Friday, April 13, 2012

Mass Effect 3 multiplayer hands-on preview

Mass Effect 3 sees the introduction of a four-player co-op multiplayer mode, a first for the space opera RPG series, Tom Hoggins travels to BioWare's studios in Edmonton to see how it's shaping up.

"We've been interested in doing multiplayer since the beginning." Mass Effect 3 director Casey Hudson is addressing a handful of journalists, gathered at BioWare's modest headquarters in Edmonton, Canada to finally get a glimpse at the oft-rumoured Mass Effect four-player co-op survival mode. "It's just one of those things that makes sense to figure out first. We tried it for Mass Effect 2 and it never worked, because we couldn’t work out how to do it in a way that wouldn’t compromise the single-player mode."
In a stroke, Hudson drills to the core concerns of both those around the table and the legions of Mass Effect fans on the Internet, made a mite twitchy by the news that Mass Effect 3 would feature a multiplayer portion outside of Commander Shepard's campaign. The concern comes with context, Mass Effect has been a resolutely singleplayer RPG experience, allowing you to tailor your own Shepard and lose yourself in BioWare's magnificent, unique vision of the Milky Way. A narrative-lead space opera about one human's crusade to rally all the races of the galaxy around them to fight a force of evil known as The Reapers. A combat-focussed multiplayer mode seems a little incongruous, no?
Conspiracy theories abound. Some say BioWare were forced into this by publisher EA, either to complete a box-ticking exercise or allow them to include their controversial online pass system. This is why the game was delayed, accuse others. If any of these have any grain of truth, there's no question that Hudson and his team are tackling the inclusion of this new mode with drive and a desire for narrative cogency with the singleplayer campaign. And for those worried about development time being taken away from Shepard's mission, multiplayer duties are being handled by a separate team in Montreal under the direction of Hudson.
So why now? "The thing that's really changed is that Mass Effect 3 is a war story," explains Hudson. "Whereas in Mass Effect 1 & 2 there are huge things happening in the universe really only Shepherd and his crew know about them, in Mass Effect 3 the war is everywhere, everyone is engaged with it so that actually gives you a lot of things for you to do and different ways to fight the war."
Enter multiplayer, a four player co-op survival mode similar to Gears of War's Horde or Halo's Firefight, that puts you in the shoes of an elite special force made up of races from all over the galaxy. The maps you will fight on throughout the mode represent locations that are pivotal to Shepard's war effort. You will visit the area in the singleplayer campaign, before handing over the job of securing the location to Special Forces. A narrative handshake that keeps the multiplayer close to Mass Effect lore.
"It’s a way to see the same experience from different sides of the window," Hudson explains. "Shepard is out there making the important decisions. And from his perspective you can see these Special Forces guys, troops all over the Galaxy fighting. Then in multi player you jump over to the other side of the window to be those people, and see Shepard having secured the location now leaving it to you. So it’s a different way of telling the story."
For the first time in Mass Effect, you can have direct control over a non-human character. There are six races to choose from --Human, Turian, Krogan, Salarian, Asari and Drell-- and each race has access to three 'kits', Mass Effect 3's version of character classes. The human class, for instance, allows you to be a soldier with access to explosive munitions, a vanguard biotic able to effectively cast spells, or an engineer. Turians and Salarians are more technically minded, though the latter tends to favour support roles such as medic. While Asari and Drell specialise in biotic powers. The mighty Krogans, meanwhile, are the undisputed tank class, lethal with shotguns or biotics, but most dangerous when charging like a deranged bull, headbutting any goon foolish enough to get close.
You can customise each of your characters' armour, and you can happily flit between every race and kit, levelling up each seperately. Aided by a relatively low level cap of 20, the setup encourages experimentation, while customisable weapons add further depth to an already layered RPG structure.
Our first mission sees us sent to a map called Slum, a tangled clutch of gutted out metal huts, rusting and stacked upon one another. Its detailed and well-designed, with plenty of cover to huddle in and a criss-crossing setup that allows for tactical manoeuvring between each higgledy shack. Despite appearances, control of this area is essential to the war effort, and the Reapers want it badly, sending heavily armed platoons of indoctrinated Cerberus operatives. As is customary, each squad of enemies come in waves that swell in size and difficulty as you progress. The first few waves are simple enough, dispatched with volleys of gunfire and special powers. Mass Effect 3's gunplay --while unquestionably the strongest of the series-- isn't tight or forceful enough to compete with dedicated shooters such as Gears, but there's a welcome Mass Effect flavour. Kit-dependant abilities such as grenades, biotic powers or medipacks are assigned to the d-pad, and are essential in thinning out the bad guys and helping your squad survive. The classes are distinct enough that a smart combination of different abilities will greatly improve your chances. Providing you work together, of course. An Asari biotic can rip a shield from a foe in order for a human soldier to line with lead, while a Krogan tank could draw fire and attention in order for a Turian sniper to pick off unaware stragglers. All species of the galaxy, working in harmony.
It's good stuff, with the waves throwing in trickier enemies as you progress, like stealthy ninja-esque sirens flitting in an out of cloak, or hulking clanking mechs that take a sustained concentration of fire to dent. There are two "super-objectives" that cover every map: hold your position, make it to extraction alive. But slotted into waves are other important tasks that must be completed to move on, such as hacking computer consoles or disarming bombs scattered around the map. The objectives aren’t major game changers, and tend to amount to holding a specific spot on the map. But they do bring a sense of focus and camaraderie, as one player desperately tries to hack into a communications disruptor, with teammates providing covering fire as Cerberus operatives descend on your position. The multiplayer is staunchly focussed on teammates playing nice. While there will be a scoreboard at the end to show the best performers, experience points are shared equally among players at the end so there is no long-term benefit to playing the lone wolf, poaching kills or generally being an annoying whelp.
While Mass Effect 3‘s multiplayer is certainly derivative in its structure, the commitment to make it fit into Mass Effect’s narrative and context is what should hold players interest. Your performance in multiplayer can also have a direct effect on the efforts of your campaign, expediating the building of your war resources. This idea all ties into Mass Effect 3‘s Galaxy at War concept, which demonstrates how ‘war ready’ Shepard and his crew are before heading into whatever final battle the campaign has in store. You will gain resources by playing multiplayer, and if you fully level up one of your character classes, they can be used as a crucial asset. Galaxy at War will also encompass iOS software and even a Facebook game, allowing you to build your army wherever you are.
Of course, many will see these additions as needless padding to a marvellous single-player series that doesn’t need them. However, Hudson and his team are adamant that you won’t need to play multiplayer or visit Facebook in order to get the best out of your campaign, as the singleplayer will remain the cornerstone of your Mass Effect experience. As an experiment in utilising the always-connected nature of today’s lifestyle, it’s fascinating. And clearly not something that BioWare are taking lightly, taking advice from EA stablemates DICE and even the FIFA team in order to construct Mass Effect 3 as one, cogent experience.
Time will tell if this multiplayer mode can capture the imaginations of even the most ardent opposition, but either way, what BioWare is constructing appears to be a solidly built, enjoyable and wholly optional addendum to one of the finest video game series available. Doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?

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