Wait. Why isn’t this called “Mass Effect 4?” Well, that’s down to the fact that the story of Commander Shepard, the face and gender-swapping hero we all knew and loved, is truly over. The Mass Effect trilogy isn’t getting a confusing fourth instalment, then - rather it’s becoming the basis for a Star Wars-like universe of games. Bioware’s been insistent that, while Andromeda takes place after the events of ME3, it’s not a sequel to that game in the story sense.
What it seems to be, however, is a deeply exciting fresh spin on the Mass Effect action-RPG-adventure formula, not just taking inspiration from the old games but seemingly from Bioware’s other fantasy universe, Dragon Age (which has pulled the 'new characters years later' trick more than once) too. It’s set to hit in December 2016 - let’s see what we have in store.
So, if there’s no Shepard, where are we? The name’s the biggest clue. Andromeda is a galaxy made up of approximately a trillion stars, set 2.5 million lightyears from our own (the setting for the original trilogy).To narrow it down a bit, rumours suggest that we’ll be crossing the Helius cluster, a jumble of star systems roughly 3 times the size of ME3’s Galaxy Map. And why are we there?
Oddly, a bit of Bioware-branded clothing might help us with that. The developer tweeted a jacket patch with the words “A.R.K.C.O.N. Pathfinder Initiative” - this fits in well with rumours started by a possible leaked Bioware survey that stated the game would involve a “Pathfinder” attempting to find a new home for humanity. It seems the Reaper attacks of the last game have led to humanity (and perhaps its allies) taking flight for cosmic pastures new, and your main interaction - beyond shooting unfamiliar alien races - is establishing colonies across the new worlds you find.
Our new hero still doesn’t have an official name, although the Internet went wild after spotting a dogtag in a trailer that appears to say "Rider" - Commander Shepard was named after the first American man in space, Alan Shepard. The first American woman in space? Sally Ride. After being told that the first trailer didn't feature the lead character, but seeing that it did contain an N7 logo, it seems our Pathfinder will be joined by at least one member of the elite human military unit that Shepard hailed from. That apparently leaked survey also mentioned a Krogan named Drack and Cora, a biotics user of undefined species.
As for who we might be up against, that’s a little less clear. Rumours suggest we’ll be stumbling across the remains of Andromeda’s answer to the Protheans, dubbed The Remnant, while fighting off a malicious race called the Khet who want Remnant tech for themselves. It’s pretty familiar fare for a Bioware game, but we’d wager there’ll be some other outraged alien civilisations who don’t take kindly to these Milky Way interlopers, too.
Andromeda sounds like it’s taking on the traditional Mass Effect formula, but increasing the need for exploration. Combat-wise, trailers have already showed us the traditional three prongs of firearms, tech and biotics, while producers on the game have said they want to reintroduce some of the role-playing elements of the first game that were lost in the cover shooting of its sequels.
Exploration sounds less familiar. Bioware’s Yanick Roy has said that the teams wants to “take space as a thing, and turn it into a place” - this could be meaningless fluff, but it offers perhaps a hint that travelling between systems might not be simply a case of pointing where to go on a map. As for the systems themselves, concept art for the game has shown everything from garden worlds to alien cities to blasted moonscapes, and the Wild West-themed trailer implies that you’ll be Lone Rangering your way across them all, making friends and offing bad guys.
Add to that the idea of building settlements. Dragon Age: Inquisition was lauded for how it allowed you to shape the map, taking some ownership of game spaces, and rumours suggest Andromeda will build on that feeling. Building settlements will apparently not only signal humanity’s spread, but serve the game’s multiplayer, as you and friends fight off Khet attacks on your outposts using custom teams of soldiers.
The means to your exploration are important too. It’s been suggested that the fancy new ship in the trailers is called the Tempest, and will serve as this game’s Normandy hub/home. But there’s something more… old-school lodged inside its cargo hold. Andromeda is confirmed to be reintroducing the Mako, the tooled-up moon buggy that players loved to hate in the first game. Rest assured, it should be a little less erratic to control than its previous form, and it signals a return to the first game’s huge, explorable planetary expanses, peppered with secrets and loot:
"We're shooting for a lot more diversity in terms of the planet types, in terms of the types of experiences you can have on these worlds," said producer Mike Gamble during a Bioware livestream. "The Mako is important to us, and how we represent the Mako and that exploration experience." OK, Sign me up.