Mass Effect Andromeda: How Well Does it Balance Action and RPG?

Jaz spends two hours with Bioware's epic space opera, and goes hyperbolic.

Are there any games that you know you'd very likely enjoy playing, but there's just been something about them that put you off trying them out? That's the Mass Effect series and me. The first game really caught my interest, but what I perceived as its heavy RPG overtones and squad-oriented action didn't quite sound like my cup of tea, and I ended up skipping it. In retrospect, I wish I hadn't, but c'est la vie. Lesson learned about letting my own preconceptions cloud my judgment.

I'm thinking about this as I sit down in front of a PC version of Mass Effect Andromeda and ready myself to play the game at a preview event at Electronic Arts' Silicon Valley headquarters. From the excited chatter around the room, it appears that everyone present is very familiar with the series, and there's plenty of back-and-forth about the prior games, characters, and their relationships. None of it makes sense to me.

Fortunately, though, it seems that I don't really need to worry about my lack of experience with the series. Mass Effect Andromeda is essentially an all-new game that's set some 600 years after the events of the original trilogy's finale. The story's roots, however, trace back to 2185, a point in time between the second and third games when the Citadel Council decided to expand colonization efforts from the Milky Way to the Andromeda Galaxy. To that end, they built a fleet of Arks, giant ships designed to transport 20,000 individuals apiece on a one-way trip to our neighboring star system.

Mass Effect Andomeda's Characters

The game opens with the Ark ship Hyperion entering the Helios cluster in the Andromeda Galaxy, and the player waking up after being in state of suspended animation for the past six centuries. Depending on your choice, you're one of either Scott or Sara Ryder, human twins whose father Alec Ryder is the ship's Pathfinder – the person responsible for locating and selecting a suitable planet to colonize. Both siblings are adventurers who have military training, and whomever you choose, your twin will play an important role in the game's story.

The appearance of both the player's character and their twin can be fully customized using the very comprehensive suite of options available. Choices range from the conservative to the extreme, enabling you to give yourself shockingly bright hair, for example, or skin that's textured with different patterns. Interestingly, you'll be able to upload your character data to the upcoming Mass Effect Andromeda social site so that other players will know what you look like, as well as download other players' characters if you like their style.

As well as deep visual customization, there's also plenty of choice when it comes to deciding how to develop your character's skills over time. Rather than selecting and subsequently being locked into a specific class, players can build out their hero in their own unique way by investing points into whichever talents they feel best suit their playstyle. While this freedom might lead to worries about making the wrong choices, fortunately, it'll be possible to re-spec your character, so you won't end up getting stuck with a skillset that doesn't work for you. Better still, character builds will be savable as profiles, which you can then equip, enabling you to use different specs under different circumstances.

As the game gets underway, there's a fair bit of dialog as the Hyperion's crew are introduced, and the plot's foundation is laid. I'm immediately impressed by the audio-visuals. It's top-tier stuff, with beautifully rendered and animated characters, and digital sets packed with fascinating detail. I can't help but be drawn in as the team members chat to one another. It's largely innocuous banter, but it does a good job articulating their personalities and character details. A radial menu is used to choose verbal responses, which can be given a tone that varies from professional through casual and intellectual to one from the heart. Apparently, there's a fifth impulsive tone that's similar to the interrupt dialog mechanic from Mass Effect 2. However, I didn't see this at any point during the demo, so I assume it's a fairly rare occurrence.

Marooned in the Andomeda Galaxy

It doesn't take long before the action starts to heat up. As the Hyperion heads into orbit around a nearby planet, it collides with web-like condensed dark energy called the Scourge. Alarms blare as systems begin to fail, setting off a sequence in which the player uses the protagonist's arm-mounted scanner to analyze engine components to diagnose a fault and prevent a critical failure. Crisis temporarily averted, it subsequently becomes clear that the Hyperion is marooned.

That essentially sets up the first mission – which is a foray down to the planet's surface with a small squad of AI characters. As is wont to happen in space operas of this ilk, the journey to the planet's surface is not an easy one. The craft enters the atmosphere, only to run into engine problems, explosions, and other flight-arresting issues, and soon enough I'm stranded on the planet, looking for my companions. Again, the scenery is terrific, and while I'm clearly ushered along a linear path as I explore the environment, it doesn't really feel that way. I'm just really absorbed with what's going on.

Especially when I run into a couple of humanoid creatures rummaging through some wreckage. I'm not sure what to do. Should I greet them? Before I can think much further, my decision is made for me as both aliens whip out their guns and start shooting. I immediately run to a rock and automatically find cover while I figure out which button draws my weapon. When I do, I start replying with shots of my own, and soon enough they're dead. For a moment, I'm a little surprised. There's been so much plot and exposition at this point, that I'd almost forgotten that Mass Effect Andromeda is an action game. But an action game it is, and its gunplay feels very good.

As I continue to explore, I run into yet more aliens, setting off another firefight. Again, I use the automatic cover mechanics as I sprint from one rocky outcrop to another so I can attack them from the flank. A few deft shots later, and I'm victorious once again. The exploration gets a little tougher from hereon, with some dangerous jumps to negotiate, and a steep cliff to ascend. Fortunately, my space suit has an integrated jet boost that lengthens my leap and extends my jumping capabilities, so I can make short work of the hazardous terrain. It's simple stuff, but fun.

After fighting my way through what appear to be ancient alien ruins, I eventually find my other two companions, and they're pinned down by more of those pesky hostiles. I join in the battle, and this time, it's actually quite challenging – a proper set piece that involves taking on a group of aliens that are eventually reinforced by additional units that are dropped in via a ship. It almost feels like something out of Destiny – and to be honest, I'm having a blast.

I assume that this skirmish will somehow finish the level, but the action doesn't let up. The team continues to journey across the environment, eventually reaching a large alien construct where another big set piece shootout takes place. This time, it involves defending a point on the map from attack from two sides. The fight feels exciting and dynamic, and my squad mates behave quite intelligently as they help me pick off the small army that's fighting us.

At this point, something quite surprising happens, but I'm not going to tell you what, as it would be a major spoiler. However, what I can say is that it thickens the plot very nicely, and certainly whetted my appetite to see what was coming next. Unfortunately, I didn't find out. As the next cinematic rolled, one of the EA staff swiftly stepped in to reset my game so I could continue the demo at a point much further into the proceedings. While I understood that we weren't there to play the full game, I nevertheless felt a bit peeved. I was so immersed in the game, I’d forgotten where I was.

Your vehicles are the Tempest and Nomad

The second part of the demo starts out with the Hyperion's runaround, the Tempest, docked at a thriving trading post. I spend time exploring the ship, and I'm advised to check out the crafting aspect of the game. My character is loaded with sufficient resources to make a really impressive armory of firearms, from shotguns through assault and sniper rifles to powerful energy weapons. Building these seems press-of-a-button easy, but then again, it's difficult to know exactly how readily resources will be available without properly playing the game. As well as weapons, there's another list of items that I can make that seems to include armor and augmentations. They each feature perks and stats, and the choice is almost overwhelming.

With daylight burning fast, I decide to investigate the trading post, and I wander around talking to numerous characters. While the dialog and voice acting is all excellent, without a greater context of where I actually am in the game and who these people are, it all feels a little meaningless. So rather than continue chit-chatting, I head down to the Outpost's garage in search of action – and there I find my six-wheeled Nomad vehicle that I clamber inside and use to explore the environment surrounding the trading post.

This is one of the game's open worlds, and while it's not exactly huge, it still takes me a good ten minutes to traverse its mountainous terrain. I drive past several camps and emplacements – which shoot at me as I close in. I end up engaging in several firefights, and have fun taking out the encampments. What's clear is that Mass Effect Andromeda has a really strong action component, and if you want to go looking for excitement, it certainly has plenty of it.

However, while that might sound disappointing to RPG-oriented fans, take solace in this: I did notice that the person next to me spent almost all of her time within the trading post talking to NPCs, so there must be plenty of depth there too. I just didn't spend time with that because I was so busy exploring the combat side of the game and the environment.

To me that's a really good thing. If just one of the game's zones can keep two people busy doing two completely different things for over an hour, that leads me to belive that Mass Effect Andromeda does indeed have plenty to offer to both action and RPG fans.

I left feeling really excited by what I saw. I love the way the game weaves its impressive cinematics and gameplay to spin its complex tale, and its action is nicely-paced and dynamic. Character interactions seem subtle and complex, and I'm really interested to explore this aspect of the game to see just how relationships are built. The open-world environments are rich and interesting, and those who like exploring should also have plenty to do.

Okay, so I'm laying on the superlatives, but what can I say? I'm definitely not missing this Mass Effect game.

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