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Lost in space: A confusing 90 minutes with Mass Effect: Andromeda

Too much galaxy and not enough time

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Mass Effect: Andromeda is a game featuring a complicated story of intergalactic exploration, conflict and discovery, its cast composed of dozens of characters with complicated, interwoven backstories and interactions, both between each other and with the player, who can build and develop various kinds of relationships across genders and species. Last week, I spent around 90 minutes with Mass Effect: Andromeda, and ... well, honestly, I didn’t really get to see any of that.

What I got instead was a taste of raw gameplay, in a way that made me uncertain of how I felt about the flavor, and desperate for the next course.

Mass Effect: Andromeda - burning combat BioWare/Electronic Arts

My time opened just after Mass Effect: Andromeda begins, as a mission to explore many light-years beyond known space in the Andromeda galaxy gets off to what I suppose was an inevitably bumpy start. I’ll avoid story spoilers here, but I quickly found myself on the surface of a hostile planet where BioWare introduces the new mobility options and general combat capability of your selected Ryder twin.

Practically speaking, Mass Effect: Andromeda plays a fair bit differently than previous games. In the transition from Epic’s Unreal Engine to EA stablemate DICE’s Frostbite engine, some things have been lost — for example, you don’t hit a button to slam into cover anymore. Instead, you move near a cover-appropriate surface, and you’ll automatically take cover there as you’re able.

This took some getting used to. Andromeda looks like the other Mass Effect games, and for it not to play exactly like one was disorienting. Weapons handle differently than they did before, as do powers, even though some are largely unchanged — at least initially — from previous games.

The biggest changes I encountered were in basic mobility. Ryder can jump, for example, a trick Shepard never learned, and there’s also a jump jet built into your space suit, which was actually quite a bit of fun to experiment with, if a little squirrelly.

As for how this all shakes out in combat ... I don’t know how to answer that question yet. There’s a learning curve in Mass Effect: Andromeda coming to the game from the series’ previous entries, or even other third-person action titles, and I didn’t have the time to acclimate to the big shifts BioWare is bringing to the series.

After some major introductory story beats, BioWare took me from that initial first hour to “several days in” to the story — around 15-20 hours into the game, apparently. I’d like to give a cogent analysis of how the story in Mass Effect: Andromeda’s story evolves, or how the systems will shake out, but mostly I was deeply, hopelessly lost. Andromeda has a lot of systems in play. Crafting and modification is a major, major part of the game, with a preposterous amount of blueprints to research and then build. Systems can be investigated in a sort of cross of the scanning elements of Mass Effect 2 and 3, combined with the planetary vehicle exploration of Mass Effect (which the sequels unceremoniously discarded).

Mass Effect: Andromeda character BioWare/Electronic Arts

There’s a distinct sense of Mass Effect: Andromeda trying to live up to the promise of each of the previous game’s brightest hopes and dreams, and I really, desperately want to see if that works. I just didn’t have enough time to have even the slightest idea if it will — I didn’t even have enough time to fully digest some of Andromeda’s most basic mechanics, and, if I’m being honest, I found a lot of my 90 minutes a frustrating exercise.

I’m sympathetic to the challenges that developer BioWare and publisher EA face in trying to show just a piece of Mass Effect: Andromeda. It’s a series that’s never been about spectacle for its own sake. It is, perhaps more than any other series I can think of, about context — the context of your decisions, not just in one game but across the franchise, and the contexts those decisions make for the events that unfold. That takes time, and a lot of it, and those things in turn add a context and impact to the things that happen later. After all, consequences take on weight when the term “suicide mission” becomes literal and the death of a character means something.

Stories need time. Stories need space. And RPGs need those things too, because complicated systems need room to breathe and grow, for players to push and exploit them. None of this lends itself well to a contrived preview experience a month before release, and after my brief time with Mass Effect: Andromeda, I don’t think I really know much more about what it is or what it’s going to be than I did before I took control of it. For example, I have a list of story spoiler content that EA doesn’t want me to talk about, and I don’t understand any of it — I couldn’t spoil it for you if I wanted to.

I did at least have enough time in my preview appointment to wander around some mysterious alien ruins, which, honestly, is at least 50 percent of the reason I played Mass Effect over the duration of the trilogy. Even as I struggled a bit to come to terms with Mass Effect: Andromeda’s evolutions, I felt tantalizing hints of potential, of the great unknown sitting there, waiting for me to dive in and learn more. The unbridled possibility and wonder of Mass Effect is its greatest asset, and I’ll give Andromeda this: I left EA’s Redwood Shores campus feeling the itch to explore.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is out on PS4, Windows PC and Xbox One on March 21, 2017.

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