The size of Mass Effect: Andromeda is off the charts – dare I quip out of this world. After going hands-on for about three hours, my mind is racing a million miles per hour; I don’t know where to start, and yet I’ve seen so little. With a course correction back towards an ideal blend of role-playing and action – BioWare producer Fabrice Condominas was very keen to emphasis Mass Effect: Andromeda is a fully-fledged RPG that happens to be heavy on combat – Mass Effect is back to rule the galaxy of sci-fi action-RPGs.
The story is being kept a closely guarded secret, and I’m not going to spoil the tidbits that emerged through my time with the game. Like Shepard, sibling protagonists Scott and Sara Ryder have an extensive backstory, but their customisation, both in physical appearance and ability, are totally under your control. Choosing to play as either Scott or Sara will obviously have some affect on relationships and the outcome of events, but they’ll largely forge the same journey as Pathfinder.
In development for five years, a lot has changed in the videogame landscape since Andromeda progressed from concept to final product. We’ve shifted from one to console generation to another, and more recently had a mid-life refresh. As with most modern games, BioWare created assets far higher than it intended to use, which have now been taken advantage of by the unexpected leap to 4K. HDR support is the cherry on top, but it’s not something merely added as the flavour of the day. BioWare explored the technology long and hard before deciding it was the right fit for Andromeda, at a relatively late stage in development.
With a return to the grand scale of space, Mass Effect: Andromeda presents seven worlds to explore – each the astonishing size of Dragon Age: Inquisition. That’s daunting, and almost incomprehensible. But with a buggy to investigate the rugged terrain, at least on the one planet we were able to set foot upon, it’s much quicker to get around. The Nomad Rover, Andromeda’s version of the Mako, is a nippy six-wheeler, with a booster to help it bolt around the topography. It’s seamless to jump in and out, and became a necessity when I reached an incline it couldn’t traverse. While the worlds are massive, there is a lot of empty space, so you’ll spend ample time behind the wheel, moving between enemy camps and objectives.
Combat is again at the forefront, anchored by its strong RPG backbone. The class system has undergone a radical redesign, and they can be switched between mid-combat. Your choice of Vanguard, Solider, Engineer, Explorer, Infiltrator, Adept or Sentinel each provides a relevant stat-boost, but isn’t set in stone. If a tense situation requires a blend of Vanguard and Soldier, Andromeda wants you to switch on the fly.
Scott or Sara’s abilities are furthered through the skills system – Combat, Tech and Biotech – which follows a more traditional RPG roadmap, with plenty to unlock in a static skill tree. I only tinkered with a combat unlock, which revealed fairly self-expiatory upgrades for abilities, weapons and items. Each of those then splits into its own sub-skill tree, and there comes a point where you’ll have to decide how to fully upgrade an ability, choosing a specialisation from a couple of options. But with just three hours to play, I didn’t have time to see the lasting consequences of my choices.
Combat on the whole feels fluid and fast-paced. It’s largely based on the multiplayer combat from Mass Effect 3, adapted for a single-player campaign. Andromeda is a cover-based shooter, with a strong dependency on working with your A.I. squad mates. For the most part, it works pretty well, but I’m not a fan of the automated cover system. It’s always better to have full control over jumping in and out of cover, and Andromeda doesn’t offer that, so it’s annoyingly easy to accidentally move in or out of cover – always at the worst possible moment. Cover aside, the guns blazing firefights are glorious, especially if you’re a team-player. As a measly level one character, a tutorial pops up explaining how to command your buddies, in what’s essentially a mini-horde attack. It’s easy to dispatch them together or order them to cover opposite flanks, and left to their own devices, they’ll always find someone to shoot. They can be upgraded through a similar skills system, ideally allowing you to craft a diverse team that becomes a lean, mean killing machine.
Between slaughtering aliens on their home planets (actually, that makes Scott and Sara the aliens), Mass Effect: Andromeda has amble down time to explore and take in the sights of life living aboard Tempest, the Pathfinder’s main spaceship. I cound have happily spent all three hours wandering around aimlessly, ignoring objectives, simply chatting to people. They all have something to say through the more nuanced dialogue system – and there are a lot of bored travellers very keen to smash out some space push-ups.
The Mass Effect Trilogy essentially had you choose the good or bad path. Chatter in Andromeda is more flexible, and based on a broader range of emotions. It will be difficult, but not impossible, to keep everyone onside with your decisions, but it’s much harder to read the long lasting consequences. I asked producer Fabrice Condominas how more subtle choices will shape the narrative for players who are all over the shop and drastically change their responses each time – he said it’s fine for them to play as a schizophrenic Scott or Sara.
How such an open-ended dialogue system will play out remains to be seen, both in Mass Effect: Andromeda and potentially beyond. BioWare is playing its cards close to its chest as to what this means for the future of the franchise. Condominas said Andromeda has been developed to be anything from a standalone game to a series of 15. He’s embellishing on both ends of the spectrum, but it’s clear BioWare doesn’t want to be locked into a second trilogy, so it has more freedom in what happens next. While the possibility of a standalone entry has been touted, Andromeda feels like the start of something new to me. From just three hours I could feel how much was being established, and while now mightn’t be the time to talk about it, there’s clearly a lot more to come. For most games, potential sequels wouldn’t be a consideration for years. But with Mass Effect, choices you make here and now could be with you for the next decade. We don’t know what the future holds for Mass Effect, but choose wisely in Andromeda.