I wrote a game review of Mass Effect 3 early in 2012 where I said it was too early to call it a true “game of the year”; my review focused entirely on the singleplayer experience as at that time I had not played a significant amount of the multiplayer. Having spent much of 2012 playing the multiplayer intently, it is clear there is much to like about it; what was criticised before launch as inevitably a lazy cash-in proved to be a well-supported and in-depth multiplayer game that retained a strong core of players long after interest in the main game had died down.
The multiplayer aspect of ME3 was intended to supplement progress in the single-player game; players would use points earned in it to contribute to their total score needed to see the true ending of the campaign. At its core, it was a simple wave-based survival gametype as popularised by Gears of War 2′s Horde Mode, with the appeal of being able to use the character progression and diverse abilities of Mass Effect 3 in it. Indeed, it offered a rare chance of being able to play as an alien race from the setting and to actively use powers in interesting combinations. This proved very appealing; the different aliens available played markedly differently, and added a kind of flavour to the experience that a more simplistic class system would not have offered. Indeed, ME3 offered a two-level class system of the main Mass Effect character archetypes then subdivided by race to provide, by the end of 2012, an immense library of different skill combinations to choose from. Some of these new classes completely redefined how archetypes worked, such as the N7 classes or the support-based Volus classes, while others provided more traditional gameplay with some other alteration to the norm – Krogan characters were slow, defensive and had no evasive maneuvers, replacing it with a powerful melee headbutt attack that charged them forward.
That the game provided such variety – a surprisingly comprehensive map list, a large character roster that grew steadily larger and more creative, a massive arsenal of weapons and randomised in-mission events that necessitated teamwork and new strategies – came as a surprise to many players. Indeed, it was almost more freedom of choice than the core singleplayer game offered at times and its balancing across difficulty levels was a genuine test of skill compared even to the hardest solo campaign difficulties. Furthermore, this content was provided effectively for free in probably the most controversial aspect of the entire mode. The multiplayer content packs generally offered the amounts of new material that most titles would charge for, yet ME3 instead made the packs cost nothing but rationed the rate at which players could access their content.
Completing matches earned players credits to be spent on packs of random items and characters which would be added to their collection – a mechanic clearly attempting to capitalise on the popularity of microtransactions in social gaming. Indeed, players of ME3 had the option to spend cash in real life to unlock content faster, yet unlike so many games of this type – and in what many saw as a departure from form for EA, traditionally associated with an aggressive monetisation strategy – actually buying these contact packs was a strictly linear process that proceeded at the same sort of rate as an experience-based system in a game like Call of Duty. One match on the lowest difficulty earns a player two of the cheapest item sets. One on the medium earns one and a half of the middle set. One on the second-hardest one of the second-most expensive, and one on the hardest one of the most expensive. Thus, every game gets the player something or they can “save up” for the next level. Arguably this system is still exploitative, and a straight token-based system as used in, say, Halo 4 or Black Ops 2 would be fairer, but ME3‘s system demonstrates that with some care taken to pricing and the rate at which non-paying players can access new material, lottery-based unlocks can work.
Thus, while the actual quality of ME3 as a complete game and culmination of a trilogy continues to be debated, I personally feel that its multiplayer was not only the best that could be expected from a multiplayer Mass Effect title but also the foundation of a very strong standalone multiplayer game; that it has been able to keep a playerbase via weekly or fortnightly community goals (rewarded with rare items), has seen a steady flow of free new maps and characters, and from the start offered a vast amount of content for something that at first seemed entirely unnecessary and an afterthought was heartening.What is more, its changing of a horde gametype to a short quarter-hour to three-quarters of an hour match with some kind of reward guaranteed for a win provided a clear point of difference to competitors and encouraged repeat play and experimentation with items and classes.