What It’s Like To Play Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer 2


What It’s Like to Play is a column that describes how videogames are played, to an audience that doesn’t necessarily play a lot of such games. It is inspired by the series of the same name that ran on CultureRamp in late 2012, and its basic premise is explained by L. Rhodes here. The name is used with permission.
The welcoming screen.

The wel­com­ing screen.

As you nav­i­gate through the menus of Mass Effect 3, there’s but­ton that reads “mul­ti­play­er”. Click on it, and you’re trans­port­ed to a screen where the basic con­cept is explained: small teams of “allied forces” are sent on spe­cial mis­sions through­out the galaxy. Past the brief ini­tial exposé, we imme­di­ate­ly have to select a char­ac­ter from one of six types in the game (“sol­dier”, “engi­neer”, etc.) and choose a gen­der. Initially, only human char­ac­ters are avail­able, but as the intro explains, “[the] ranks are filled with sol­diers and mer­ce­nar­ies from every cor­ner of the galaxy”. The game almost assumes that you have expe­ri­ence play­ing an ear­li­er title in the Mass Effect series, and ide­al­ly a part of the third game’s main sin­gle play­er por­tion as well: the amount of options, even when you start out, can be intim­i­dat­ing.

Assuming how­ev­er, you have not played those ear­li­er games — or any sim­i­lar games at all — what is it like to play the mul­ti­play­er of Mass Effect 3? Once you’ve made the ini­tial selec­tions and con­nect­ed to a group of other play­ers, your mis­sion loads, and you appear in an area. It could be futur­is­tic street or apart­ment block, or a mil­i­tary base of some sort. You’re look­ing over the shoul­der of a sol­dier, who you can con­trol using your XBOX 360 con­troller, or using key­board and mouse, depend­ing on the plat­form you’re using to play the game. A radio voice instructs you to get ready for the mis­sion to begin, as you can see your allies mov­ing around ten­ta­tive­ly. After a brief inter­val, the screen reads “Wave 1”, and ene­mies start appear­ing from dif­fer­ent cor­ners of the area, grad­u­al­ly mak­ing their way towards you and your bud­dies. You’re being shot at, they’re com­ing for you.

The mis­sions feel very much like being trapped in a crowd­ed, unknown office build­ing or street block that’s being raid­ed from dif­fer­ent sides. You and your team­mates know that your escape shut­tle is on the way, but you have to stick it out until your job is com­plete. Especially at the high­er dif­fi­cul­ty lev­els — the lev­els range from bronze to plat­inum — team­work is essen­tial to sur­viv­ing the mis­sion. A good under­stand­ing of each character’s poten­tial role in the team and the lay­out of each of the two dozen or so dif­fer­ent areas will help you be a valu­able team play­er.

This sug­gests that the Mass Effect 3 mul­ti­play­er is a bit like a sport, which is not an entire­ly wrong com­par­i­son. The main dif­fer­ence with most team-based sports as we know them — includ­ing com­pet­i­tive online videogames — is that here all human play­ers co-operate against a computer-controlled enemy team. This means that the chal­lenge is not so much that of out­smart­ing an oppo­nent that is rough­ly your equal in intel­li­gence; rather, it lies in work­ing togeth­er to defeat over­whelm­ing odds: a team of four hold­ing its own against waves upon waves of ene­mies. There is no per­fect sports anal­o­gy to be made here, but there is a par­al­lel between the dif­fer­ent options the var­i­ous char­ac­ters have in Mass Effect, and the dif­fer­ent posi­tions and roles play­ers have in e.g. rugby or foot­ball. Strong, burly play­ers may be expect­ed to impede the progress of oppo­nents, so that quick and nim­ble play­ers are able to make pre­cise long-distance pass­es — or put a bul­let between an alien’s eyes from across a map.

Survival in the Mass Effect 3 mul­ti­play­er means get­ting to know your own abil­i­ties, and how to inter­act with your sur­round­ings. You need to know what but­tons to press to hide behind a wall, or stick to a cor­ner. A con­ceit of many videogames of the shoot­er per­sua­sion in the past decade or so, this makes it more dif­fi­cult for your ene­mies to hit you, and allows you to return fire from a rel­a­tive­ly safe posi­tion. Press anoth­er but­ton and you aim down the sights of your gun, the cam­era glid­ing for­ward and in over your shoul­der. In this mode, you can fire more accu­rate­ly, but are also more exposed to enemy fire. It also reduces your aware­ness of your sur­round­ings — because your field of vision is reduced — mak­ing you more prone to being snuck up on. And your ene­mies will try to do so, espe­cial­ly the ones that have cloak­ing devices.

Besides a choice of dif­fer­ent weapons — shot­guns, sniper rifles, pis­tols, and the like — each char­ac­ter has a few spe­cial abil­i­ties that can be fired off with a but­ton press. Some give a boost to your weapon dam­age for a while, oth­ers allow you to throw an enemy across a cor­ri­dor with a blast of tele­ki­net­ic force, or cre­ate a small drone that will dis­tract your foes. Each abil­i­ty has a recharge time rang­ing from a few to a few dozen sec­onds, and they all great­ly add to the vari­ety of the game.

My little Volus vanguard is being revived by a helpful teammate.

My lit­tle Volus van­guard is being revived by a help­ful team­mate.

Quickly, you’ll begin to realise that these mis­sions can become quite hec­tic. Inevitably, you will get shot and wound­ed. You’re pro­tect­ed by an ini­tial bar­ri­er of shields, rep­re­sent­ed by a blue meter, but once that’s destroyed each hit will take some­thing off of your red health bar. Once that’s gone, you’re out of the match and you lose all con­trol over your char­ac­ter. The only thing you can do is stare down at your prone sol­dier, and hope a team­mate can make it to you in time to revive you with some field medic skills. If they take too long, you’re out of the round, and will have to wait until the next wave of ene­mies starts. Of course, if all team­mates are brought down at once, it’s game over.

The feel of the game can vary quite a bit depend­ing on what char­ac­ter you are play­ing. In the sin­gle play­er por­tion of Mass Effect 3, you are lim­it­ed to play­ing a human char­ac­ter — the famous Commander Shepard — but in the mul­ti­play­er, there are char­ac­ters from var­i­ous races rep­re­sent­ed in the game. While you’re not able to select non-humans ini­tial­ly, with every mis­sion you play, you will earn vir­tu­al money that can be spent in a vir­tu­al store — more on that below. One thing you’ll be able to buy is the abil­i­ty to play non-human char­ac­ters, each with their own skills and char­ac­ter­is­tics.

Your choice of char­ac­ter influ­ences the way you move about the areas in each mis­sion and how you play togeth­er with your team­mates. The hulk­ing Geth Juggernaut, for exam­ple, is a tow­er­ing robot­ic war­rior who moves at a slow, sure pace. Unlike most other char­ac­ters, it can­not run or crouch behind cover. It is exposed and not very agile. However, it makes up for that by hav­ing extreme­ly strong shields and a way of drain­ing the ener­gy of ene­mies, mak­ing the Juggernaut able to go toe-to-toe with the game’s strongest ene­mies such as the Atlas robots or the mas­sive insect-like Praetorians. Other, less stur­dy char­ac­ters are forced to approach such ene­mies much more gin­ger­ly.

My Drell sniper hiding behind a wall, glowing with biotic energy.

My Drell sniper hid­ing behind a wall, glow­ing with biot­ic ener­gy.

What a dif­fer­ence when you’re play­ing as a ‘reg­u­lar’ human, or even a more frag­ile species like the stream­lined green Drell or the small, chub­by Volus. Such char­ac­ters have a lower health or shield sta­tis­tic, which means that you have to be real­ly care­ful when play­ing with them. They may excel, how­ev­er, in pro­vid­ing sup­port­ive abil­i­ties that help your team­mates, or they may pos­sess very pow­er­ful abil­i­ties and weapon bonus­es, mak­ing them high-risk, high-reward types.

As you play the game more often and you become famil­iar with its work­ings, you can start to take on big­ger chal­lenges in terms of dif­fi­cul­ty level. Another impor­tant aspect of the game comes into play here: advanc­ing your char­ac­ters. Each mis­sion earns expe­ri­ence points for your cur­rent char­ac­ter, which can be used to make their abil­i­ties more pow­er­ful. As such, there is a grad­ual growth to the over­ar­ch­ing game: you as a play­er become more famil­iar with its work­ings, your char­ac­ters become more pow­er­ful, and you have more options at your dis­pos­al.

Looking through my latest item pack.

Looking through my lat­est item pack.

While not part of the main action sequences of the game, there is also an aspect of col­lect­ing to the Mass Effect 3 mul­ti­play­er. With the money you earn from suc­cess­ful mis­sions, you can buy ‘item packs’ from the game’s vir­tu­al store. These packs con­tain new weapons, new char­ac­ter types such as the ones men­tioned above, and var­i­ous other odds and ends, such as spe­cial ammo types and tem­po­rary boosts to your shields for upcom­ing mis­sions. Buying and open­ing these packs is a lot like col­lect­ing base­ball cards, or bet­ter yet, col­lectible card games such as Magic: the Gathering. You buy a pack, and it’s always a sur­prise to see exact­ly what’s in them.

The mul­ti­play­er part of Mass Effect 3 remains a com­pli­cat­ed affair; it is firm­ly part of the arcane world of videogames geared towards an audi­ence that plays lots of them. That said, we can get a long way by view­ing it as a coop­er­a­tive, fast-paced sport, where both play­ers and their vir­tu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions (char­ac­ters, weapons, abil­i­ties) under­go a process of growth. The more we play it, the more we (tem­porar­i­ly) sink into the roles of humans and aliens defend­ing their worlds against over­whelm­ing enemy forces. It’s grim, but there’s a sat­is­fac­tion in dif­fer­ent peo­ple work­ing togeth­er towards a shared goal.


Odile Strik

About Odile Strik

Odile A. O. Strik is editor-in-chief of The Ontological Geek. She is also a linguist from the Netherlands. She occasionally writes in other places, such as her own blog Sub Specie. You can read her innermost secrets on Twitter @oaostrik.

  • Andrei Filote

    As some­one who has over 200 hours of ME3CoOP played, I can say this is a pret­ty faith­ful descrip­tion, if a bit dis­pas­sion­ate :P

    • The dis­pas­sion­ate tone is prob­a­bly a side effect of me try­ing to be as descrip­tive as pos­si­ble here. I imag­ine it still must be dif­fi­cult to under­stand what’s going on if you don’t play games like this. I *do* love the game, though.