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How Mass Effect 3's roleplaying roots empower the multiplayer


This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

"I just want to see how this integrates with the single-player campaign," I thought, clicking on the multiplayer option in Mass Effect 3's main menu. I had no expectations of making it a habit. Like many people, when the multiplayer component was announced, I thought it sounded completely extraneous. Once I started playing, though, I fell for it, and have been putting more time into the multiplayer than the campaign.

Arguments about whether Mass Effect 3 is a role-playing game or not have existed since the first game's release. Regardless of which side you take in those, Mass Effect does include many components of role-playing games, two of which are essential to the multiplayer's success: world-building and character development mechanics. Of course, there are simple gameplay reasons to enjoy the co-operative gameplay of Mass Effect 3 online. The levels are well designed for dynamic changes within matches, and waves of enemies seem ideal for both difficulty and time. But those things aren't what make it special.

With three games in the series of 40-plus hours each, Mass Effect has one of the most lived-in universes in recent gaming history. BioWare's expertise in building worlds for traditional role-playing games, starting with Baldur's Gate, is all in effect here. We get to know the characters, their races, and their universe. That all starts to collapse in Mass Effect 3, and in the single-player mode your Commander Shepard tries to get the various different races and factions to work together. The multiplayer is the manifestation of those attempts. It fits within the game world.

It's also pleasing to see the various races and styles working together. I'm invested in the Mass Effect universe. When I see a krogan, I think of Urdnot Wrex, the best-developed party member in the original Mass Effect, who would eventually become the leader of his people. I think of krogan history, the best-developed part of Mass Effect's universe, uplifted for their skills in war, then punished for applying those skills to the races who were once their allies. I think of what it took to bring them into the alliance against the Reapers, in the fantastic Tuchanka sequence early in Mass Effect 3. I don't mean that I ponder these things. I mean that seeing the simple visual of a krogan immediately makes me understand the complex narrative meaning.

There's meaning behind seeing a krogan in Mass Effect 3 multiplayer, just as there is seeing a drell or salarian or asari, or fighting off reapers or Cerberus. That meaning comes specifically from the world-building that's only done in role-playing games.

That's not just intellectual meaning. To see a quarian infiltrator with an asari adept, krogan vanguard, and a human sentinel, all working together, is to see something that feels right at a gut level. The colorful aesthetics work with the emotions, which work with the story. All this comes at a single glance. Many games use shortcuts to achieve this affect: real-world history, or attachments to major media like Star Wars. Mass Effect worked for it.

In addition to the RPG world-building, Mass Effect also allows for several different character types to be built for the player's Commander Shepard. With six different classes, each of which has different customizable skills and weapons, the player is unlikely to use most, let alone all, of the different permutations. I've only played as a vanguard, through all three Mass Effect titles. Multiplayer's dozens of different characters makes it easy to see all those different classes, and especially the different weapons.

Going through each of the different combinations is delightfully fun. I'm not sure I'd ever have the patience to play as an engineer with paper-thin shields, but having the chance to play a few games as a salarian engineer let me happily indulge my curiosity.

These characters are all weaker than the single-player's increasingly godlike heroes. Commander Shepard has more skills available, and more levels through which to progress. With only 20 levels, and five skills, the multiplayer characters have more constraints, and none of them can be totally self-sufficient. In the campaign, the player is stuck with Shepard, but can call on her companions to supplement her skills with a quick button press. In the multiplayer, the players are forced to co-operate because of those limitations.

Mechanics and aesthetics combine in Mass Effect 3's multiplayer to create a fascinating experience. It's like each game is a miniature Mass Effect campaign. Instead of learning about your companions by Jennifer Hale sneering at them, you discover what they want and are good at through observing their behavior. Your concerns are largely the same when playing either mode. So too are your rewards, both the direct ones of experience points, money, and weaponry, but also the indirect rewards of teamwork and character customization.

It's not its own segment of the game, like many multiplayer modes attached to single-player campaigns are. That's part of what makes it great. A random gamer, starting Mass Effect 3 as their first of the series, isn't going to select the multiplayer option and have the same experience as a veteran of the series. They'll probably see the quality of the design, and maybe enjoy the presentation, but it won't have the same meaning. Multiplayer Mass Effect 3 derives its power from the role-playing roots of its single-player experience.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.

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