If, as many critics proclaimed, the original Mass Effect trilogy was the truest game adaptation of Star Wars, then Andromeda feels more like a pivot towards J.J. Abrams’ modern, action-heavy take on Star Trek. There’s an undercurrent of exploration and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants thinking that — while always present in the series — seems better supported here.
That feeling is fostered by smart changes to the game’s core systems, including more nuanced dialogue choices and larger open environments. Where the first three Mass Effect games asked you to guide Shepard down one of a few paths, Andromeda aims to let you control Ryder, the series’ new protagonist, in a more personal way. The result is a game that, moment-to-moment feels as action-packed as Mass Effect 3, but also stands to offer the series’ deepest role-playing experience yet.
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Author’s note: This piece will include some broad story spoilers for the game. We’ve tried to keep things as vague as possible, in the interest of preserving the story’s magic. That said, if you do not want to know anything about what happens in the game, please stop here. Conversely, if you’re looking to read about every detail, we hope that our analysis of the game’s features will do for now.
Brave New Worlds
In Andromeda, you control either Scott or Sarah Ryder, twin space explorers on a gigantic colonization mission by a joint-race task force called “the initiative,” which has sent large ships from many of the Mass Effect franchise’s core species, including Asari, Krogan, Turian, and Human, to settle new home planets in the Helius cluster, a new system in a new galaxy.
The game takes steps to feed your curiosity about the new worlds you’re exploring.
The Ark Hyperion — the human ship — leaves Earth on its multi-century trip just after the events of Mass Effect 2, so while the game takes place far after the events of the original trilogy, most of the characters don’t know about the Reapers’ invasion or the galactic war of Mass Effect 3. As such, the series resets to the world of ME2: an uneasy alliance between the friends you know and the wilderness you don’t.
Of course, when the Hyperion arrives at the game’s outset, things don’t go as planned. Without divulging details, Ryder and fellow explorer Liam quickly wind up stranded on an alien world, “Habitat 7,” unable to communicate with the rest of his or her team, and they encounter a seemingly hostile, new alien race for the first time.
Conversation is a flat circle
As a fourth entry in the franchise, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that developer BioWare knows how to play to the series’ strengths. There’s no aspect of Andromeda that will feel unfamiliar to Mass Effect fans, but almost every aspect of the game has been changed to give you for a more nuanced sense of control over Ryder’s story.
Case in point, the dialogue system has not changed much — you still select what you’re going to say from a wheel of personality-based options — but instead of simply going “paragon” or “renegade,” you can choose from up to four types of responses, “casual,” “professional,” “emotional,” and “logical.” As you might expect, there will be plenty of times where you choose between the first and second, or the third and fourth. Those options don’t include special options, such as questions or deliberate “romance” responses.
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The game takes special care to make sure you can choose an option that reflects what you feel. Creative Director Mac Walters told us, for example, that if you’re asked about a character you (the player) haven’t spoken to yet, the game will include an option to say something to the effect of, “I don’t know that guy.” While that isn’t necessarily the option you or I would choose, the idea suggests the BioWare is sensitive to the fact that players have different philosophies about role-playing, and has taken steps to allow more of those approaches to flourish.
Making movie gaming magic
At the same time, not every moment should be conveyed through text and exposition. Andromeda takes some of its most important dramatic moments out of the dialogue circle.
Going back to that moment of first contact, the aliens we encountered seemed to be hostile, and were interrogating an injured member of our expedition. After a short conversation, Liam and Ryder agreed to not attack immediately, and the game returned to standard gameplay: We slowly approached the new alien race, arms raised, following “first contact” protocol. The aliens, armored and carrying guns, were agitated when they saw us, and started yelling as we approached. Eventually, we got too close, and they opened fire.
While that situation could have played out in a dialogue sequence or with a cutscene, BioWare chose to give you control. By giving us control, they made us accountable for the consequences, creating some very real tension.
Among the most striking differences from previous entries are the game’s large, open areas. Previously most Mass Effect levels would condense entire planets into linear dungeons, or break hub worlds into small chunks separated by long load times. By contrast, Andromeda features wide-open overworlds, similar to the expansive environments of Dragon Age: Inquisition. In a sequence later in the game, we explored the planet Kedara. On Kedara, we walked around a small city — a hub for institute deserters — to gather information for a quest. Moving from building to building, conversation to conversation, the whole city felt like a cohesive space in a way that many hub cities did not in past games.
Objective in hand, we took an elevator down — this did prompt a load — and found ourselves on the outskirts of town. The edge of the city seamlessly gave way to a large, explorable wilderness. To call it a level or environment wouldn’t quite do it justice; there were many distinct areas, like acid hot springs, fields, and mountains, to name a few. Whether you walked or used the Nomad rover, which you can call down to you from pods scattered around open areas, Kedara felt more like a real place, and something larger and less predictable than a level.
The game takes steps to feed your curiosity about the new worlds you’re exploring. Wherever you go, every object of note can be scanned and recorded, since part of your mission as an interstellar explorer, conveying new information about the world. Scanning objects around the world may also prompt some tidbit of analysis and/or commentary from SAM, the institute’s AI, which is linked to your gear at all times.
“Don’t restrict people. Let them choose what they want, and just find the fun where they want.”
Scanning items not only confers information about the new world, but has a gameplay hook as well. Scanning objects earns you one of three types of research data — Institute, “Helius,” and ancient alien ruins — which can eventually unlock blueprints for crafting new weapons and items. Tying the crafting in with the game’s lore may seem like an odd choice, but it reflects that both elements are important to some players, but not everyone.
“We tried to make crafting deep, but also optional,” Walters said, “which is tricky. But [it’s] one of the key thing we’ve been trying to do, because some people don’t want to engage it, but also there are [gameplay] benefits, right?”
The information you get from scanning comes in addition to the copious notes, audio logs, and codex entries that further expand the series’ lore. Fans who want to know every little thing about the world will be swaddled in narrative detail, with new fun facts and trivia coming up every few steps.
Combat is role-playing too, you know
Like the storytelling, the combat in Mass Effect feels very similar to what we played in Mass Effect 3. The game is still a third-person, cover-based shooter at heart. Ryder can still direct his or her two squadmates in combat. Like Shepard, Ryder has a set of special abilities to supplement his or her standard weapons.
While the basics hold firm, the abilities you choose, and how you use them has changed dramatically, again with the hopes of giving you a more versatile and customizable combat style.
Taking cues from the Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, Ryder will have access to three special abilities at any given time, each of which will operate on its own cooldown. That may feel a bit limiting, until you realize that you can swap between four ability loadouts on the fly with the d-pad. If you’re stuck behind cover, you can change to a biotic-heavy “adept” with more long-range combat options, or maybe swap to your “vanguard” build, which blends two types of skills to make you into a human bunker buster.
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In other words, your class is dictated by the abilities you’ve chosen to invest skill points in, not the other way around. Classes still confer special stat bonuses, so it pays to think about the context in which you’ll use your skills, but you’re free to pair classes and skills as you see fit.
“This is going to be open-world,” Walters said. “Don’t restrict people. Let them choose what they want, and just find the fun where they want.”
Space: The Final Frontier
Let’s be brutally honest, here. From what we’ve seen, Mass Effect: Andromeda isn’t going to change anyone’s mind on the series. If a run-and-gunning, space-exploring, story driven shooter-RPG wasn’t your cup of tea before, it still won’t be now. If you’re one of the many, many Mass Effect fans who have been eagerly waiting for this game, though, it appears your excitement was warranted. Every individual aspect of it looks like the most, polished and interesting take on the series’ well-defined style.
- Interesting story
- Nuanced dialogue
- Complex, innovative class/skill loadouts
- Tons to do
- Bigger open environments
- May feel a bit samey to some players
- Overabundance of lore potentially overwhelming