Ryders on the Storm.
My fondest memory of the Mass Effect series is a conversation I had with Thane Krios. In a quiet corner of the Normandy's Crew Quarters he explained that his species, the Drell, believe their souls exist as separate entities from their physical bodies. For Thane, this belief allowed him to reconcile his nature as a virtuous figure with his profession as an assassin for hire; the deplorable actions of his body could not tarnish the purity of his soul. The Mass Effect series is about intergalactic politicking, mediating interspecies relationships, navigating moral dilemmas, and--of course--engaging in warfare. But it's the moments in which characters reveal something deeply personal about themselves that are the most profound.
I've always been fascinated with the series' depictions of religion, the way it leans on frameworks of faith that have parallels in real life but then creates a layer of abstraction by exploring them through alien species or relating them to existence on an intergalactic scale. These are the moments that stick with me, and in my hands-on with Mass Effect: Andromeda, it was a moment like this that I walked away thinking about the most.
Andromeda follows thousands of people from numerous species as they venture from the Milky Way galaxy to a distant world in search of a new home. For these characters, and the player, Andromeda is positioned as a journey of exploration and discovery. From a broader gameplay perspective, it's the discovery of new planets to adventure in, quest threads to follow, decisions to make, and conflicts to resolve--either through diplomacy or violence. But the theme of discovery also drives the narrative arcs of Andromeda's cast, all of whom are hoping to find something beyond a new home.
Aboard the Tempest--the ship that players will use to travel around Andromeda's Helius Cluster--I encountered one such person: Suvi. She's staring out into the the depths of space and admiring the view. To her, the distant stars and majestic planetary bodies are "a constant reminder of the divine intelligence behind all of creation."
Like Thane, Suvi reconciles two parts of her that, to outsiders, seem contradictory: she's a woman of science, but also of faith. During our conversation she reveals science brings her closer to something greater than herself. She's lived her life having to justify these beliefs and needing to prove that her faith in the divine doesn't diminish her work as a scientist.
As a person from a traditionalist Muslim family that has grown up in Western society, I couldn't help but relate to Suvi. That perceived incompatibility between faith and science has been mirrored in my own life, and Suvi expressed an idea that I've held but never been able to adequately verbalize. In that moment, I found myself remembering why I love the Mass Effect series and why I find Andromeda's potential so exciting.
After this exchange, I took the time to wander around the Tempest and speak to more of the crew joining protagonist Ryder in the search for a new "Golden World." In the engine room Gil questioned his decision to join the Andromeda Initiative but said he ultimately did so to find a purpose for himself. Similarly, Vetra, a well-connected Turian that specialises in gathering information, felt the need to justify her presence on the mission, indicating that she's dealing with issues of inadequacy and self-confidence. Jaal, who is part of the new Angara race native to the Andromeda galaxy, is an outsider trying to find footing among people from unfamiliar cultures. PeeBee, the wise-cracking Asari, refused to entertain any personal questions and outright said she has no interest in putting down roots or finding a new family in the crew of the Tempest. She bounced between happy-go-lucky, guarded, and distant.
For me, the series' strength lies in textured, layered characters offering unique perspectives that I can learn to understand--and perhaps even relate to. Based on the few hours I spent with Andromeda, it looks like there will be an abundance of them.
Beyond the promising characters, Andromeda looks to have made a number of interesting changes to the familiar Mass Effect framework, the majority of which I was able to experience in the game's opening missions. Don't worry, there won't be any spoilers ahead.
Our search for a Golden Planet began aboard Hyperion, an Ark housing a human colony numbering 20,000 people. Player-character Ryder is awoken from cryosleep 600 years after departing from the Milky Way galaxy. As Ryder was getting her bearings, a doctor approached and gave me my first taste of the new dialogue system, which looks to address the binary nature of the series' role-playing.
It does this by asking players to select responses based on tone. In any given conversation you're presented with the option to be casual, emotional, logical, or professional, depending on the scenario. Instead of having a series of neutral probing questions and then two responses that align with either the Paragon or Renegade moral archetype, responses now represent a diverse set of emotions that shape each relationship dynamic.
For example, Cora Harper is the Pathfinder's second in command and technically Ryder's superior. When I later became the Pathfinder (despite the fact that she was better suited for the role), some tension began to grow between us. This informed the way I conducted myself around her; I opted to remain professional to prove that I was capable of handling the responsibility. For PeeBee, however, I adopted a casual tone in conversation, purely because she came across as someone that prefers to be around a leader that isn't uptight all the time.
As a result, Andromeda doesn't feel like it's funneling you down a path of good or evil. Instead, the different flavors of responses invite us to play different roles with different people and define relationships with greater nuance.
Ryder's first mission takes me to Habitat 7, a planet set to be the new Earth. However, upon my arrival it became abundantly clear that it was less than golden. In fact, Habitat 7 looked like it had been torn and twisted into something uninhabitable.
It's blue sky and sparse plant life indicated that it could have once been a new home for mankind, but it was now fraught with thunderstorms, and oxygen levels had plummeted as the atmosphere became choked in argon nitrogen. Intense magnetic activity meant that rock formations were floating in the air, and metallic inclusions attracted destructive electrical phenomena, the danger of which I experienced first-hand when a lightning bolt hit our ship and scattered my crew around the designated landing point. With only security specialist Liam Costa in tow, I began searching for the rest of the team.
The different flavors of responses invite us to play different roles with different people and define relationships with greater nuance.
Taking a page of out of Dragon Age: Inquisition's book, Mass Effect: Andromeda's planets are built to be a series of contained spaces where players explore and complete quests. Although they're not connected to form what we'd traditionally consider an open-world, each location is large enough to hold story missions, as well as side missions you can uncover and complete by venturing off the prescribed path and exploring.
To accommodate this, Ryder has been given a robust set of traversal abilities, most notably a jump and a dash enabled by a rocket pack. Ryder was also able to clamber up Habitat 7's rocky cliff faces to reach elevated areas, a skill that proved necessary to track a distress call from a teammate for a sidequest.
These abilities are also at the core of Andromeda's new combat mechanics, which I employed against the aforementioned Kett. At one point we came upon a friend who had been cornered by this unfamiliar alien race. Wearing armour made of bone and brandishing guns, they looked to be hostile but, as pointed out by Ryder, first contact protocols dictate that you cannot open fire unless fired on. Given the option to act first and talk later, I decided to let cooler heads prevail and attempted to talk to the Kett. Since they spoke an unknown language and weren't treating our friend very nicely, I had no option but to engage.
Interestingly, Ryder voiced her displeasure about how things unfolded and even made the case for the Kett feeling as threatened by us as we were by them. Andromeda makes attempts at presenting the Kett, and the mysterious Archon leading them, as figures that could also be on a journey that parallels ours. Since the portions of the game we played were devoid of necessary context, it wasn't clear what their motivations were, but I got the feeling the game doesn't want to present them as clear-cut bad guys.
In this scenario it was us versus them; the perfect opportunity to put combat through its paces. Mass Effect 3's combat serves as the foundation for the way Andromeda plays, in particular the increased freedom of movement. However, one major difference is that the role of cover has been significantly diminished. Although Ryder will automatically move into cover as you approach any appropriately large, solid object--and in fact it's often necessary to recover from damage--but between the new movement abilities, Biotic powers, and destructive weaponry, Ryder feels like a character designed to always be on the offensive.
The Kett didn't make a habit of coming out into the open, preferring to obscure themselves behind cover and quickly move between objects in the environment. As a result, I was forced to take the fight to them by leaping out of cover and launching myself into the air with a jet pack. Once airborne, I could hover long enough to aim and fire off a few shots. Ryder's dash could then be used to quickly maneuver back into cover and begin the loop again.
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While combat in previous entries in the series felt very stop-and-start--with players moving between different cover points and popping out to fire their weapons or use powers--Andromeda's skirmishes feel like they're focused on forward momentum. However, the combat's newfound energy comes at the cost of a degree of control and a layer of strategy that series fans are used to having.
Unlike previous games, you only have direct control over Ryder, and teammates can't be issued commands beyond moving to a specified location or focusing fire on a designated enemy. BioWare has also reworked how Biotic powers are implemented to ensure you aren't spending extended time in a radial wheel. Instead of having a suite of powers on an instantly accessible wheel, you have three favourites that are assigned to shortcuts so that they can quickly be employed in the heat of battle, much like in Mass Effect 3. It is possible to create four loadouts that you can switch between during battle, but given that they're two menus deep, it only makes sense to do this in order to adapt to changing battle conditions between waves, rather than as a workaround for the new system.
Another major change for Andromeda is the new freeform class system. Instead of selecting a specific role and developing a set of abilities limited to that class, you're able to learn any ability and even reassign Ryder's skill points at any time. This is a welcome change as it allows you to create unique play styles and experiment with ability combinations. Those that opt to specialise when acquiring and upgrading abilities will unlock Profiles that correspond to classes from previous games. These are used to enhance abilities by bestowing Ryder with stat bonuses. Together these changes empower the player to have greater control over the type of Ryder they develop and guide through the galaxy.
After the delays and relatively little we'd heard about Mass Effect: Andromeda, I began to worry that it may not live up to the series' legacy. And while I can't outright say I'm confident it will deliver, Andromeda's tweaks to combat and dialogue are smart. However, my passion for the Mass Effect series is tied to the connections I developed with its characters. So in the end, that personal moment with Suvi is what makes me optimistic about the series' future.