Mass Effect Andromeda is an enormous game, and while we're not yet ready to share our final opinions, we can now get talking about its opening missions. Starting this Thursday, these will be playable to anyone with an EA or Origin Access subscription on PC or Xbox One.
EA's trial lets you play through Andromeda's opening prologue, pick up your shiny new ship Tempest and then take a leisurely stroll through Eos, the game's first mission world. It's a fairly generous offering - and of course the game's co-op multiplayer mode is unlocked as well.
We've been playing through this section ahead of the review (look for that next Monday morning). Seeing these missions in sequence provides a good feel for Andromeda - and teases lots more to come. For me, it's also been a much more natural look at the game's opening than the four hours I spent with Mass Effect Andromeda last month - back then we got to play the prologue followed by a mission from further on in the campaign. That hands-on opportunity gave us a promising window into the game's story - both its initial setup and some of its main characters - but the leap forwards to a later mission meant the experience was a little disjointed.
Now, in anticipation of the EA/Origin trial, we can go into more detail on how Andromeda's opening hours feel. Fair warning - while we won't be discussing the opening's biggest plot points, we will be talking about some of the characters you meet over the first couple of hours - because once again, BioWare has succeeded in making them the very heart of its story.
We've known about Andromeda's crew for a while - its set of new squadmates, and some of the other faces who will call the Tempest home. But while Andromeda's changes to combat and the adoption of large open arenas take a while to click, its cast of characters are an immediate hit. Ryder is a relatable main character and still green around the gills, giving your new Pathfinder a sense of vulnerability which Shepard never possessed. Squad member Liam is genuinely likable, affable, best buddy material. Cora is cooler, both in temperament and style - and there's a natural edge there, as she was originally trained for the Pathfinder job you got.
Beyond both of those, BioWare has taken the unusual step of front-loading its squadmate roster, so that by the time EA's trial is up you'll have crossed paths with almost everyone aboard. (Much has already been written, and turned into fanart, of Andromeda's Jaal. He's the one squadmate you'll have to wait a little longer to get to know.) Your mileage around the Tempest may vary - depending on your style of playthrough you may want to talk to everyone, although even the more minor crewmates now all have personalities. Even at this early stage, Andromeda offers the tightest-knit crew to date.
And there are, deliciously, already tensions. Peebee, your sometimes-a-little-too-wacky asari, is entirely focused on the technology of the Remnant - a race of machines left behind by an unknown creator, and whose origin may be one of Andromeda's biggest secrets. She's driven, and not by the same goals as others on the team. Vetra, your female turian, is charming but a little manipulative. Away from your crew, the slippery Director Tann, de facto leader of the Andromeda Initiative expedition, looms large. He's aided by other senior staff from the various Milky Way races - there are moments with them all which remind of the old Citadel Council - but it's a different dynamic. Tann, alone, is in charge - it's a pivotal role, and one he'll do anything to keep hold of. He sees the potential in Ryder, and knows your results are good for the organisation's precarious colonisation efforts. On the other hand, he makes it clear your continued success is the only reason he's keeping you around.
Andromeda's story, after five years on the boil at BioWare, leaps through the narrative hoops needed to refresh the series. I've just finished a playthrough of the original Mass Effect trilogy, and boy did those games end in a dark place. Switching back to Andromeda after the hell of a galaxy under attack, BioWare's new take on the series' future is simply a more enjoyable place to be. It's brighter in look and tone, unbound by much of the series' baggage - story-wise, Andromeda is just what was needed. And for long-time fans, like myself, who still hold the trilogy dear there are plenty of nods as soon as you go wandering. Namedrops of absent races like the batarians, quarians and geth, audio files from a certain character, and immediate answers to nerd questions like - what about the genophage?
But then, BioWare's strengths have always been its story and characters - it would be a surprise if the studio did not deliver once again here. Greater questions remain around the game's gunplay and open worlds, which we haven't yet had enough time with to pass verdict upon. For those who do play the EA Access trial it's worth remembering your opening weapons and power levels are naturally very low - this is the start of the game, and there's little scope to feel powerful, yet. But perhaps that's the point. The lack of a powers wheel, and the ability to directly command squadmate powers remains an unwelcome change, although the added maneuverability gained by Andromeda's jump and boost mechanics is a bonus. As for its planet-based story missions, only a lot of time will tell whether exploring all of the game's countless sidequests is really worth your time.
Eos, your first mission planet, is a radioactive desert - not a place you would want to call home. Like the world you crash land on in the game's prologue - which we discussed at length previously - Eos was expected to be something different. Already, there are seeds of the game's overarching story - why these planets aren't in the condition you expected - and there's a drive to solve each area's issues to kickstart colonisation and wake more of your Milky Way inhabitants from cryosleep.
We've already encountered one puzzle type which may be a sticking point for some - a sudoku-esque tile-solving task which spawns enemies whenever you fail (although if you find the right item, this can be skipped). You'll also get to try out the game's new land vehicle, the six-wheeled Nomad, which is a little more realistic in its driving abilities than the grind-up-vertical-cliffs Mako. It gets you from A to B, but like your combat skills it feels like you'll want to improve its skills before feeling at home.
There's a natural symmetry in Andromeda being both your character's new stomping grounds and, as a fresh start for BioWare, the Mass Effect series' new home, too. Even after a few hours, the game shows heaps of promise - strong foundations and characters you'll want to spend time with. Here's hoping the rest of the game builds upon that.