Space is still very much the final frontier for many. There are those of us who still gaze at the stars and try to imagine the wonders and/or terrors that might be awaiting us when we take our first steps into the unknown, beyond the confines of our own solar system. Games that let us explore this great and mysterious expanse have long held our collective attention, and those that do it with style and purpose tend to go down well. The original Mass Effect trilogy is a pertinent case in point.
In that vein, Mass Effect: Andromeda takes the advanced space-faring species from our own Milky Way, and has them heading off into the unknown, in this case making a perilous journey to our nearest galactic neighbours in Andromeda. This new action-RPG from Bioware is built around the theme of exploration, and it's clear that its creators crave a return to the same essence - the feeling of discovery - that made the first game so special.
"We wanted to get back to that feeling of space opera," producer Fabrice Condominas told us after we'd gone hands-on with Andromeda for the first time at EA's UK office. To do this the studio is focusing once again on not just the wider narrative, but also on the characters that bring that story to life. Here most of the people you encounter will have a shared spirit of adventure, each one with their own reasons for leaving their old home and embarking on a 600-year journey to a new, unknown galaxy. This is very much a one way trip, and to make matters worse the locals mightn't be too happy to see us. After all, in Andromeda, we're the alien threat.
You might think that playing a part in this mass migration, and seeking out a new home on already populated worlds, would have Andromeda drawing parallels to our own history of colonisation (and it might still, but given Bioware's focus on equality and diversity over the years, we imagine any discussion of those themes will be delicately done), but Condominas was quick to stress that this isn't the case, pointing out that in Andromeda we're heading into situations where we're not the most advanced or even most powerful force. Once inside this new galaxy, humanity and its allies set out to explore the worlds found inside the Heleus Cluster, our starting point and playground in this first adventure.
To keep the game credible Bioware has been consulting with the European Space Agency. This might be science fiction, but effort has gone into keeping things plausible, and it needs to be if we're going to be taken along for a ride through a world that Bioware claims to be their biggest ever (to give you an idea of scale, some planets are, by themselves, bigger than the whole of Dragon Age: Inquisition). The Heleus Cluster is full of places to explore, including a number of story planets. These will contain quests connected to the critical path, plus a bunch of side-missions to tackle for those who want to venture off the beaten track. On top of that, players can tackle loyalty missions - these tie into the new loyalty system - whereby your crew will come to respect you, or not as the case may be. Apparently it's going to be hard to keep everyone happy, which points to some potentially tricky decisions that'll have to be made in your role as Pathfinder.
You might make some people unhappy, but you might also turn a few frowns upside down, this thanks to more complicated and nuanced relationships that can be established with your crew. This is Bioware, so you know there's going to liberal amounts of bonking for those inclined, but the studio has taken things further here by adding in different types of intimate interactions, from gentle flirting to full-on romances and even one-night stands. Most of these interactions will take place aboard The Tempest, your home-from-home amongst these uncharted stars. In terms of the ship, there are some key differences when compared to The Normandy, most notably it's a lot smaller. It's here, in-between missions, that you'll spend time building relationships with your colleagues and taking care of business.
There are various terminals on the ship that let you access different aspects of the game. The most obvious is the star map, which lets you guide the ship around the cluster, scanning planets and the like. You can head elsewhere to chat with your crew, who in classic Bioware style have their own little corner of the ship that you can visit. There are other terminals that, for example, link to the multiplayer portion of the game, and there's a meeting room where you and the team discuss the events that transpire during your adventures. While we're on the subject of multiplayer; it survives from the third game, although unlike ME3 it's not linked to your progress, at least not in the same way as it was. We didn't get to play MP, though. Instead we were treated to two missions: one from the very start of the game, the other set a few hours into the story.
Unlike the ME Trilogy, where you chose either a male or female Shepard, Andromeda's leading characters are siblings, and the one you don't choose will feature in the story at some point. It starts with your chosen character - Scott or Sarah Ryder - waking from cryosleep. It's a rude awakening (that's not dissimilar to the opening of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), and it leads to a mission down on the surface of a planet that's earmarked as a potential "New Earth". This wouldn't be much of an adventure if our explorers settled this new rock without any issue, and sure enough the planet is surrounded by dark matter. The Ark Hyperion, which is transporting some 20,000 humans to their new home, gets caught up in this web of black coral-like energy (or whatever it is, we didn't have time to find out for sure), and the Pathfinder and his crew descends to the surface to find out what's going on and to make contact with anyone - or any thing - they find there.
As you can probably imagine, it's not long before weapons are drawn and things get violent. Clearly a peace introduction isn't going to be an option here. We meet a new enemy, the Kett, a strange-looking bipedal species with bone in places where we have skin. Bioware has tried to make combat "way more accessible" in Andromeda, this via improved physics and added verticality from a new jump mechanic. You can boost into the air as often as you like, but beware, enemies can jump too.
Straight away the combat in Andromeda felt both familiar and new. Ryder automatically hugs cover as soon as he/she approaches something suitable. The guns - and it looks like there is going to be a few of them - feel like they have plenty of pop as well. In later encounters we were able to use biotics to further expand our tactical options, hoisting enemies into the air and making easy targets of them, or using "charge" to dash into other enemies at warp speed. Your biotic powers, as well as Ryder's various combat abilities, can be combined in different ways, and we're looking forward to experimenting with them in the final game.
The unlimited boost further facilitates combat variation and opens up new gameplay possibilities, and when coupled with a dash it's easy to move up to different levels or cross open spaces at speed (there's also biotic powers that help on this front too). As with previous Mass Effects, you can take a couple of characters into battle with you, and using the d-pad you issue orders and can have them provide defensive cover or hold a bottleneck while you deal with a threat coming from a different direction.
Our initial impression after advancing through the first mission, the details and conclusion of which we'll not spoil, was hugely positive. The environments we explored looked fantastic, and the setting was interesting thanks to visual effects that were tied to the story. The characters looked great too, with impressive visual fidelity on show, although the eyes - something that Bioware has always struggled with - still look a little empty or unnatural at times. It's a minor gripe, though, and aside from a few bugs (they repeatedly stressed that this wasn't the final build) it's shaping up very nicely indeed.
The second mission had us on a different planet, this time looking for a spy. We were given access to a Level 15 Ryder (we played as Sarah in the first mission, and Scott in the second), and the save file said that the game was 9% complete and the result of three hours of play (admittedly it was played by someone who knew what they were doing, so perhaps don't read too much into that). This part of the game kicked off in Kadara Market, a facility set in a mountainous world and a haven for Nexus exiles and pirates. We didn't have a lot of time to explore the backstory, but we got the impression that not everything had gone swimmingly since our arrival in Andromeda, and that the galactic expedition had fractured somewhat, creating new factions with different motivations.
The planet we're on is plagued by toxic water, stopping it from being a more suitable rock to settle. Well, that and the fact that a species - the Angarans - already lives there. We're immersed in the local politics straight away, picking up quests from both sides of the divide. There's the Collective, a piratical organisation unofficially at odds with and the Outcasts, a faction run by the Charlatan (a faceless character who's mysterious nature reminded us a little of The Shadow Broker who some will remember from the original trilogy). It looks like you can sign up with either side, depending on your preferences and the decisions you make.
It was during the second mission that we got to grips with the Nomad, our new-look Mako. The vehicle handled pretty well for the most part, but it struggled to climb rockier terrain and, at times, it felt a little lightweight (for example, one creature - an acid-spitting Rylkor - managed to flip it with a single swipe of its tail). There is a boost to help you push over tricky inclines, you can make the vehicle hop, and there's two tyre types that you can switch between with ease depending on where you are. There are also forward station points marked on the map, and you can call in the Nomad from these locations once you've scouted them. Getting in your all-terrain ride is easy, but alas there's no animation for the action, and instead your view cuts instantly from third-person to a camera positioned behind the vehicle.
After we'd wrapped up the main mission (again, we'll not spoil it) we started talking to the locals and picking up side-quests. Some of them were great, such as one that had us solving a series of murders. Ryder has a scanner that he/she can use to investigate objects in the words, using it - a little like Geralt's witcher sense or Batman's detective vision - to analyse clues found in the environment. Doing this, and following a fairly obvious trail of breadcrumbs, saw us eventually track down the killer and engage in another ferocious gun battle.
Along the way we met and talked to plenty of NPC characters. The dialogue options work as you'd expect, but there's an extra dash a comedy here that ensured the tone felt slightly lighter than that of the first trilogy. It didn't help that the voice actor playing Scott (Tom Taylorson) sounds a little like Nolan North, which makes things sound more sarcastic - almost Drake-like - than they're perhaps intended. There is, however, plenty of irony in the script, such as one moment when we stumbled over a couple of people looting a dead body, and with a straight face, seconds after doing it ourselves, we told them that "looting is wrong". No shit.
During our hands-on session we also spent plenty of time investigating the various options hidden away in the menus. There's a lot to unlock and various ways of progressing Ryder and the wider expedition. Earning Andromeda Viability Points (AVP) leads to perks that help level up the Nexus with helpful specialists. There are also three types of research points that can be spent across three different tech trees: Milky Way, Heleus, and Remnant. You can develop weapons based on the different tech trees, unlocking blueprints via research and then crafting them in the development menu. New items, which you can customise with multiple attachments, can then be equipped as you prep for each mission.
Bioware are calling this an open-ended class system, and they want it to be more flexible than ME3. All skills can be unlocked regardless of which way you want to shape your Ryder (although some gating applies), but you can focus in a certain area if you prefer. As you unlock more skills of a particular type - combat focused abilities for example - new profiles are unlocked that you can then switch between on the fly depending on the situation you're faced with. As you level up you can upgrade weapons, tech, and biotic powers, mixing things up between new skills and passive abilities.
All in all there was a lot to take in, and we've barely scratched the surface of what Mass Effect: Andromeda has to offer. Our only concern at this stage is with regards to overall polish, as there was a lot of bugs to contend with, but the game itself is content complete and Bioware has until March 23 to fix as many as they can (we predict a chunky day one patch). Here's hoping they can iron out all the major kinks ahead of next month's launch, because everything else we saw had us thoroughly impressed. Ahead of our hands-on we'd been nervous about the relative secrecy surrounding the project, worrying that Andromeda might not live up to the extremely high standards set by the studio's past works. After having played it for nearly four hours, it looks like our concerns were unfounded.