By now most people have seen a lot of the video footage of Mass Effect: Andromeda, the latest game from BioWare and Electronic Arts. The Frostbite-powered game has been in development for the last five years at BioWare, but most people probably wouldn’t have guessed it. Why? Because there’s a lot wrong with the game based on the first hour of gameplay alone.
While the hype machine may have been leading people into being excited for the game with nary any criticism, the 10 hour trial for Mass Effect: Andromeda has finally broken through the veil of marketing misdirection and padded preview pieces.
Various YouTubers have already begun uploading walkthroughs for the first several hours of gameplay from Mass Effect: Andromeda, but the first hour alone provides a distinct and chilling look at many of the problems plaguing the experience. Now this doesn’t count all the issues with character creation, which was covered in a separate article, but you can check out the first hour of Mass Effect: Andromeda’s gameplay below with a video playlist provided by MKIceandFire.
The starting cinematic isn’t too bad, but there are a few things that become apparent right from the start…
If you’re playing as Sara Ryder, her uncanny facial features and animations will not be a jaunting experience for a lot of gamers. People who don’t play video games often might not have much of a problem with Sara’s distorted expressions, though.
For Scott Ryder, the other playable sibling, he has a much easier-on-the-eyes appearance and he doesn’t have quite as many odd animation quirks as his sister.
However, you’ll still notice that even during the early cinematics things like specular highlights and poor shaders on the hair are apparent right at the beginning of the game, giving Scott a plastic Ken doll look. His hair in one sequence looked like it could pop off like a Lego toupee due to the almost matte-looking LOD rendering. You can see what I’m talking about with the example image below.
Another rather obvious step back in game design are the pupils.
Subsurface refraction and adaptive reflections through the iris are not present. This gives the characters the uncanny valley “dead-eye” look that’s oftentimes compared to fish. The lifeless eyes creates a rather creepy effect of making it seem as if mannequin or doll eyes are starring back at the other character.
This is really something when you compare Mass Effect: Andromeda to Battlefield 1, given that both games are running on the exact same game engine.
If you look at the eyes and hair rendering in Battlefield 1, it’s a night and day difference where you can see how the team put a lot of time and effort into making sure the hair didn’t look like plastic and that the eyes were expressive, reflective and refractive.
The fish eyes and Ken doll hair are are just part of the problems, there’s also an issue with the facial response animations and cues.
During one sequence early on Cora Harper, the first officer of the Pathfinder expedition, resets the gravity and calmly asks “Is everyone okay?”… except, her face didn’t seem to reflect the intonation of her voice, giving off a crazed and psychotic look while she uttered the line.
We then have some inconsistent dialogue sequences that follow – inconsistent in terms of quality.
Dr. Lexi offers a stilted synopsis of the Ryder sibling that you aren’t playing, and delivers the lines in a disjointed manner, complete with equally disjointed facial animations to match.
Throughout the entire dialogue sequence, the characters jitter and snap between animations. Tree blending didn’t seem to factor into the flow of the way the characters emote, gesticulate and move during the dialogue scenes, creating what looks like the kind of keyframe snapping that was present in a lot of games during sixth gen and early seventh gen.
This is a bit bizarre because the Frostbite has tools built in to address this issue, and it was put to exemplar use with DICE’s Battlefield 3 from six years ago. The tools for blending are available right there in the engine, along with 4D facial scan and realized motion capture utilities called the ANT system, as outlined in a presentation by animation director and lead animator Tobias Dahl and Mikael Hogstrom.
In other words, the tools to fix all the animation problems in Mass Effect: Andromeda are already available in the Frostbite engine. As pointed out in the presentation by Dahl and Hogstrom, all the high-level blending, emotive responses and kinetic movement are up to the animators.
Keep in mind that this is the same technology that powered Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst and Battlefield 1.
What’s more baffling than anything is that the blending between animation sets during combat in Mass Effect: Andromeda is actually quite good. It’s almost like two completely separate teams worked on the combat movement and the character face rigging, with the team doing the combat animations clearly having a strong idea of how to make characters move and react smoothly.
The issues so far, for Mass Effect: Andromeda, are all obvious within the first 10 minutes of the game.
Now in the one prologue sequence on the Hyperion when Ryder first learns how to use the Scanner, one player captured a moment where the leg adjustments for the characters undergo a waddle-like transformation when moving up and down the steps, courtesy of dscottwilson.
Before even getting to the 20 minute mark, Captain Dunn is introduced with extremely stiff facial animations.
The screenshot below is basically how her face looks even when it’s moving. She has no jowl muscle indentation and her cheeks don’t seem to bend or flex with her face expressions or mouth movement, resulting in her mouth looking as if it only opens from side to side.
For some reason Cora Harper also has a perpetual smirk on her face, even when she’s making serious remarks.
Surprisingly, in motion, Alec Ryder actually has some of the better animations, even though he still suffers from a lot of facial rigidity. Almost all of the character seem to have some sort of limitations on their ability to emote, as if they’re rigged only around the mouth and orbital structures of the face. The muscles attached to the mandibles, ramus, cheek bones and nasal area don’t seem to move much, save for in certain cinematics.
It’s almost as if some parts of the characters’ faces aren’t entirely rigged to the emotion displayed through the dialogue.
Surprisingly, the game gets a lot more decent once players make it to the ground and have an opportunity to run around.
Of course, things go back to being unpolished once players can sneak and move around the environment more freely, and it’s made obvious that despite having decent combat movement, the animation programmers didn’t implement object collision detection to prevent environmental clipping. In the image below, Ryder is moving through a giant mushroom’s geometry.
There are other inconsistencies as well. Despite the obvious clipping issues, the environments actually feature some impressive volumetric fog and smoke effects almost on par to what you find in Battlefield 1, which obviously creates a jarring contrast to the rather low quality facial animations and dialogue sequences.
On a non-technical note, near the end of the first hour of the trial, Liam decides to become unhinged and unload his clip multiple times into a dead body, defying first officer Harper’s orders to cease firing, only to finish up his mental episode by saying “Now I feel better.”
The significance of this issue is that it comes out of nowhere and seems to make no sense to the character at all, who previously showed no signs of mental fatigue or breakdown. Having a character randomly go crazy was another one of those jarring moments during the early goings of Mass Effect: Andromeda, especially since just 15 minutes earlier he was talking about getting a beer with Ryder.
There’s also another odd sequence shortly after that one, where Cora demonstrates her biotic abilities for the first time.
The scene is somewhat anti-climatic since it comes out of nowhere and is over as quickly as it begins. I’m assuming the cinematic is there to show Cora’s biotic abilities? It was done in such a trivial manner that it might make you question what purpose the scene served at all. The pacing between Liam going crazy and Cora blocking an atmospheric lightning strike just seconds later was an odd way to transition from one scene to the next. What’s worse is that both sequences are readily forgotten about by the other characters just seconds after they happen.
The issues with Cora continue to persist even during the opening hour prologue sequence (usually the part of the game that’s supposed to show the most polish, since that’s what everyone will see first). During another cinematic with Alec, she makes observations and combat suggestions, once again, in a cool and collected manner… however her eyes are bugged out as if she’s seen a ghost, betraying her calm demeanor.
This sort of dichotomy between the character faces and their dialogue can easily take you out of the game since it plays such a heavy part in the immersion factors (or the lack thereof).
The combat is obviously the best part of Mass Effect: Andromeda even though as a third-person shooter it’s only barely above serviceable.
The biggest issue is that a large part of the game centers around dialogue sequences and cinematic conversations, and yet that’s part of the game’s biggest weakness. There’s even a comparison video from YouTuber xLetalis who compares Mass Effect: Andromeda with Mass Effect 1 from a decade ago, and it’s astounding how the original game had characters who showed more emotive expressions and gesticulation while talking than in Andromeda.
The uncanny valley faces and perpetually smiling female characters has already resulted in a variety of compilation videos and memes spoofing the game’s poor cinematic quality when it comes to character interactions, such as the video from Truongasm.
And if you think things begin to pick up beyond the first hour… actually they don’t. Instead, they get worse.
About two hours in you’ll meet Peebee, who actually starts off with some halfway okay facial animations, but then there are other characters who seem to have muppet-like face expressions, including the now infamous NPC who exclaims that her “face is tired”, and the walking animations featuring goofy looking movements from characters like Cora, Sara Ryder and some of the other background NPCs. Beast Gaming has a short minute long compilation of some of these sequences.
Obviously, everything is worse for Sara Ryder, which is a real shame given that BioWare spent so much of their time using Sara to promote the game during most of the trailers.
The game is just a few days out from launch, and unless they have a 20GB patch to fix all the faces, animations, character creation options, dead-eye effect, lip-synching issues and facial reaction patterns to match the intonation and inflection of the voice acting, then what you see here is what you get.
Mass Effect: Andromeda is due for release on March 21st for the PC, PS4 and Xbox One. Some gamers have decided to cancel pre-orders after they found out one of the designers on the game was actively spouting racist comments and was being supported by the general manager and studio head at BioWare.
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