Your destination: the Andromeda galaxy.
Your mission: find humanity a new home.
Welcome to Mass Effect: Andromeda. Bring guns.
Talk about a big bang. When word spread that Mass Effect’s long-awaited fourth instalment was to be set in a new corner of the universe, within a different stretch of time, light years removed from the scores of characters we’ve come to know and love, it sounded as though Bioware was boldly going, well, a bit too far. But the more we learn about Mass Effect: Andromeda, the more certain we are it’s blasting off in the smartest possible direction. Much like its heroes, the Ryders.
You play as either Scott or Sarah ryder, picking their face, look, and backstory before embarking on the andromeda Initiative. This expedition sees leading explorers and scientists from prominent Milky Way species – Human, asari, Turian, Salarian – board four interstellar vessels called arks for a 600-year journey to the neighbouring andromeda galaxy. Setting off in 2185, around the same time Mass effect 2 concludes, Commander Shepard and co have long since turned to space dust by the time the arks arrive. It’s safe to assume your original save files won’t carry over.
Age of wander
Humanity’s new home will be the Helios Cluster, a series of solar systems more than four times the size of Mass effect 3’s playable area. Your mission as a futuristic ‘Pathfinder’ settler is to seek out habitable planets, establish contact with new civilisations, and drive your species into a new dawn of prosperity. “The idea is to find a new home,” says producer Fabrice Condominas. “Obviously that is hard and not a lot of the planets are fit for it, so your main objective is to place outposts so that you can keep moving on. You can build the outposts, and they will be full-blown buildings. You have people staying there for a while, and can come back to find merchants crafting.” Gathering resources and defeating local menaces to colonise planets means that in Mass effect: andromeda, one giant leap has to be made up of many small steps.
Those steps are seriously impressive thanks to Frostbite. An engine as powerful as it is flexible, it has been harnessed by ea to create everything from battlefield 1 to FIFa 17 to Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare. Not only does its increased memory allow for sweeping sights across craggy terrain and towering clifftops reaching to the stratosphere, but by sharing it bioware benefits from other studios’ workflow.
Rather than relying on hit-and-miss procedural generation, Mass effect: andromeda applies manpower to handcraft gorgeous, exotic, deadly, and massive worlds. Dozens of considered planets are better than a billion accidental ones, and the flora and fauna don’t appear by chance here. Expect biomes filled with glowing green mineral deposits, gas vents violently expelling jets of purple steam, vistas set under sky-filling moons, and achingly beautiful views across seas of floating spiral rock formations.
Of course, the increased size necessitates new methods of navigation. Enter the six-wheeled Nomad, a driveable land vehicle that speeds you across open expanses in the time it takes to say, “Wow, this sure is better than the Mako.” Thanks to your suit’s built-in resistances you can leave the Nomad and explore on foot, whenever and wherever. This comes in handy during the combat, which is a little different in andromeda. “The nature of cover changed the minute we introduced the jump ability,” says Condominas. “Now the overall space is way more open and the player verticality changes a lot, but there are also the sheer layouts of the combat. Now enemies can spawn behind, or on the side, making it way closer to Mass effect 3 multiplayer.” Fighting is faster and less methodical – all about directing your squad, switching biotic powers, and utilising the right ammo to unpick organic and synthetic enemy defences on the fly.
A cunning planet
For the creative director, Mac Walters, andromeda’s skirmishes mark a break with tradition. “We’re not a corridor shooter any more. While we are a third-person shooter, we want to approach from many different angles, so it really means you want to think in true three-dimensional terms. You want to think about, well, can I enter from multiple directions, including from above or below? Once we started doing multiplayer, that really helped evolve our combat play more than almost anything in the entire trilogy.”
Forget arenas full of waist-high walls, and be aware that most cover you see is destructible. This results in more natural architecture, places that don’t feel as though they’ve been built specially for hosting fights. In jetpacking over a storage container then shotgunning a raider, slotting flame ammo in your carbine to set another foe alight, and biotic-dashing up to a sniper’s nest, you’ve got far more reign over the environment, departing from the cautious style that characterised clashes in the Milky Way. This chimes with Mass effect: andromeda’s trailblazing spirit – the ryders, like history’s great frontiersmen and women, are nothing if not bold.
How you tackle these scenarios determines the development of your character. You don’t commit to a class this time, be it Sentinel, Vanguard, Infiltrator, or so on. Instead, your class shifts and mutates alongside your playstyle. Progression earns a pool of points you’re free to invest in any skill you choose, and by doing so you’ll unlock profiles. These are the equivalent of classes, but what’s different this time around is that you can switch between them from mission to mission. That means that if, for example, you prefer the Soldier’s brute strength but the objective is a better fit for tricksy biotics, you can adapt.
All the equipment you need for touching down on planets is stowed safely aboard the Tempest, a technologically advanced ship designed specifically for ferrying you across the vastness of space. Although you can’t fly it manually, navigation is much more exciting than simply bringing up a holographic minimap as in the previous games. This time it’s about visiting the bridge and picking a destination by staring out at a sea of stars. Changing arrangements of celestial bodies reflect your actual location and give you a greater sense of place – park up next to a gas giant and it’ll loom large out of the window.
Worlds with friends
There’s also no loading between the different areas on the Tempest, which include a galley, a garage where your Nomad sits (complete with the paintjob you’ve picked for it), and of course ryder’s quarters. Here you’ll find various mementos and keepsakes you’ve collected during your travels. “Just like the Normandy,” says Condominas, “the Tempest is really your base as a player and for your squad. The customisation that you can do with it is limited on the exterior, but on the interior, it’s just like in the trilogy. You will be able to add stuff, decorate stuff, put a bit of personality in there.” We’re thinking photographs of loved ones, rare plants, framed medals, and maybe an aquarium.
As with the Normandy, the Tempest is more than just a way to get from one place to another. “This is where a lot of the intimate moments will happen, where romance will trigger, and this is the really the only place in the game entirely dedicated to those small moments,” says Condominas. “I think we’re really steering back to the small, character-led interactions – whether it’s with your family or your small squad circle – being central to the game. And, as you know, the loyalty missions are coming back in andromeda. So talking about lessons learned, it’s something that’s absolutely crucial.” The Tempest, then, is a military vessel, a social hub, and a centre for much needed R&R.
Just as it is a gateway to the rest of the galaxy, this place is also one that can lead us to a deeper understanding of the characters. So how is bioware approaching the introduction of a brand new cast? “What matters is the small stories within the big story,” Walter says. “When we ask players what their favourite moment from the trilogy is, the number one answer is actually Garrus and Shepard shooting at cans on the roof of the Citadel. That’s basically a moment where nothing happens, but it’s because you can build these relationships and then suddenly take them to a whole other dimension, and it’s extremely significant.” Loyalty missions like these are less enforced than before – Walters has said that you’ll be able to engage with them after the critical path if you choose.
A revised dialogue tree is key to interactions. Supposedly you now have four types of response: heart, head, professional, and casual. This wider spectrum allows for greater readability in conversations, giving you more influence over their direction and reducing the regularity with which you put your foot in your mouth. The goal is to create more complex relationships, and more nuanced moral choices feeding into them. “What we wanted to do with andromeda is to avoid the player asking themselves, ‘am I making the right or the wrong choice?’” says Walters. “That was never the case, but it became a part of the perception around the Paragon/renegade element… We want the player to be able to make the choice he or she actually thinks is right, without trying to put it into a game context.” Moral choices are less about scoring points than shaping the personality of your character.
And the writing itself? Many of andromeda’s writers were fans of the franchise before joining the team, and so a mix of junior and senior talent allows bioware to tread the line between staying true to the previous trilogy and setting their sights even higher. That’s fitting, because a fresh start is clearly important to the studio. Everyone begins this game with the same goal: to find a new home in a hostile place. That’s true for bioware just as it is for the ryders.
Although having seemingly little to do with reapers, Collectors, Citadels, or pushy reporters in need of a wallop, somehow andromeda feels even more Mass effect-like than the original trilogy. That’s because the series is bigger than one person. It’s bigger than one system. It’s bigger, even, than an entire galaxy. It’s about exploring alien worlds, encountering fascinating new species, making decisions ranging from vital to trivial, and channelling the spirit of humanity’s pioneers in an adventure that spans the stars. There’s a reason Mass effect’s iconic logo features the silhouette of a horizon: that’s your goal – boundless, infinite, and endlessly inspiring.