Mass Effect: Andromeda – Are We Still Hung Up On Mass Effect 3’s Ending?

Sometimes people are just ready to be furious. There were those gunning for Mass Effect: Andromeda ever since it was in early access, and that sense of outrage only increased upon the game’s release. Judging by livid comments and videos documenting myriad glitches, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an unmitigated car-crash. The user score on aggregate sites like Metacritic peg it at a wince-inducing 4.8 out of 10, for instance.

Yet the critical reception casts doubt over this conclusion. Based on average review scores from numerous outlets, the same site gave Andromeda a respectable 73%. It’s the kind of factoid that makes me ask whether it’s another case of fans with an axe to grind. More specifically, I can’t help wondering if they ever got over the infamous (and polarising) Mass Effect 3 ending.

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It’s a bold new world, but some of us aren’t along for the ride – concept art by Ben Lo

That game’s finale caused uproar. Although fans voiced their anger in a way that beggars belief, I do understand some of the frustration that led to such insanity. Mass Effect 3’s continuity was baffling: characters travelled large distances with no explanation as to how they managed it. Moreover, certain events contradicted lore that’d been established in prior instalments. This led to theories about the main character being ‘indoctrinated’, wherein the enemy essentially brainwashes you. It also featured a disappointing end to the culmination of five years’ worth of choices. Indeed, we were left with a one-size-fits-all conclusion that didn’t take your prior adventures into account.

This angst forced Bioware to patch Mass Effect 3 with an alternate ending. While I enjoyed their solution to many of the problems detailed above, I appreciate that the original left a bitter taste in the mouth of many. As such, I suppose their hesitancy over Andromeda is logical even if I don’t agree with their wish to see it crash and burn.

Another critical factor was the climax’s bittersweet nature. This was not a happy conclusion. It was miserable, if anything: our hero probably died, their friends were scattered to the wind and beloved locations went up in flames before the credits rolled. We may have claimed victory, but it was won at a terrible cost. After three games and hundreds of hours spent in their company, I think most would want a more cheerful ending. The fact that we didn’t get it presumably ruffled a lot of feathers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this contributed to any lingering resentment. Indeed, I still can’t hear the soundtrack to that final cinematic without wanting to wail.

As such, I think this has more to do with Andromeda’s mixed treatment than you’d think. It’s a shame, because I’m a firm believer that it plays host to a great idea: colonising a new galaxy (as is the case in Andromeda) is exactly the clean break Mass Effect needs. Furthermore, it’s a good basis on which to build a fresh series. I just wish some weren’t bringing so much baggage along for the ride.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Do We Really Need a Shared Zelda Universe?

We’re seized by a special kind of madness when new Legend of Zelda games come out. It’s a fever-dream of nostalgia and apprehension: fans whip themselves into a fury for products that break records over their knee with practiced ease. After finding out that the franchise is part of one massive story, they also spend a good deal of time puzzling out where the latest installment appears in its convoluted timeline. Predictably, this has caused a lot of head-scratching where The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is concerned. When exactly does it take place and which other games does it tie into?

Where (and when) we are in the Zelda timeline is something of a mystery – concept art for Breath of the Wild

It’s question that gets everywhere these days. After the success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, everyone’s scrambling for a slice of the pie with their own connected worlds. DC is eternally playing catch-up to their rivals, Tom Cruise’s The Mummy reboot kicks off a ‘monster’ universe and Kong: Skull Island is gearing up for a crossover with Godzilla in 2020. While this is all well and good, it does make you wonder whether everything has to be connected.

The obvious answer is ‘no’. Bigger isn’t always better, and there’s strength in being able to do whatever you like in a narrative without fear of stepping on someone else’s toes. If another team wants to utilise a character or keep them around for future plots there’s only so much you can do with them. Things are therefore in danger of falling into a holding pattern while everyone waits for the next crossover. Although it’s fun to see how everything fits into a larger narrative (and this also provides opportunities you otherwise wouldn’t get via standalone franchises), there’s an elegance in keeping to yourself. For example, I question the sanity of not connecting Sony’s mooted Venom film with the new Spider-Man flicks but I respect their decision to avoid the story being dictated by team-ups.

As such, is it more hassle than it’s worth to try and connect every Legend of Zelda? Doing so is confusing enough as it is. Whilst the connective tissue between games is largely irrelevant and tangential, it boils down to alternate versions of reality based on whether the famously mute hero – Link – succeeded in his quest to save Hyrule during 1999’s Ocarina of Time. Confused? You’ve not seen anything yet.

Because this N64 classic dealt so heavily in time-travel, things become baffling rather quickly. In one timeline (known as the Adult Timeline) he succeeds, and the world Link leaves behind leads to the cell-shaded Wind Waker. Another has him going back in time, reliving his childhood and preventing Ocarina of Time from ever happening (the aptly-named Child Timeline). This results in Majora’s Mask and the gloomy Twilight Princess. A final possibility has him dying on his adventure (called the Fallen Hero Timeline), a failure that brings us to SNES favourite A Link to the Past and the very original games from the 1980s. In essence, the ‘game-over’ screen becomes canon. It’s all a bit longwinded, so you’d absolutely be excused for not keeping up.

Still, I’d like to think this tumultuous history adds to – instead of detracts from – the series. That may seem odd considering my hesitance about shared worlds, but it’s an idea which can be very powerful if used skilfully. Giving a definitive arc adds to that in-game folklore until it becomes a grand mythology spanning centuries. There was an elegance in the older idea that this is the same tale retold over and over, yet you can feel the weight of history on the shoulders of Breath of the Wild through seeing Hyrule’s ruined carcass. It means something because we’ve spent decades fighting to keep this place alive. It’s familiar to us. We’ve grown up there.

This feels broadly similar to the epic poems from Ancient Greece. Literature that details larger-than-life figures like Odysseus or Athena, these stories played out a grand narrative across heaven and Earth that was taught (and presumably added to) with each new generation. After 31 years of adventure, the Legend of Zelda franchise is genuinely living up to its name for the same reason. Each successive game adds to a rich tapestry of adventure.

It’s why I’m not against the sudden interest in connected universe on film. It’s somewhat exasperating because it stinks of jumping on the bandwagon, but combining stories into one mega-narrative gives you a great deal of context with which to tell your story. That shared history is what made Captain America: Civil War so successful.

It doesn’t need to be confusing or exclusionary, either. As The Legend of Zelda and Netflix’s Marvel shows demonstrate, you don’t have to hit your audiences over the head with a shared universe. Small hints for those paying attention are more than enough. In fact, your story should be front-and-centre rather than the setup for future sequels (I’m looking at you, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). That’s something Zelda has always gotten very, very right.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a Reminder of How Fragile Our Way of Life Can Be

Horizon: Zero Dawn is undeniably beautiful. Its overgrown cityscapes are a cascade of breath-taking green, jade and orange flora, but that’s to say nothing of the other areas you’ll trek through in your journey. From jungles to desert canyons, the game seems to be made up of one spectacular vista after another. Still, this is a morbid brand of gorgeousness nonetheless. The fact remains that we’re walking through the corpse of a society. The world we know is gone.

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The world we know is gone in Horizon: Zero Dawn, but how? Concept art by Allan LLoyd

As such, Horizon is a wonderful but depressing bit of escapism. Much like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or fellow PlayStation exclusive The Last of Us, it stands as a stark reminder of how precarious our current status quo could be. Although we’re unlikely to be overrun with quirky robot wildlife anytime soon, Horizon reminds us of a truth we usually prefer to forget. We’re not invulnerable.

While said robots clearly had something to do with how everything fell apart in this game, we don’t need a tech-driven armageddon of our own to lay us low. Worryingly, our problems are less remarkable yet equally (if not more) devastating. To start with, climate change is one very real threat to our society. We can argue as much as we like about its cause, but escaping the consequences is impossible: as stated by NASA on their website, carbon dioxide levels are the highest they’ve ever been in 650,000 years. Moreover, our sea levels are rising as Arctic ice continues to shrink in size. Besides the Arctic ecosystem being thrown out of kilter and polar bears having a damn hard time of it thanks to global warming, this might end with disease running rampant and your home underwater. Earth Observatory points out that as ‘tropical temperature zones expand, the reach of some infectious diseases, such as malaria, will change. More intense rains and hurricanes and rising sea levels will lead to more severe flooding and potential loss of property and life’. If something doesn’t change then the globe may look rather different in a hundred years or so, and not for the better.

Secondly, disease is a genuine and utterly terrifying threat that could wipe us out all too quickly. The likes of 1918’s Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people, while the medieval Black Death wiped out roughly 60% of Europe’s population. That’s outright insane: you basically had a half-and-half chance of survival. Those aren’t great odds, and despite having vastly improved medical treatment nowadays we’d be forced to contest with new challenges due to international travel being so easy. In the early days of an epidemic, a carrier who may not yet be showing symptoms would simply hop on a plane and take their illness to a different continent altogether. Your problem has suddenly widened in scope.

We can’t ignore technology a la Horizon or Terminator either, of course. Artificial intelligence is getting smarter by the day and it’s certainly feasible that this could become a problem if machines somehow outsmarted us or messed about with the internet. We rely so heavily on the web that losing it would cripple our society. This is also why events such as solar flares (which are ejections of plasma from the sun that have the ability to knock out our tech when strong enough) are potentially a worry.

None of this is in danger of happening anytime soon, naturally, but Horizon serves as a stark reminder not to take things for granted. Our civilization’s survival is far from guaranteed, and neither is our way of life.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

We’re More Like Guardians of the Catwalk than Humanity in Destiny: Rise of Iron

Myths have an unhealthy obsession with larger-than-life heroes; they’re jammed full of legendary figures who crusade their way past gruelling odds and save the metaphorical princess while they’re at it. Destiny‘s Iron Lords are no different. When humanity was at its lowest, these impossibly noble warriors stepped forward to shield us from harm. Now we’re following in their footsteps and protecting what’s left of our species. It’s all very inspiring.

The Last City on Earth - a final bastion of hope, light and who knows what else. Concept art by Bungie.
The Last City on Earth – a final bastion of hope, light and who knows what else. Concept art by Bungie.

Yet Destiny never dwells on the people we’re supposed to be looking out for. We know next to nothing about those who live in Earth’s Last City. Don’t get me wrong: putting the spotlight on Guardians is beyond sensible. They’re where the action is. Brought back from the dead to protect what’s left of humanity, they can usually be found saving the world from a millennia-old threat or engaging in spaghetti western shootouts. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about those they’re fighting for, though. This takes the wind out of our sails somewhat. Mel Gibson could screech about freedom for his kin in Braveheart, but the best we can probably manage is ‘loot’.

I wonder what they – the average Joe – think about all this. It’s a rough deal. Aliens, demons and space wizards are a part of their everyday vocabulary. The planet isn’t ours anymore. Very little is. Capping things off is a godly orb (known as the Traveler) that hangs above after giving its life in their defence. I’d pay good money to see what can surprise them these days.

It’s not like we’re going to find out any time soon, however. The only bog-standard humans we meet can be seen mooching around our HQ, the blandly-named Tower. It’s a depressing thought. Humanity beat the odds to create wonders like reconstructive facial surgery and the Hobnob biscuit, but now they’re reduced to sweeping floors.

Their homes aren’t exactly glamorous either. Peering over the Tower’s edge reveals what I’d guess are slums stretching into the distance. Stacked atop one another like cardboard boxes, the conditions down there must be fairly naff. With tight, winding streets and no kind of order to speak of, it’s not dissimilar to the favelas of modern Brazil.

If it’s comparable in more than looks, Destiny’s equivalent probably has minimal sanitation despite running water and electricity. According to a BBC article from 2014, Rio de Janeiro’s biggest shanty town has sewage that ‘flows down a large channel in the middle of houses’.

It’s a stark contrast to the tower-blocks lying just a few miles down the road. A gaping class divide is obvious in Destiny as well. You simply need to look at the skyline. While the foreground is dominated by ugly shacks, the far distance features high rises and skyscrapers. It’s a marriage of insane wealth and crippling poverty.

Predictably, the richest districts lie slap-bang under the Traveler and the ‘shield’ it casts over the city. In a world where suicide and a walk in the countryside are synonymous, it’s easy to see why that’d be a very desirable position. I’d imagine those with power and influence strong-armed their way there. Everyone else had to make do.

Then there’s the infamous criminal element to contend with. Hiding out amongst back alleys and muddled neighbourhoods, gangs run many of those Brazilian streets. I wonder if the Last City is any different. You’d assume these drug lords couldn’t exist under the watch of practically immortal Guardians, but from what I can tell they rarely go down into the urban jungle anyway. There aren’t many reports of them interacting with the population unless civil war or a siege is looming.

As the defenders of a dying race with generations of knowledge at their disposal, you’d expect them to send aid or medical treatment at the very least. What about cobbling together more than a shack for the poorest in Destiny’s society? We’re informed that a subsect of Guardians built great walls surrounding the City, so I’m sure they could manage a four bed semi.

The fact they don’t suggests apathy on their part or a busted society. In Rio there are always stories about police who don’t dare enter certain favelas for fear of gang retribution, and it was only a few years ago that the government set up a ‘police pacification unit’ to force out the criminal element.

This is why visiting the City would be at the top of my Destiny wishlist instead of Neptune or Jupiter. It sounds fascinating (if absurdly dangerous). If nothing else, the game’s fascination with fantasy would make it particularly eye-catching. Beyond sci-fi tropes like neon advertising and glass tower-blocks, drawing on sword-and-sorcery lets you dabble in guilds and dingy inns with grottier patrons. Concept art has hinted at this via cloaked knights and flowing banners, but seeing it brought to life on-screen would add a very different flavour to the game’s already diverse environments.

Seeing it in person would help soothe my conscience, too. Come on: we’ve spent two years ignoring the man on the street in favour of searching for sassy space boots. We’re more like Guardians of the catwalk than humanity.

What do you think? Scribble your thoughts in the comments below and come back every Friday for more. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter @thewordyben

No Man’s Sky Gets One Thing Very Right – Space is a Miserable Place to Be

‘Disappointment’ is a strong word to throw around, but for some it fits No Man’s Sky like a glove. Allowing you to explore thousands of worlds in a randomly-generated universe, you can’t type this game’s name into Google without bumping into claims that it didn’t keep its promises. Worse still, many argue that there isn’t enough to do in its randomly generated universe. While I can’t comment on whether that’s true or not (£50 seemed a bit steep to pick it up on launch day) this doesn’t sound dissimilar to genuine space exploration; lonely, dull and crushingly repetitive.

A cosmic sunset - if only it looked this exciting in real life. Concept art by Hello Games
A cosmic eclipse – if only space travel was this exciting in real life. Concept art by Hello Games

In an unfortunate reality-check for any would-be Captain Kirk, most planets seem a bit boring. Collections of lifeless rock spin through space in tandem with gas giants and frozen wastes, bypassing the visual feasts we’re usually treated to in science-fiction. The number of Earth-like planets out there is barely above a handful. Even those are lightyears apart, and we can’t be sure they’re similar to our world in the first place. If we were to jet out into the cosmos right now, it’s doubtful we’d find much beyond balls of dust and fumes with an endless void between them. This is fascinating in its own right, but I understand it’s not quite an adventure in the Millennium Falcon. It brings to mind a quote from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: ‘Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space’.

It’s not unrealistic for the game to be so preoccupied with resources, either. Space exploration is almost prohibitively expensive, and any company that wants to jump on the bandwagon will need an incentive beyond exploring the final frontier. I can’t imagine mapping the heavens would be enough of a motivation for organisations pumping billions into this field. An untapped well of minerals, metals and precious gases would therefore fit the bill nicely. As such, lumping players with the task of collecting natural resources doesn’t feel unbelievable – even if it is unenviable. It’s less U.S.S Enterprise and more Nostromo, the space tugboat from Aliens.

At least No Man’s Sky doesn’t make us worry about something equally plausible; foreign bacteria. If we ever found an alien world, we’d probably find alien illness as well. The human body would never have encountered this kind of pathogen before, so it’d have no absolutely defence against such a threat. The results wouldn’t be pretty. What might be a common cold for the locals could easily kill us.

In retrospect, stroppy space monsters and boredom are preferable. Because No Man’s Sky got something very, very right without meaning to; space is a miserable place to be.

If this blog floats your boat, make sure you come back every Friday for more. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter @thewordyben

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Shows Why Becoming a Cyborg Isn’t Such a Good Idea

I can’t decide if it’s brilliant or unnerving that technology advances so quickly. In the past thirty years alone we’ve transitioned from computers which fill entire rooms to mobile phones the size of a chocolate bar. Some very smart cookies think computers will actually surpass our own intelligence by 2029. For context, the human race has only been playing around with a little thing we call ‘civilization’ for 3% of its lifetime.

The future's bleak in Deus Ex, but at least we've got bad-ass wrist blades now - concept art by Eidos Montreal.
The future’s bleak in Deus Ex, but at least we’ve got bad-ass wrist blades to go with it – concept art by Eidos Montreal

This brings up a question that’s pure click-bait; if we’re advancing at such a breakneck pace, what next? Because I’m trying hard not to make a worn-out reference about Skynet here, we’ll swiftly move on to Dues Ex: Mankind Divided. Set a decade from now, Eidos Montreal’s stealth/action hybrid looks at what happens when augmentations are misused. After terrorists push the world into a state of bionic apartheid, the suitably gruff Adam Jensen is left to make things right. He’s a cooler version of Robocop, basically; a cringe-inducing attack left him ripped to pieces, so his employers put Humpty Dumpty back together again with a few ‘improvements’. These include carbon-fibre arms, in-built sunglasses and super-strength to match.

You might write off this vision of the future as unrealistic. I’m not sure it’s all that implausible, though. While gaining the ability to fly or laser shields might be a stretch, cybernetic and technological upgrades aren’t beyond the realm of possibility. How long will it take for the world’s boffins to create truly bionic arms? As in Deus Ex, that’s a slippery slope. While most of us aren’t likely to be involved with anything drastic (I’m picturing the equivalent of Google Glass’ heads-up display), they’re still a development ripe for abuse. In Mankind Divided’s live-action trailer, we see innocent civilians being ‘hacked’ by forces unknown. It’s a possibility no-one could afford to ignore if we supplemented our grey matter too. Think about the cyber-attacks we face already. Now imagine how wrong things could go if our brains were connected to the web. Taking physical control may be the stuff of science fiction, but stealing information or subconscious conditioning is scarily credible. Third parties might influence how we think, act or vote. That’s an awful lot of power on the table waiting to be mistreated.

It’s a more complicated debate than you’d expect. Fail-safes would surely have to implemented as a result. Are augmented humans eligible to vote if there’s the possibility of their choice being hijacked? What about running for office? Could you guarantee a candidate’s independence if they sported this sort of augmentation? And even were you able to, would the average Joe believe it? You can see why cyborgs are the victims of such prejudice in the Deus Ex universe.

The same trailer also raised a point I hadn’t thought of before. Drugs to ensure your mods aren’t rejected are probably going to become a vital – and lucrative – resource. Whoever’s got control of them therefore controls the market… and you. It’s a dystopian nightmare where corporations have far too much influence.

Perhaps this is a can of worms we’re better leaving unopened.

If this blog floats your boat, make sure you come back every Friday for more. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter @thewordyben

Saving Fallout’s World… With Town Planning

You can make the elevator pitch for a Bethesda game in four words; go anywhere and do anything. Combining settings that are measured in kilometres, emergent gameplay and a multitude of roles to make your own, it’s no wonder their run-time clocks in at 100 hours plus. As studio director Todd Howard stated a few years ago, the aim is for players to ‘live another life, in another world’. A hotbed of water-cooler stories, they leave the door open for all manner of unexpected (if often bizarre) situations.

It’s unlikely people would want to hear mine, though. They’re not nearly so exciting. I suspect most find themselves pin-balling from one adventure to another. Their characters loot dungeons or master sorcery with which they’ll slay monsters, earning a clutch of impressive titles in the process – Dragonborn, Hero of Kvatch, The Lone Wanderer and so on. This is very much the case during Fallout 4. Survivors of a post-apocalyptic Boston are thieves and vagabonds struggling to stay alive. By contrast, I ended up becoming a town planner. I’m not entirely sure where things went wrong.

Around 75% of my time is spent cobbling together settlements. Rather than spelunking in bomb-savaged ruins, I’ve got steel shipments on my mind. It’s a compelling loop. By piecing together shacks for townsfolk or establishing farms, you’re tapping into a sense of ownership usually restricted for real-time-strategy games. Resources will then start trickling in, providing a hit of accomplishment after raising an empire from nothing. Better yet, you’ve put your stamp on the Fallout universe. Wasteland Workshop (downloadable content that provides a host of new materials to tinker with) hasn’t helped.

This vault-dweller seems to have been busy - concept art by Bethesda Game Studios
Someone’s been busy – concept art by Bethesda Game Studios

Although the above might lead you to think otherwise, this isn’t the aimless distraction it seems. Over the past few months, I’ve realised that’s how I ‘save the world’. Instead of butting heads with an antagonist or foiling their dastardly plan, being a hero is about helping the man on the street. Few pay much thought to what happens once a quest is over, so we miss what might be the hardest part of it all; picking up the pieces afterward. In Fallout’s case, there isn’t a great deal worth salvaging. As such, defeating villains feels irrelevant when society continues to limp on with its tail between its legs. These people still have to cope with irradiated water and mutated food. They’re also gunned down by raiders for little more than scraps. Repairing the civilisation this world lost must surely be a bigger priority, then.

Constructing those outposts was eye-opening in another way. Wastelanders make do with rubble and flotsam because pre-war technology is a mystery to most. Would we honestly cope any better? I’m not sure many of us understand how to keep the things we rely on (electricity, internet, cars and mobile technology) going if disaster pumps the brakes on life. We’d probably slide back into a dark age where the world is smaller and more savage, which explains a great deal about the inhabitants of Fallout’s universe.

That’s why my attention’s on houses rather than firefights. One treats a symptom. The other goes straight for the cause.