. As the book is, pretty clearly, the preparation for a sequel, that may have been deliberate, but as a reader, it left me with a feeling that I’d arrived halfway through an important story.

Overall, this book definitely earnt its five stars, and I’m very stingy with those. I’m a sucker for intelligent anti-heroes and independent loners, not to mention solid writing skills and a realistic plot, and this book provided me with plenty of all the above. I’d strongly recommend this read.

Reviewed for Knockin’ Books Blog.

Playback Effect, Karen A Wyle

Playback Effect, Karen A Wyle

Playback Effect

Karen A. Wyle’s Playback Effect offers a new and unique slant on the world of virtual reality, one where a minority of lucid dreamers and a number of professional athletes, actors and stuntspeople record their experiences for others to buy and experience for themselves. Wynne Cantrell is one of the most successful lucid dreamers, offering a gamut of dream experiences from BDSM to butterfly gardens. Her husband, Hal Wakeman, a renowned sculptor, is frequently absent, heavily involved in his latest work and largely uninterested in Wynne’s pretensions to artistry. When Hal is late for another of their meetings, it seems unremarkable, but the consequences will have far-reaching effects on their relationship – and the virtual reality market as a whole.

Karen A. Wyle has written a fantastic blend of sci-fi, romance, and detective thriller in this book. In a world where dreams have power and the Pandora’s Box of the virtual reality world is the legal and ethical nightmare of a moment of death recording, Wynne and Hal have to work with an eclectic set of people to beat a murder charge and bring the real criminal to justice. The details of the legal and criminal procedure are thoroughly researched, and give the story a solid framework, while the characters’ personal stories weave the book into a brilliant whole. With convincing characters and a plot full of intriguing twists and turns, Playback Effect will create a vivid reading experience for a wide gamut of readers. I can’t over-recommend this story – a real page-turner.

Reviewed for Readers’ Favorite.

Lifeboat at the End of the Universe, Simon Brading

Lifeboat at the End of the Universe, Simon Brading

Lifeboat at the End of the Universe

Simon Brading’s Lifeboat at the End of the Universe offers humanity its last and only hope for survival as the cycle of the universe approaches its end; the Big Crunch threatens the security and apathy that humanity has known for countless generations. The Lifeboats will take millions of humans, enough for a viable gene pool, and ship them in stasis towards the edge of the universe, hoping to escape the all-devouring black holes sucking all matter in towards the universe core. The humans aboard each will serve three-month watches at widely spaced intervals, just enough to keep their brains from succumbing to the effects of the stasis, under the care of Artificial Humans – and an Adam.

Lifeboat at the End of the Universe offers the ultimate in locked-room mystery, wrapped in a slick science-fiction environment and spiced with tantalising hints of questions aimed at the roots of AI and human psychology. The current Lifeboat crew, a group of ten, showcases the minutiae of stress on relationships, contrasting with the unchanging calm and positivity of their Adam to create a very convincing level of tension in a deliberately calming environment. Focussing on Tom, the group’s Astrophysicist, and the personality clashes he experiences with their Adam, this story accelerates into a twist that will set you back on your heels.