Space is still very much the final frontier for many. There are those of us who still gaze at the stars and try to imagine the wonders and/or terrors that might be awaiting us when we take our first steps into the unknown, beyond the confines of our own solar system. Games that let us explore this great and mysterious expanse have long held our collective attention, and those that do it with style and purpose tend to go down well. The original Mass Effect trilogy is a pertinent case in point.
In that vein, Mass Effect: Andromeda takes the advanced space-faring species from our own Milky Way, and has them heading off into the unknown, in this case making a perilous journey to our nearest galactic neighbours in Andromeda. This new action-RPG from Bioware is built around the theme of exploration, and it's clear that its creators crave a return to the same essence - the feeling of discovery - that made the first game so special.
"We wanted to get back to that feeling of space opera," producer Fabrice Condominas told us after we'd gone hands-on with Andromeda for the first time at EA's UK office. To do this the studio is focusing once again on not just the wider narrative, but also on the characters that bring that story to life. Here most of the people you encounter will have a shared spirit of adventure, each one with their own reasons for leaving their old home and embarking on a 600-year journey to a new, unknown galaxy. This is very much a one way trip, and to make matters worse the locals mightn't be too happy to see us. After all, in Andromeda, we're the alien threat.
You might think that playing a part in this mass migration, and seeking out a new home on already populated worlds, would have Andromeda drawing parallels to our own history of colonisation (and it might still, but given Bioware's focus on equality and diversity over the years, we imagine any discussion of those themes will be delicately done), but Condominas was quick to stress that this isn't the case, pointing out that in Andromeda we're heading into situations where we're not the most advanced or even most powerful force. Once inside this new galaxy, humanity and its allies set out to explore the worlds found inside the Heleus Cluster, our starting point and playground in this first adventure.
To keep the game credible Bioware has been consulting with the European Space Agency. This might be science fiction, but effort has gone into keeping things plausible, and it needs to be if we're going to be taken along for a ride through a world that Bioware claims to be their biggest ever (to give you an idea of scale, some planets are, by themselves, bigger than the whole of Dragon Age: Inquisition). The Heleus Cluster is full of places to explore, including a number of story planets. These will contain quests connected to the critical path, plus a bunch of side-missions to tackle for those who want to venture off the beaten track. On top of that, players can tackle loyalty missions - these tie into the new loyalty system - whereby your crew will come to respect you, or not as the case may be. Apparently it's going to be hard to keep everyone happy, which points to some potentially tricky decisions that'll have to be made in your role as Pathfinder.
You might make some people unhappy, but you might also turn a few frowns upside down, this thanks to more complicated and nuanced relationships that can be established with your crew. This is Bioware, so you know there's going to liberal amounts of bonking for those inclined, but the studio has taken things further here by adding in different types of intimate interactions, from gentle flirting to full-on romances and even one-night stands. Most of these interactions will take place aboard The Tempest, your home-from-home amongst these uncharted stars. In terms of the ship, there are some key differences when compared to The Normandy, most notably it's a lot smaller. It's here, in-between missions, that you'll spend time building relationships with your colleagues and taking care of business.
There are various terminals on the ship that let you access different aspects of the game. The most obvious is the star map, which lets you guide the ship around the cluster, scanning planets and the like. You can head elsewhere to chat with your crew, who in classic Bioware style have their own little corner of the ship that you can visit. There are other terminals that, for example, link to the multiplayer portion of the game, and there's a meeting room where you and the team discuss the events that transpire during your adventures. While we're on the subject of multiplayer; it survives from the third game, although unlike ME3 it's not linked to your progress, at least not in the same way as it was. We didn't get to play MP, though. Instead we were treated to two missions: one from the very start of the game, the other set a few hours into the story.