We finally saw some RPG stuff and it looks great – but many questions remain.
I am pumped for Mass Effect: Andromeda. I’m that guy that picked up full Xbox gamerscore in all three of the previous Mass Effect titles and put 50 or 60 hours into the third game’s multiplayer. I just purchased the Mass Effect Trilogy soundtrack on vinyl. On a cabinet across from my desk there’s a little model of the Normandy SR-1, right next to the Arwing, my other favourite gaming sci-fi ship. So, yeah – I’m excited. But also… I don’t think Andromeda’s marketing is doing it any favours.
“Andromeda has a lot to prove and is a great opportunity for Bioware to do something new.”
When it comes to video game marketing, there is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing. Final Fantasy 15 was practically a masterclass in that, with Square Enix going from an overly secretive developer in lockdown to an over-sharing nightmare that’d showcase content that wouldn’t make the final game at trade shows and hold meandering hour-plus livestreams where they’d say… well, nothing at all. Eventually I lost interest in consuming most anything they put out. Mass Effect: Andromeda is the opposite: I’m desperately sucking up everything, but I’m still perplexed about aspects of the game.
On paper I can see the advantage of a less-is-more approach to promoting your game, but one has to consider that this is the first Mass Effect title in several years coming from a different development team within Bioware, with many of the original trilogy’s leads either on different projects or no longer at the developer. Andromeda has a lot to prove and is a great opportunity for Bioware to do something new. Less than three months from launch I’m still unsure of what form that might take.
How Mass Effect Andromeda’s RPG systems, skills and classes work
Let’s take a look at today’s newly-released trailer, a two minute slice of gameplay shown at CES 2016 as part of an NIVIDIA livestream. After some gorgeous-looking shots of Normandy replacement Tempest coming in to land we get a glimpse of something new: skill trees, skill points! RPG stuff. Yes.
This is a side of Andromeda I’m really keen to wrap my head around. Comments in Game Informer detailed that the traditional Mass Effect class system is no more, replaced by something a little more open and free-form. I’m actually really excited about this idea. Prior to this trailer my understanding of it was simply that Ryder will start from a basic place but you’ll be able to slowly evolve him or her from an open slate into an area that more closely resembles a typical Mass Effect class.
We see a bit of this in the menus shown under the ‘profiles’ option: There are options for Soldier, Engineer, Adept, Sentinel, Vanguard, Infiltrator and Explorer. Some of these are greyed out like they haven’t yet been earned, and in the course of the video if you pause and get stuck into some frame-by-frame investigation you can see that the current Ryder is Rank 1 in Soldier, which bestows the bonuses of 10% to weapon damage, accuracy and clip size, some extra damage protection and a special class skill.
All of this sounds particularly Mass Effect, though in the video we also see the player switch from Solider directly to Engineer on the fly – and Engineer offers very different bonuses that are focused around boosting the damage of combos and tech powers specifically.
The ability to change class on the fly is something that isn’t touched on in the narration-free video, though by digging deep into past coverage you can get a little more detail.
“If I’m going into a fight where I want to be more of a typical soldier type I can switch from a biotic profile to a soldier and get some bonuses for the play-style I’m approaching that battle with.”
Leveling up awards skill points, and you spend those points on skills. Some skills are active and have to be manually activated in combat with a button press (the combat-pausing skill wheel from previous games is gone, by the way) while others are passive and just offer character bonuses – standard RPG fare. Each skill has its own simple branching upgrade tree attached – and that’ll be familiar to players of the second and third Mass Effect titles in particular.
It appears to be the case that skills will be attached to a particular profile class, so while all skills are open if you buy skills befitting of a soldier that will level up and grow the soldier profile, making it more powerful. If you buy a biotic skill, it’s going to level up the profiles that are most associated with Biotic skills, boosting their class bonuses.
This is actually pretty cool and exciting now I understand it: If I’m going into a fight where I want to be more of a typical soldier type I can switch from a biotic profile to a soldier and get some bonuses for the play-style I’m approaching that battle with. When I want to switch gears, I just switch profiles, but the skills I have and the profiles available are still determined by how I’ve spent my points gained through gathering EXP. On top of that there’s of course gear and equipment, plus skill trees for your squad mates. I’m into it.
But… I had to go digging for the better part of an hour to properly understand this, and this is my point about Mass Effect Andromeda’s marketing: this is an RPG and is just three months from release, but I had to go scouring the internet and frame-by-frame pausing this trailer in order to scoop out that information. I shouldn’t have to. (Update: A NeoGAF poster appears to have reached the same conclusions as me via similar methods.)
This video has 27 seconds of menu and RPG micromanagement footage, and the previous trailer had a few more seconds still. For such a key pillar of such a game, it isn’t much to go on.
I’m confused as to why this is. At this point in the development of other RPGs like The Witcher 3 or Dragon Age Inquisition I’d watched incredibly impressive one hour deep dive demos either online or at events, and for previous Mass Effect games I’d seen guarded but informative demos likewise.
Even if they’re trying to guard story secrets, there are ways around that: I’ll never forget the E3 bait-and-switch Bioware pulled with Mass Effect 2 where they cooly presented the destruction of the Normandy, in fact the opening of the game, as a potential game-over scenario for not preparing well enough – that got across the game’s stakes without showing footage from its suicide mission.
I’ve focused on RPG systems here, but this isn’t just about that: it’s about the game in general. The camera is awfully close to Ryder in all this footage, for instance: How’s it going to feel? After the Mako’s polarizing nature, how will the Nomad control?
These short clips we’ve seen so far aren’t enough to really know the answers to this and myriad other questions, and so while I’m excited I’m unsurprised that chatter on places like Twitter and NeoGAF remains strangely concerned and cagey about the game.
I suppose what I’m saying is that EA and Bioware really need to do a deeper-dive demo or let the press play this between now and March 21st. Fingers crossed. I’m still excited either way, but I’m probably not who Bioware needs to sell the game to – I am a fanboy optimist. Please let this game be good.