Let me first apologize for being a couple Mass Effect 3 controversies behind the curve.
I don’t yet have an opinion about the ending to the Mass Effect 3, which some players are petitioning against, because I haven’t beaten the game yet. Also, my general lack of interest in downloadable content has led to an “ignorance is bliss” attitude about From Ashes, the $10 DLC that should’ve been included in the main game, according to some fans.
But after a serious weekend binge on Bioware’s latest space opera, I’m clear-headed on this much: EA and Bioware didn’t taint Mass Effect 3 by adding multiplayer. They made the game, and the concept of multiplayer in general, more interesting.
Unlike most other games, the multiplayer of Mass Effect 3 doesn’t live in a vacuum. The more you play it, the stronger your assets in the single-player game become. The stronger your assets, the better your outcome as the galaxy goes to war against a race of genocidal machines. You can get fully prepared without multiplayer, but only by completing side quests and scanning planets for precious materials. PC Gamer‘s Tom Francis argues that resource scanning is a dull grind, and that Bioware made a “seedy design decision” in regards to multiplayer.
It’s easy to be cynical about this, especially because EA has a couple of financial hooks into Mass Effect 3′s multiplayer. For one, the multiplayer is only available if you buy a new copy of the game, or if you pay $10 for an “Online Pass” to unlock the content on a used copy. This is EA’s way — and increasingly, a technique used by other publishers — of fighting back against the second-hand game market. Second, EA sells bundles of weapons, characters and power-ups for multiplayer use. If you don’t want to invest the game time to earn virtual credits for these bundles, you can buy them for real-world money instead.
I’ll get to those concerns later. What I’m most interested in is whether single-player and multiplayer should ever be allowed to mingle. I say it’s about time they did.
Here’s my usual trajectory when trying the multiplayer of any given shooter:
- Play a few rounds, get my butt kicked.
- Play a few more rounds, get better, start leveling up and unlocking new gear.
- Get addicted to leveling up and unlocking new gear. Continue playing for days or weeks.
- Start wondering what is the point of it all, realize there is none.
- Quit playing multiplayer.
- Buy new game, return to step one.
Until now, multiplayer shooters have been in desperate need of an endgame — a natural point at which to break the cycle of leveling up and unlocking new gear. Mass Effect 3 provides one. As your “Readiness Rating” ticks upwards, you feel like you’re working toward a goal, not just spinning in an endless cycle of newer weapons and armor. When that rating hits 100 percent, you know you’ve done all you can in multiplayer to assist the war effort.
That goal isn’t too hard to attain, either. After roughly a dozen rounds of cooperative play, only a few of which were successful, my Readiness rating had jumped from 50 percent to over 75 percent. And I had a good time getting there, cooperating with three humans against wave after wave of computer opponents. The instant action was typically more intense than single-player combat, and my human squadmates made stronger allies than the single-player’s backing vocalist AI.
Mass Effect 3′s multiplayer amounts to an alternative for players who want the best ending but would rather shoot aliens in the face than scan planets for resources in the single-player game. If you’re not inclined to play online, I suppose you could blame Bioware for Mass Effect 3′s dull resource gathering segments, but they’re not as monotonous as those of Mass Effect 2, which also required planet-scanning to prepare for the final battle.
Does EA look bad for tacking on a couple revenue opportunities to the multiplayer? Sure. But the actual impact on players is minimal. As a guarantor of new game sales, Online Pass is nothing compared to a great game that people can’t resist buying on day one, and according to EA, nearly 900,000 people snagged Mass Effect 3 on launch day. For all those players, and presumably many more to come, Online Pass is a non-issue.
Meanwhile, the extra guns and power-ups are foolish purchases. Earning enough in-game credits to buy these items only takes a few rounds, and you can’t even choose the exact items you want — items are sold in randomized grab-bags — so spending real money is a gamble. Besides, you’re fighting alongside other people, not against them, so you can’t get obliterated by someone with deep pockets.
I’m usually skeptical of multiplayer. Too often, it’s tacked on for the sake of an extra bullet point on the box. But at a time when EA and Bioware are getting second-guessed for everything, let’s at least applaud Mass Effect 3′s multiplayer as the right call.