‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ Suffers From Open-World Syndrome – Forbes
Ultimately, perhaps the biggest problem with Mass Effect: Andromeda is that BioWare believed the game would succeed if only it were bigger and more graphically stunning than the games that preceded it.
Here we have a game that’s fully embraced the open world design concepts of modern game development, replete with lots of gathering and scanning and crafting and the like. The grind is strong in this one.
Ironically, the value of highly structured open-world game design has come into question lately, especially with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Plante calls Horizon Zero Dawn’s open-world a “controlled world” which, he argues, is “the dominant model of the genre, an astonishingly popular design philosophy that counts megahits like Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed as its devotees. It allows for player freedom to a point, but ultimately favors the ideas and stories of the people who make the game. A controlled world is actually one game grafted onto another: there’s the open world that you explore, and then there’s a secondary and more traditionally linear adventure that is at best overlaid upon the open world in a series of “go from point A to point B” missions, and at worst, tucked into discrete, standalone zones.”
The controlled-world game typically relies on cinematic cutscenes, which often begin and end a mission, and shuttle the player from their hijinks in the open world to the linear experiences of each mission. You can go anywhere and do anything, and yet, where you go, what you do, and what order you do things in won’t be so different from that of every other player. To play in a controlled world is to be an actor performing a role: you can improvise, but you will hit your marks when the script calls for it.
The new Zelda, on the other hand, is an “engaged world” according to Plante. This type of game eschews hand-holding and makes the game world itself the center of attention rather than merely a big map with quests and markers.
Perhaps the best example of this sort of game design philosophy, Plante argues, is Dark Souls.
In that game there “aren’t discrete missions with clear paths to victory. The game is its persistent world, one with few scripted cutscenes and fewer still linear action sequences. Hidden passages serve as puzzles and various ghouls act as gatekeepers, determining if the player has learned enough skills to progress.”
Plante points out that both “controlled worlds” and “engaged worlds” exist on a sort of spectrum rather than as wholly different types of games. Something like Breath of the Wild exists fairly close to the center, but still leans toward “engaged world” with players creating their own emergent narrative experiences in ways that are wholly unscripted, that even the developers themselves may never have imagined.
Mass Effect: Andromeda may not be as linear or confined to corridors as its predecessors, but its open-world is still very much a “controlled world” conceptually and in practice. You are ushered from one task to the next, and missions play out between cutscenes. There is a great deal of structure, even if you can still choose to just drive around in your Nomad. There is very little in terms of emergent gameplay.
What we’re left with is something that’s obviously incredibly expensive, but not always incredibly engaging. Yes, there’s good stories and some of the acting is great, but the writing is very uneven. The number of bugs and glitches and the very presence of such outlandish animations speaks to a game that already had huge shoes to fill, and then went and made them even bigger. BioWare Montreal bit off much more than it could chew, and the result is a game that often feels too rough around the edges.
If it were only rough around the edges, that might not even matter. But the game suffers in other areas, like tedious side-quests that feel more like filler than worthwhile content, and big, empty open spaces with very little to do—not to mention the lack of enemy variety and often underwhelming main story.
This is not to say the game is necessarily bad. It’s still a Mass Effect game that feels like a worthy piece of the franchise (which was always a little grindy and tedious at times.) There’s plenty to like about Andromeda, including a very likable protagonist and supporting cast.
But I can’t help but think that a game less focused on Tons Of Content and being The Biggest Open World Ever and instead on great storytelling, compelling choices and action-packed gameplay would have been not only more fun, but ultimately a more polished experience, simply because more resources could have been devoted to that.
In his review, my colleague Paul Tassi notes that he spent over 60 hours with the game simply getting through the main story and side-quests. That’s a really long time to spend with a game that doesn’t wow you with its story or hook you with addictive gameplay. It’s a long time to spend with any game. And it’s very, very expensive to develope, requiring tons of resources.
With games like Horizon Zero Dawn and Mass Effect Andromeda so much depends on spectacle. These games have truly extraordinary graphics, with astonishingly beautiful vistas that will make you catch your breath and gape in wonder. But that focus comes at a cost, and that cost is lackluster storytelling and gameplay too obsessed with tedious missions and filler. I called Horizon Zero Dawn beautiful and tedious; the same applies to Mass Effect: Andromeda, though I think I prefer it over the Sony exclusive, bugs and all. (Frankly young Aloy is more disquieting than any of Andromeda’s faces.)
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild may not match either game’s visual fidelity—it’s a beautiful game in its own right, but there’s simply no comparing its graphics to what Guerrilla Games did with Horizon or with the environments possible in Frostbite 3—but what it may lack in the graphics department it more than makes up for in innovative gameplay.
In Breath of the Wild, enemies will grab smaller enemies and throw them at you if they lose their weapon. You can light grass on fire to create hot air which helps propel your paraglider further through the air. You can fasten Octo Balloons to a raft and transform it into a flying airship. The list goes on and on. The game feels alive at every turn, and you never feel confined to play within the kinds of paint-by-numbers gameplay that so many “controlled world” games foist upon you.
Imagine a Mass Effect that was more like that, where exploration was truly free and you could use the tools at your disposal to really play around in a sandbox. Couple that with harder choices that truly impact how the game unfolds, and you’d have one of the best sci-fi games ever made. Honestly, combining the freedom and emergent gameplay of something like the new Zelda with the narrative oomph of the Mass Effect series would be truly exciting.
On the other hand, perhaps Mass Effect simply doesn’t need to be open world to begin with. Perhaps this trend toward open world is not meant for every game. Dragon Age: Inquisition was praised a great deal for its openness and big, beautiful fantasy setting, but its vast world still felt less interesting to me than the world of Dragon Age: Origins. That game gave you some freedom, but largely funneled you through a set story with a beginning, middle and end. And it worked. It worked better than the tedious checklists of Inquisition.
If I had one wish, it would be that both Mass Effect and Dragon Age would look back to their roots, which were at once more linear and more tactical, with better and more compact stories.
Frankly, we don’t need big, beautiful vistas and tons of fetch quests. I’d rather have faces that were actually pleasant to look at and if that requires resources to be diverted away from huge open areas, so be it.
And we don’t need sixty hours of gameplay, we just need the gameplay we do get to be quality gameplay with interesting stories and levels. BioWare’s strengths are not in open-world game design or desperately beautiful panoramas; the developer’s strength lies in its crafting of stories and interesting characters and choices and roleplaying.
Mass Effect: Andromeda isn’t a bad game. I’m enjoying my time with it plenty. But it could have been so much more. And in a lot of ways, it could have done that simply by doing so much less.
‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ Suffers From Open-World Syndrome – Forbes