Mass Effect: Andromeda stands to be the year’s biggest release so far when it hits Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.
With so much information already out in the wild and fans clamouring for more information leading into release, I jumped on the opportunity to play a few hours of the game. I also sat down with BioWare producer Fabrice Condominas to go into a little more depth in regards to classes, relationships, combat, and, importantly, love interests.
Q. So I made the mistake of thinking I could blast through the original trilogy before the release of Andromeda. That was three months ago. I’m maybe 30 hours into ME1 and I have barely scratched the surface.
Fabrice Condominas: Yeah, that’s crazy. Good luck with that …
Q. Well, I actually have managed to kind of bounce between the three games. I did play all three when they were originally released, but I had to rush through ME3 because I was reviewing it at the time. One thing that is quite striking for me now is actually how different all three are from one another, which I realised when I first played them, but it stands out more now playing them back-to-back. ME1 started as this really hardcore RPG grind, ME2 was a little more open and flexible, certainly with more combat, whereas ME3, for better or worse, went down a pretty aggressively action-focused route. Where does Andromeda lie between those games and their gameplay philosophies?
Fabrice Condominas: Well when you have a legacy that strong, it’s certainly a gift. One of the reasons why is because you don’t have the narrative constraints of the trilogy, it’s a fresh start. We’ve been able to say, let’s take the best of the three games — the exploration, the RPG mechanics from ME1; the loyalty missions, all of the character relationships, the trust system from ME2; and, obviously, the combat from ME1. And the tricky part is, you take all of those systems, which were evolved and refined across three games, and you try to balance them so that the RPG is as strong as the combat and as strong as the relationships. So that was our goal … and suddenly it takes five years to make [laughs]. That’s the tricky part of it, because it really was about balancing all of these things to make a coherent package.
Q. You mentioned character relationships, which have obviously formed a pretty core part of the experience from the start. Everything from your squad, the people around you, the people your character meets. Everything you do leads you down a path … but now we sort of have two driving character arcs, rather than one. The siblings, how is their relationship different compared to companions we’d see in the original trilogy?
Fabrice Condominas: Obviously you don’t want to artificially create an experience with a sibling. I don’t want to spoil the game but the sibling has a specific place in the story, which doesn’t mean they evolve in the same way, because they really are their own thing.
Q. What works with their relationship that might not have in the original trilogy?
Fabrice Condominas: It changes a bit relative to what you’re doing, who you choose, obviously. So you would have seen that we played as Sara in the introduction, and the natural progression of that, how she responded, reacted to the situation, had we played as Scott it would have been the other way around. What was important for us was that, firstly, the other sibling had a sense, an important part in the story, and second, that the journey is exactly the same whether you pick Sara or Scott, but there are slight differences, which I don’t want to spoil, that will kind of remind you that you did pick this specific character over that character. So it’s a different sort of dynamic relationship, an important one, one that is already established but can grow in different ways.
Q. Let’s move onto classes … or profiles. I’m a little confused about the changes here, because I’ve read conflicting things from different outlets and interviews. I’ve seen two profiles mentioned, the Infiltrator and Vanguard profile, and you can switch between these two at any time …
Fabrice Condominas: No, there are a number of different classes.
Q. Okay, I was under the impression that classes had been scrapped, and that there were two profiles, each with specific skill trees broken down.
Fabrice Condominas: There’s actually no dominate profile. It’s really about your play style. There are multiple different class profiles you can build and switch between.
Q. And you can switch between these at any time, on the fly?
Fabrice Condominas: Yeah, but not on the fly just at random. You can switch if you meet the prerequisites. That’s the important part. It depends on where you invest your skill points. You can’t switch if you haven’t invested in a certain area. It’s certainly not a free for all. It’s how you build your character.
Q. This is a fairly significant change, because previously you’d select one class, build that class, stick with it, and build your character around a distinctive mechanical identity. Which I guess was restrictive but led to a rather direct, straight experience, certainly with more consequences. Why the change? How does it improve things?
Fabrice Condominas: The reason we went in this direction, in all aspects of the experience, was we wanted the player to grow the character with as much freedom as they wanted.
Q. Does it change the base structure of the narrative, how things progress?
Fabrice Condominas: Narratively, things start off the same. When you reach Andromeda, the character doesn’t know anything. Nothing goes as planned. So they’re facing a situation they didn’t anticipate. And it’s the same with you. You don’t know your character. So that’s the narrative aspect of it.
Mechanically, when you come in, everything is open. You will build, mechanically, a character that suits your gameplay style. The more you play, the more you build. That’s the idea we had: that you can shape the personality and mechanically reflect that whichever way you want. You don’t have to make a preconceived choice of who you’re going to be stuck with.
Q. One thing that actually interests me is how it works with the combat, because obviously it permits the flexibility to change mid-battle. Is that how it works? If things aren’t working, I can change however I see fit?
Fabrice Condominas: It’s a slightly different aspect when applied to combat. If you’re more interested in Biotics, for example, obviously that’s what you’re going to invest in. And then suddenly you might unlock different areas of a different skill tree. But even if you’re still interested in Biotics, and then let’s say you start investing in weapons, you’ll unlock the Soldier profile.
Q. And that is beneficial in what way?
Fabrice Condominas: Before combat and during combat, you might see that certain enemies, that they find ways to counter, or better Biotic abilities. You can switch to the Soldier profile to have more of an advantage in that environment.
Q. Okay. Before we wind up, another important component: dialogue, interactions, relationships. You’ve mentioned that you’re moving away from the paragon/renegade system. How does making it less of a black or white system improve the experience?
Fabrice Condominas: Well the problem with the binary system, the paragon and renegade system, was that people were kind of finding themselves picking and sticking to a side. Once they chose a side, they tended to stick to it, regardless of the meaning of taking that side. We wanted to move away from that, and create a system where the choices you make actually shape the personality of the person, of the character, and not try to gamify the system.
Q. How does this change how you develop trusting relationships, though?
Fabrice Condominas: Of course nuancing that, the ripple effect on the relationships, you can do more. The path to gain trust or lose trust, that’s less obvious. So it’s really about making the choices with personality and the character you want to build, and accepting those consequences, rather than just blindly going towards right or wrong, down a certain morality path the whole time.
Q. Can you elaborate a little more on why you moved away from that system?
Fabrice Condominas: Well we always wanted to create something that branched off in different ways. That’s just the branching nature of the narrative, and it kind of led to the dialogue structure that we’re seeing in the game. Because you have all of those possibilities.
Q. Romancing is obviously a key part of that.
Fabrice Condominas: Yes, boning. Of course. Everyone wants to do that.
Q. I think that, well yeah, everyone wants to bone everyone, but what I think makes that relationship path important is that it establishes something really intimate and human for the character, something we need to work at. How has that change? How do these changes improve how players interact with potential love interests?
Fabrice Condominas: Nuancing the trust system, means you can — I was going to say add more shades of grey [laughs] — but it’s not only about falling in love or not falling love. You can have a one night stand if you want. Both characters can just flirt if you push them down that way. There are more options, which is what we aimed for. If you want, you can build a real epic love story.
Okay well, my time’s up and I need to get back to playing. Thanks for the chat and good luck with the launch.
Mass Effect: Andromeda launches March 21 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.