Could multiplayer be Mass Effect 3's saving grace?

I hate multiplayer. Unreal Tournament 2004 with my college buddies was the most recently I’ve enjoyed playing with other people. I tried games like Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead and didn’t particularly enjoy them. Borderlands was fun, but I preferred playing by myself—it was sad and depressing, but I hated having to deal with other people.

Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, though, is different. To use a sad, tired cliché, I had to force myself to stop playing it to write this up.

I complained quite a bit about the demo’s single player portion. And sure, the plot felt old and tired, but what surprised me was how differently the game played. It felt more like a corridor shooter than one of Mass Effect 2’s firefights, where you had a number of options at how to take out the opponent. I was worried that Bioware had forgotten that because we had all these exciting powers we didn’t want the game to become a run and shoot. Rather than guns and conversation, we should call it “Hit target with 1200 newtons of force and send him scuttling off a balcony” and conversation. That’s where the game is fun: when we’re pulling absolutely ludicrous strategies, using the powers we’ve been given to defeat a much superior opponent.

This experience is distilled into the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer. It reminds me of my favorite moments of playing Battlefield 1942 with friends, not against each other but instead four of us against the most superintelligent computer characters we could muster. It became a game of doing things against impossible odds, of throwing yourself into the fray and surviving only because of your own superiority.

Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer captures this concept. There’s four player characters armed to the teeth with customizable arrays of weapons and obligatory Mass Effect powers facing down waves of hundreds of relentless enemy soldiers over large, twisty maps. It creates a brilliant sense of desperation by throwing increasingly difficult waves at you, leaving you to wonder how you’re going to topple the next one when you barely beat the last. And when you feel you’re at your wits end, it makes you run across the map to disable terminals, or capture a point.

Most important is the map’s structure. They encourage the kind of logical thinking and tactics that make Mass Effect more fun than just a straight corridor shooter. Playing as a slightly different kind of space wizard (a sentinel with biotic and technological powers), I’m startled by just how much freedom is given to the player. Each map is pretty massive, with twists, turns, obvious choke points, and well thought out location; enemies then proceed to come from all sides. You’re able to rely on the things Mass Effect does best: rather than place you into corridors with obvious solutions, the multiplayer tells you, “There are five enemies down the way behind cover putting down a lot of suppressive fire. What do you do?”

In my case, the answer usually involved flanking and a punch to the face thanks to the Throw power. But it highlights the changes to the combat system. Grenades make more sense when you have other places you can go to shoot at the enemies, and the melee upgrades are highlighted. In the single player the grenades were speed bumps that kept you from killing quickly; in the multiplayer it forces you to consider other tactical decisions. With relatively limited ammo, sometimes it’s smart to run in and melee with the stragglers rather than shoot them, and the big melee attacks feel pretty good to use.

The sheer amount of character builds, however, are what really makes it fun. Even with the demo’s limited functionality in this regard (each class only has one build unlocked), the variety of characters was fascinating. Every class can equip two different weapons (from the standard Mass Effect arsenal) and can level up their powers. Human sentinels, for instance, got access to Tech Armor, which makes them tougher to kill; warp, which kills enemies with special types of shielding particularly well; and throw, which does a little bit of damage and tosses enemies away from you. You also have statistic-upgrading skills: one to boost your damage, one to boost your health. Then there’s the title’s weapon modifications, as well as a collection of one use only equips that can make you significantly more powerful. All told, it lets you build a unique character that deals with situations in your own way.

The multiplayer isn’t without its niggles, however. Without a microphone (and yes, I am from the past) you have no way of communicating with your squadmates, which means that oftentimes you’ll find them running off to perform the least intelligent actions possible. The game also doesn’t seem to scale particularly well: with three players it plays frantic and fun, but with two it’s a slog through too many enemies and the one time I got in with four relatively competent players we cut through the enemies too quickly. It’s a hard balance, though: the most difficult moments of the game are when it makes you disable devices scattered around the arena, and with one player out of action disabling it’ll always be easier with four players than two.

There’s also a rudimentary feel to a lot of the presentation. It shows why games like Call of Duty have entire extremely competent teams of people dedicated to designing just the interface. It feels like it was tacked on to make it possible to find games, and therefore it feels clunky. Just little things, like how the weapon select menu doesn’t let you cancel out of choosing a new weapon and instead makes you deselect it, or how you can look at your squadmates collection of powers but not what they have leveled up. Or how it’s not immediately plain that your supply of heavy weapons ammo and medigel carries over between sessions, so that you shouldn’t waste it all on a lost cause.

Overall, the Mass Effect 3 multiplayer did the impossible: it made me excited for the game again. It showed how much potential for excellence the game’s revised combat system has, and it made me care about how much fun it’s going to be to shoot people in the full version to be released a scant two weeks from now. At the very least, we now know that the multiplayer, despite initial backlash, will be a welcome addition to the Mass Effect lineup.