Mass Effect Andromeda Aims To Put a Dent In The Universe [Hands-On Preview]

In many ways, the original Mass Effect trilogy was truly an event series for gaming. Much like television’s Lost, the Mass Effect games created timely and rabid discussions about plot and other cool moment when each installment was released. From 2007 to 2012, you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing jokes, memes, and other inside references to the series. It was very much our event series, and the stakes only got higher for Shepard before culminating in Mass Effect 3. Unfortunately, the series fell victim to the third entry curse in trilogies, leaving many fans such as myself letdown with how things ended. It’s been nearly five years since Mass Effect 3 but now the series is ready to take its next big step forward, leaving much of the baggage behind.

In Mass Effect: Andromeda, the developers at BioWare wanted to reevaluate what made Mass Effect special with fans for its big debut in the new generation. Essentially a soft-reboot, still related but stand alone, the next title aims to take the series back to its roots, focusing on pioneering uncharted planets, fighting epic battles, and making those tough and meaningful choices along the way. During a special hands-on event in the Bay Area, we got close to three hours with the game, and spoke with some key members about their plans for the next title in the sci-fi RPG series. While it’s got some big shoes to fill, Andromeda is looking to make its own mark in the universe by doing its own thing.

Hyperion Entry

Set more than 600 years after the events of the first Mass Effect trilogy, the space ark Hyperion, carrying over 20,000 human colonists, enters the Andromeda system. With humanity and the other allied alien races having explored much of the Milky Way galaxy, the Andromeda Initiative was formed to send humans and many other species on a one-way trip aboard arks to colonize and explore our neighboring galaxy Andromeda. Focusing on the Ryder family, twin siblings Scott and Sara and their father Alec, a ‘Pathfinder’ for the Hyperion, they come upon their designated planet to colonize, only to find that a hostile and highly advanced race known as the Kett have already planted their flag. With the fate of humanity resting on the leadership of the Ryder family, they must band together with other species in Andromeda in order to fight back against the Kett, while exploring the new frontier and uncovering its mysteries.

What I find most interesting about Mass Effect: Andromeda is how the developers at BioWare went about doing a fresh start for the series. With the events of the original trilogy being ancient history, and the members of the Andromeda Initiative none the wiser with how things worked out in the Milky Way — as they left when things were just about to kick off — it’s very much a fresh start here in the new galaxy. We’ll never learn for certain of what happened with Shepard’s crew and the reapers, and that’s exactly how BioWare wants it. Speaking with Lead Designer Ian Frazier, he spoke at length about how Andromeda is very much a new beginning for the series, which frees them up to try something different.

“It’s been a lot of fun, but also very challenging, right? [when starting fresh]. It needs to feel like Mass Effect, because we’re obviously continuing the brand, but you do want it to feel new,” said the Lead Designer. “The thing that we landed on after wandering around in the desert of pre-production was this line, ‘fulfill the promise of Mass Effect 1‘. So going back to ME1, we had to find what was good about it, but also find what you thought was good but wasn’t as developed as you wanted it to be, and taking all of that and expanding upon the features from 2 & 3 and other innovations from games, such as the stronghold and open world structure from Dragon Age: Inquisition — take all of that, and make it feel truly like a new Mass Effect.”

Character Creation

Much like the previous games, you’ll create your unique version of the protagonist and define their story with your decisions and actions throughout the game. With Shepard and the crew of the Normandy long gone — I feel it’s safe to say that they didn’t make it after 600 years — the Ryder family now takes center stage in humanity’s struggle for survival. Choosing from either of the siblings, one male, the other female, you’ll customize their look, along with your brother or sister, and set off to find humanity a home. During the opening hour, it was clear that things are a bit different when it comes to choosing your adventure. For one, BioWare has ditched the Paragon/Renegade system in favor of a more organic system that is based on tone of speech — ranging from emotional, logical, professional, casual, head, heart, and impulse — making important decisions, and actions taken at key points.

During one segment, a key character’s cryo-tube is damaged during the Hyperion’s entry into Andromeda. Just prior, your father requests your immediate presence on the bridge. At this moment, you can either make sure they’re OK or you can report to your dad to continue on with the story. Of course, you can be caring and make sure the person in the pod is OK, taking the time to inquire about the systems, learn more about the science and crew in the process, or you can follow orders and just leave them with the crew and go about your duty. This is an early decision, and it will no doubt resonate in some unexpected ways. Obviously, this is typical Mass Effect gameplay, but how it’s present in Andromeda is far more organic. These decisions will come into play during major moments in the plot, and how you choose your actions will define you as a leader and how you’ll come across to your squad.

Of course, how you go about becoming humanity’s hero in the new galaxy is on you. After a certain point in the story, your character takes over the ‘Pathfinder’ role from their father and must lead the squad’s expedition across the stars. While you’ll be able to head back to the Hyperion, your real base will be aboard the Tempest, essentially Andromeda‘s take on the Normandy. You’ll chart your course on the galaxy map, take up missions from crew members, mine planets for resources, conduct strike missions, and generally mingle with your party on board. While very similar to the dynamic from past games, the ship is much more expansive, allowing for more exploration and diversions. I was very impressed with how Andromeda differentiated itself from the previous games. Even though the setup is similar, the Pathfinder and his or her crew are very different from Shepard’s squad. The lead designer spoke more about what went into designing the new universe, and how Andromeda is very much an origin story for the new lead.

“For us, the real challenge was building the new stuff in Andromeda, the new races and places you’ll encounter, but it was also challenging to build the heart of the new squad, which is what it’s always been about for us at BioWare,” said Frazier. “We wanted them to feel new, not like ‘it’s Garrus with purple pants’, no, we wanted to have a squad that had a mix of new personalities, and Ryder in particular, either Scott or Sara, we wanted them to feel unique in their own right, as opposed to the differences between Male Shep and Fem Shep were from each other, and of course to be different from Shepard as whole. Shepard was already a hero in Mass Effect 1, but for Andromeda, this is the origin story for Ryder, becoming a hero over the course of the game.”

Exploring Our Neighboring Galaxy

There’s definitely a feeling of frontierism and pioneering in Andromeda, and the devs definitely wanted to make exploring a key part of the game. One common criticism that the Mass Effect trilogy series received as it went on was the narrowing scope of its story and sense of exploration. In the original, Shepard and his squad could take their all-terrain vehicle and freely travel across large landscapes in search of dungeons, enemy bases, and hidden treasures. Mass Effect 2 and 3 ditched those in favor of enclosed environments and singular locations. While those areas were far more detailed and packed with content than the ones in the original, it was still sad to see the sense of scale lost. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Andromeda brought that open style of exploration back, with a few changes of course.

During one mission set about halfway through, the squad heads to the planet Kadara, a mountainous and lush planet full of large beasts and enemy Kett. After getting a lead from a gang of criminals that have taken over the one decent place on the planet, which was already a scummy place, the squad goes out in search of Kett devices in the wild. From here, you’ll be able to freely walk to your destination in the planet’s open world, or you can take your new all-terrain vehicle the Nomad. Similar to the Mako from Mass Effect 1, this vehicle gets you from A to B, even if it means having to drive up the face of a mountain. It can switch between all-terrain and standard mode, and can take serious punishment. It certainly felt good traveling around in a vehicle again on the landscape, and I got some strong Mass Effect 1 vibes while driving around.

While exploring, I came across caves, enemy camps, outposts, dungeons, side-missions, and other distractions that really got me interested in checking out more of the Kadaran wilderness. It’s very similar to how Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s world spaces were set up, not quite open world a la Skyrim or GTA, but still enough room and freedom to explore at your own pace. I spent much of my time scanning plants and other minerals to add to my resources, which can be used to build new weapons and armor, modify existing gear, and fill out the codex. I was really impressed with the breadth of content in the open environments.

The one thing that has gotten progressively better in the series is the core combat gameplay, and now Andromeda takes things to even greater heights. In addition to allowing players to freely moves between classes at will, without having to commit to one for an entire game, the pace and scale of combat has also seen a significant jump in quality. The shooting and traversal mechanics are much sharper than past titles, allowing your character to jump, boost, and move around the field with ease, which makes combat feel far more responsive and punchy. Moreover, with the ability to use any weapon, switch classes, skills, and other abilities at any time, the amount of options there are in the game is staggering. During one encounter I was dodging enemies with my jet-pack, using concussive rounds to knock enemies off-balance, then topped it off with a some fierce bionic moves.

In my squad was a new Krogan ally, who’s similar to Wrex in a number of ways, and Jaal, an Angaran rebel and native to Andromeda who teams up with Ryder to fight back against the Kett. In addition to your selected skills, you can also give orders to your squad, setting up combo moves with their own abilities. It was really slick, and it’s surprising to see how far it’s from the original game. However, while I’m impressed with the amount of systems and options working at once, I felt the control setup was a bit cumbersome to get a handle of. Specifically with how much they’ve packed into the control scheme. This felt really pronounced during the more hectic battles when I found myself fumbling with the controls trying to remember what does what. When you’re playing on the gamepad and have to open the weapon/skill wheel just to holster a gun, I feel like things to be re-evaluated a bit.

Closing Thoughts

In my two hours of play, I clearly was only scratching the surface in this title, and I’m really excited to see what’s out there in Andromeda. While I’m not at liberty to detail more of the plot, as they’re keeping that and the yet to be revealed multiplayer mode underwraps, I’m feeling strong vibes of Mass Effect 1 and 2, which are my favorites. As one of the many fans that felt a bit let down by how the trilogy went out in Mass Effect 3 — I haven’t touched the game since 2012 — I came away very intrigued and surprised by what they’ve got planned for the next entry in the series. While there will still the occasional odd BioWare bugs and quirks, and the control set up felt a bit odd, I still dug what Andromeda was going for.

As the lead designer said, this game is about fulfilling the promise of Mass Effect 1, which was to explore large open planets, interact with new life and cultures across the stars, and ultimately to leave your mark on the universe. While many fans are still sore over Mass Effect 3, Andromeda is looking to wipe the slate clean — which is totally for the best. I’m certainly ready to make the next big leap into the unknown, and this new galaxy to explore has got all the makings of an exciting and rich adventure.