Mass Effect 3 will break the trend of the single player-only role-playing series by adding a co-operative multiplayer mode. The optional feature will allow up to four players to take on the enemies of the Mass Effect universe in a simple, wave-based format, which will also help contribute to main campaign progress. We go hands-on to see how it unfolds and how it ties into the main story.
Mass Effect 3's multiplayer reveal is the latest step in EA's push to make this role-playing series appeal to new audiences. It's an interesting move for the concluding part of a trilogy in which players have already invested hundreds of hours, with the publisher claiming that its self-contained story makes for an ideal entry point, and offering an action-heavy series of trailers and gameplay videos to help promote it.
While these accessible elements initially appear worrying, BioWare has stressed that the strong narrative and rich universe that made the series so well-defined remain intact, and we expect nothing less. But while we're certainly open to the idea of multiplayer in Mass Effect, its implementation here unfortunately appears somewhat undercooked.
The multiplayer here is, quite simply, Horde mode using Mass Effect combat. Those expecting elements of the rich fictional universe to bleed into multiplayer will be disappointed; instead it simply drops you and three others into an enclosed arena and tasks you with fighting waves of enemies, which increase in number and complexity as the match progresses.
While defending yourselves and taking out the advancing foes is the general objective, it adds new elements in the form of ongoing missions, such as disarming bombs or uploading data at a console, which can be sped up by having team mates stand in close proximity to the device.
Mass Effect's combat and indeed general third-person shooter rules apply here; you use cover to defend yourselves as enemies stream in from doorways, if you go down your team mates can revive you, and if you all cop it your run is over until you start again.
The combat itself feels largely similar to Mass Effect 2, which while never as sharp and speedy as its third-person shooter kin, always remained enjoyable to use. Meanwhile, the map we tried - which was simply named White - was a clean, sleek-looking base with ramps and doorways, and while its multiple routes allowed enemies to flank cover points surprisingly effectively, it was a rather uneventful and mostly forgettable arena to fight in.
Even setting up matches is very basic. To get started, you sit at a lobby screen and flick through various options, such as the map, enemy type (Geth or Cerberus in this early version, although mixing and matching enemy races doesn't seem possible, which would have been interesting), the challenge level (Bronze, Silver and Gold, each nudging up difficulty in the respective field). Aside from going on to tweak your character, that's about it; no preamble, just dropped into the first wave of the map and away you go.
While its general effectiveness in getting you started can be commended, it's very bare-bones compared to the lavishly plot-driven presentation of the main campaign. It also looks fairly unflexible in terms of player options; enemy numbers and difficulty won't scale whether it's just you or a full squad of four, and there's no split-screen option for those who want to play locally, either.
BioWare was keen to stress that while multiplayer can tie into the story, it's all entirely optional. The character you create is completely unique from your Shepard in the main campaign, created from one of many classes and races in the universe, who levels up with kills, assists and revives, which contributes to an overall level. Once fully maxed out, it can then be imported into a campaign to contribute to Commander Shepard's war effort.
While the character won't physically appear in the campaign - either as a party member or as a cameo - it will boost your own going effort to fight the Reaper assault that threatens to wipe out the galaxy. (We assume that similar to Mass Effect 2 there are targets to meet in order to achieve the best ending.) It was added that gaining the highest level of combat awareness in the campaign is fully achievable without even entering the mode, simply making it just a nice boost if you decide to invest time here.
One of the real positives is that ability to experiment with different classes. As a player who has only dabbled in the basic but very effective Soldier class so far in the Mass Effect story, I look forward to testing out the other class types in heated combat scenarios without having to start up a fresh campaign and put several hours of effort in first. There's also that lure of playing as a non-human for the first time, which is undoubtedly an exciting prospect. Drell, Krogan, Asari, Turian, Salarin and Human species are all available - and all can be kitted out with custom weapons, abilities and skins.
Watch the multiplayer interview trailer for Mass Effect 3 below:
While we're certainly not averse to multiplayer in Mass Effect, its implementation here seems very much like an addition made specifically for the back of the box, and simply provides the chance to play with others against the many enemy forces of Mass Effect in the most straightforward way possible. That's not to say it's a very competent addition - it's just a basic one - and that it's all optional makes it a very harmless feature. The fact that it does benefit your campaign could also prove to be helpful, and could save you time on playing through multiple sidequests when you could instead spend time with friends.
However, it's a shame that the most defining part of Mass Effect - the vast yet intricately crafted universe, one that's filled with genuinely interesting places to visit and long-standing squabbles between alien races that unfold in dozens of interesting ways - doesn't tie into it in any way, a factor that could have made it far more desirable.
Mass Effect 3 will be available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC from March 6 in North America and March 9 across Europe.