From Valkyria Chronicles to Gears of War to Dishonored, the last console generation gave me a bunch of new game franchises I seriously got into, but none captured my imagination quite like Mass Effect. Hitting a perfect sweet spot somewhere between Star Trek, Farscape, and Firefly with hints of my favorite military sci-fi, Mass Effect really felt like my own adventure–my crew, my mission, my terrible dancing skills.
Yes, I even liked ME3's ending–we'll talk about that another time
After a five-year break, Mass Effect is coming back–or rather, boldly going in a new direction, all the way to a new galaxy with new aliens, new threats, and new mysteries to uncover in Mass Effect: Andromeda. While the story starts during Mass Effect 2, it picks up 600 years later as the frozen-in-cryosleep crew of a human ark ship has made its way to the Andromeda Galaxy, seeking out a new home for humanity. I was lucky enough to get an early chance to play Mass Effect: Andromeda at EA's Redwood City headquarters, and I was surprised at how much changed, even while so much stayed familiar.
For starters, we watched some folks from BioWare guide us through the world of Andromeda and what we could expect to see, telling us about the new worlds, characters, and dangers we'd be facing. Character creation options are much more in-depth this time around, with more cosmetic options thanks to the Ryders' non-military background, and better, more varied skintone and hair options. Shepard had to keep his/her hair in line with regs–Scott and Sara can go with a matching blue undercuts for the full '80s sci-fi anime experience. Instead of codes, you're able to save your uniquely-created characters and upload them directly. Of course, you can choose to play as a male or female character, and you can customize your twin to the level you customize your playable character.
Classes from the previous games return, albeit slightly retooled to match the "explorer" feel of Andromeda. Soldiers are now "Security," Sentinels are now "Leaders," and there are new classes like the "Scrapper," a frontline fighter who gets bonuses to melee weapons (seeing the words "krogan hammer" in my inventory have never made me happier). Andromeda is also moving away from the Paragon/Renegade system with the new "Tone Wheel," going in an almost Dragon Age-like direction with character-building through dialogue. Ryder can give Emotional, Logical, Casual, or Professional responses (QTE interrupts also return, building the "Impulsive" trait), and your responses determine your reputation over time.
After watching Ryder get awoken from cryosleep, the ark ship gets caught on a massive obstruction in space–and the "garden world" we're supposed to land on doesn't look particularly welcoming. We watch Ryder help fix a busted conduit with the new Omni-Tool scanner, a tool you'll end up using a lot in your time playing the game–it's essential to your progress. The menu's the same–your Journal, your Codex, a massive skill tree for characters to develop in–and once the crew headed down to the planet, we were finally given the chance to try Andromeda for ourselves.
It's strange to say, but Andromeda feels a lot like the original Mass Effect, and that's not a bad thing. There's a greater focus on exploration, on scanning as many things as you can, building up resources that you'll later use for crafting and upgrading equipment. The built-in thrusters on your suit now allow for jumping and dashing, giving you more options for traversal and letting you explore greater heights, or safely descend to see what's down low. When the planet's not-too-friendly residents attack, everything's familiar, with one major change: you no longer hit a button to get into cover. Much like ME1, you just run up to cover, and it works quite a bit better for the feel of this game. Dashes and jumping let you quickly take control of each individual battle, claiming high ground or zig-zagging to get close.
Once I finished the first mission, I was skipped ahead a ways into the story, this time checking out a busy port city and investigating the location of an enemy ship. I'm supposed to negotiate with an infamous resistance leader to get a chance to talk to a prisoner in her custody–playing nice with her, she gives me access to him, and I immediately switch gears and play hardball with the prisoner. He gives up the info, revealing the location of a datapad full of information that he hid. We make our way out to the Badlands just outside of the port city, and I'm given a chance to explore on my own.
The new ground vehicle "Nomad" is a nice callback to the original Mako–not only is it faster, but it can drift, and can change from 4WD to 6WD to navigate insane terrain. Off the beaten path, I immediately run into a massive alien monolith with a central console, similar to Prothean architecture of the original trilogy. Scanning it reveals paths I have to follow, giving me pieces to a puzzle, and once I get those pieces, I have to solve a pretty simple randoku board (get the wrong answer like I did, and it triggers an enemy attack). These monoliths dot the landscape of this planet, and activating all of them will have unique repercussions on the planet's ecosystem–and there are more on other planets. I head back onto the main path, getting attacked by bandits and pirates every few minutes, and I even stop to fight some local wildlife (and scanning all their corpses). Eventually, I locate the datapad and gain access to the enemy ship.
Once on-board, I try to sneak around before I set off a (scripted) alarm, being forced into a running, multi-level gunfight and forcing my way through several ambushes. The last of these was no joke–apparently I took on at least one of each of this race's enemy types in this fight, saving the best (worst?) for last: a biotic-of-sorts protected by a powerful forcefield, with an orbiting drone that could channel the field into huge AOE attacks. Playing a biotic for this demo, I took advantage of the now-easily-identified combo attacks, divided into setup and finisher moves, which you can pull off yourself or set up through your teammates. The amount of verticality is nice–instead of literally having to run complete circles around a room to get into position or kite enemies, you're encouraged to simply hop down a level and leave a trap for them, or take the high ground and shower them with bullets. The action is satisfyingly fast, frantic, and can't be survived on brute force alone (although I certainly tried).
I ended up staying a little longer than I was allowed (EA was very nice to me, and people were watching me John Wick my way through that last fight), but once that was over I had to pack it up and say goodbye to Andromeda until the game's actually out on March 21. I really enjoyed my time with the game, and I can't wait to get my hands on the full release–I and a few friends of mine have asked for time off. We know what's up.
Are you looking forward to Mass Effect: Andromeda? From what we've learned so far, what seems most interesting to you? And what were your favorite moments from the original trilogy? Sound off in the comments and let us know!
Nate Ming is the Features and Reviews Editor for Crunchyroll News, creator of the long-running Fanart Friday column, and the Customer Support Lead for Crunchyroll. You can follow him on Twitter at @NateMing.