Is Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer a natural extension of the franchise’s rich universe or shoehorned in to tick a box on a checklist? Stace Harman goes hands-on and speaks to Bioware’s Aaryn Flynn to find out.
Commander Shepard has come a long way. She’s battled a rogue Spectre, Citadel Council bureaucracy, the synthetic Geth and genetically modified Collectors. She’s travelled millions of miles across the Mass Effect universe. She’s dyed her hair.
But today’s hands-on is not about Shepard per se, though she does get a mention later, today is about the bigger picture: a galaxy at war, the thousands of mini-skirmishes that this galactic warfare ignites and a multiplayer mode that’s been born to fit the fiction. First though, I want to talk to Bioware about one of my favourite subjects: multiplayer modes in traditionally single-player games.
“There was absolutely no shoehorning of the multiplayer mode into Mass Effect 3; it wasn’t something that EA was telling us to do” insists Bioware general manager Aaryn Flynn. “We’ve been dabbling with the idea of multiplayer since the start of the Mass Effect franchise, but the big thing that we’d been missing was a really great setting and environment to put all this in to be able to say ‘this is why it exists’.
“Now that we have this notion of the Galaxy at War it’s very easy to imagine that, even as Commander Shepard is marching his way to defeat the Reapers, there are so many other things going on. It kind of just made sense as a platform for us to build on with a multiplayer mode.”
Whether you agree that premise justifies the inclusion of a fully-fledged four-player co-op multiplayer mode comes down to personal feelings. By focusing on the numerous races and classes of the Mass Effect universe - and excluding Shepard from the multiplayer action entirely - Bioware is at least ensuring that the new mode does not undermine the carefully crafted fiction and all important narrative of Mass Effect’s universe.
Indeed, EA has stressed that the multiplayer mode is entirely optional and that it will be possible to “achieve the optimal, complete ending of the game in Mass Effect 3 through single-player alone.”
That aside, what of the nuts and bolts of how multiplayer operates? Playing two of the multiplayer maps at a recent EA showcase day we’re introduced to the six races - Human, Krogan, Asari, Turian, Drell and Salarian - and six classes - solider, infiltrator, sentinel, engineer, vanguard and adept - that will form the initial basis of the four-player co-op mode, though Flynn confirms that this may be expanded upon with future DLC.
“We do intend to have DLC for multiplayer, but we really want to get the game out there and get feedback from consumers before we decide what the right thing to do is concerning that DLC,” he says. “It could be anything: more modes, mores characters, more classes, more races, more weapons – it’s totally wide open.”
Fly me to the moon
The galaxy map is split into numerous colour-coded territories, depicting which areas require attention and in each area the premise is to repel waves of enemies whilst fulfilling basic primary and secondary objectives – those that we see revolve around capture points and the destruction of armoured enemy turrets.
Experience points are awarded for kills, assists and objective completion, with the ability to use multiple characters throughout the multiplayer and level them up separately – this levelling is carried out between missions to avoid co-op partners sat staring at the pause screen while their buddies level-up. Flynn confirms that they’ll also be “a fair bit of randomisation, so we’ll mix up the enemy types that we have for each map along with varying the objectives over the different waves of combat.”
The more combat-orientated multiplayer has necessitated a refinement of the interface too and in this 360 build, skills and abilities are mapped to the face buttons instead of a radial menu, with recharge times depicted at the bottom of the screen. We don’t see any of the character customisation options but it’s likely that skills and weapon loadout options will be offered before each round starts.
A powerful melee attack is also available, providing you can get close enough to the enemy without your shield being entirely depleted. Reviving team mates before they “bleed-out” is possible but even if you miss this window of opportunity, surviving the current wave of enemies will revive your deceased partners.
The rounds are fast-paced and combative, cooperating with team mates to combine the various skills of different classes creates a gladiatorial atmosphere which is punctuated every few rounds waves with straight-forward map-based objectives.
I was initially sceptical of the concept of Mass Effect multiplayer and although there will undoubtedly be those that feel the galaxy is Shepard’s alone to save, others will find here an uncomplicated multiplayer jaunt that’s free of the frustrations that PvP combat can bring with it.
Only girl in the world
Before my interview time with Flynn wraps up I have one last thing to quiz him on. To my mind, Shepard has been female since the very beginning of the franchise, but that’s not been a view shared either by EA’s marketing team or the majority of Mass Effect players.
I suggest to Flynn that while a greater focus on the female Shepard is positive from a gender equality perspective - not to mention in recognition of Jennifer Hale’s sterling voice work - voting on her hair colour and physical appearance is perhaps not the most positive way of promoting her; in fact, it could be considered a little puerile.
“We certainly weren’t intending to be puerile,” insists Flynn. “[The voting] took place more because there hadn’t been a canonical version of FemShep. We were looking for a way of introducing to the world at large the idea of a FemShep who has existed in many different forms. We didn’t necessarily feel like we could decide what FemShep looked like on our own.
"We were looking for a way of introducing to the world at large the idea of a FemShep who has existed in many different forms. We didn’t necessarily feel like we could decide what FemShep looked like on our own."
“I think it started because we realised how loyal and passionate a fanbase Femshep has and there were a lot of people excited by the idea of FemShep. On top of that, we’ve had Jennifer Hale doing amazing voice work which is deserving of a more central role along with a stronger focus on what we’re doing with FemShep in the Mass Effect community.”
Mass Effect 3 provides the concluding part to a trilogy that will have spanned some five years and it seems the real Commander Shepard has arrived just in time to battle the biggest threat yet; with a little help from her friends, she may even save the universe.
Mass Effect 3 is set for launch on PC, PS3 and 360 in March 2012.