This move ends up being a surprisingly mixed bag. Andromeda appears to respond to some of the criticisms aimed at the earlier series: It’s much more open-world, concentrating on the exploration of other planets rather than a military campaign against a specific threat. It’s moved the setting to a new galaxy to shake up the established politics of the earlier games. And the possibilities for customization are practically limitless—every conversation you have can branch in several different directions, while every item, weapon, and piece of armor you own can be crafted, enhanced, and broken into pieces according to your whims.
If the earlier Mass Effect games were fantasy epics, Andromeda is more like a Western: Players are focused on the difficulties of life as a pioneer, living far from civilization, meeting unfamiliar friends and foes, and trying to create a habitable future. Set in between the first and second Mass Effect games (thus avoiding any controversy over that series’s ending), Andromeda focuses on Ryder, a “Pathfinder” sent on a deep-space colonization mission to another galaxy. As is typical for Mass Effect, you can pick your character’s first name, gender, and face. As the game progresses, you can embark on romantic partnerships, alliances, and certain stories.
The main difference is that, in earlier games, these options ended up guiding you toward inevitable confrontations. As Commander Shepherd, your job was to earn your team’s trust (by completing specific missions with them) and then send them out into battle. As Ryder in Andromeda, you still have the option of building a team of dependable companions (there’s a whole cast of characters for you to meet and stock your ship with), but your job is more amorphous—you visit hostile planets, terraform them so they can support life, and then pick which stories you pursue from there.
So, much of Andromeda’s suspense revolves around the conversations you have, the political choices you make, and the places you travel to. It’s staggeringly ambitious, but also painfully slow and detail-oriented at times, even though the game has also tried to diversify the combat systems of the earlier Mass Effects. (Andromeda makes battles against alien villains more chaotic and open, whereas the earlier games’ action sequences were straightforwardly on rails.) Andromeda will probably appeal to a smaller audience, one more enthusiastic about Mass Effect’s promise of customizable narratives than about its cinematic approach to sci-fi storytelling.
This emphasis on choice appears to be en vogue for some of the big-budget, open-world games of the moment. Ever since Grand Theft Auto III invented the format of the “sandbox” game that players can explore freely, game developers have promised more, more, more. Open-ended phenomenon games like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky put stock in randomness, allowing each player to experience unique worlds and build infinitely varied items to tackle them. Huge-scale RPGs like Skyrim, The Witcher 3, and Fallout 4 have central narratives that players can just decide to ignore, since there’s so much else to do on the periphery. Fallout 4, ostensibly a post-apocalyptic action game, literally lets you build your own city from the ground up.