I like to think that the mark of a great man is being willing to admit when you’re wrong. (Guess I’m just a good man. Well, I’m all right.) Either way, when one finds a contradiction in one’s premises, it becomes necessary to correct that contradiction, lest one achieve the status of Complete and Utter Wank. Just as I did regarding Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which I lambasted three years before its release, I must issue an retraction to a previously stated position, namely that of multiplayer games and their general worthlessness to anyone with at least seven functioning brain cells.
The prospect of chasing fifteen other players around a map while trying to eviscerate them in myriad ways still does not appeal to me, but I must admit to having developed a deep and disconcerting passion for Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, which is co-op only and packed full of all the mechanics that keep me coming back to a game, regardless of its quality. Mass Effect 3 is top-flight stuff across the board, but I’ve played some serious stinkers that offered just a hint of collection, scoring, feedback, customization, and exchange, so I really can’t hurl errant footwear in anyone’s direction about what they like or don’t like in their electronic entertainment. Believe me.
I’m Walken on Air
The premise of Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer is simple; you and up to three other players are deposited on a map and expected to survive eleven waves of some of the most brutal enemy encounters I’ve ever seen in a game. All of the locations will be familiar to those who’ve played the singleplayer campaign, since they’re taken from some of Shepard’s side missions — at first I was impressed with the integration of the multiplayer matches into the singleplayer game, as Shepard’s effective military strength increases with each successful match in multiplayer. A higher effective military strength affects the outcome of the game in ways that I can’t divulge here (spoilers, you know), but ultimately it is the aforementioned Five Holy Mechanics (FHM) that have rendered the singleplayer game absolutely irrelevant to me over the last couple of weeks.
The singleplayer campaign of all three Mass Effect games is very, very story-driven. What does this mean, in practical terms? Well, for one thing it means that you shouldn’t even think of embarking on Shepard’s journey if you have anything whatsoever against long, unskippable cinematics and forced character encounters. At times it seemed like I was just a vehicle for the exposition of Shepard’s story, as the game has no qualms at all about wresting control away from you in order to show you something that the developers deemed more important than your interaction with the game; forced idleness in a supposedly interactive medium is not something that I enjoy. Ever.
But I put up with it because I wanted to find out what happened with the whole big-ass Reaper invasion thing and, honestly, I also wanted to find out what the fuss was about regarding the ending. (While I wasn’t happy with the way the series ended, I discovered that the Internet might have a tendency to blow things a little out of proportion; when I was a kid, if you didn’t like the way a video game ended you got the fuck over it and went outside. Now it’s class action suits and Federal Trade Commission complaints. Society, thou art doomed.)
The most valuable thing that I got out of the end of Mass Effect 3 was the knowledge that if I played the multiplayer portion of the game in order to boost my effective military strength, I’d get a better ending. So I played, noting at the time that the experience was remarkably free of douchery, which I’d come to expect from my previous encounters with multiplayer. I also noted that the experience was remarkably free of all the things that annoyed me about the singleplayer game; no cutscenes, no lengthy conversations, no you-messed-up-in-Mass-Effect-2-so-too-bad bullshit. And it had all of the stuff that I love with the FHM. Soon the singleplayer campaign began to look like that friend you used to hang out with all the time, and now, five or six years later, you can’t figure out what the hell you were thinking.
I Can’t Believe It Myself
And what about these mechanics? What’s so great about them? Let me break it down for you, using Mass Effect 3 as an example.
Collection — Collection is all your stuff. In Mass Effect 3 multiplayer the collection is random, handled by the purchase — through either in-game or real-world currency — of various equipment packs that contain items such as weapons and weapons upgrades, characters, ammunition bonuses, armor bonuses, and health replenishment packs and revival stimulants. The chances for receiving more effective equipment increases with the value of the purchased equipment pack, and the element of randomness is reminiscent of digging into the bottom of a box of Cracker Jack to find that elusive Coupe de Ville. I haven’t found one yet, but I do have a rifle that kicks seven kinds of Reaper ass. (Do Reapers even have asses? I’m almost afraid to look.)
Scoring — Scoring is your skill represented by a number. Friends lists, followers, and page hits are all forms of scorekeeping in social media, with each individual friend or follower accounting for a single point. In Mass Effect 3 the score is based not on the number of kills each player makes (which eliminates the possibility of kill-theft), but by the amount of damage dealt to each enemy. Scoring also accounts for the amount of experience points received at the end of each successful match, which naturally leads me to leveling — while not one of the five mechanics in itself, leveling is the score-dependent improvement of your character’s skills within the game. In Mass Effect 3 each new level awards various upgrade points, which can be assigned to several categories within the skill tree in order to take your character from a tender, oft-pasted level one, to a not-so-tender, less-pasted level 20.
Exchange — Basically this is the interaction between players. In turn-based board games it’s as simple as — you guessed it — waiting your turn and then handing off to the other player. In Mass Effect 3 it’s limited to players reviving other fallen players before they bleed to death or are stomped into goo by a nearby enemy. It’s a subtle yet effective use of the exchange mechanic.
Customization — While three of the previously mentioned categories all contribute in some way to the mechanic of customization (with the exception of exchange), the most obvious manifestation of this mechanic is character appearance; Mass Effect 3 offers robust character appearance options, some of which must be unlocked by finding the proper upgrade in an equipment pack. This reinforces the collection mechanic by tying it to virtually every other mechanic in the game, but there are at least two appearance options — primary and secondary armor color — available right away for every character. Another customization option is the ability to play as six different classes, and within those classes are five variations on each class, including gender and species. (DLC brings the number of available species to seven.) Each species offers a different set of upgradable skills and abilities.
Feedback — Feedback is the game letting you know how you’re doing. In Mass Effect 3’s singleplayer campaign the occurrences of feedback are few and even farther between; in multiplayer it’s just the opposite. Every kill, every achievement, every award, every bit of information that’s relevant to the player’s experience is displayed on the screen as it occurs. Any damage inflicted by the player is indicated with “assist points” if an enemy is dispatched by another player, or with “kill points” if you’re the one doing the dispatching. All such points are totaled into the player’s score, which upon the completion of a successful match is turned into experience points. It simply does not get any better in terms of feedback.
Flying Away on a Wing and a Prayer
Going back to the singleplayer campaign in Mass Effect 3 has proven impossible for me. I’ve tried. Really, I did. I got the ending that I wanted, then created a new character and slogged through a few more levels only to discover that something was obviously and painfully missing. The sense of episodic and immediate urgency that the FHM bring to the multiplayer campaign cannot be matched by the slow, thoughtful pace of the singleplayer gameplay; it’s definitely worth playing, but it suffers for its lack of feedback, exchange, scoring, and collection. There is an element of customization, but it’s not enough to make the singleplayer as compelling as the multiplayer.
With that tiny epiphany, I must check the news to see if the Earth has shifted on its axis, or if the missiles are cresting the poles.