I’m not typically a fan of online multiplayer modes in games. I’m not suited for it; I’m generally not very competitive, not very social, and I just find a well-designed single player scenario much more enjoyable than the frantic chaos of the typical online deathmatch. I’m also, at least where he genres that dominate that sort of gameplay, such as first-person shooters and fighting games, are concerned- just not that good, and I’m not particularly interested in spending time being stomped into dust over and over again by opponents I have no chance against.
(The sole exception to this being multiplayer in Red Faction: Guerrilla, where the destructible environments meant that I could partially compensate for my poor aim by exploiting the fact that ambushing opponents in crowded areas by unexpectedly smashing through a nearby wall with your sledgehammer and bursting through the gap like a sort of murderous Kool-Aid man was a viable strategy.)
So I was at best indifferent when I first heard that Mass Effect 3 would have online multiplayer. So much of what makes Mass Effect interesting is the story, the setting,g the way your choices can affect events and the world around you, and how they can have ramifications later- and multiplayer gameplay in most games is the antithesis of all that.
In addition to generally having no story, online multiplayer modes often have only a very tenuous connection to the universe of the game in general. You’ve got some guys in locations similar to those the story takes place in, probably with powers or abilities or equipment similar to the single-player protagonist, and they’re trying to kill each other for some reason. If the story of the game is about a large-scale conflict or war and not just one guy running around with a gun, the team-based multiplayer mode might present the two teams -or, if it’s co-op, the players and the AI- as soldiers from opposite sides of that conflict. (Medal of Honor, for instance, where one side plays the American-led Coalition forces and the other side is We’re-Not-Calling-Them-Al-Qaeda.) In addition, multiplayer modes typically take place in an environment more or less hermetically sealed off from the single-player game. At most, there may be cosmetic or gameplay rewards from multiplayer that can be used in single-player, such an alternate character costume or a special weapon, but this has no relevance to the universe or events of the single-player game.
Now, while it’s not my cup of tea, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the typical approach to multiplayer. It is, however, spectacularly ill-suited to a series like Mass Effect, which is why the announcement about multiplayer and Mass Effect 3 seemed so odd to me. However, I actually like where Bioware where is going with this.
The multiplayer in Mass Effect 3 is co-op, with a squad of four human players fighting hordes of enemies- pretty standard for a co-op mode in a shooter, in itself. What I like is the way this is being integrated into the story of the main game.
One of the new mechanics introduced into Mass Effect 3 is called the “Galaxy at War” system. Unlike the first two games, which involved what were- relative to the vast size of the Reaper threat as a whole- small skirmishes, the third game will be about full-scale war as the main Reaper fleet descends upon our galaxy. The galaxy at war system is supposed to reflect this, giving information on the state of the war and the effects the player’s actions as Commander Shepard are having on the larger struggle, showing the resources available to fight the Reaper threat, and influencing which of the game’s different possible endings the player will get based on how well or how badly the war goes.
The premise of the multiplayer mode is that the players are soldiers in this vast war, and the events of each co-op session are battles being fought in it around the galaxy. The interesting thing is that, rather than taking place in their own isolated bubble, these battles can actually have an effect on the main story. Games in multiplayer are treated as battles that actually happened in the war as it unfolds in your single-player campaign and influence the state of affairs in the Galaxy at War system- the more victories against the Reapers in multiplayer you win, the better the forces arrayed against the Reapers in the Galaxy at War will do.
I really like this idea. I love games where I can feel really immersed in the game’s world, the idea of multiplayer is a lot more appealing to me if it feels like the events it portrays are actually part of that world and matter to it. I assume that the effects of multiplayer on the main campaign are fairly modest- Bioware has said that it’s still possible to get any of the game’s different endings without ever touching it- but just the knowledge that there actually is an effect adds a lot for me by making it feel more like my character in multiplayer really will be fighting in the same war as Commander Sheppard in single-player, and that the adventures of Sheppard in the campaign are part of a much larger struggle. I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out.
John Markley is a writer from Illinois. He writes the video game commentary/humor site Pointless Side Quest and also blogs about science fiction and fantasy at Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic. His other interests include history, science, heavy metal, anime, movies, speaking of himself in the third person, and awkward, uncomfortable conversation.