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BioWare talks Mass Effect Andromeda squadmates, cut content and that missing release date

Between now and spring 2017? "Every day counts."

Just a few months from release, and despite a round of recent reveals we still know surprisingly little about Mass Effect Andromeda - despite it sounding like the biggest and most ambitious game in BioWare's beloved series to date.

We still don't know a firm release date, other than Mass Effect Andromeda's vague "spring 2017" launch window - why is that? Should fans be worried the game might slip?

How much has changed? What has happened to the Milky Way races not included in the game (quarians! geth!) and could they still appear? Then there's your squad members - essentially your family in Andromeda. How many will there be, and what's that we hear that one was cut?

Last night we spoke with Mass Effect Andromeda's creative director Mac Walters and producer Fabrice Condominas on the phone from BioWare Edmonton to find out answers to those questions.

Read on to hear about your new AI helper SAM, the salarian squad member we may never see, and even a mention of that long-lost Mass Effect movie...

Hey guys - let's start by dissecting the latest trailer a bit. In it we see a character named Sloane Kelly - she looks like the leader of the pirate settlement we're introduced to. And yet, on the Andromeda Initiative website we can see she was once a leader on the Nexus, the Citadel-esque flagship used to spearhead exploration into Andromeda. What happened there, and how long afterwards are we seeing?

Fabrice Condominas: What you see in the trailer is a tease of what happens to the different arks... obviously this is central to the story of how things didn't go as planned [on arrival in Andromeda]. People got spread out. You don't know what happened to the other arks. You may have seen we just announced some Mass Effect novels - I encourage you to look at their titles...

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Nexus Uprising, the first of several planned Andromeda novels.

The first is named Nexus Uprising - I guess that's the one you're referring to?

Fabrice Condominas: Exactly.

That settlement - was that set up by the Milky Way races?

Fabrice Condominas: Yes - that outpost is something those species set up. You will be able to build them as well on the planets you encounter. Not on all planets: there are certain criteria you have to fulfill but you will be able to establish them as a player.

Ryder speaks to a character named Sam, or SAM, and I was wondering whether this is your version of EDI on the Tempest [your new Normandy]?

Fabrice Condominas: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that SAM is ultimately not a living being - its more of an AI or robot. But it's way broader than EDI - the relationship is way different. SAM handles a number of things as well as your vessel. It is connected to you permanently and was connected to - and knew - your father, Alec. There's a very specific relationship there. It's more of a partner than EDI was - you're way closer emotionally to SAM.

One piece of feedback you guys got from the trailer and responded to very quickly via Twitter to is the quality of the facial animations and lip-syncing. You've said you're working on it but I wondered how much more you can do there in the engine?

Fabrice Condominas: We are absolutely working on it. As was mentioned in the tweets it's actually something that comes last in the polishing stage. We've been using full facial capture for the first time to record the actor's performance and it's also the first time for BioWare [using this technique] working in Frostbite - I think we're beginning to push that fairly far. We're actively working on it and it's the last thing to be polished before we do a manual pass and really, really tweak all those movements because we first wanted to make sure the dialogue is final and settled.

One thing I think people expected to see in the trailer and we didn't get is a release date - apart from the vague mention again of "spring 2017". That's getting pretty close - why aren't you announcing it? Should fans be worried it'll slip?

Fabrice Condominas: There's absolutely no reason to be worried. BioWare is all about quality and believe me - the team is extremely aware of how fast that is coming [laughs]. But we're focusing on that - that's our objective. Maybe we'll need two extra days? When we're 100 per cent confident we can go to certification on a certain date, then we'll give a very specific date. In the meantime, we're focusing on quality and every day counts. We don't want to pressure that.

You mentioned the novels - the first is released at the end of the March. You guys have also said you don't want to talk about the novels because they will spoil the game. So I'm wondering if the end of March might be a good time for the game to release as well?

Mac Walters: The first novel which comes out is more about setting up the backstory of certain factors at the point when Ryder arrives in the galaxy. The reason I don't want to get into story stuff is, honestly, these things are better played or in this case read. It's better if you fall in love with them or hate them for yourself - that's more where that comment was coming from.

One last question about the books - there were four originally announced, with the last to be penned by yourself, Mac. That seems to have dropped off the radar now, but are you still working on that?

Mac Walters: So, when we first announced our partnership with Titan the idea was I'd do a fourth book which would be a bridge to the movie - which is still something that's out there and we're still talking about. But when I became creative director [on Andromeda] that became priority, I guess [laughs]. And with the state of where the movie was - it just didn't feel like a priority. So what we said was, look, we'll deliver a fourth book but we'll see how these three do tied to Andromeda first. They're great, I expect people will want to see more of Andromeda before they want more of a bridge to a possible future movie, so that's the only reason they changed. Mass Effect Andromeda became a much higher focus - certainly my main focus.

Let's talk squadmates - I'm going to try and remember them all. We've got Liam and Cora, Peebee, Drack and Vetra and I think you guys have said we should expect one of the new Andromeda races represented as well. Is six squadmates a good number?

Mac Walters: [Pause] Assuming that's how many we have, I think that's a good number [laughs].

Mac, I remember you speaking to Game Informer and mentioning a squadmate that was cut in development. From the races represented I'm going to make an educated guess and say they were salarian. Can you say anything more about why he didn't make it and if we might ever see him again?

Mac Walters: You know game development is a constant series of decisions - there's always going to be some scope reductions. Because we decided to do loyalty missions that meant every squad member had their own special mission plus a significant amount of relationship dialogue. Ultimately, the only reason we chose to cut was because of that. It wasn't that we didn't like the character - I believe at the time it was just which ones were furthest along. As for whether we'd see them again in the future - it is possible. I think a lot of people like the idea for the character. But you never know - sometimes what we do is instead of coming back to it in the game he'll come back in a book or comic or something like that.

Mordin is my favourite character so, as a salarian fan, I hope we see him again.

Mac Walters: [laughs] Part of it too was we're playing up the Tempest crew members much more and we have a salarian on the crew. We put a lot of investment in that character.

He's the pilot, right?

Mac Walters: Exactly.

Just to clear up one more thing from that interview - you mentioned we might see additional squad members via DLC in the future. That confused me a little because I remember BioWare's comments after [Mass Effect 3 day-one DLC character] Javik that you probably wouldn't do a DLC squadmate again - because maybe you wouldn't have them the whole adventure or get the most out them. I wondered whether you meant a DLC squadmate more like Aria, who was available for a specific set of missions only.

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The Nexus' new Cultural Centre.

Mac Walters: Yeah - I think there's a lot of different ways we could introduce new characters like that, new squadmates, whether they are one-offs for a mission... But I think Andromeda is more of a persistent experience, more of an open world than we've done before. Even once the critical path story, the main narrative, is done there's still a lot to accomplish. It's a game of exploration so if we wanted to create a space for a new follower we can do it. It's more a question of will we do it, at this point. I wasn't ruling it out, I think I meant, but it's certainly possible we'll bring in new characters before we get to a Mass Effect Andromeda 2.

From the Milky Way we have humans, asari, turians, salarians, krogan. I know some fans wouldn't be happy unless you brought everyone along, but it looks like you guys are focusing on the ones people really wanted to see. You have said there is a way other races could be introduced in the future - I wondered whether this meant new Milky Way colonists from a time after ME3 or would you introduce them as having always been on the arks, and just getting woken up?

Mac Walters: We have a plan, I can tell you that much. We have a whole backstory around how it is possible any major species you could have seen in the Milky Way could one day be a part of the Andromeda adventure. And that plan will be revealed when we ship the game [laughs]. As a small hint to that too, we have one of the novels giving some added backstory to that plan.

I spotted in the latest Andromeda Initiative video there was a place on the Nexus - the Cultural Centre - where you could have those other races detailed even if they are not physically in the game. Will we see them mentioned there?

Mac Walters: That area is more for - if you meet a race in Andromeda which is not hostile - introducing them to the cultures of the Milky Way. So I would say it would represent the species that are in the game and then, down the road, if other species are added, it will expand.

Fabrice Condominas: The exploration aspect of the game is not only about geography - cultural exploration is key to the game. That notion of exploring the anthropologies and cultural and linguist sides - that's why that area is there.

And with that, our time was up. There's some intriguing hints there - especially around the introduction of other Milky Way species at a later point. I'm wondering whether there's some kind of gene bank for all Milky Way species on board the Nexus. Certainly, some option like this would be an easier narrative choice than entangling the games in the story of any colonists who had been around during the events of ME3.

Hopefully we won't have too much longer to wait for answers - whenever Mass Effect Andromeda finally does release in spring next year.

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