Reinventing the Iconic – Mass Effect Andromeda

image credit vg247.com

Undaunted by the gravity of their own legacy, BioWare forges a new path forward. The premise of Mass Effect: Andromeda mirrors the new life of the franchise in more ways than one. Putting behind them one of the most epic science fiction sagas in video game history and all of the characters we had come to love is no small feat, a challenge other industry giants have avoided or outright failed at. Despite the rose colored lens through which the original, decade-old Mass Effect is viewed by many, Andromeda does just this.

Enter Sara and Scott Ryder, youthful recruits who along with their father joined the Andromeda Initiative to seek out a new home for humanity in the Heleus Cluster of the Andromeda galaxy. Scientists, unlike the soldier origins of CDR Shepard, the Ryders are a refreshing new look and feel for main characters. The crew and your squad mates include many races familiar to the original trilogy and a few new ones as well, all brilliantly voiced and brought to life in the stunning Frostbite engine – which is also new to the series.  With one of the best team of writers in the industry and more dialog than Mass Effect 2 and 3 combined, Andromeda may be the most ambitious and in-depth story BioWare has attempted yet.

As the experience unfolds and the player is introduced to both new and familiar activities and opportunities for exploration, the more close to home Andromeda feels. It feels like a Mass Effect title should from the outset – wasting no time putting your Ryder twin of choice into action and trusting the player to keep up with the lore and references without letting it get in the way. Returning players will find the new ship, the Tempest, is a fitting tribute to the Normandy, but is also comfortable being itself and has a fresh, elevator free layout. The all-terrain Nomad is even cooler than you remember the Mako being, which is great news because you’ll spend more time than ever behind the wheel in it. It inherits the mining and most of the scanning tasks that used to occur only from orbit in the original trilogy, and has its own tech upgrade tree along with the rest of your gear.

Speaking of upgrade trees, the character advancement and gear research and upgrade paths are an order of magnitude more complex than any of the previous Mass Effect titles. No longer limited to just one “class”, the Ryders can develop multiple combat profiles that cover all of the classic builds like soldier or infiltrator, and now also includes the biotic and tech tree skills once exclusive to the non-playable characters. The build choices are staggering at a glance, but are easy to get the hang of as you go along.

Combat sees a huge update, featuring faster movement, more agility and a bigger emphasis on coordination of abilities between squadmates to defeat difficult encounters. Players looking for a challenge will be pleased to find the harder difficulty settings are a step up from the prior titles, and require a lot more than just cover and ammo management to defeat hard encounters, even for returning veterans. Playing on one setting below “insanity” I died frequently despite a confident hard mode finish in the first three.

My ten hours in the play-first trial of Mass Effect: Andromeda sped by in an instant, just enough time to get my boots dirty and whet my appetite. It is not enough time to judge the story, which I’ve avoided discussing, but from what I have seen so far exceeded my expectations. I had concerns that BioWare would not be able to top what they had completed with closing chapters of Mass Effect 3 – nor fill the boots of an iconic heroine like Jane Shepard. Thankfully, Andromeda is following its own heart and I am looking forward to seeing where it goes.

Half of the VR titles I am most eager to try are not games

While a look at the SteamVR Game titles coming in 2016 seems quite promising, the coolest things I’ve seen demonstrated over the last year weren’t traditional games at all – but rather “experiences”. That’s not to say there aren’t some really great games coming to VR, because there are, but while game developers tackle bringing current gen game themes to VR space, others are turning heads with original content so immersive and mind-blowing it challenges how we define a VR title.

Let’s start at the top – of the world, that is. Take Sólfar and RVX’s “Everest VR” teaser as a perfect example of a non-game VR experience, despite being built with one of the most powerful gaming engines.

Another room-scale VR experience that captured a lot of attention at recent road shows was Wevr’s “theBlu: Encounter” , which simulates a deep ocean shipwreck and a profound meeting with wildlife there. Here is a link to one of their blogs from behind the scenes on that project.

A glance at the Wevr company page shows the wild diversity of VR content in development, everything from the Sundance Film Festival, music concerts, Sports Illustrated to the mind-bending space-themed “Irrational Exuberance Prologue“. Wevr also provides a platform for VR producers, which looks promising.

Another announcement coming out of the Sundance Film Festival was a partnership between traditionally game-focused Ubisoft Montreal and a VR venture co-founded by Elijah Wood called SpectreVision that will focus on interactive VR Horror titles. The short teaser that accompanied this announcement was a chilling 360 stereoscopic ride through a scary scene in Assassin’s Creed “Jack the Ripper” add-on, although their production project is likely not related to that specific Ubisoft franchise at all. In any case, any VR “interactive horror” to get air time at Sundance has my full attention.

Google’s Tilt Brush is a cross-platform VR painting tool that has also been an enormous success at VR road shows. It supports room scale VR, and watching an artist paint a three-dimensional object while walking around it in real life is a poster of a new generation of immersive, non-gaming content. Nvidia sponsored a VR art contest last year, here are some video highlights from that event.

I am excited to see Virtual Reality break through into the mainstream in 2016 – as much for rich sensory experiences as the ridiculously awesome looking games, the latter which I may cover in another blog entry. What I see in terms of new ways to produce and deliver art is as large a leap forward as the television was for the radio – that is, a once in a century leap in communications-enabling technology, although 2016 is probably just a quiet beginning. I believe developers are only at the tip of a world-changing technology, specially for the field of education, perhaps even medicine, one where fantastic games are just a by-product. Just imagine the recent Star Wars movie – but in VR. Or a tour of the Louvre from your living room. Or a show like MythBusters – (I’ll miss this show!) – but one where it feels like you’re actually there, but completely safe. Confront fears and travel to other places you may never have the opportunity or desire to see in person – like inside a volcano, aboard the IIS, or like the teaser above, atop the world’s tallest and most dangerous mountains.

I’m ready. The HTC Vive debuts in April, shortly after the release of the Oculus Rift.

“Life is Strange” quick graphics comparison

For the most part, although the graphics for “Life is Strange” did not vary much between the PC version and Xbox One, some scenes with effects or dramatic lighting did seem to look better on PC. Below is an example from one of the latter scenes in Episode 1. Mild Spoilers.

PC  – manually set to 1080p for best results:

 

Xbox One – manually set to 720p for best results:

 

Update: Finally sorted why it seemed I could not get my raw nvidia shadowplay files to stay at 1080p when I uploaded them to YouTube. One, lowering the shadowplay bitrate slider to 10Mbps from 50 made the file size more manageable without major impact to quality and two, most importantly I had to wait quite a while past the time YouTube said it was done processing before it allowed the HD resolutions to be selected. Whew.