Saturday, May 6, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda -- Multiplayer

I am skipping a bit ahead of my backlog of unwritten blogposts to record my thoughts on Mass Effect: Andromeda's multiplayer. It was the reason I bought the game on release, even pre-ordered since it was 10% off with the Origin Access trial. I wanted to be there right from the beginning to not miss community events and such. However, MEAMP has not exactly turned out to be a continuation of the greatness what Mass Effect 3's multiplayer was (or still is).

Largely similar to the previous installation

On a cursory glance, the multiplayer appears to be exactly like ME3's (jetpacks being the only huge discernible difference) -- a 3rd person 4-player co-op shooter horde mode. About everything from mechanics and weapons to powers is very much the same. So why -- for someone like me who has played ME3MP for hundreds of hours (1181h over 3573 matches now to be exact) -- does it not feel as good as the previous game? Why is it not as fun? I have now put over 100 hours into it -- it is not all bad -- but over short bursts. I do not feel like playing it for hours on end like ME3.

But not as good

I think the reasons are many and maybe even somewhat difficult to recognize. The list of all the little things that are worse would also be long so I reckon it is better to try to find the biggest problems and summarize.

Now, one has to remember that there is always the danger of looking at ME3 through 'rose-tinted glasses'. Comparing the two games now is also unfair since ME3 has on it a year of post-release tweaking through a multitude of balance changes, patches, and 5 DLC packs. I am fairly certain, though, that ME3MP was more entertaining on release. Why could not they continue from where they left in the previous game?

About everything is ineffective

The main problem people seem to have with the game (aside from technical issues) is the ineffectiveness of the majority of weapons, powers, and character kits.

Almost every single shotgun and assault rifle is terrible, and the rest of the guns are mediocre with some exceptions (mostly in sniper rifles). Full auto, and even high ROF semi-auto weapons have poor accuracy and egregious accuracy bloom. And accuracy stat does not even tighten the minimum spread like previously, it just increases the time it takes for reticle to fully bloom. Many of ME3's assault rifles were also pretty bad early on, true, but their problem was only their damage, not their inability to hit things.

Shotgun smart choke mod is evidently also bugged. With their horrible default spread, shotguns are not fun to use. This is particularly upsetting to me since they are so great in ME3.

Powers do very little damage. And even worse is power combos also doing very little damage. Combos no longer scale with difficulty nor powers' rank. Powers also have individual cooldowns instead of global (like in the first Mass Effect), and they are longer. With base power recharge now capping at 100% instead of 200%, one will find casting and detonating far fewer powers over a match. This is not good. This is a Mass Effect game with Space Magic™, not some random 3rd person shooter! Or it should be at least.

So far the only kit I have found non-weapon-buffing powers to be actually good on is the Asari Adept. The new Annihilation (Field) is incredible with its large radius, priming capability, and the Vortex evolution (that makes red health bar enemies to float helplessly). With two detonators, Throw and Lance, and shield-restoring melee, the kit is easily my favorite one.

One issue I personally have with many powers and with the game in general, is its obsession of having to hold down a button to do stuff. You have to hold down the interact key to disable a device, hold down to revive a squad mate, hold down to charge Overload for it to arc, hold down to cast Flamer, hold down to cook Frag Grenade (why the fuck do they not explode upon enemy contact anymore?!) etc. To me it feels bad. All those things were a press/toggle in ME3 and it was so much better. I guess it comes down to the overall shoddy user interface/experience design that plagues the title. It is weird, though, that sprinting is now a toggle instead. I keep unintentionally holding shift down to run even though it is not necessary.

A beta quality product

It is obvious that BioWare Montreal squeezed hard to get Andromeda released just at the end of Q1. They even canceled the planned demo period for the multiplayer. I do not know the reason stated but I bet it was to get the game into a releasable state. Maybe it helped but there are still so many bugs of varying levels everywhere. MEA of course uses P2P-hosting for multiplayer too which is always guaranteed to bring in trouble when playing with a poor connection to the host.

I cannot say if MEA's netcode is better than ME3's. In some cases it seems to work better (non-hitscan weapons off-host) and sometimes it is worse (movement when actors are colliding). But I would say that it is definitely more unstable. Playing on a properly laggy (or sometimes even not that laggy) host has crashed my game many times.

Windows 10 Creators Update also broke MEA's fullscreen for me. It might be related to the weird change how after the 1.05 patch alt-tabbing out of the game no longer minimized it to the taskbar but to a smaller window instead. At least borderless windowed mode still works.

Stingy with its rewards

One cannot really complain about the unlocking grind too much since it is sort of the purpose of the game mode. However, in my opinion they unnecessarily lengthened the time you get some stuff in. MEAMP's character kits are not divided into 6 classes where each would level at the same time. Instead, you will have to level up every single kit from 1 to 20. And the levels come slower. I am not sure how much slower but I am certain it does not take so many hours to max a class in ME3 as it does one kit in MEA.

Character kit ranks also now go up to 10 (doubled) and the ranks are no longer purely cosmetic as you get skill points with them. This was a terrible decision, especially considering there are now ultra rare kits. Have fun maxing out those character kits over hundreds of hours of playtime! The backs of the cards say the color customization and skill points come in turns but I have found that the customization options get maxed at rank 5 already. And why did they remove armor light color customization?

Packs also give fewer supplies and consumables. When a 60k-credit Spectre pack in ME3 gives you a Cobra Missile, it gives you 5 at once. In MEA, a 50k-credit Expert pack gives you only one missile at a time. And consumables from the packs do not match rarity with pack cost anymore. An Expert pack can give you a consumable from ranks 1 to 4, whereas an ME3 Spectre pack would give you one from rank 3 or 4. Supplies also do not seem to max at 255 anymore (after which you would get consumables from packs instead in ME3). It is a sad turn of events for sure.

Support is not as constant

It has now been 6 weeks since the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda and there has been merely a single post-release patch. ME3 got its first MP DLC, Resurgence Pack, 5 weeks after launch. And it was preceded by balance changes every week. In total, ME3MP got 47 weekly updates over the year it was actively supported.

In ME3, BioWare got around the usual patch certification of the console manufacturers (Sony and Microsoft) by making a server-side change to a file that would get updated on the client upon connecting (or something like that) which allowed them to tweak numbers easily. I am not sure why they are not doing that in MEAMP.

I believe the MP producer, Billy Buskell, said they do not want to do that (for whatever reason). But I wonder if it is because they actually cannot do that with the newer generation of consoles. Or maybe it is because of incompetence.

As far as I know, BioWare Montreal was the studio that was responsible for ME3MP. And now that they have the whole game for themselves, why are they doing things differently? Game engine change could be a reason (from Unreal Engine 3 to Frostbite 3) and a whole bunch of developers have probably left the studio over the 5 years too. I fondly recall the times of Eric Fagnan and BroJo communicating with players on BioWare's forums.

Community interaction scattered around the web

Where are those forums now? Oh right, BioWare shut them down last year. Which was another mistake. The reason they gave was odd and I have a feeling it was not really why they did it. Even if all these other social media sites exist, to have an official source of information would be so much better. Who wants to dig up some developer's Twitter feed or to search for a random Reddit post to find what is going on with things? And I would imagine that it must be somewhat annoying for the developers too to browse different places for feedback.

ME3MP also had weekly (and later bi-weekly) events where players would get a rank in one of the ultra rare N7 weapons if the personal and community goals were met. MEA has had something like that too. Every week they have unlocked something new in the game but it has felt a bit fake since the content is already there. It is as if they have been holding the maps as hostages in the special missions that have mostly been only on Bronze difficulty too. And they certainly have not been giving guaranteed ultra rare drops from them.

In the weekly multiplayer streams during which they have talked about these additions, the two developers have always seemed very careful, even afraid, to say anything specific of what they are going to do, if anything at all. To me BioWare Montreal now appears like some lumbering behemoth that is very slow to act. Things need to get approved on many management levels and accidentally addressing something on your own is a grave mistake.

I suppose the main purpose of the streams has been to promote the new stuff and not really talk about possible concerns. I guess they thought people would be more satisfied with the game and how the already existing content gets trickle-fed over time. This week's stream was a bit different, though, as they focused only on talking about the upcoming patch. Of course they could not mention the patch date, presumably because of the console certification and/or the single player team still doing their part for it. But at least the upcoming stuff sounded promising.

Something good too

To end this post with a positive note, I will say that there are some things better in this game. I jumped into ME3MP for the first time in few months (I have had the game always installed since 2012) to see how it would feel like after MEA.

The first thing I noted was the number of loading screens in ME3. Not having to go through one when jumping between lobbies or when host changes in a lobby is a very nice thing in MEA. ME3's FOV also feels quite claustrophobic compared to MEA where it is adjustable. The spacebar 'omni-button' took some time getting used to again as well.

ME3's matches also feel like they drag on a bit with their 11 waves when coming from MEA's 7. In my opinion that was a good change, though never really bothered me before MEA. There are some other minor things better too but I shall not bother listing them.

We shall see what the future holds for this game. I do have a feeling that there might not be as much free* DLC as ME3MP had, though. Andromeda definitely was not as well received and that might affect how much EA is willing to further fund its development.

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