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Mass Effect: Andromeda offers a more personal story in an even bigger galaxy

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Hands-on with one of the year’s biggest titles

It’s easy to forget just how ambitious the original Mass Effect was. When Bioware began designing it in 2004, developers generally had to choose between building sophisticated role-playing games, combat-heavy action shooters, and exploration-heavy adventures. Mass Effect attempted to do all three simultaneously, weaving its various components together with a rich and suspenseful story about an imminent assault on all life in the universe.

Mass Effect didn’t totally succeed — primarily its exploration mode, which involved endless travel inside a vehicle known as the Mako, is remembered as particularly tedious. But Bioware refined Mass Effect over the next two installments, paring back less successful elements while continuing to build a story in which your choices carried over from game to game and reshaped each installment in surprising ways. (Until those underwhelming endings, anyway!)

All of which makes Mass Effect: Andromeda, the next installment of the series, an intriguing departure. In its earliest moments, it tells a much more personal story than the trilogy that preceded it. By focusing on the relationships between the protagonist and his (or her, depending on the character you choose) family, the game develops a gravity that helps anchor you in a universe with an ever-expanding number of alien races, squad members, and side quests.

Last week Electronic Arts, which owns BioWare, invited reporters down to its headquarters in Redwood City, California, to play the game for the first time. In a little over two hours, I played two missions on PC, getting a sense for some — but not all — of Andromeda’s gameplay. In missions that emphasized combat, conversation, and exploration, Andromeda revealed itself as a game very much in keeping with its predecessors, but rooted in family relationships that open up new narrative possibilities.

A companion story to the original trilogy, Andromeda takes place 600 years after the first game, when a group of arks departs for the Andromeda Galaxy seeking a new permanent home. You play as one of two human twins, Sam and Sara Ryder, who are aboard the ark Hyperion in cryogenic sleep. (You can customize their appearance to your liking using the game’s character editor.) The game begins when you wake up — and things on board the ship begin going haywire more or less immediately.

In the first mission we played, which takes place near the start of the game, I led my character (Sam) on a combat-heavy expedition to explore a new planet. The mission explains how you become the “pathfinder,” the character in the game responsible for finding a new home for humanity. You face plenty of resistance along the way — and for the first time in the series, you take cover automatically, making firefights much less frustrating than in some of the series’ earlier installments. Your character’s space suit-assisted jump, combined with a dashing ability, lets you move through the battlefield more fluidly than before.

It all takes place against a beautifully rendered backdrop of electrical storms, floating rock formations, and ancient alien technology. Both human and alien characters are depicted in vibrant color, and if the story feels a bit recycled to begin with — it’s basically Battlestar Galactica all over again — it quickly expands to include more original subplots.

Mass Effect players love the game for its squad-based combat system, which lets you swap allies in and out depending on their relative strengths for the mission at hand. I didn’t get a chance to explore that during our demonstration — in the first mission, I could only control Sam. But BioWare says that instead of the class-based system of earlier games, Andromeda will let you instead choose only your “background training” — giving you a chance to boost your favorite abilities earlier in the game, but leaving you the option to develop other skills later in the game if you change your mind.

For our second mission, we skipped until about halfway through Andromeda. By that point in the game, the pathfinder is hot on the trail of the bad guys, pursuing them across the galaxy in a manner that may remind you of the hunt for Saren in the original Mass Effect. This mission involved landing at a port city and attempting to get information about the bad guys’ whereabouts, using the series’ familiar branching dialog trees. (It also let me take the Nomad — an updated take on the original game’s Mako — out for a spin. It was fun!)

The old series’ choices pushed you toward becoming either a virtuous “paragon” or a hot-headed “renegade,” but Andromeda has more shades of gray. Dialog options will have up to four different “tones,” and will ask you to make choices that don’t always have a moral dimension. In this way, you can shape a variety of different relationship types with your father, your brother, and your sister — telling comrades that you are very close with them, for example, or that you hardly know them at all.

The time I spent with the game offered a solid, if incomplete, look at how Andromeda’ will actually play. Fans of the series will have lots of questions about this game’s take on squad combat, its story progression, and the actual vastness of its universe. (BioWare is promoting the game as its biggest ever.) For two hours, Andromeda kept me entranced. For the rest, we’ll have to wait until it’s released.

Mass Effect: Andromeda comes out March 21st on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.