A whole new galaxy to explore. Seven golden worlds in one cluster, ready for colonies and a new life. It is bright and ambitious. This is going to be great, right? But a lot can change after 600 years of travelling between galaxies. Get ready Ryder, this is going to hurt. A lot.
Out of Shepard’s shadow
Shepard’s journey in Mass Effect 1 through 3 really paved the way for the franchise, but it is time to move well out of the reach of her shadow. This is a whole new galaxy and the time of Shepard is over (sorry fans, you had three whole games.) Mass Effect: Andromeda takes a few hours to get going, as it has a lot to cover. New characters, new places, new stakes, politics, deadly space phenomena and enemies are all revealed to you, along with all the game’s systems, in the first 10 or so hours. It took me close to five hours to finish, using original trilogy parlance, meeting the crew, exploring the citadel and acquiring the Normandy. That might make someone balk that so much time is used to set things going, but this game is a marathon, not a sprint. While it can be finished in 35 or so hours, I found myself only approaching the final mission of the game after 50 hours. By that point I had finished all my loyalty missions for the crew and pushed all habitable worlds to 100% viability.
Once you have met the various players involved and learnt more about what is at stake, your to-do list quickly fills up with tasks, priority assignments and more. Thankfully the quest log compartmentalises things for you in pretty much that fashion, with quests ranging from priority missions, to tasks for your allies, to general fluff per colony. While some of the quests are inane fetch quests, some give you a small peek into the mysteries of Heleus and your enemies inner workings, allowing you to slowly put together a large puzzle. Working out how to spot the busywork versus the quests that actually matter is something each player is going to have to find themselves and at times I feel that having such massive worlds and large open spaces dilutes the game’s experience, filling spaces with adequate quests, rather than just the stellar ones. At the same time, it makes the game feel more realistic that if you, the Pathfinder, give someone a moment of your time and a sympathetic ear, they are probably going to ask you for something that they feel is important, but is completely inane. There is something very human about that aspect, about needy people at the frontier suddenly faced with much greater hardships than they signed up for.
Pick your style, not your morality
[pullquote_right]If you were worried about someone taking up the mantle after Jennifer Hale, don’t be.[/pullquote_right]In Mass Effect being a renegade or paragon, a diluted version of the morality system used to decide if you were light or dark side in KOTOR, has been shelved, replaced with a much more flexible system that has to do with your thought processes and character more than if you are “good” or “bad” (because let’s face it, being a Renegade still led to you being a hero). Now conversations and choices come down to four core methods of response: emotional, logical, casual or professional. It is up to you to decide how to use these responses and while characters do react and note your standard response, the game never punishes you for changing your mind and switching to other responses later on. It feels a lot more natural and allows you to create an interesting Ryder, rather than just blindly picking options merely because they had blue or red text. Speaking of Ryder, I played as Sara, who is masterfully voiced by Fryda Wolff. If you were worried about someone taking up the mantle after Jennifer Hale, don’t be. While Shepard is confident, smooth and commanding, Ryder likes to goof off a bit and doesn’t have the hard militant edge that Shep had. She is also pretty awkward when in comes to romance and has moments where her head-strong team does their own thing, leading to some funny situations.
The Tempest is a much smaller ship than the Normandy, with close to a dozen crew on board. It quickly starts feeling like a family and exploring the galaxy with them and peeling each character’s layers back to reveal their aspirations, dreams and fears is typical Mass Effect fare. Of the new squad I found myself drawn to PeeBee and Jaal (and Suvi!), though I enjoy the entire Tempest family. It ends up feeling more intimate than having a crew of military guys just following orders, everyone is here because they believe in you and what you do as Pathfinder.
The open road
Mass Effect: Andromeda has much, much larger areas to explore than previous titles and thankfully you have the
Batmobile Mako Nomad to get yourself and your crew around. This six-wheeler can tackle some impressively steep slopes and has better life support than your suit, making it useful for exploring places too dangerous for a group of people on foot. As you race across the dunes and tundra of the world, you will notice the map isn’t full of hundreds of markers. While quests are marked you will find all manner of bandit camps, alien artifacts of unknown purpose and small settlements dotted over the landscape. Some of these contain new quests or lead to new weapons and armour, while others just serve as a place to recharge your life support systems or replenish your ammo.
For example there is a place not far from where you start on the first planet you want to establish a colony that doesn’t have a map marker, but your crew will talk about the location: the site of a second failed attempt to colonise Eos. Something killed everyone that lived here, but there are hardly any bodies in the area. What happened? After scanning the bodies for identification and getting the facility powered up you find that one of the main buildings has been locked, but from the outside. You access the main control console and a note pops up as you reboot the system. A log that says “Run!” is the only warning you have before a truck-sized creature lumbers out of the storage area of the building you are in and the enemy arrives, attracted by all the systems powering up again. As far as I know there is no quest for the area, no person whose life I improved by doing it, but I did get some loot and resources in the area and it felt like a great piece of world-building and background lore. These moments are packed all over the map, waiting for you to discover them as you tear a path across the planet in your handy vehicle.
Guns and jetpacks
Say goodbye to the cover system of previous games, as well as an increase in the pace. When you have a weapon equipped any large object nearby can be approached for cover. Unless you spec for it, standing out in the open is ill-advised, as your shield needs a few seconds to recharge after a beating. With an open map you get to choose where you attack from, sneaking into range with a sniper rifle or driving your Nomad right into the thick of it, hopping out and pressing your shotgun against some poor sap’s head. Get ready to jump, dodge and jump around to evade grenades and large enemies that will decimate you in close quarter fights, or use your jetpack to get a few seconds of airtime to line up that shot on the enemy that keeps ducking behind cover. Add in destructible cover and the world gives you a lot more options for taking on enemies or getting rid of them.
The jumping isn’t confined to combat-related tasks as you solve puzzles and explore areas by jumping over chasms or clambering up large towering structures to find power switches and treasure. Ryder is much more spry than Shepard, which helps you navigate the increased scale that the game has gone for. If you thought the Protheans built some big things, wait until you see the cavernous insides of a Remnant vault. Who needs stairs anyway? Jump on top of that building and get a better look at your surroundings and maybe find some tasty loot too.
All those items you collect feel important. Sure you can kill enemies for armour and weapons, or spend your limited credits for a new gun, but here on the frontier, where you are asking all the colonists to be self-sufficient, you need to do your bit too. You can research new weapons and armour and build them yourself, adding augments during the crafting process to add more health or make a shotgun that shoots out small homing blasts of plasma, or armour that zaps anyone that touches you.
[pullquote_left]The final mission of the game evokes a sense of scale and awe that punches home that this is Mass Effect.[/pullquote_left]The final mission of the game evokes a sense of scale and awe that punches home that this is Mass Effect. Without saying anything that could spoil it, you are rewarded for all your efforts as you make the final push against a crazy, murderous enemy. While the word has lost its meaning through overuse, the ending section of the game is epic, both in scale and stakes. As you battle your way to your goal all of your hard work in Heleus bears fruit and it left me swinging between marvelling at the scale of the scene and the threat and grinning. The space opera’s crescendo is beautiful and enough threads are left for more games. While this might be a standard approach for games now, I immediately felt like I wanted more, more Mass Effect. Several threads are left dangling enticingly and if after playing 50 hours of a game you are still left wanting more to do and see and experience, I think you have succeeded. Yes there are animation issues and the Xbox One has issues keeping up when you drive around really quickly between points and there are parts of the writing that made me cringe a bit, but if you are a die hard fan of Mass Effect, you will be happy to know that this is still, 100% Mass Effect. I feel like I could spend a lot of time discussing the power struggles, the new evil that the colonists must face, the terror of the unknown Scourge, xenophobia and the political power grabs in the vacuum caused by crisis and death, but that is all for you to explore, because we are all here for one reason: to explore a whole new galaxy. Every planet I scan, every time I fly I feel like I am in space, and I want to have the various space-scapes turned into wallpapers to stare at.