Mass Effect: Andromeda preview: across the sea of space

It’s been five agonising years since the release of Mass Effect 3 – the controversial closing chapter in a beloved trilogy, which ended in a way that basically required a clean slate in order for the series to trek forward. 

With Mass Effect: Andromeda, developer BioWare has found that fresh start, forging a new path towards the stars like the explorers that populate its mysterious Andromeda galaxy. 

While much of Mass Effect: Andromeda will feel familiar to fans of the series, such as its focus on building relationships with members of several different species, its streamlined role-playing mechanics and its cover and skill-based combat, an increased emphasis on exploration dramatically sets the game apart from its predecessors. 

Though not exactly a sandbox game, Andromeda features large open world environments which players will be able to explore in a way that’s reminiscent of No Man’s Sky, only with more battles and alien encounters along the way. Whether this is something that fans want out of Mass Effect remains to be seen.

Ambitionz as a Ryder

Unlike previous titles in the series, where you’d select to play as either a male or female version of lead character Commander Shepard, Mass Effect: Andromeda has you pick from two characters in Scott or Sara Ryder – a pair of fraternal twins who, under the leadership of their father, Alec, set off on the Andromeda Initiative to establish a permanent, multi-species base in an unfamiliar galaxy. 

Though each character can handle themselves in a fight (and, surprisingly, with a lot more maneuverability than a seasoned soldier like Commander Shepard), the Ryder twins are primarily civilian explorers.

Depending on who you choose to use, an event at the beginning of the game will cause your twin to remain stuck in his or her cryo chamber while you go off and commence your mission. Will your sibling make an appearance later in the game? We’ll have to wait and see.

Thunderstruck

Shortly after waking up from a 634-year cryo sleep, you and a party of explorers head down to the first new potential home planet on the Andromeda Initiative’s list, and before long, it becomes clear that this is a hostile environment. 

The atmosphere is toxic, the landscape jagged and ugly, and thunder constantly strikes down at you, with only a momentary drop in gravity providing any notice of when another blast is set to rain on your parade. 

During the Initiative’s approach to the planet, a drop-ship crash lands off course, forcing you to go on a search-and-rescue mission for your missing party members. After a brief wander, your party comes face-to-face with an unknown alien race that has more than a passing resemblance to the Locust from Gears of War. We chose to approach them with our hands up in peace, but the aliens quickly revealed themselves to be hostile, throwing us into our first battle of the game.

Fight fire with fire

For the most part, combat in Andromeda feels as tight and refined as it did in Mass Effect 3. Our loadout consisted of a rifle and pistol, both feeling especially punchy and proving useful in close and mid-range battles. As we were using an Xbox One controller to play a PC build, skills were mapped to the shoulder buttons for quick and easy access.

Where Andromeda deviates from previous entries in the series is in the maneuverability of your character. While you were mostly confined to the ground before, you now have the ability to perform boost jumps that launch you a couple of metres in the air. Once up there, you can hold the zoom button to hover and continue shooting. This is also helpful if you happen to be falling from a great height. Your boosters can also be used to perform a quick slide forward, backward or sideways during a firefight.

Unfortunately, the cover system still has its issues. Crouching is seemingly not an option in Andromeda, with the game opting instead to let your character automatically enter cover as soon as you’re up against it. This means that unless you’re right next to a barrier, your character will stand there getting shot like an idiot. During our playtime this was quite frustrating. 

Instead, you’re encouraged to use your boosting ability, which should let you rush towards cover, Vanquish-style. We never really got used to doing this manoeuvre however, perhaps because we routinely forgot about the boost button’s existence. There is a possibility that it’ll begin to feel like second nature given time, and if so, it could radically change the pace – and fun – of Mass Effect’s battles. 

On another level

For the the second part of our hands on session, we were skipped forward to a mission that appears roughly halfway through the game. Beginning on the Tempest (Andromeda’s answer to the Normandy), Ryder and her squad set off on a mission to the planet Kedara.

Without going into spoiler territory, the mission, called Hunting the Archon (fans of the Dragon Age series may find this name to be familiar), has you visiting a Borderlands-style port town to meet with a resistance contact who’ll provide you with clues on what to do next.

It was in this section that we got our first meaningful look at Mass Effect Andromeda’s revamped conversation wheel. Though it still performed in the same way as before, the team at BioWare wanted to make sure that your choices weren’t black and white, as this tends to lead people on a predictable path. 

To remedy this, the dialogue options in Andromeda are based on emotions, with a range of symbols next to each choice that give you an idea of the tone your conversation will have. This will surely come in handy in your attempts to pursue romantic relationships.

Badlands

After acquiring some necessary information, our mission required us to head out into the planet’s Badlands to retrieve a (seemingly important) kettle transponder. It’s here that we were presented with the biggest departure in Mass Effect’s core gameplay. 

Since exploration is a key focus of Andromeda, the game features vast, sandbox-style areas where you can roam freely in a Nomad ND1 all-terrain exploration vehicle. Based on our time roaming the Badlands, we believe this will be an aspect of the game that players will either love or hate.

As was previously mentioned, the gameplay here feels like BioWare’s version of No Man’s Sky in that you’re tasked with exploring unknown alien territory, often collecting minerals (for reasons that were not made clear to us here), navigating through rocky terrain and occasionally visiting man-made outposts.

Wild world

Where it differs from Hello Games’ planetary exploration game, is that you’ll also frequently find yourself in battles with bandits and enormous monsters. While we appreciate the excitement this adds to the exploration element of the game, it also provided us with a fair bit of grief. 

After a number of monster encounters, our Nomad was destroyed and our ammo depleted. Though we eventually found the transponder we were after, we were now stranded in the middle of nowhere. After spending an inordinate amount of time running toward the next waypoint, in this case, the Tempest ship back in Kedara, we still found ourselves impossibly far away from our destination. We’re all for exploration –  but slowly jogging around enormous mountains that lead nowhere in an attempt to get back home is no one’s idea of fun. 

Still, it’s tough to get a real idea of what this new gameplay element will be like when reached organically through a proper playthrough. When dropped in the middle of someone else’s save game, some much-needed context is sorely absent, leading our foray into this random wasteland to feel a bit empty. 

That said, our first taste of Mass Effect: Andromeda certainly has us craving more time with the game. Though we were only provided with a brief window into the Andromeda galaxy, we’re definitely excited about the prospect of what its various worlds have to offer. Be sure to keep an eye out for our full Mass Effect: Andromeda review closer to release.