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Mass Effect Andromeda: This ain't your daddy's space opera

The game hits Xbox One, PS4 and PC on March 21.

Remember when J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek with younger actors, a brash, rockstar vibe and a whole lotta lens flare?

Mass Effect Andromeda feels like that. You're no longer the legendary starship captain bringing peace to the galaxy. You don't automatically command respect and devotion. Your crew isn't a bunch of old friends.

Instead, you play Sara (or Scott) Ryder, a rookie attempting to fill some very big shoes. And it turns out that's a pretty good metaphor for the entire game, too.

Mass Effect Andromeda -- coming to Xbox One, PS4 and PC this March -- is all about a fresh start for the Mass Effect sci-fi franchise, to the point that no characters from the original trilogy will appear. The whole game is set in an entirely different galaxy, some 600 years later.

BioWare

Fearing the destruction of their home planets, humans and friendly alien races have sent giant 20,000 passenger Ark ships in search of a new home among the stars, and that's where the game begins: You wake up from a 634-year cryogenic nap as a headstrong young explorer, faced with a new frontier.

Everything goes wrong. You deal. Eventually, you become captain of your own super-sleek ship, the Tempest. Oh, and there's a jetpack, a badass six-wheel rover, crew members to romance, choose-your-own-adventure decisions to make and a whole lot of sci-fi gunplay.

How do we know? Two CNET editors (and big-time Mass Effect fans) were among the first people outside developer BioWare to play the game for several hours last week.

Here's what we think.

We can't really tell yet

It seems like a bit of a cop out to say it's too early to tell, but hear me out. Honestly, the best part of Mass Effect for me [Me too! -Sean] has always been those little moments where the characters interact and feel like real people. It's something BioWare is good at across pretty much every game it's ever released, and here... I'm just not sure yet.

From the introductory segment, speaking with the developers and even playing a little bit further into the game, it's all about a huge, unexplored galaxy. You're on the frontier. Thematically, it's firing on all cylinders, but it's the kind of setup that you need way more time to engage with and verify. Make no mistake though, it is an excellent setup. -Luke Lancaster

The graphics aren't particularly special

BioWare

The first thing that struck me, aside from the J.J. Abrams "Star Trek" vibe, was that Andromeda's graphics are merely OK. I guess BioWare games have really never set a graphical bar, but I kept thinking how much prettier the similar Horizon: Zero Dawn was when I first played it. But who am I kidding? I'll probably play both. -Sean Hollister

It's still a cover shooter, no matter what they say

There was some novelty in using the new flamethrower skill (one of quite a few additions) and the jetpack to zip around doing my best Boba Fett impression. Disintegrations for all. I do need to say that combat wasn't setting the world on fire for me, ironically. It's still the same by-the-numbers shooter that we got in the original trilogy. There's a whole mess of skills to play around with, and some added verticality with the jetpack and hover jets, but I'm not sure if that changes it up enough. -Luke

Jetpacks kick ass (dissenting opinion)

Screenshot by Sean Hollister/CNET

I've gotta agree, the fact that you can take cover anywhere didn't add a whole lot to my time with the game -- but launching into the air, boost dashing around enemy cover, and picking off supposedly safe foes definitely made my day.

My biggest problem: I couldn't bring myself to stop using the jets when combat came to a close. It's way too easy to just boost-dash and air-dash everywhere, since you never run out of fuel. I wonder if I'll tire of it after a while. Then again, I didn't get tired of teleporting into battle as a Vanguard in Mass Effect 2 and 3. -Sean

A game without class

OK, not exactly. But you won't be picking your class out of the gate. Your Ryder isn't necessarily a Soldier or a sneaky Infiltrator or an Engineer. Instead, you'll have access to every skill in the game. As your proficiency in certain skills increases, the relevant class profile also becomes more powerful.

Invest in tech powers, you become a better Engineer. Increase weapon damage, your Soldier-class bonuses become stronger. You can also swap between these profiles and skill loadouts on the fly, if you feel compelled to mix things up between encounters. It's a little overwhelming at first, and I'm not sure I'm a fan of the system. Call me a purist, but traditional class-based RPGs just feel right. -Luke

So. Many. Weapons.

If you're a stat junkie, just wait: There's a truly dizzying array of weapons and weapon upgrades in this game. Maybe too many, even, including silly things like "aerial lubricant" that makes weapons fire faster -- but only when you're hovering in the air. And once I'd built my full-auto sticky-grenade firing sniper rifle, I wasn't immediately sure why I'd use anything else ever again.

Still, it's pretty cool I can wield an Asari sword, and I love the throwback Remnant weapons that keep on firing till they overheat. -Sean

Screenshot by Sean Hollister/CNET

Ship shape

The Tempest is your new ship, and it feels like the Normandy by any other name. They even look similar, inside and out. It felt like it was roughly the same size as the ship from the previous games, but it cut down on a lot of hallway and make it easier to find your crew for your tete-a-tetes -- which, after all, is the main thing you'll be doing on the ship. Keeping the design influences of the original games makes sense, but I would have liked to see something a little better equipped for a 5-year mission, you know? -Luke

The rover is back, and it's awesome

No, it's not the controversial Mako rover from the original Mass Effect, and it doesn't have a mounted turret -- but steamrolling across a planet's surface in the new six-wheeled Nomad felt pretty fantastic to me. It's a palpably powerful, weighty machine that tears through mud and rocky terrain with equal aplomb, and I love how you can press a button to give it a boost of speed, hop into the air on jump jets or give it some extra traction to climb up hills.

"It finally drives how it should," says producer Mike Gamble. Then again, I enjoyed the Mako, too. -Sean

Size, mass and density

It's the biggest game in not only Mass Effect's history, but BioWare's history. If you've ever played Dragon Age: Inquisition, you'll get how big that actually is. It feels like there's a far broader scope in terms of alien geography, from frozen wastelands to planets riddled with acidic pools to jungle worlds. Plus there's the missions in subterranean caverns or on old space frigates. We think that ultimately you'll be able to settle colonies on seven different worlds.

Developer Fabrice Condomas ran me through the various mission types. Some planets will have a self-contained story, others will progress the main narrative or house loyalty missions for your various crew members.

So there's a lot there. The hard part, which Condomas acknowledges, is filling the game and making that content engaging. "And it's hard," he said, "we ditched procedural generation early on. That's not what we do."

That points to narratives and planned content to fill the Andromeda galaxy. -Luke

Above: BioWare's official pitch for the game.

It's not all undiscovered territory

After 634 years of cryogenic stasis to go where no man has gone before, you might expect that no man had been there before, right? For me, the biggest bummer was finding that humans (and Asari and Krogan and the other major alien races from the earlier games) had already settled some of Andromeda's worlds before I ever arrived.

According to lead designer Ian Frazier, it's because the main character's stasis tube happened to be aboard a ship that was a little bit late to the Andromeda galaxy party. Thankfully, he says there'll be totally untouched places to explore as well. -Sean

Hope you like scavenging

In order to research and build the "dizzying array of weapons" I mention above, you've gotta collect resources, but not necessarily by firing down a probe from a ship like in earlier games. In my demo, the landscapes of the worlds were positively peppered with resources I had to constantly collect by hand.

In a series that prides itself on explaining its tech (you can carry four different weapons in the original game because they all shrink themselves down and visibly attach to the outside of your suit) I can't wait to hear how Mass Effect scientists invented hammerspace. -Sean

New faces, new races

Screenshot by Sean Hollister/CNET

There are new races (it's a new galaxy, after all) and a whole lot of supplementary reading material to go along with them. But I know why you're playing this game. You really want to know about your dating pool... erm. Crew. You want to know about your crew.

As I said earlier, BioWare games to me are always about the supporting cast, and it's really hard to get a sense of how they're going to play in a short demo session. It seems like the characters are hitting familiar beats. The talkative Asari scientist, the rough ex-security operative, the brusque Krogan warrior. That's not a bad thing. They're tropes that work, and the real thrill is in the nuance you uncover after hours and hours of playtime.

I didn't see any of those little character moments I was longing for, but that's not to say they won't be there. As with the previous games, you can spend hours just walking around your ship and talking to your crew. And Ryder won't find any shortage of potential romantic partners aboard the Tempest. But right now, BioWare's typically excellent character writing is something I'm taking on faith. -Luke

Do your actions matter?

Beyond whether I'll care about the characters, the biggest question I have about Mass Effect is whether my actions will actually change how the story unfolds -- or at least the way my hero is seen in the world.

It looks promising, with as many as five different ways (emotional, logical, casual, professional, impulsive) you can respond to each question a character asks you, instead of just leaning good or evil.

But we haven't yet seen enough of the game to tell if these choices really matter -- and it's both kind of cool and kind of weird that there are more "safe" conversation options than before. In Andromeda, the game clearly shows when you can ask questions that won't advance the conversation or have any ramifications, typically when you're just gathering info about the game's world. "There's no 'Boy, you're Captain Inquisitive!'" says lead designer Ian Frazier.

Also, you shouldn't expect to be a villain in this Mass Effect any more than previous ones. Frazier sums it up like this: "You're a hero, you're going to save the day, you're not going to be an asshole who murders everyone... but there are plenty of opportunities to be a jerk." -Sean

BioWare

Multiplayer might matter (and other forward-looking hints)

We spent absolutely zero time playing multiplayer. BioWare barely mentioned it at all, but producer Mike Gamble told me the four-player co-op mode might actually help continue some of the game's story.

While it'll be distinct from the single-player game and weapons won't transfer over directly like they did in Mass Effect 3, Gamble says there will be "narrative arcs that flow through multiplayer" and that BioWare wants to tell a story, possibly in weekly doses, through online play. It's also the only way to play a non-human character, including both the old and new alien races.

Other things Gamble suggested in an interview:

  • Romances may be more complex than before: Your hero may "fall into love and out of love" again
  • While our demo was focused on gunplay, diplomacy will also be an important tool: "When we talk about exploration... you're not a colonialist, you're not trying to take over. How you're interacting with these species, when they're not shooting at you first, it has to change."
  • There may be hidden references to previous Mass Effect characters, for "players who dig really deep".
  • BioWare is "not secretly making another Mass Effect game in the Shepard trilogy right now." -Sean

The final frontier

Here's a thought I kept coming back to: bigger is not always better. No Man's Sky was gorgeous and close to infinite in size. But that's the problem of scope. That universe felt empty. The world needs to be engaging, and the bigger it is the harder it is for it all to be compelling.

Early in the game, we hear someone say, "It's not like the cavalry's coming to save the day." I like what BioWare is saying about the intertwined themes of exploration and survival, the space-age Wild West frontierism of it all, but I don't know if it's the team to capitalize on that. I certainly wanted to explore. I wanted to venture forth into the great unknown, explore strange stars. I'm sold on the concept, but BioWare hasn't sold me on the execution just yet. -Luke

Mass Effect: Andromeda comes to Xbox One, PS4 and PC on March 21 in North America, March 23 in Australia and March 24 in the UK and Europe. Read more at GameSpot.