Mass Effect Andromeda: First Impressions

SG staff members DJ Holmes and Markus Piil sat down a couple of times to discuss the early-game impressions they had for Bioware’s latest entry to the sci-fi series, Mass Effect Andromeda. Early-game perspective was drawn on less than 10 hours of single player content, and the first content sections focus on spoiler-free territory with game mechanics and how the new game handles.

 

Mass Effect Andromeda opening act

 

OPENING

Markus Piil: From the very start, I had next to no idea of what would be coming. Would the introduction be a pre-departure setpiece set during the last moments the Andromeda Initiative would spend on Earth? Extended cutscene, perhaps, to build up emotional response to how significant this departure is? Nope. Less than 30 seconds in the cutscene, we’re off to FTL speeds and the space convoy is on the way. It’s an interesting approach to start off the game by throwing the player entirely into the unknown, despite it being the fourth entry in the series. New characters, new ships (although the Tempest bears similarities to the fan-favourite Normandy/Normandy SR-2 of games past); nothing really roots the player in the comfort of previous experiences.

DJ Holmes: Well put. While the animation of the ship is spectacular and the sound quality of the opening sequence is glorious, I had hoped for more of a link to Mass Effect 3 before being hurdled across space.

MP: Totally! In some informal early discussions held by Bioware staff regarding the end of the ME3 era/start of something new (before Andromeda publicly bore the name), it was left unconfirmed as to whether or not the new game/series would take place before, after, or during (but far away) from the Shepard arc. Based on lore (and a little digging online), the Andromeda Initiative departed in 2185 AD, whereas the battle of the Citadel/Saren took place in 2183. Shepard died later in that year, and wasn’t fully brought back until 2185 by Cerberus. Depending on how quickly news travels and when those two events transpired, it’s possible that the Andromeda crew wouldn’t even know Shepard had been revived.

DJ: I suppose I set myself up for disappointment, imagining a desperate flight from the Reaper invasion. 

MP: No kidding — that’s exactly how I figured the motivation would be developed to flee the galaxy — this one was no longer safe. Turns out it’s a little more exploratory than we were led to believe.

DJ: Escaping an unsafe Milky Way would have offered a clear narrative thrust and could have given all the characters who boarded the Arks a greater dramatic edge — those who left loved ones in the Reapers’ path while they flew into the unknown would be a uniquely motivated group. Also, a desperate flight could have better framed why the Nexus is in such disarray when Ryder arrives: if they were forced to leave early due to the Reapers’ arrival, then the leadership structure would have been incomplete and contingency plans left unfinished. 

MP: That might explain why the Nexus was in the state it’s in, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves in talking about the intro — the Nexus is a treat unto itself to experience. Got some serious Dead Space vibes before they turned the lights on.

DJ: Though alas, no zombies. Just an engineer in a corner.

MP: It’s never zombies.

Character

MP:  We don’t want to miss out on talking about one of the most important parts of starting the game — who you’re actually playing as. I picked the brother (Scott) Ryder, how did you get yourself set up?

DJ: I picked sister-Ryder, of the custom variety. Part of my abiding joy with Bioware games is the character creation, so I readied myself to spend a good hour crafting a custom character. Then I discovered my options were a bit limited.

MP: They were a little sparse, weren’t they? I mean, you see some crazy ones being posted to Reddit, but it wasn’t particularly compelling this time around.

DJ: I understood that there were reasons for the limitations, yet none of the options thrilled me and being unable to so much as change the hair color of the preset ‘Sarah’ was vexing. Ultimately I opted for HEAD 1, because she looked the best with purple hair and Kasumi lipstick.

MP: There’s also something slightly off with how shadows land on the creases of the skin in this game. (My) Ryder’s forearm always looks like he’s got a random dark line tattooed there, but it’s just shadows playing a trick on the muscle. Kind of weird for a Frostbite Engine title; there’s usually much cleaner lighting in play.

DJ: I have to agree. Some of the lighting and textures feel more in line with Dragon Age 2 than Inquisition, which I wouldn’t have noticed if other characters/moments weren’t so extraordinarily rendered. There are examples of heart-stoppingly beautiful art at moments, but there are flat images at others. The inconsistencies are what draw the eye to making those comparisons, I think.

MP: Definitely. Salarians, Turians, and Angarans are superb. Asari are pretty good, but humans seem to suffer from the rendering just a little. Not as (noticeably) bad as the internet at large would have us believe, but there’s a little something more to be desired of a game I’ve most looked forward to over the last five years, at  least with respect to how the humans are displayed.

DJ: Agreed. I haven’t been more excited for a game…ever. The animation from the trailers, the shots of gameplay from adverts, it all built up an image in my mind for a new level of realistic animations with hugely expressive faces. Some of that was realized — Peebee’s expressions in particular are a delight — but you’re right, most of the humans feel flat to me, including Ryder in both stock and custom options. And really, is there any human face more awkward than the ‘colonial affairs’ woman on the Nexus?

MP: Homer Simpson’s makeup gun got turned up to 11 on that one. Compared to everyone else that doesn’t really have a ton of “makeup” on it feels a little unnatural, but accompanied with the wide-eyed stare, she’s a little jarring to deal with. Those eyes (and those of many others) are supposedly going to receive a fix from Bioware somewhere down the line. [Update: They did!]

DJ: Makeup advice from Krusty the Clown never ends well. 

Mass Effect Andromeda character creator

MP: Moving past the visuals of our respective Ryder twins — what kind of a build have you / will you be focusing on? Traditionally, my first playthrough of any ME game is done with a Soldier, but this time I’d unlocked my Sentinel II profile before even putting a single point into the combat-oriented class skills.

DJ: I always start with Biotic, and I’m sticking with that illustrious history. My plan is to factor in Infiltrator cloaking / sneak options down the road.

MP: Nice. I used to steer clear of biotics (never played wizard classes much), and I didn’t love how biotics handled in ME1. In ME3, however, the multiplayer taught me how amazing Biotic Charge and Shockwave were, so I went back to try ME2 as a Vanguard and loved it.

DJ: Shockwave was my dear friend in ME3. But honestly, I play that class because my skillset is limited and I fail hard at front-line fighting. Mage classes let me approach combat from a more strategic, removed standpoint (I am the person who always wants the sniper rifle), and that generally lets me live long enough to get through each fight.

MP: I totally get it. In FPS-style shooters, I’m usually mid-long range, tactical, and work through the levels methodically. Matt (fellow site admin) and I love Sniper Elite/Ghost Recon style games as our gameplay styles mesh pretty well. With my love of biotic / tech / weapon skills in ME to serve the jack-of-all trades type, I go with Energy Drain (to deal with shields), Incinerate (for Armour), Shockwave (for crowds), and an assault rifle (for holes). Hasn’t really let me down yet, but I’m still early in.

DJ: I’m so early that I haven’t gotten a feel for the powers in combat yet. I’m two fights in with the Kett and still working out the controls, though I have to say the gunfire sound effects are a dramatic improvement.

MP: Less pat-pat-pat from the ME2 days, though I didn’t have much concern with ME3’s audio mixing.

DJ: If you’d have asked me a week ago, I wouldn’t have thought they could improve (or needed to improve) the audio from ME3, but Andromeda’s explosions are seriously satisfying.

Mass Effect Andromeda combat with Remnant forces

Gameplay

DJ: Coming off a replay of the original Mass Effect trilogy, I was a bit thrown by the difference in controls. Nothing major, but the changes to menu layouts and some features that I’d gotten so accustomed to (and had invested so much time using) actually left me needing to reorient myself more than I’d expected.

MP: I, too found it required a bit of adjustment in terms of what I expected from the controls. When I delved into the Andromeda multiplayer, I was actually a little bit concerned that the controls were jerky and slightly unresponsive. I found out, though, that it was intentionally hamstrung until guns/stats were leveled up to the point that aiming and abilities would become more streamlined. Having played more in the single player content, I’m perfectly content with how it’s all handled.

DJ: Good to know. I am not far into the SP content, but it didn’t take long to connect with the jet packs — or to enjoy the hell out of them. What a change, from being so restricted in movement to being able to jump like that!

MP: The jetpacks are a very welcome addition to the controls — they said that it would pander well to the “vertical” nature that people are looking to see in gaming. It’s definitely a factor in multiplayer, but less in solo play, I feel. The dash, however, is welcome in any situation.

DJ: Ryder can access different objects and heights, so that sense of greater movement plays well into Bioware’s concept for that character. A pathfinder needs the ability to go off the beaten path, after all.

MP: Good point. I’d never considered that the gameplay elements would be reflective of the character they’ve set up. Being the Pathfinder, there’s a huge emphasis on exploring the nuances of the terrain, whereas Shepard was a commando that would explore mission areas for objectives.

DJ: Absolutely. I always felt that Shepard’s character was designed to be grounded, both literally and figuratively. Their job in bringing people together was to provide a base and to keep walking the path to survival or victory. Ryder is less linear, and that is an interesting shift. 

MP: Have you found much yet in the way of the isolated Kett bases on the first planet? There are a handful of outposts that present a handful of elevation levels, and it’s really messing around with my preconceived notions of how a Mass Effect encounter plays out. Now, you can start by jumping up to gain high ground, move on to clear guys up there, rain it down on other enemies, then you’re able to drop back down to clear out those that have overhead cover. That’s a pretty big mix-up, compared to how it used to work. The bases are often just out in the middle of the open area, meaning you’ve got 360-degree access to initiating any combat scenario.

DJ: I’m only a couple of those in, but I’ve definitely noticed the different approach to combat and new strategies I have to employ given the vertical terrain. Part of me enjoys the sensation of fighting on unfamiliar terms and ground, because it matches what I imagine it would be like to explore a strange galaxy. As a lesser-skilled player, however, it’s pretty damn tough. Even on narrative mode.

MP: It’s definitely stepping up its game over previous entries. I’m finding that shields, of all things, are actively giving me some trouble to punch through without the Energy Drain / Overload abilities. We’ll see if any Barrier’d enemies show up.

DJ: What powers have you invested in so far?

MP: As noted above, I’ve focused on Incinerate (for armour / priming combos), Energy Drain (to destroy / regain shields), and Shockwave (for crowd control and detonating combos). It seems to be working out against most of the enemy types I’ve come across.

DJ: Are you finding the changeable nature of your abilities due to SAM a welcome degree of flexibility, or do you find it distracts from investing in a single ‘type’?

MP: Surprisingly, I’ve done very little experimentation into the various Profiles available (read: none), and I haven’t even touched sniper rifles, shotguns, or most pistols. Haven’t pulled the trigger once on any of the new weapon categories, either. I have no idea why I haven’t taken advantage of that. I’m happy sitting with my Sentinel class, three abilities, and assault rifle.

DJ: That makes me feel better about life. It might not be as exciting or strategic, but I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to playthroughs — this time, I want the full Adept experience. Next time, perhaps Sentinel or Vangard. But I find I connect better, not only to learning the most effective combinations and approaches, but with the character / story as a whole, if I stick to type (and have a sniper rifle strapped to my back). 

MP: I think that by shoehorning myself into a role and sticking to two partners (Drack and Jaal, unless I’m working towards a loyalty mission), it’ll open up more replayability for me later. In ME2/3, I loved the Vanguard with Charge / Shockwave / Nova / Shotgun / etc. Next playthrough, I’ll focus on that, and bring along another complementary pair of squadmates, and I’m hoping it feels like a different game. Then, maybe a soldier build?

DJ: This is a big part of what gives the Mass Effect series such longevity and replayability, at least for me. Not only can you navigate through the story with incredibly different choices, but the type of character you play meaningfully impacts the experience. An Adept feels different, and calls for different companions, than a Soldier or Vangard class does. I’m wary of changing up the profiles with Ryder, because I don’t want to maintain that ability to replay ME:A again as another type.

MP: One other thing to note, and this isn’t so much about minute-by-minute gameplay, but follows our replayability note; the prospect of swapping out characters for future playthroughs actually excites me a great deal. I swapped Drack for Cora when pursuing a mission for her, and suddenly her cross-talk with Jaal was amazingly different than when Drack was in the party. I really do believe that it’ll be a fresh experience.

DJ: Nice! The texture and details the companion characters bring to is engaging on all counts. I’m not far enough in to tell if Bioware had achieved that to the same extent in Andromeda as they did in DA:I — so I’m glad to hear they did.

MP: It’s remarkable, really. I made the intentional decision to bring Jaal around for everything, as he’s the only guy in the party that really knows the galaxy/cluster we’ve landed in. Drack is there because of my love for all things Krogan and I wanted someone CQB-oriented to handle short-range fighting.

DJ: Krogans are the best of things. Also, Drack’s entrance was fucking delightful. 

 

Mass Effect Andromeda combat with architect

Combat

MP: So, you said you haven’t been able to put a ton of face time in with the combat mechanics, but what’s your take on how the micro-encounters play out? One of the biggest gripes I’ve heard people bring up is the new stick-to-cover system, replacing the old ‘press A to enter cover’ approach. It took an adjustment, but I’m good with it now.

DJ: I’m still in the adjustment phase of “what the fuck is this shit” and yelling at my character for sticking to cover when I want her to run. (She needs to get better at listening, I tell you). That said, I can see the logic in the change and imagine a future time when the mechanic makes combat more fluid.

MP: When I spent my weekend playing some of the multiplayer, I wasn’t used to auto-sticking to cover, nor was I accustomed to having a super-boost jump. So, I’d end up getting into a position to take cover and provide some defensive measures, then suddenly I’m catapulted into the air and drawing every bit of fire that could be thrown at me. No bueno.

DJ: I discovered the jetpack combat-hover by accident, and it took a number of rounds of enemy fire before I connected the dots of ‘jetpack + aiming = autohover.’ Which, again, I can see the logic behind it when you know how to utilize it. When you stumble into it, your low-level-ass gets shredded.

MP: I feel your pain. It’s one mechanic that I’m not huge into, and doesn’t directly work into how I like to play out my encounters. It makes sense as a temporary way to deal with enemies at elevation or behind cover, but Shockwave goes through cover, and has seemed to work out well. One thing I’d like to focus on a little more is getting my squadmates skilled up to prime combos, and I can focus on detonating them where they’re needed the most. Also, as Shockwave can cover so much ground after upgrades, if everyone’s primed, then a few Shockwaves should make short work of unshielded enemies.

DJ: The Nomad is, at least as far as I’m aware, the first Mass Effect vehicle without any combat capabilities in and of itself. While we might question referring to the Mako as “combat capable,” that cannon eventually killed the most resilient of thresher maws.

MP: I found it a welcome addition to the vehicle in Mass Effect 1, but don’t think ME2 had a traversable vehicle, though ME3 had the Firewalker DLC for a little bit of vehicle-ish based combat. Going weapon-free in Andromeda hasn’t upset me so far, because I think it’s important to engage the player directly when they get out of the vehicle to take on enemies. The Nomad’s got enough shields that you can pull up to the area of engagement, hop out, and then you’re in the thick of the action. Another nice thing is that the Nomad can be snapped-to with the cover mechanics.

DJ: Personally, I like having to exit the vehicle to fight. I always struggled with the vehicular combat in the original trilogy. And I’d agree, I think engaging directly is more active and far more interesting. I think it gives more options in terms of approaching the fight, rather than being forced to drive towards it on a singular path.

MP: Bioware seems to have brought a wide variety of choices in how you can approach combat this time around.

 

Check out our SPOILER TERRITORY impressions on story and dialogue later in the week! Thanks for reading!

 

Author: DJ Holmes

DJ Holmes writes words. Some good, some bad, many four-lettered. She loves complex worlds and even more complex characters, especially those dwelling in a fine RPG. Eventually she’ll conquer the world and spend her days playing Dungeons & Dragons in a ball-room full of delicious espresso beans.

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