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Touching the Sky: My Weekend with the Anthem VIP Demo

So BioWare’s new game “Anthem” is right around the corner.  By that I mean releasing at the end of the next month, but hey, I just got done waiting thirteen years to fight a cranky old man along side Mickey Mouse, so what’s a month?  Originally, I was very much in the ‘wait and see’ camp on Anthem.  It was one of those concepts that easily could be plagued by excessive and near predatory microstransactions (still could honestly given that the demo priced everything at 25 coins – the in-game currency – and the recent habit of patching in microtransactions after the metacritic reviews are in) or honestly it could have just gone the way of Fallout 76 and been a confusing mess of lack of content.  Trust me, I love Minecraft, I get the ‘Make Your Own Fun’ concept, but I only have so many hours in the day to play a game and so many games to play.

However, all that changed when @Naithin on Twitter hit me up after a conversation about the game and offered me one of his Friend Passes to the recent VIP Demo of the game.  Well, how was I going to say no to THAT?

After some finagling with the weird fact that after SWTOR merged their accounts with EA Accounts, I have two different ones (pain in the butt process made simple by just moving around some email addresses it turned out), I was able to get into the Demo and give it a whirl.  I tried everything I could – all four javelins (the robot suits), all types of content, and just generally messed around a bit.  But first of all, let’s talk about the elephant in the room:

Yes, the demo had issues.  I don’t know the full extent of them, but on the PS4 I ran into the Infinite Loading Screen where the game just stops loading at 95%, I had the sound cut out to my entire PS4 at one point until I closed the game entirely, a few random disconnects where I was kicked out of whatever content I was doing and back to Fort Tarsis – the main single player hub area, and my favorite one: Opening the map while respawning that made it so I couldn’t close the map.  That one was just funny.  And no, I didn’t rage over any of these. Even the Infinite Loading glitch. My own personal views going into this demo is that this was very much a “Soft Opening” for the game.  Open things up, let people play some, figure out what major quirks pop up so you can address them before the REAL opening and let the world in.  So I expected issues.  I got issues.  Now if these same issues crop up on launch day at the end of February?  Then you might see some rage.  Or at least a few snarky comments.

But you don’t want to hear about the problems with running the game.  That’s all anyone has talked about since and during the demo.  How WAS it?  Well, let’s break it down shall we?

Story

There wasn’t much of it in the demo sad to say.  Mostly just one short mission chain where you find a “Shaper Relic” and it leads to hijinks splitting the local scientist into three aspects of himself with different personalities (Am I the only one who thought this was a Power Rangers Zeo call back?  Trey from Triforia?  No one?) and you have to help solve it before they melt into goo.  It’s a fun little story and the writing is really entertaining.  While there wasn’t a lot of lore or indication of what the overall plot of the game will be, it does highlight that Bioware still very much has the touch when it comes to fantastic, fun, and engrossing character dialogue.  In these short little bursts of story, I felt like I really got to know these people and actually liked listening to them chat and chime in during the missions.

Missions

The story sends you on on these missions to do specific things in specific places.  There’s usually 2-3 different areas you’ll go, usually flying between them in your Javelin, and then there’s some manner of combat or a puzzle to solve.  Now, I found most of these pretty fun.  But there is seriously a wide range of difficulty within the mission itself.  The game gives you the option of six different difficulties of play – 3 are locked until you reach max level which is apparently 30.  But even then, the story missions would wildly swing from easy going fun to tedious uphill battle where you are constantly repairing allies and facing down small armies of spawned enemies.  Ultimately with one, I gave up on fighting the constantly spawning waves and flew up to a pillar of rock where I just sniped the boss over and over until it dropped and ignored all the enemies.  But that isn’t always an option.  But it might have been a level issue, a gearing issue, the fact that all four of us (the game just automatically matchmakes you with a group. I couldn’t find a ‘solo’ option anywhere.) where using the Ranger javelin with more or less common quality gear.  Who knows.  It honestly felt like with one mission, the big bad was supposed to spawn X number of adds after losing Y% health.  So if you pop your ultimate ability and drop him say… 4 times Y%, it would just spawn four waves at once.  But that was just my in-the-heat-of-battle observation.  Or my waiting to respawn observations.

Oh yea.  There are Respawn restricted areas, where the only way to respawn is to be repaired by an ally or the whole group to wipe.  The only indication of this is a small flashing pop up when you enter the area for like 2 seconds.  Other than that, nothing.  Even worse, if you die, it still shows the RESPAWNING IN 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…  And then it just stops.  Until someone repairs you.  I thought it was a bug like the loading thing at first.  But no, apparently it was working fine with just a really obtuse UI.

Free Play

The second option for game play is the aptly named “Free Play” where you just go out into the world and run around. From here you can find collectibles, crafting materials, and various lore bits, but mostly Free Play is there for doing the “World Events” where something pops up with an objective to complete and you rewarded with a chest of randomized goodies for your effort.  It was probably the best way in the demo to gear up.  The Demo only had a few areas open to players on the world map, but it was still fairly diverse from marshes to mountains to underground caverns to fight off baddies.  The problem with the World Events that I had was just that they were too sparse, too few, and too small.  By small I mean in terms of visibility.  There are no indications on the map where a world event might be happening, and it will only pop up on the UI when you are relatively close or within the exact same subzone as the event.  This makes getting backup from the handful of other players in your public game next to impossible since just because you are doing an event doesn’t mean other people will even see the event happening.

Other than that complaint though, I had a ton of fun in free play.  A bunch of us would stumble upon a base taken over by the enemy and then clear it out, gather stuff up, and then go exploring and blowing things up.  Just kind of a fun way to kill time really.

Stronghold

I’ll be honest.  I didn’t complete the one stronghold – Anthem’s equivalent of dungeons – that was available during the demo: Tyrant Mines.  Between frequent disconnects, various bugs that I wouldn’t be surprised were related to those disconnects (it seemed that if someone was carrying one of the turn-in objects when they disconnected, the object just vanishes with them and the objective becomes impossible to complete.) I just had a hell of a time with this one.  I did make it to the final boss where we wiped twice and then…  I don’t know. The group dissolved?  I was kicked back to Fort Tarsis with no explanation so maybe that was it.

But for what I was able to accomplish how was it?  Long.  Like some WoW Vanilla dungeons long.  Multiple large areas with massive amounts of powerful enemies that get reinforcements part way through and a final boss that pretty much one shot each of us – and that was on EASY difficulty. You’ll probably want to set aside an hour or two just to do a single Stronghold.  More if you aren’t sure that you can keep a consistent group.  Which reminds me: The matchmaking only works in certain spots.  If you are already engaged in a “scene” (anyone one of the objective/combat areas) it seems to pause the matchmaking.  Meaning if people drop out mid-fight, you won’t get another party member until you finish the area, or wipe.  Which makes these strongholds – which are specifically balanced for 4 people – even harder.

Javelins

Finally, we have the core of the game.  The heart of everything.  The Javelins.  Your fancy suits that give you robot super powers.  For some reason, I was unable to unlock all four during the demo despite everything I read indicating that I would just get a second one at level 12 (the demo starts at level 10) but I won’t look a gift mouse in the horth because now I can tell you about all of them!

Your default suit is the Ranger (or the Iron Man suit – their words not mine) and it has a fairly well rounded tool set of ranged explosives, customizable attacks, and support capabilities.

The first of the more specialized suits is the Colossus (Hulk) that specializes in tanking somewhat.  You have a ton of health, a collapsible shield that works somewhat like Reinhardt’s shield in Overwatch, and it starts with an area taunt that would be very familiar to Dragon Age Inquisition players.

Next up is the Interceptor, which is basically a robot ninja.  You get triple jumps, triple dashes, throwing stars that just dice enemies to pieces, and are just generally very fast.  Their drawback is that they have little health and are very melee range focused. In fact their ultimate ability is melee-only.  So you gotta get close but not take a lot of hits.

Finally is the Storm, or your wizard character.  They gain the ability to hover a lot longer in midair and can throw a ton of elemental attacks at enemies.  They can also spawn long distance shields to protect people.  Much like the Interceptor, they have crap all for defense though.  I had a hell of a time doing anything solo as a Storm in Free Play since there was little to nothing keeping the enemies away from me.

My personal favorites were the Ranger and the Interceptor, with the Colossus being a distant third.  Don’t think I’d focus much on the Storm when the game comes out.  You might notice that I didn’t mention anything about healing in there.  There doesn’t appear to be any healing abilities from what I could find in the demo aside from replenishing shields or providing covering shields.  Healing comes from picking up health drops that enemies leave behind sometimes.  There’s also a auto-regenerate feature that will restore your shields and your health up to 25% if you are below that when you duck out behind something for a bit.  It seems you do replenish your health when you exit a “scene” entirely however, but that’s based on just random observations and I cannot confirm that 100%.

Final Impressions

I know I talked about a lot of issues in this post, but I want you to know that this was about the worst I could say about the game.  It really was fun to play.  The characters were enjoyable to interact with.  Flying around is fun once you get the hang of it.  I just had a good time with it.  Definitely more fun that I had with Destiny 2, which always felt kind of like a slog.  I dunno if I’m going to pick this one up on the release day, but it’s definitely on the list for picking up based on even my flawed experiences here with the demo.

Mass Effect: A Funeral For a Friend

So I was not even halfway done with my ‘I finished Mass Effect Andromeda’ post (Not the final title, I assure you) when Electronic Arts announced that the Mass Effect property was pretty much dead.  Oh they didn’t use those words.  That would be dumb.  No, they said that Mass Effect – the entire franchise – is being put ‘On Hiatus’.  Which in all honesty means that they’re going to stick it on a shelf until there’s nostalgia dollars to be made from it.  Along with this news, we learned that Bioware Montreal was being gutted and the remaining staff would be support developers for other EA titles such as Battlefront or Project Dylan (the currently unnamed Bioware action game that rumors say is EA’s contender to go head-to-head with Activision’s Destiny series and The Division.)  The only development for Mass Effect: Andromeda moving forward will be bug fixes and multiplayer support.

How did we get here?  I mean, it’s not even been 3 months since the game came out.  Now there will be no DLC, no sequel for the cliffhanger ending, and pretty much an end to the entire Mass Effect idea and setting for the foreseeable future.

Well, I’m sure some people have a very good idea of how this happened.  I mean, the internet backlash was hitting this game before we even got to the release date because of the whole 10 hour preview that some people had.  Mixed that with streaming media so everyone could share in the initial reaction and boom! Great recipe for an instant flame war.  And I’m not going to sit here and hold those people solely responsible.  The game had problems at launch.  I’m not going to argue with that.  The animations could be goofy, there were issues with bugs and the inventory system was just screwy.  I mean, most of this didn’t bother me personally.  Nor did it bother a lot of people I knew personally.  But then again, I was raised on RPGs where “Facial Animation” was changing the position of an eyebrow on a 20×20 pixel head.  I remember it being a big deal when “mouths moving when they have lines” was a big advancement.  So maybe I’m a bit more forgiving of some silly animations.  Ultimately, the game was playable.  It was downright fun.  Right from launch.  The patches fixed issues as they rolled out and the fun got even better.  That’s the way I viewed it all at least.

There’s also the issue of the broken fan base over to make the game more open-world.  Right now “Open World” games are kind of a thing and its started to get some backlash against it.  That isn’t Andromeda’s fault, but it did release right as the genre’s popularity has started to decline instead of at its peak.  Really, I don’t think open world was much of a goal for the game as it was the side effect of the questionable overall design choice: An updated Mass Effect 1.  Everything from the open format of upgrading abilities, to the inventory system and ranked equipment (Ranks I-X just like ME1), and the big open worlds to drive around and explore were all pretty much just yanked from Mass Effect 1 and then peppered with some of the sensibilities of ME2 & 3.  Instead of moving forward from ME3’s gameplay, they went back and tried to revive the stuff that the second and third installments tried to push away from.  And for that reason, I imagine there was a lot of push-back from fans.  While there are some in the Bioware fandom that hold on to the classic Mass Effect as the last time the games were “RPGs” (a sentiment I disagree with. I view RPG as more of a choice of how one approaches and interacts with the game rather than a specific set of mechanics that must be followed) most of the folks I’ve spoken to over the years hold Mass Effect 2 as the pinnacle of the trilogy and many of them cite the choices to move away from things like the Mako sequences on worlds or the painful inventory system.  Going back may have made sense to the developers, especially in light of the emphasis on exploration, but I don’t think it was what a lot of fans wanted.

Speaking of the exploration, I am still gathering that there in lies the big disconnect with expectations vs reality.  Andromeda was set up to be a break off of the original Mass Effect trilogy.  The same setting but a different story, hence why it was never labeled – and Bioware heavily emphasized that it was NOT – Mass Effect 4.  Andromeda was about exploration.  Going to a new place never before seen and trying to establish a home.  This wasn’t the tale of a super-soldier trying to save the Galaxy.  This was just a random team of people who volunteered to travel nearly a millennium away from home and try to set up camp in a barely charted galaxy.  So it was a big step down in the important-ness scale.  Just as epic, but more in a scale way instead of a heroic way.  Because face it, Ryder isn’t a hero.  They’re the kid of an ostracized scientist who had greatness thrust upon them compared to Shepard who was a damn legend before the opening title dropped hence why Shepard was being considered for Spectre Status.  Ryder’s job before having the Pathfinder title dropped on their lap was Recon Specialist.  No rank, no record of glory, no nothing.  Andromeda was about new beginnings.  A theme that runs through out the game and is handled really well.  I just don’t think everybody was on board with a new beginning.

It’s one of those tough calls that you have to deal with as an artist in an entertainment industry.  Especially if your a AAA developer or working with a big movie studio.  You can make great art, but even then if no one is buying what your selling then you are just shooting yourself in the foot.  It’s the cruel reality, and not one that I personally like or support.  Electronic Arts supposedly dropped $40 million on Andromeda (That’s half of CD Projekt Red’s budget for The Witcher 3) to a brand new division of Bioware set up in Montreal to try and win back the fans that Bioware HQ in Edmonton put at risk with Mass Effect 3’s ending backlash.  They decided to dive back into the well and play it safe by retreading ground established by Mass Effect 1.  They developed a story that was easy for new comers and series veterans to get into with a brilliantly handled themes of exploring the unknown and establishing a new beginning.  They crafted a story that wrapped up both the ‘new beginning’ as well solved the primary conflict without giving everything away so fans could theorize and have something to look forward to in the future.  It created a villain with an interesting motivation (The Kett) and a mystery to ponder on without concrete answers (The Remnant). It ended the game with solving the issue of finding a home but gave a cliffhanger as to what will come next.

Mass Effect Andromeda was a good game overall.  A good game that stumbled at the starting line and it cost them big.  I honestly worry about Bioware moving forward.  After this, ME3’s ending, and The Old Republic, I imagine EA’s patience may be wearing thin.  Consumers on the other hand have higher expectations of Bioware than ever.  Things could be rough going forward for the Canadian RPG powerhouse.

The Sky is Falling: Day One with the Inquisition

Inquisition_membersAir…  I need…  AIR.  *deep breath*

Okay. Now that I’ve come up for air, it’s time to talk a bit about what I’ve been doing down in the gaming depths.  The past two days have been filled with little else other than one. Singular. Activity.  That being Dragon Age: Inquisition.  Now, of course, I’m known for my somewhat heretical enjoyment of the “Not cool to like” Bioware titles – Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 – so my opinion is going to be a bit suspect on these things, but I have to say that Dragon Age: Inquisition is probably one of the more addicting games I’ve played in a long time.

The story is pretty simple at first.  There’s a giant hole in the sky where the veil between the magical Fade world and our world have been torn asunder and now demons are pouring out like it’s a Necronomicon Spring Break in Transylvania.  You also fell out of the hole, being the sole survivor of the explosion that caused it and with a weird glowing thing on your hand that can actually close the smaller holes dubbed Rifts.  So now it’s up to you and your buddies to close the hole! At least at first that’s what is going on.  I have a sneaky suspicion after 15 or so hours of game play that something else is waiting in the wings.  Considering I know there’s a place called Skyhold and I haven’t seen it yet, but we’re already marching to close the big hole… yea.

The characters are diverse but there’s none that I immediately latched onto as favorites like I did in Dragon Age 2.  I’ll admit that the characters were the big selling point for the second installment for me.  From Merrill’s innocent quirkiness and dark reveals to Isabella’s love of life and even Anders and Fenris and their opposing view of the mages.  Here we are treated to a veritable menagerie of characters and sadly to say only a handful of likeables thus far.  Cassandra comes off as a cross between Miranda from Mass Effect and an ill tempered drill sergeant. Solas (pronounced Soul-less) feels pretty much soul-less due to having that elven “I’ve lived more than 100 hundred lifetimes and am all knowing and all seeing and thus don’t need to care much” thing going on. Varric is… Varric, I can’t really describe the fast-talking, double dealing, best example of a bard in gaming I’ve ever seen any other way.

About the only character I actually dig thus far on a personal note is Sera and that is because she is completely bat-$#!* insane.  Her introduction can be boiled down to she has just killed a lot of people and stolen all their pants for absolutely no reason except maybe to sell them.  Too bad my first playthrough is a lawful good mage.  My Chaotic Neutral rogue playthrough however is gonna love her.

There insane amounts of little things to explore, collect, and unlock but each of these little things will help you in some way.  Seriously!  Either by granting experience to your character, giving you more power which you use to send people on missions, or giving you Influence which is kind of like XP for the entire Inquisition and lets you unlock overall power boosts like being able to open harder locks or getting extra XP from codex entries or kills.  I spent the first day doing absolutely nothing with the main story quest and just wandering around the hinterlands doing little odd jobs and finding doodads and resources.

Yes, resources.  Because crafting in this game requires an insane amount of resources.  But it’s not all annoying.  See unlike MMOs where you need a certain kind of metal and a certain kind of wood to make an item, DA:I boils it down to just need 10 metal and 2 wood.  Any 10 of one type of metal and any 2 of any kind of wood will do.  Now which metal and wood you use will affect things like bonus stats or color and pattern of the item, but the fact that creating things requires categories of items instead of specifics is much easier.  Especially when you will need specific crafting materials to fill requisitions from your army, essentially researching things to help your forces and thus help yourself like better weapons or gear.  For instance, I don’t know how much of this was me clearing up territory and claiming it protected by the Inquisition and how much of it was me filling up requisitions but as I kept playing I noticed that a pair of Inquisition soldiers would just appear in random spots with chests of a few useful items for you.

On that note, another great thing about this game is that it actually feels like you make progress.  You know how in Skyrim you would do something insane like almost blow up Winterhold but then afterwards no one pays even a single thought let alone any lasting effects? Or in well ANY MMO you can clear out an entire fortress of baddies and kill their leader only to have them all just waiting for you in a few minutes?  NOT HERE.  If I bring a band of bandits under my command, every bandit in that company of rogues is now an ally and will no longer attack me.  If I clear out the mage and templar strongholds, suddenly the mages and templars go from open war breaking out everywhere to nearly gone save for maybe a random pack wandering the wilderness.  Yea, those strongholds and camps you clean out? STAY CLEANED OUT.  You control that territory now. It’s yours.  Oh geeze does that feel good.  Because that means you can clear out the major conflicts in areas and then have nothing to contend with exploring except beasts, demons, and the occasional highwayman or Carta team (dwarf thugs) to deal with.

So thus far this game has been so much more addicting than Skyrim ever was.  It’s that right blend of basic to use but expansive to master mechanics, a truly consistent world, and engaging characters that I might not instantly cling to like in previous installments but are interesting enough for me to want to see where their character paths take them while we try to save the world.  Except Solas.  He’s kinda just boring.  Screw you, Solas.

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