Just before Christmas, I had the opportunity to chat over the phone with Bioware producer Mike Gamble about the direction of Mass Effect: Andromeda. And while most of Andromeda's juicier systems won't be unveiled until next month, he did have some interesting bits of information.
One of the biggest changes with Andromeda has been the integration of the multiplayer. Players were encouraged, or strongly urged, to give multiplayer a go to improve their readiness rating in Mass Effect 3.
But while the co-op missions were entertaining in their own right, it was a strange decision for people who expressly want to enjoy Mass Effect alone - or gamers in remote locations who can't or don't have the option of being able to play multiplayer.
Fortunately, that won't be a problem in Andromeda.
Gamble confirmed that while Andromeda would ship with a "Strike Team" system that was a fundamental part of the multiplayer experience, progression in the multiplayer wasn't required to progress the story.
"There's a system that we use called the Strike Team system, and fundamentally it allows you to go between singleplayer and multiplayer within the game," he explained. "And it's packaged around a meta-story of what's going on in Helios."
The producer added that the multiplayer would feed into a deeper meta-story. The meta-story can be finished without playing multiplayer at all, but Gamble said "it's pretty seamless" to switch between the singleplayer and multiplayer.
When I pressed further, he told me the transition wasn't instantaneous - but you also won't have to quit out to the main menu, like you did with Mass Effect 3. "I can tell you that there's a loading screen - it's not entirely seamless - but it won't require you to stop your game and restart in a different mode. Because narratively it's all connected, it makes a lot of sense."
With Andromeda only a few months away, I couldn't help but ask: why wait until 2016 was practically over to start revealing details, let alone footage? Was Bioware influenced by what happened with other games - say, No Man's Sky, or the way Fallout was marketed?
"We could have started talking about the game and showed a lot more a lot earlier, but it was a choice not to," Gamble said. "And you mention games like Fallout, we really respect that way of showing things where you stay relatively quiet and then you're able to surprise and delight players with a whole bunch of information in a short time."
It makes sense given how much noise there was this year: virtual reality, the release of new consoles, the reveal of other consoles, controversies, and everything in between. Waiting until 2016 is done gives Bioware a lot of fresh air.
Take January. There's nothing major scheduled for release, and if you take the Nintendo Switch's presentation on January 13 out of the picture it's basically free reign for Andromeda. (It's also a month the series has occupied before, with Mass Effect 2 launching in January 2010.)
Gamble also provided a few details about how Andromeda would play on PC. The first major one: the game will ship with an unlocked frame rate and support for ultrawide screen monitors, which should please anyone who's converted to a 21:9 world. The developer is targeting day 1 drivers out for Andromeda - Gamble didn't specifically say AMD or NVIDIA, but he said Bioware had been working with "some of the manufacturers" on a couple of things.
Given that there really only two manufacturers in the business - AMD and NVIDIA - it's interesting that Gamble didn't just expressly mention them by name. It's something to keep an eye on in the coming months, however, especially if Andromeda has any launch issues with drivers like several games in 2016 did.
There won't be any official support for mods with Andromeda either, although Gamble remarked that "as we see the reaction to these things those plans can change very quickly". Given the good work the modding community did with the original Mass Effect trilogy - the high-res texture packs are just one of many things that come to mind, not to mention all the mods for Bioware games of old - I wouldn't be surprised if there was movement on this later this year, although it could be a case where Bioware offers their tacit approval without releasing an official toolkit.
Something else worth noting: Andromeda won't have dedicated servers for multiplayer. That's not a huge surprise given the type of game Mass Effect is, but it could be a sticking point for those who want to dive deep into the game's multiplayer - especially if Andromeda ends up having some form of a competitive mode, as opposed to the wave-based, co-operative offering in ME3.
Perhaps the other interesting tidbit from our chat was how Bioware is shelling out Andromeda's worlds. Mass Effect has always relied on the creation of lively environments, from characters interacting on the deck of the Normandy, the political chatter around the Citadel or the bustling spaceports through the universe. But the environments have always been fixed - there's plenty to discover, but it's never been an open-world.
Andromeda is - at least in parts. Players will be able to explore planets on foot or on wheels, and Gamble told me there would be a variety of little adventures - not necessarily quest-related - for people to uncover.
"We have designers going throughout these open worlds and placing small little adventures, small little bits of narrative and visual story telling that we hope the players will explore to find," he explained. "They're not career path stuff, they're not even usually side quest stuff, they're little self-contained things. They're for the folks who want to go every square meter of a planet, they're going to get a lot of enjoyment about that.
"You'll see like a couple chrome corpses, a couple ... corpses, you'll look around that area, pull your scanner up, you'll find out that, 'Oh shit, something bad happened here' and that was the result of that firefight is and this is why they did that. Maybe it'll point you to somewhere else on the planet; maybe it'll just end there. But we have those kind of things and we hope that players really enjoy those."
We'll hear more about what Andromeda is doing next month, both from Bioware and as people get invited into the multiplayer.