Like it or not, multiplayer is headed to the Mass Effect franchise in a big way. Mass Effect 3 will ship with a host of horde-style arenas that allow players to cooperate and collaborate away from the Shephard's heroic final campaign against the extragalactic menace. Eager to learn about what this exciting and controversial feature will offer, I sat down with a team of fellow hacks and got stuck in.
Eventually, that is. Before we started, our BioWare guide took great pains to reiterate that the multiplayer portion will only be an optional part of the proceedings, and will only affect the singleplayer campaign if you want it to. So in fairness, I should probably do the same before we crack on. Your multiplayer characters stand alone from the main campaign (no story characters or cameos, I'm afraid), and earn persistent experience that can be spent on more powerful skills, weapons and biotics for use solely in the online arena. However, the solo story involves preparing the galaxy for war against the Reapers, and hinges around a Readiness gauge that gradually increases as you complete missions. You can level it up to 100% completion and get the best ending without ever having to play a single multiplayer round, but at any stage, you can optionally convert your levelled multiplayer character into a corresponding amount of readiness. If you've reached 95% in singleplayer and want that extra boost, the online suite is on hand and provides a new way of cutting out the grind. What's more, it will grant us priceless peace of mind; knowing that it's impossible to screw up the galaxy beyond eventual repair.
For the first time in the series, we can choose from a selection of seven races, each of which can be specialised into two classes that deliver a range of different combat options and abilities. Asari, for example, tend to focus on Biotic powers while Krogan are all about getting involved in as brutal and straightforward a manner as possible. Skills are effortlessly mapped to the bumpers and Y button - and since loadouts are locked when each round begins, the radial wheel has been replaced by standard shooter controls. Scoring assists and dealing damage rewards you with as many points and experience as the kill itself, meaning that you can focus on supporting your allies depending on your play style. Lone wolf heroism certainly has its place, but will tend to get everybody killed.
Each arena subscribes to the standard Horde formula: waves of themed enemies enter the fray and need to be taken down, only to be replaced by ever-increasing numbers after a short period of breathing space. We happened to be fighting against the Geth in the preview build, and as the battle progressed, weak standard troopers were augmented by shielded gunners, stealthy shock troops, flamethrower-wielding pyros (pictured below) and menacing Geth Prime minibosses. Some waves also task you with completing a specific objective such as holding an area for a certain amount of time or hacking into terminals dotted around the combat zone. It's basic stuff, but the fluidly-changing focus will ensure that the action doesn't stagnate.
There's a case to be made that Mass Effect doesn't need multiplayer... but here's the thing. I've always wanted to know how my character stacks up against other players' builds - and Mass Effect 3's enormous range of classes and skills compliment each other perfectly. Biotic classes can use Lift to incapacite enemies while their soldier allies move in for the shotgun finish, or team up to debilitate and kill the bigger foes. Snipers provide overwatch while Vanguards charge into the fray. The Mass Effect framework lends itself brilliantly to cooperative shenanigans - so while it isn't strictly necessary, the online suite does feel like a relevant part of the package. As much as anything, it will provide extra playability and longevity in what already promises to be an enormous game.
We'll keep you up to date with the latest news as we hear it, but for now, I'll leave you with my lasting impressions:
Mass Effect 3's multiplayer works. It's fun. And it won't spoil anything.