Starting Screen is the USgamer staff's weekly column. Check back every Monday as we share our thoughts on the news as well as our favorite obscure RPGs, game music, and racing games.
Good morning, and welcome to gaming's first review apocalypse of 2017—BioWare's Mass Effect: Andromeda.
The forthcoming space epic, which is out tomorrow, has received mixed to positive reviews, leaving it at 77 on Metacritic. I was actually one of the harsher critics in awarding it a three out of five, though it feels weird to call a middling score "harsh." It's the prototypical open-world game that has some good ideas but is also fairly flawed.
Naturally, Twitter and the rest of the gaming sphere has decided that this is a disaster of the first order. The gaming community loves its narratives, and in much the same way that Horizon Zero Dawn is being elevated into Game of the Year contention, Mass Effect Andromeda is already being cast as an irredeemable failure. In a few years, Mass Effect Andromeda will be held up as a prime example of BioWare's "dark years," if there are such a thing.
The thing is, Mass Effect Andromeda was probably screwed regardless. BioWare's reputation has taken a hit of late, and It's coming out in a period with some notably popular games. I'm not a big fan of Horizon Zero Dawn, but I know plenty of people who are; and when paired with Breath of the Wild, March has given us a pretty formidable 1-2 punch of games. And that's not including Nier: Automata, which we loved, and Persona 5, which stands to be pretty damn good.
In general, there's an overwhelming sense of being buried by a lot of high-quality games right now, making any potential backlash twice as harsh. In the wake of the vicious mockery of its animations, Andromeda seems to have hit a perfect storm of raised expectations and expected disappointment. There are some studios that people are willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Right now, BioWare is not one of those studios.
Does that make the criticism of Andromeda unfair or unduly harsh? Not really. Andromeda's boilerplate encounters, stripped down dialogue, and overall lack of imagination still invites plenty of criticism. I doubt that the critical concensus would have changed much even if it had been released in January or February. But the fact that there are so many good games out right now makes the criticism extra keen. The narrative was more or less set the second that the gifs highlighting Andromeda's awkward animations started to hit, and it's only going to grow harsher as time goes on.
But that's how things are now. Games are a major investment of time and energy; and with only so many hours in the day, people are bound to gravitate to the cream of the crop. It's no wonder that studios tend to gravitate toward safe, established designs given how little room there is for error. Mass Effect Andromeda is mostly notable for being a perfect storm of anti-hype: viral memes, a busy release window, and a general lack of confidence in its developer. Whatever its relative merits, they're bound to be buried by the narrative that it's a terrible game and BioWare are past their prime.
It's not a horrible game by any means, but there's less and less room for "not bad" in the current media landscape. And with so much love in the air for Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, and everything else, the time was ripe for a bit of disappointment. Unfortunately for BioWare, Mass Effect Andromeda seems poised to catch the brunt of it.
Kat's Obscure RPG of the Week
As long as we're talking about flawed RPGs, how about a moment to remember Resonance of Fate? tri-Ace's gun-centric adventure was one of a handful of weird, experimental RPGs released on the PS3 back in 2010, ultimately garnering a small but loyal audience. Part action RPG and part tactics game, Resonance of Fate has you sprint across a stage spraying bullets while mixing in backflips like a character out of the The Matrix. It's a weird but memorable game, not the least because it had cutscenes like the above, which I never get tired of posting. It's a weird game—not one that I would necessarily characterize as "good"—but it still maintains a strangely positive place in my heart. If you still have a PS3, I recommend checking it out, if only because it's so different from its contemporaries... or really anything that's come out since.
Nadia's Note Block Beat Box:Seiken Densetsu 3's Decision Bell
Is Seiken Densetsu 3 (which can loosely be thought of as the sequel to Secret of Mana) coming to the Nintendo Switch? Maybe! Will it be officially translated and released for English-speaking audiences? Probably not!
When the Virtual Console first became a thing, I harbored dreams about region-exclusive games finally going global, e.g. Terranigma and an assortment of Japanese titles. It happened, like with Rondo of Blood, but very rarely. Once Nintendo discovered the Virtual Console is the perfect instrument for crushing retro gamers' hearts into a pulsating crimson paste, it indulged in our misery again and again. I don't expect anything will change.
Thankfully, you don't have to understand Japanese to take in Seiken Densetsu's Decision Bell, the music that accompanies your party through the game's (Rabite-infested) iteration of the Holy Land / Pure Land. I have a weakness for huge, brassy bells, and this tune has them in spades.
I have to admit I generally don't find Seiken Densetsu 3's soundtrack as memorable or as stirring as Secret of Mana's, but it definitely works the SNES's soundchip a lot harder. Hope you like woodwinds.
Mike's Media Minute
Friday marked the release of the fourth Marvel show in Netflix's quartet of street-level heroes, Iron Fist. Iron Fist covers the adventures for Danny Rand, a heir to a billionaire's empire who also find himself to be the heir to an ancient legacy. Lost in the mystical city of K'un L'un, Danny becomes the Iron Fist, a martial artist who can control his Chi to make his fist a thing like iron.
The early reviews weren't kind to the show and in my final estimation, I think they were a bit harsh, but it's not a great show. It's not a horrible show either. It's just kind of there, occupying a space in your viewing habits.
Finn Jones isn't really the problem, it's that the show has no real vision. It spends its time equally with boardroom politics as it does with martial arts action. Things happen, but if you look over the course of the entire show, nothing really happens at all. (An issue in the previous Marvel shows is they're really 8-10 episode shows stretched to 13 episodes.)
Worse, the martial arts action isn't great. This show had to do at least one thing right: the fighting. It doesn't. The choreography is okay, the hit have no impact, and the editing seems to have to compensate for the fact that Jones isn't actually a martial artist. The best of shows like Arrow and Agents of SHIELD surpass Iron Fist. Worse, the same weekend Iron Fist debuts, AMC's Into The Badlands begins its second season, showing how you pull off an amazing martial arts show on a TV budget. ITB's characterization and writing is dodgy, but the fight scenes are art, so it works. Iron Fist doesn't have the later to lean on.
Overall, it's a disappointment, because this should've been the easy sell. Hopefully, season two follows with a showrunner who has a love for martial arts action and the source material. The elements here aren't bad, they just need to be put together properly. If you're hungry for martial arts action, watch Into the Badlands.
Caty’s (AltGame) Corner
One of my favorite mobile games is Mini Metro, a port of a PC and Mac game about mapping out a transit system and ensuring that all commuters get to their destinations in a timely fashion. On mobile, the game’s far more intuitive than its original version, a calming experience as you watch the trains whizz by, tapping to add extra carriages or trains as needed per line. The game, despite its serenely plain visuals, gets chaotic quickly, as lines zig zag across one another, and inevitably a station closes due to overcrowding. In Cosmic Express, the latest game from developers Cosmic Engineers, I’m brought back to that tranquility, only this time with a side of puzzle and pastel goodness.
Cosmic Express began as a game born of the annual Train Jam, a literal train-bound game jam that developers partake in on the long ride to San Francisco from Chicago for the Game Developer’s Conference. After the 2015’s jam, developer Alan Hazelden teamed up with fellow developer Benjamin Davis and 3D artist Tyu to further craft the macaroon-hued, alien-saturated world of Cosmic Express.
In its recently released entirety, you lay down the twisty tracks of an intergalactic train on an isometric circular surface, hellbent on helping usher alien passengers to their destinations. As the game progresses, the destinations require a bit more thought to realize in an efficient fashion. But even if you grow flustered, the saccharine color palette makes the experience alone a delight. Cosmic Express is available for iOS, Android, PC, Mac, and Linux.
Racing With Jaz
Although it's been out in Europe since the end of last year, WRC 6 was only recently released in the US, and this weekend I spent some time getting to grips with it. It's the official game of the World Rally Championships, and packs all the cars and drivers from the 2016 WRC series, as well as a selection of WRC 2 and WRC Junior teams. The action plays out across 14 races that comprise 65 individual special stages (including 11 super special stages).
So far, driving the game has been an entertaining experience. The handling engine is one of the game's strengths: It feels detailed and involving, and nicely captures the different kinds of surfaces featured in rallying, from hustling cars down narrow, twisting, and bumpy dirt tracks to caning them around the tarmac super special stages. As a consequence, racing can feel quite exciting, and the action is definitely quite challenging.
However, while the game drives well, there are a few graphical glitches. The cars and tracks are generally nicely detailed, but unfortunately there's a lot of screen tearing. It's not like it completely ruins the action, but for those who care about this sort of technical aspect, I think the game could potentially be off-putting. Another weakness is simply the subject matter itself. Because it's a licensed product, WRC 6 just doesn't feature a particularly compelling range of cars - definitely not as broad and interesting as the likes of DiRT Rally, for example. That said, it's also a lot more forgiving that Codemasters' brilliant, but hardcore off-road racer, making it a better game to play if you're new to rallying - assuming you don't mind putting up with its technical flaws
- I hooked up my new TV over the weekend—a 4K Samsung that positively dwarfs my previous set. I finished my review of Mass Effect Andromeda on it, soaking in the ultra crisp visuals and the vibrant colors. It's made me seriously consider picking up a PlayStation 4 Pro that I haven't until now. Of course, the flipside of getting a new television is that they can be tough to calibrate. I flipped over to HDR and found it entirely too dark, so now I'm obsessively fiddling with my settings in an effort to ensure that everything is just so. My main fear is that HDR won't really be compatible with the TV's gaming mode, which will hurt its input delay. Sadly, nothing's perfect, but it still looks fantastic in 1080p. That's perfectly alright for now.
- Speaking of the PlayStation 4 Pro, I can't wait to see the above beautiful 4K.
- On the subject of Mass Effect Andromeda, word hit over the weekend that a bunch of misguided fans are harrassing some poor developer working in EA's motion capture studio, to which I ask: seriously? When did it become okay to harrass people over the work they've done on a video game?
- Circling around to games that are somewhat less disappointing than Mass Effect Andromeda, Caty has this lovely meditation on life and death in Nier: Automata, a fascinating game that is being sadly overlooked amid all the hype for Horizon Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild. As I would say on the podcast: "Throw it on the pile."
- There was a minor kerfuffle last week when Capcom announced that a bunch of their old Disney Afternoon games will be bundled and re-released (yay!), but that the Switch will be left out of the mix (boo). It's a disappointing decision, but perhaps emblematic of how cautious developers are being around Switch. But with initial sales and hype being relatively strong, more developers may be hopping aboard soon. All I know is that I want to play more NES games on that screen.
- Here's an X-ray of the Nintendo Switch's guts to start your week. Enjoy!
- I'm not normally one to rail against another site's "Best of" list, but this article on The Ringer recently caught my eye. It purports to pick the best game since Ocarina of Time, with Ringer editors throwing in some obvious choices (Shadow of the Colossus, Last of Us) and some weird ones (Metal Gear Solid 2, the original GTA III). Notably absent from the list is Dark Souls, which we called our best game from 2000, and a number of other games (Witcher 3?) Lists like these are always gonna be kind of arbitrary, but as The Ringer looks to expand its footprint in the gaming space, they might want to dig a little deeper than the original Halo trilogy in their hunt for the best games since Ocarina of Time.
- Speaking of lists, Caty has this look at Shin Megami Tensei games that you should check out after Persona 5, which is out in a couple weeks. Read if you're looking for games that will keep you busy over the next decade or so.
- If you haven't been totally swamped by this month's releases, a lot of last year's best games are getting big DLC updates in next week. Final Fantasy XV, Dark Souls 3, and Battlefield 1 will all be seeing major content drops, and Destiny will be hosting an Age of Triumph event. So, you know, if you weren't already completely buried...
- As always, we're keen to hear what you're playing. Are you planning to pick up Mass Effect Andromeda despite the reviews? Are you still all in on Zelda or Horizon Zero Dawn? Or are you revisiting an old favorite? Let us know!