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Mass Effect: Andromeda Hands-On: 3 Hours of Spoiler-Free Impressions

Our thoughts on the mechanics and systems of Andromeda without any pesky story spoilers.

From the very beginning, Mass Effect: Andromeda presents a strong, dedicated focus on customization, creatively expanding on some of the series’ staple RPG elements. I played three early hours of the game on PC last week, and here’s everything I learned about the upcoming sci-fi RPG, excluding extensive character and narrative-based information, because we don’t want to spoil anything. First things first, though, here’s a brand new video, all about combat:

Character Customization

Just like Shepard, pre-made versions of Andromeda’s twin protagonists, Sara and Scott Ryder, exist, but the character customization menu also lends itself to creating more “hideous and outrageous” protagonists (to use BioWare’s own words) than the existing Mass Effect trilogy did. Since the Ryders aren’t military, there’s an array of unconventional and bizarre hairstyles available that likely never would’ve suited the likes of Shepard, and I think we’re going to have a whole lot of fun with it.

The specific things you can customize are familiar (like eye shape, nose width, jaw protrusion), but have a noticeable increase in fidelity, likely because they’re based on actual 3D scans. It seems like a character creation menu you can spend hours in, and we’re likely to see a whole lot of re-creations of other characters being shared, just like those that came out of Fallout 4.

Despite all of that, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Ryders, and some of the supporting human characters, look a whole lot more like they walked out of The Sims 3, rather than walking out of a game releasing in 2017. Their eyes, eyelashes, and mouths specifically look particularly cartoony, with some awkward dialogue animations.

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Classes and Skills

The changes to ‘classes’ are a little more dramatic in that they’re more like flexible guidelines than binding skillsets. The classes are Soldier, Engineer, Adept, Sentinal, Vanguard, Infiltrator and Explorer, but rather than having their own unique skill trees, your choice of class will give you a small boost in things like health regeneration, or access to certain items that might help you in combat. The skills (Combat, Biotics and Tech), not classes, are where the important decision making falls, though you can choose to auto-level up if you want, too. Since I was only able to play three hours of Andromeda, I wasn’t quite able to figure out the benefits (or flaws) of this almost class-less system, since, even with the flexibility, I tended to focus on certain skill trees anyway.

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Classes are flexible guidelines, not binding skillsets.

Said skill trees are pretty extensive, with 12 separate abilities you can unlock under each skill – some passive and some ‘useable’. I focused on the combat skill specifically, where you can purchase the omni grenade, concussive shot, barricade, turbocharge and trip mine as special abilities that have a cool-down for each use in combat, as well as level increase your handling for assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and your mastery of combat fitness and combat tools, too. Each of those individual abilities has its own skill tree once you unlock it, and combat powers specifically have a splitting point when you hit rank three, meaning you have to make a choice between two separate varieties of the same power, and specialize in one.

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There are a lot of decisions to be made, especially since you can only have three usable skills and weapons equipped at any one time, but the skill menu is clear and concise and each ability is thoroughly detailed, so you know what you’re buying into. I spent a lot of time deliberating over whether to upgrade my concussive shot or my trip mine, but I never felt overwhelmed, and thankfully leveled up fairly quickly at the start, so the unlocks felt abundant. Swapping between different usable skills can significantly affect how you approach combat, too, so, for me, it felt worthwhile to unlock a few different abilities to test them out. The concussive shot let me fire off one accurate blast toward a pesky enemy while my shield regenerated, while the trip mine was good for instances where I thought I might be flanked.

There are a lot of decisions to be made.

Progression for your squad mates is simpler, with five skill-based options each. It’s enough to feel like you can develop a well-rounded team in combat, but not so much customization that you’ll spend all of your time stuck in menus.

Dialogue Choices

One of the most interesting changes, to me, is the evolution of Mass Effect’s pillar Paragon and Renegade system. In Andromeda, instead of a black and white ‘good’ or ‘bad’ dialogue choice, you’re presented with options that are labelled as logical or emotional, that dictate the actual ‘tone’ of what you say, and which aspect of your character’s personality it came from. It presents more shades of grey in dialogue, and, even in the three hours I had with the game, made my choices feel more calculated and impactful – like they really belonged to me.

Andromeda keeps track of these narrative statistics, too, contributing to and shaping your character’s overall ‘personality’, rather than just whether you were a jerk ten times or not. It’s a creative evolution of a core mechanic, and I’m interested to see how differently my version of Ryder turns out to those of my friends, if at all.

It’s a creative evolution of a core mechanic.

That said, the protagonists and their squad members speak voluntarily a whole lot more this time around, too. During the opening combat sequences, Sara and Liam (another human from the Ark Hyperion ship) freely commented on the weather, the environment, the enemies and their progression, to the extent that some lines were cut in half by others if I moved too quickly. Sara would be in the middle of saying something, but then I’d jump up on a different ledge and she’d cut herself off with another scripted line. I’m eager to find out if the dialogue choices I make have an impact upon the Ryders’ dialogue when I’m not calling the shots, too.

Environment and Enemy Variety

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I explored four separate, diverse environments in my few hours playing, and want to very briefly applaud Andromeda for having an impressive variety of both locations and enemies. Since the Ryders have jetpacks as part of their suits, too, open environments seemed to have a lot more verticality, and a few different possible routes to take to reach your waypoint – one of them tending to involve jetpacking between pillars in a simplified version of platforming, which is easy to control and, thankfully, forgiving. If you fall, you’ll respawn almost immediately.

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As for specific appearances – from the white, clinical looking Ark Hyperion, to a dense, multi-story, Hong Kong style marketplace, different areas in the Mass Effect: Andromeda universe almost look like completely different games, in a good way. The sound design consistently delighted me, too, which only added to the notion that I really was on completely different planets. I also appreciated the respectable amount of enemy variety shown in the first hour of the game, from strange, invisible toad-dogs to hovering jellyfish-types. Based on that, I have high hopes for a diverse cast of baddies.

You can craft armor and weapons in Mass Effect: Andromeda, which I did via a laptop-looking machine called an R&D Kiosk aboard my ship. It acts as an easily accessible buy/sell menu, but also as a crafting or “development” menu. You can buy blueprints for specific kinds of weapons and armor through the menu, using ‘RD’, which is Research Data that you obtain by scanning environments and creatures for Intel throughout your journeys, using the scanner you’ll get at the very start of the game.

Blueprints come in different colors, with bronze being common, silver being uncommon and gold being rare, and the rarer they are, the more RD they cost. To actually build something out of one of those Blueprints, though, you have to collect materials (like Omni-gel, iron, cadmium and element zero), which you’ll largely come across in containers throughout your missions. The R&D Kiosk, like most other components of Mass Effect: Andromeda’s UI, is neatly designed, though it is pretty dense.

Blueprint-based augmentations are the most exciting part of crafting, with rarer blueprints offering up more slots for you to add augmentations. For armor, these include things like hover damage increases, low health damage increases, and other stat-based augmentations. The weapon augmentations are a little more advanced, and give you the ability to change the ‘type’ of a weapon – like making a shotgun ‘burst fire’. I really wish I had more time to try out the weapons-based augmentation, because it seems like you can mash together two completely different weapon types, and create some things I can’t even imagine functionally.

The Tempest’s map is functionally similar to the Normandy’s, but, woah, is it prettier – you can even see light warping around nearby black holes as you scan over various planets. Andromeda conveniently tells you which planets you haven’t been to yet by displaying a ‘!’ icon next to them, and it also advertises which planets have ‘anomalies’ as long as you’re in the right cluster, which can mean a number of things. Anomalies can be simple resource scans, where you don’t even touch down on a planet, but are still able to harvest certain materials from a nearby asteroid belt, or the like.

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Some anomalies will have you touch down and drive the Nomad Scout Rover, Mass Effect: Andromeda’s version of the Mako, to find those resources on the ground. The Nomad controls smoothly, and features a mining computer and mining drones to help you retrieve resources, as well as having four and six-wheel drive options, a booster for navigating terrain, and a shield that, when destroyed, emits a shield blast to knock nearby enemies back during combat.

Other anomalies can be actual on-foot missions, too, though I wasn’t able to try any of those.

With all of that said, Mass Effect: Andromeda did have some pretty enormous performance issues in it’s pre-release state. There were frequent visual glitches including jarring frame-rate drops, audio dropped out a few times, and there were two separate instances where I was unable to progress because a line of dialogue that was supposed to be said never was, so I was forced to reload my save. The newly automated cover system was a little finicky, too, with my character popping in and out even when I didn’t want them to, and sometimes I wasn’t able to use my jetpack to jump because I had ‘clipped’ on cover.

Of course, this was not a final build, and these are exactly the kinds of issues that tend to get hammered out at the end of development, but the bugs are worth mentioning. Hopefully the game releases without any of these issues.

Based on what I played of Mass Effect: Andromeda, I don’t think people who haven’t played the original Mass Effect trilogy will have any issue understanding what’s going on. Meanwhile, there’s clearly plenty to chew on for returning Mass Effect fans. Expect plenty more Mass Effect: Andromeda coverage soon on IGN.

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