Mass Effect: Andromeda debuts March 21 as the next chapter in BioWare’s epic space series. Electronic Arts took the wraps off the gameplay in its first hands-on session at EA’s headquarters in Redwood City, Calif., and we were there to play it.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is one of the company’s major releases of the year, and it begins a fresh new story without the previous Mass Effect trilogy’s main hero, Commander Shepard, who appeared in Mass Effect (2007), Mass Effect 2 (2010), and Mass Effect 3 (2012). The title will debut on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and on Origin on PC. This story stars new heroes, Sarah or Scott Ryder (two twins: you can choose which one to play as), and it got off to a good start in my preview.

The events take place after Mass Effect 2 in the chronology of the series. You are on a mission to another galaxy, Andromeda, to find a new home for the human race. Humans have selected a habitable planet, but it takes 600 years to get there. When the Pathfinder crew arrives, they find that things have gone terribly wrong.

First, the space ship runs into some kind of monstrous shroud that has surrounded the planet. Alec Ryder, the commander of the mission and father of Sarah and Scott, leads a mission down to the planet’s surface, but both ships crash-land on it. I played as Sarah Ryder, who is an interesting character with an empathetic voice. As usual, BioWare does a great job crafting new characters that you will get to know as people.

“We are still trying to tell an epic story in the BioWare way,” said Ian Frazier, the lead programmer for the game, in an interview with GamesBeat.

Differences in gameplay

The enemies in Mass Effect: Andromeda have funny-looking heads.

Above: The enemies in Mass Effect: Andromeda have funny-looking heads.

Image Credit: EA

Right away, you notice things you can do that are different. You can scan the environment to find out what is nearby and what might need your attention, such as objects that need fixing. You can then go and repair them. When you crash-land, this becomes important as you try to understand the hostile new environment.

Part of that hostile environment are some pretty ugly-looking enemies who start firing at you. In contrast to the original Mass Effect, there is no wheel menu on the right bumper of your controller. In the past, you used that to assign tasks to your companions in a firefight. That meant that you would freeze the action, assign your companion to use a particular power against a target, and then unfreeze the action.

In Mass Effect: Andromeda, you don’t freeze the action. You can assign your companions to attack certain targets, particularly in defensive missions. But you are not micro-managing them. They are more intelligent, and they adopt the kind of fighting style that you adopt. If you are creeping around in stealth, your companions will do the same, and they won’t fire until you do. When you fire, they will open fire, too. And when you get into combat, you keep fighting until it’s all over.

Cover also functions in a different way. You used to go up to cover, press a button, hug a wall, and then fire. Now you just go up to a barrier and then fire. If you move away, you move out of cover. There are more vertical combat situations as well, beyond just moving from block to block. It’s pretty fluid. The landscape is destructible as Mass Effect: Andromeda has moved over to the Frostbite engine, used by the Battlefield team. The graphics look good though every now and then you find something that feels a bit unrealistic, like a part of the spaceship without that much detail.

You have to make decisions along the way, but this time there is no moral flavor to those decisions. In the past, you could choose Paragon or Renegade in terms of your types of discussions. But those discussions lost meaning after a while since players chose one particular type and made all their decisions consistent with that type. It effectively removed individual choices, Frazier said. So the team decided to change to a system without a moral color to the decisions.

A new epic saga

Sarah Ryder has a lot of empathy in her voice.

Above: Sarah Ryder has a lot of empathy in her voice.

Image Credit: EA

The year is 2185, and you are in the golden age of interstellar travel. You wake up from cryo sleep and adjust to the fact that you’ve been asleep for 600 years. Your job is to figure out if the planet you have arrived at is indeed habitable for the 100,000 travelers who are still in cryo sleep aboard the massive starship. The hope is that you have found a new Earth.

You can play as a male or female twin. I chose the female, Sarah Ryder. I quickly found out, as previously mentioned, that the place we found was more like a nightmare world. The landing ships malfunction, and you wind up crash-landing.

Once you are on the planet, you are accompanied by a couple of companions from your Pathfinder team. Your father leads one of the crews, and you have to explore the planet, fight off the enemies, and link up with his crew.

There are big electrical storms and anomalies that produce electrical shocks, which can kill you if you get hit by them. Once in a while, you find a safe haven that is hidden from the storms. But it’s not a friendly world. Sarah’s father, Alec Ryder, goes boldly into the new world because he believes they are making history. When you interact with your father, you can choose different answers that indicate the tone of your replies. You can be sarcastic, obedient, or skeptical. These choices show different levels of familial closeness between father and child.

At the very start, you’re faced with an emotional part of the story, and you have to deal with the impact of it. BioWare is clearly trying to get you in the grip of a much larger tale by giving you something tense and riveting from the very start. In that way, it carries on with Mass Effect’s epic storytelling history.

Off to the brave new galaxy

The majestic landscape of Mass Effect: Andromeda.

Above: The majestic landscape of Mass Effect: Andromeda.

Image Credit: EA

EA wants to create the impression that the galaxy is vast. You start out by customizing your character, picking any one of nine preset heads that represent a variety of races and genders. You can change everything from skin tone to eyebrows. You can’t upload your previous characters and decisions from previous Mass Effect games, mainly since this one has different characters. Once you create your character, you can easily upload it and share it on social sites, Frazier said.

The only thing that the game will query is whether your previous Commander Shepard was male or female so that the current game can get the references right. In the previous game, most of the characters were military figures. But now you can choose all sorts of character types. You can mix and match ridiculous clothing if you wish. You can add neon purple hair or choose your character’s makeup, such as eye shadow, lipstick, blush, eyeliner, scars, and tattoos.

For your specialty, you can choose your character’s background training, such as security, biotic, technician, leader, scrapper, and operative. Over time, you unlock more of the background training types. But you can apply the experience points you earn in any way you wish so that your character could wind up being something different as you move through the role-playing ladder.

Besides the first mission, I was able to play a couple of later stages in the game. I spent some time aboard the spaceship Tempest, which is the new Normandy. You can move around the ship and look out the windows and see a landscape that looks different as the stars around you change. There are no painful loading screens as you open doors and talk to characters. I walked around the ship, talking to the various characters and getting more backstory on them. Sarah has a way of appearing empathetic as she communicates with each one of them.

About midway through the game, when I took the Tempest down to the Planet Kadara, I found more of the open world that Frazier talked about. It was like an outpost world, with ramshackle settlements and seedy bars. I had to deal with some local intrigue and make some decisions about what sides to take in disputes. I saw how the story could develop subplots and more subplots.

Outside, I was able to jump in a Nomad all-terrain vehicle and drive it around the landscape. It was easy to drive, but the terrain was challenging because it was so hilly. I had to go track down a smuggler to get some intelligence and then move on from there.

I ran into some spider-like creatures and found that they were pretty deadly, so I got back in the Nomad and ran over them. There were pools with poisonous liquids that killed me. Then I ran into some bandits and got in a firefight. My companions included a Krogan, and he was useful in combat. While driving around the world, I got the sense that the place was expansive and I could spend all of my time either getting lost or completing one long and arduous main mission.

Conclusion

Mass Effect: Andromeda promises action and a good story.

Above: Mass Effect: Andromeda promises action and a good story.

Image Credit: EA

I enjoyed my brief interlude with Mass Effect: Andromeda. There was enough to see in this preview to confirm that BioWare has preserved a lot of what was fun about the original series while changing things for the sake of better gameplay.

I have seen just an hour or two of what is likely to be a very long game. But so far, I like what I see. The game is carrying on a tradition that should make die-hard fans happy and hopefully generate some new fans as well.