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Five hours with Mass Effect Andromeda

The scifi RPG's return is looking good

It’s been five years since BioWare released the final part to their Mass Effect trilogy. Five years of very little information dispersed between huge fan anticipation and speculation. The ending to the trilogy meant a sequel was unlikely, and a prequel was rumoured for a while, but instead Mass Effect Andromeda [official site] has shaken off the shackles of the trilogy’s narrative by setting itself 634 years in the future and in the new galaxy of Andromeda.

After five hours of playing both the first mission and the fourth mission (which takes place roughly 3 hours into the game) of a preview build of Andromeda I’m able to share my experience.

Sometime between the second and third Mass Effect games a group of “powerful people” put forward the Andromeda Project. The Andromeda galaxy was identified as having the most habitable planets for the four races involved with the project (humans, turians, asari and salarians), and four arcs were sent out, each with 20,000 individuals onboard and kept in stasis. As you might expect not everything goes to plan upon arrival as you’re faced with a strange dark energy known as “The Scourge” as well alien politics, power plays, wars and mutinies.

From what I played there was a couple of references for fans of the original trilogy (I won’t mention them directly as they’re best discovered on their own) but because of the isolation of the setting, there were no direct narrative links. However, when creating your character it does ask you to select the gender of the “legendary Commander Shepard” (the protagonist from the original trilogy). It is likely then that Shepard will be referenced, but probably not a huge amount as there is no way of inputting decisions made in the previous games.

Andromeda is all about exploration. You play as the Pathfinder, whose job it is to find a new place for humanity. Your ship, the Tempest, is therefore not equipped with weapons, as you’re charged with gathering information and pushing the boundaries of knowledge. The environments you visit on your journey can be vast. One planet can have a map larger than the entirety of the Dragon Age: Inquisition map, which immediately rang alarm bells for me as my patience for huge, open but ultimately empty worlds is wearing thin. However, we were told that this Andromeda is definitely not a sandbox game. That because you have the Nomad (the vehicle you use to explore planets) and will usually have a specific goal, mindless travelling is never necessary.

I spoke to Fabrice Condominas, a producer at BioWare, he talked about the difficulties of dealing with huge environments and retaining player interest. "We tried a lot of things and failed in a lot of different ways in development! So at the end the decision we made for this game was to say, we have those huge spaces but we're not going to randomly generate anything. Everything we're going to make will be memorable, hand-crafted and placed, and have a narrative impact even if it's a very small thing. Can you drive 50 minutes without encountering anything? We're trying to avoid that, but because of the nature of what we're doing, I can't promise it won't happen. That being said, if it does happen as a player you will know it, because it means as a player you're going to a part where we don't promise you anything. Our hope is that you never have to hit an invisible wall because you keep finding something interesting."

As well as geographical exploration there is a lot of focus being put on cultural and linguistic exploration. Condominas was keen to reinforce the point that this cultural side was “part of every aspect of development.” The environments are apparently designed with the cultural and biological needs of their inhabitants in mind. "For example the shape of a room and the material used will change depending on how we talk and communicate," he continued. "So you have to take that into account. Do they have voices? If they have voices how do they work? I could go on for hours!”

These ideas of anthropology and cultural examination are hugely important to the developers. When I enquired as to why the players will be experiencing the universe through the eyes of a human again he gave an interesting and well considered response. "Very simple. First, one of the main themes of the Mass Effect franchise is the place of humanity. And that has always been central. The second part is, is that there is one thing we're totally sure of, our players are humans. Which means if we put them in the type of game we're building, based on emotional bonding and relationships, if we ask them to make a decision for another race, we're building anthropomorphism, and we're not interested in that. We don't want anybody to pretend that they know what a krogan thinks. That's based on anthropology, we don't know that the other people think."

Now that all sounds fascinating on paper. BioWare seem keen to show that in Andromeda we are very much the weaker newcomers trying to find a place in an existing order. During the preview they made it clear that this was not meant to be a metaphor for colonisation (although it is inevitable, and possibly rightly so, that comparisons will be drawn). They stress that this is a galaxy that evolved separate to our own so not only are we the new arrivals, we are entirely alien to them, as they are to us. The two new races shown to us in the preview and in trailers are the kett and the angara. Both are bipedal and fairly humanoid in the grand scheme of things. This is where some of my initial worries lie. We’ve only seen these two races so it is still possible that BioWare have a few more slightly unexpected intelligent lifeforms up their sleeves. However, it would be disappointing if this new galaxy is populated by aliens with two arms, two legs and two eyes. The jellyfish-like hanar and slow four-legged elcor from the trilogy prove that an alien does not need to be humanoid for players to form a connection.

We’ve learnt a little bit about the kett and angara. I will be keeping this vague - don’t want to spoil the initial knowledge building for players. The kett are destructive, angry and not particularly friendly - expect to be shooting at them a lot. The angara seem to have a little bit more to them, living in large close-knit familial groups with spirituality being passed on by parents to their offspring.

Despite having some concerns as to the variety of races what I did see was all very well realised. It is apparent that a lot of time, effort and research has gone into making a credible world. Condominas stressed this, "The key point is that with Mass Effect as a franchise, we've never wanted to be realistic, but we have always wanted to be credible, and this is a very important notion and to achieve that it does absolutely require real scientific input. For example we were at the European Space Agency 2 years ago, and so there’s a scene where Ryder [Andromeda’s protagonist] breaks their helmet and repairs it with the omni-tool and when I showed that scene someone in the room said 'Oh I'm working on that!' and it took me several seconds to realise he wasn't joking."

Of course BioWare are aware of the main reason their games are so popular: the characters. Despite having relatively little time with them in the preview, I am interested and want to spend more time with the cast of Andromeda. Not only do your party members (those who join you on missions and can handle a weapon) feel well written and fleshed out, the rest of your crew have received the same attention. While your non-combat crew mates (the pilots, scientists, engineers and doctors) were very much secondary characters in previous games this time it feels like just as much attention has been lavished upon them by BioWare’s writers. Your crew interact with each other over the intercom, and have a real sense of presence in the world rather than being a thing that appears only when you’re nearby.

Dialogue options are not displayed by what you will say but by the tone. It feels natural to use and eliminates those moments of “oh no, I didn’t know they would say it like that” after choosing an unexpected dialogue choices like in the older games. Your options now include emotional, logical, casual and professional. As well as the dialogue being a smoother experience, the relationships between the characters and Ryder are a lot more nuanced. The simplistic moral gauge of paragon and renegade used in the previous games has been thrown away. It seems that this time it’s just the case that not everyone on your team will like everything you do. It’s going to be impossible or incredibly difficult to make everyone respect you, because no matter how charismatic you are, your decisions will inevitably alienate some people.

Condominas spoke about how romance and relationships in Andromeda will involve more variety and shades of grey. “We know what type of character and personalities we want and we want you to interact with and we want you to have the choice to become, and we build from there. Whatever the nature of the relationship it has to be a natural conclusion of what the character is." There is a whole section of the menu dedicated to your crew and detailing your relationship with each one, allowing you to keep track of where you stand. To demand a section of the menu means that relationships are a huge focus in Andromeda.

While the characters and story have been kept relatively secret by BioWare, they have shown a lot of combat in the gameplay trailers. The combat is based off the system in Mass Effect 3, with a few little tweaks to keep things slicker and more malleable. You aren’t stuck to a class this time around, instead you can choose to develop whatever skills you fancy and map them to be used in combat. You can save your favourite combinations of skills and abilities so you can switch between different set ups mid-battle. One addition that actually makes a big difference is the ability to jump and hover using a jetpack. This adds a different dimension to firefights as you can spring upwards out of cover, throw some grenades and quickly pop back down again. You cannot control your two teammates as you can in the Dragon Age series, but you can tell them where to go using the D-pad much like the original trilogy. I enjoyed my time with the combat, much as I did in Mass Effect 3, and the added extras mean there looks to be more flexibility than before.

The environments look gorgeous but the preview build suffered from something that haunts many BioWare games: the character models and animations were awkward and could often be jarring. After a few natural and engaging conversations with my crew they would spin around a bit and then quickly sprint a few steps in order to get back into their previous position. With the huge amount of dialogue and variables, some of this is to be expected but excellent writing and characterisation was let down by the awkward faces and movements.

I went into the Andromeda preview feeling trepidatious. I came out excited and anxious to play more. Most important is that it feels like Mass Effect, and it looks like it's building on the best aspects of the previous games. Speaking with Condominas, it's clear this is their aim. "The trilogy had a narrative constraint, but when we start from scratch, when we don't have that story anymore, our first reflex was to say 'what are the best elements of all three games that we can bring and put together'. So obviously the exploration, the Nomad, all those notions are from Mass Effect 1; the loyalty missions from Mass Effect 2 and the character bonding; and the more action based gameplay of Mass Effect 3. We tried to bring all that together. But they were three different games, suddenly having to balance that into a single game... It takes five years."

Mass Effect Andromeda is due for release on March 21st 2017.

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