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.
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.
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.
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.
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.