On a long drive through the wastelands in the Nomad, my passengers briefly discuss dissecting me for the sake of scientific curiosity. We get shot at. We collect the data file needed for a mission and return to the Tempest for analysis.
One of my companions pulls me aside to discuss a disagreement we had had on a previous mission. I leave him angrily tweaking a piece of equipment and then suddenly find myself flirting with one of my other companions on this crazy mission through uncharted space.
Yep. This is definitely a Mass Effect game.
Confession time: until this week, I'd been surprisingly reserved in my hopes for Mass Effect: Andromeda. It looked too different, too big a departure from a series that contains some of my favourite games ever. The trailers showed harsh new planets with plenty of things to shoot, but relatively few to actually talk to. Explore a new universe, the advertising beckoned, but I wasn't sold. I was worried that this new universe would end up like No Man's Sky -- expansive and beautiful, baiting explorers but turning up empty.
Just a few hours with the game was more than enough to change my mind.
The preview included a look at the game's prologue and first mission, and then a roam around another mission that happened a little later in the game. The second mission also came with plenty of opportunity to get lost in sidequests and conversations with all the colourful characters who fill this world.
When you start a new game you can choose either Scott or Sarah Ryder. There's a quickstart option for each that will use the default appearances, or you can delve into the customisation system to make your own Ryder. I'm pretty sure you can't change their names this time.
While we didn't get a chance to play around with the character creator (luckily, or I would have spent my entire time there) Bioware producer Fabrice Condominas assured me that you can definitely still customise your character -- and it will also affect how your family members look in game. No matter which Ryder you choose, the other will still exist in the game (a first for Bioware protagonists) and the siblings' father Alec Ryder is also present as the leader of the Pathfinders.
Similar to Dragon Age 2's system, your family's appearance will depend on the preset face you choose as the base for your character. While you can customise this face further, your family's look will be based around the preset.
Your story, like many other sci-fi narratives, begins with Ryder waking up from cryogenic sleep. I won't go into too much detail about the story, but I will say that it feels dramatically different to the trilogy.
Ryder (whichever one you choose) is your main character, and thankfully they don't feel at all like a Shepard clone. Where Shepard was an experienced soldier heading out on a (supposedly) routine mission, Ryder is an adventurer heading into the unknown. Where Shepard was defending an old world, the Pathfinders are fighting for their place in a new one.
While the entire Pathfinder team is clearly highly trained, they're also heading almost blind into a galaxy they know nothing about. The younger Ryders also come across as a little less experienced than others in the team, which is an interesting role to play.
Early on, you struggle through the challenges of making first contact with an unknown and hostile alien species, on a dangerous and unforgiving planet. You quickly learn that the usual rules don't apply here.
There is, of course, a main villain and an overarching conflict to be had in Mass Effect: Andromeda, but this time the goal for humanity is twofold: survive, and thrive. Even while you're gunning down enemies, you're looking out for advantageous positions for potential future settlements, or marking deposits of valuable minerals that will be vital to continued inhabitance.
It's a constant search for the perfect home -- while also making practical preparations in case these planets are the best there is.
The story is told through a number of different types of missions. You'll mainly be led along the central storyline: the parts that have to be completed to finish the game. There are also plenty of non-essential side quests, and even smaller events that mainly serve to add 'flavour' to the new galaxy.
Most exciting is the return of companion loyalty missions -- though apparently these will be harder to trigger than in Mass Effect 2, due to the new 'trust' system.
The Andromeda galaxy is expansive -- apparently this game is pretty big. Bioware pegs it as its biggest game ever, saying that each 'story planet' is as big as the entirety of Dragon Age: Inquisition. The story planets are exactly what they sound like -- main hubs that both add to the main storyline and have extensive plotlines of their own. Added to these are smaller planets that have large open areas for exploration and discovery.
There's also the Nexus -- the main hub of Andromeda, similar to (and designed after) the Citadel. Joining the Nexus are the four Arks, one for each race. The Hyperion is the human Ark, and is where Ryder's story starts. We also know of a turian Ark called the Parcero, and an unnamed salarian Ark. The last Ark is presumably the asari's.
The Andromeda galaxy is filled with potential 'golden worlds' -- planets that have been marked as potentially habitable for the various races on board the Initiative Arks. Each Ark has a Pathfinder who is responsible for finding and vetting these golden worlds, examining their suitability for settlement.
Last but not least of your in-game destinations, there's the Tempest -- the home base for Ryder and their team. The ship's design is reminiscent of the Normandy, though it's different enough that you'll probably get lost trying to find the galaxy map (hint: it's in the cockpit).
Your squad can be found around the ship, along with the Salarian pilot, Kallo Jath, and a human woman with an Irish accent who may be the ship's navigator. I forgot her name, but it appears to be her voice that 'narrates' the galaxy map.
You can also access multiplayer right from the Tempest -- while we didn't get a chance to try multiplayer at the demo, I did spot a 'Strike Team' interactable on a ship's console, which coincides with what we've already heard about multiplayer.
For a new galaxy, Andromeda feels remarkably lived-in. It's retained the seedy night spots and near-lawless slums that lent so much flavour to the original, some of which can be seen in the video below. You're also not alone in the new galaxy -- not by a long shot. Andromeda is home to two new sentient alien species that we know of thus far -- the cat-like angara and the antagonistic kett. You'll get to make friends or enemies with these ancestral Andromedans.
Ryder has six squadmates that we know of at this point -- though early sources pointed to there being seven. Bioware intentionally cut down on the number of squadmates in this game, but used that as an opportunity to flesh each one out more. Condominas claimed that each squad member has as much dialogue as Shepard did in previous games.
You meet and recruit Cora Harper and Liam Costa, both on the Pathfinder team, in your very first mission. They're like your Ashley and Kaidan but... better. In true Mass Effect style you then go on to recruit a very diverse team of aliens -- the asari Peebee, turian Vetra Nyx, old man krogan Nakmor Drack and mysterious angara Jaal.
Ryder is also accompanied by an AI named SAM, who rides with her/him via a neural implant. SAM's voice cuts into the gameplay often to relay mission-relevant data. I haven't decided yet whether I found him handy or irritating, though his existence in the Mass Effect world as a true AI is certainly interesting...
The relationship system -- both romantic and platonic -- has been reworked for Andromeda, along with the dialogue wheel. Unfortunately for those of you like myself who enjoy going full renegade, the renegade/paragon binary system has been scrapped in favour of a more nuanced system.
When it comes to the dialogue wheel, you will usually have a couple of options -- most conversations will give you the choice between an 'emotional' or 'logical' response, while others will let you choose either 'casual' or 'professional'. I'm not sure how I feel about this system, honestly -- there's a big difference between, say, a sad 'emotional' response and an angry 'emotional' response, and it can still be difficult to correctly anticipate the tone Ryder will respond with.
This time Ryder's personality will be taken from more than just your dialogue, however -- the game also pays attention to who you talk to and who you don't talk to, what optional side-quests you do and how you do them (one of the first scenes, for instance, tests whether you'll shoot first and ask questions later).
Your relationships with your team will be based on a new 'trust' system. Condominas warned that this new system makes it a lot harder to get all of the characters to like you at once, though apparently it's not impossible. Due to the relationships between the different characters, one of your squad mates might distrust you simply because you have the trust of a character they don't like. While I didn't really get to see this in action, it sounds tricky. And fun.
And as for romance options? "Well, we have a lot." Condominas said when I asked about love interests. "Though I won't go into the details. But we have a lot of options, not only with who you can romance, but also the type of romance. Now it's not only about love stories -- you can have one night stands if you want to, and both characters can just flirt. With who it is possible and in what combination? I don't want to spoil it."
From the sounds of it, you can also expect the romance scenes to be quite saucy. "We knew we wanted to be a mature game," Condominas revealed, "so that opens a number of doors. But even then, when some of the romance scenes came back we were like 'oh... yeah, definitely mature. But there's no going back.'"
All I know from my time with the game is that I was able to flirt with Vetra, Andromeda's lady turian. She seemed pretty into it.
The biggest way Andromeda's gameplay differs from the trilogy's is Ryder's ability to jump, with the help of a handy-dandy jet pack. This adds a more platformer-like quality to the game, with chasms to leap across and small cliffs to scale. At times it almost feels Metroid-esque, especially given some of the hostile-yet-beautiful alien environments you will have to traverse.
The jump is also a game-changer when it comes to combat. The jet pack gives you the ability to jump and hover in mid-air for a short time, giving yourself the perfect vantage point to finish off that one pesky enemy who won't come out from under cover. It feels kind of badass, although you don't want to hover for too long as Mass Effect: Andromeda is still very much a cover-based shooter.
Another big change to combat is the unlocked class system -- you no longer have to choose a class at the beginning, but rather can pick and choose abilities to build to your own specifications. Using this system you unlock 'profiles' instead, which you can dynamically switch on the fly -- for example you could swap between a vanguard profile and a sniper profile as the situation calls for. Unfortunately I didn't have much time to play with this intimidatingly in-depth spec system in the time I had with the game.
A lot of actions -- like taking cover -- feel like they should have a prompt button, but don't. It ends up feeling clumsy a lot of the time, but likely it'll just take some getting used to. Even taking ammo and health happens without a prompt: you just run up to the marked boxes and they get refilled. In contrast to this, other boxes and enemy remains that you can loot require you to hold the button to complete the action. Hopefully this is a setting that can be toggled off.
A new feature that is part of Ryder's kit is a scanner -- another element that adds to those Metroid Prime vibes. The scanner allows you to research new discoveries in the galaxy of Andromeda, whether it's a new creature or a piece of alien tech. It can also be used to search for clues in certain missions, as was demoed in an earlier video. As a big fan of Metroid Prime's scanning function, I really like this addition. It marks Ryder as more than just a soldier, making the 'explorer' part of their job of equal importance.
And of course, one of the earliest things we knew about Andromeda was that the Mako was coming back -- although it's now called the Nomad. Sections of driving in the Nomad are used for both plot missions and random exploration, and I'll be elaborating on how that relic has been revived in a later story.
The most important thing I learned from the preview was that Andromeda feels like a Mass Effect game should. It's got the world, and the characters, and even those last-ditch moments of desperation. While part of me is disappointed that we'll never be able to play as different races like you can in Dragon Age, Mass Effect has always been a series about the story of humankind and its place in the universe, and so far Andromeda is nailing that too.
The world of Mass Effect has always been immersive, and I felt the draw of Andromeda's world in the same way -- even when the session was up I wanted to stay and talk to its characters, raid its codexes and interrogate each one of my squad members in detail. I have a feeling this game is going to take up a lot of my time when it's released.
Have any questions about Mass Effect: Andromeda that weren't answered here? Let us know in the comments!