A quick trip to Andromeda leaves us relieved. Things are looking up!
“Andromeda has the attitude and aesthetic of Mass Effect, the story and character execution of Mass Effect 2 and the combat of Mass Effect 3.”
I love Mass Effect. I was crazy enough to nab 100% achievements on all three games in the original trilogy and logged an impressive number of hours into its multiplayer. But I’ve been worried about Mass Effect Andromeda. EA hasn’t shown it much. It’s been quiet.
One side of that is to view it as a show of confidence, the sort of minimalist PR positioning that Bethesda managed with Fallout 4. Announce the game, release it. Don’t worry about that preview hands-on guff in between. There is key difference, mind – Fallout 4 debuted with an hour of stage demos before disappearing until launch. Why that worked is obvious. Andromeda has instead largely shown short story trailers that show cinematic flair with little context, and that filled me with trepidation. Was there something to hide? Well, now I’ve played it. I feel better. In fact, I’m pumped.
Let’s get the big, important stuff out of the way at the top: what I played. EA set us up at the start of the game on a high-end PC with either keyboard and mouse or controller input available. Because Mass Effect has a rocky history with PC controls I figured it important to note the game was good about switching between KB/M and controller on the fly, and both seemed perfectly valid. We got to play the very opening of the game through to the end of the opening mission, then could boot up saves from later in the game (around four main story missions in, I’m told) to experience some more open areas and missions not covered with tutorial assistance.
For the record: This preview will deal in basic information about the flow of what I played, but I won’t talk about any detailed story-specific spoiler information.
Part of Andromeda’s mission is to pull what its developers perceive to be the strengths from each of the main Mass Effect games and put them into one definitive package. I’m not quite sure how this breaks down for them, but I get the impression that means the attitude and aesthetic of Mass Effect, the story and character execution of Mass Effect 2 and the combat of Mass Effect 3. This is the feeling Andromeda gives to a series fan: there’s a slice of each of these on offer, the most immediately exciting to me being the return of the general ‘feel’ (a nebulous concept, I know) of the first game in the series.
The nature of the clean break the game takes is obvious even in its opening crawl. A brief story-establishing stinger is followed by the series traditional introductory text, but that’s followed by a title: Andromeda. The words Mass Effect do appear, fading up, but the emphasis is on the game’s subtitle. It feels, I thought, like a new IP.
It’s perhaps thanks to that that the intro feels similar to the opener for this franchise. Where the sequels relied heavily on established events to catapult you into an explosive opener, Andromeda is forced to give the player time to breathe for a few moments. There’s time to look around and enjoy the sights, a chance to talk to the people on your ship and read optional text scattered about as you’re funneled to an urgent mission.
Almost immediately the game encourages you to meander off the beaten path. The very first objective the game gives you comes with an optional alternative, and there are plenty of characters around to chat to, such as future squadmates and the ship’s Doctor, an Asari. I have limited time and EA encourages us to not stop and speak to everyone as “it could take you ages”. So while I can’t comment on the depth exactly, it certainly feels like there’s a lot of optional world-building conversation and context to soak up compared to Mass Effect 3’s more linear journey.
“Combat doesn’t quite feel as crisp as something like Gears of War, but it feels a damn sight better than past Mass Effect.”
What follows is a trip down to a planet that has an amazing tone of discovery as you burn through the atmosphere, and then a first mission that has shades of Mass Effect’s Eden Prime – but longer, broader in scope and with entirely optional content. The planet is easily identifiable thanks to its frequent and deadly thunder storms and floating rock formations – it’s hardly a second earth.
At one point in the opener papa Ryder chastises me for not exploring enough, noting that I’d have discovered the same things he did if I’d taken my time and paid attention. A vocal cue had tried to push me towards an optional structure which I elected to ignore due to time constraints, but the space the first mission takes place in seemed pretty significant.
After a smartly-designed first-contact encounter with alien species you’re treated to combat – and this is where Andromeda feels most like the third game. The core of Andromeda’s team worked on Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer and you can tell: it feels like it was built to deliver a snappier version of that experience, and that comes complete with streamlining of the number of actions you can use and the removal of the full powers wheel for a loadout-based power-select system. Only time is going to tell how good this stuff is from an RPG perspective (though the character progression menus showed promise, I feel), but it felt good to move and shoot.
The most significant and best new addition is the booster jet that let you jump and dash at will. This adds a whole new layer to combat, though the same basic cover-based flow remains too. Boosting and then hovering to fire over cover to hit a cowering enemy feels great in particular. EXP is now enemy and encounter based as well as action based more like the first game also, so you can level up mid-mission. Combat doesn’t quite feel as crisp as something like Gears of War, but it feels a damn sight better than past Mass Effect. The jump jets are incredibly fun to use.
There is one aspect of combat that felt clunky: cover. Cover is no longer a snap-in, snap-out system, but is something your character will dynamically hunker to as appropriate. The theory is that this makes more objects viable pieces of cover, but it made me often unsure of how safe I was from enemy fire. I don’t know if it’ll continue to feel clunky or get better as I get used to it but I hope it’s the latter, since the rest of combat feels pretty damn slick.
In the latter half of the demo when I get my hands on some biotics in a sentinel-style class build I was a happy chap indeed. Some might be worried about the fact the powers wheel is gone, but given the game makes it pretty easy to switch between different ‘profiles’ built out of different skill-sets on the fly I’m now feeling much less concerned: it all seems by design. Oh, and PC players rejoice – you’ll have much easier access anyway with full skill hotkey action.
“The smallest Andromeda zone is larger than all of Dragon Age Inquisition. The squad mate with the least lines in Andromeda still has more than Shepard in Mass Effect 3.”
Also in the ‘feels pretty good’ category sits the Nomad, the replacement for Mass Effect’s infamous Mako. I don’t have much to say about this one other than that it actually controls like a good-feeling video game vehicle rather than an all-over-the-place mess. In a cute touch it has two modes – a rear wheel drive mode that’s focused on speed and a much slower all wheel drive mode that’ll allow you to get at least some of that classic climbing up an almost vertical incline Mako action… if that’s your thing.
The Nomad is key since the environments are massive. A fact repeated by Bioware repeatedly is that the smallest Andromeda zone is larger than all of Dragon Age Inquisition. This is insane, obviously, but there’s an economy of scale involved: the nomad moves a lot faster than a horse, and so the game is larger to make up for it. It does offer a great sense of discovery all the same, with impressive vistas showcasing just how good EA and DICE’s Frostbite engine is, as if we needed more proof after Battlefield 1. It’s certainly one of the best in the business.
Less impressive are the faces, which as with the previous trilogy often have something strangely uncanny about them. One imagines this has something to do with the sheer amount of facial animation needed for the game (another Bioware factoid was that the squad mate with the least lines in Andromeda still has more than Shepard in ME3), and fans of Bioware’s games are no doubt a little used to that facial jank by now, but it still bears mentioning. Generally speaking I think the game is visually striking, however.
This preview is going on quite a way, and each extra word is probably just a deeper indication of my Mass Effect fandom. I very much wanted this game to be good, and so after months of feeling nervous as all hell about the game’s quality it’s incredibly reassuring to be able to report that it seems like everything is going the right way. Some of the little foibles and quirks of old Mass Effect somehow persist, but things like dodgy facial animation didn’t hold those games back from greatness either.
Much now hinges on how the game grows: a few hours is not long enough to get a true feel for the story, nor is it long enough to truly understand how its RPG systems will grow and expand combat. These are questions we’ll be able to answer in a month’s time when the game arrives, but for now: I’m stupidly excited again. This is a strong start, and I really hope Bioware stick the landing.