Some smart gamers eye the addition of multiplayer modes to formerly singleplayer franchises with the kind of suspicion that classical music aficionados might have if they heard their favourite violinist gave a guest spot at their next concert to Kanye West.
The people at BioWare have indeed disrupted their symphony. They've added co-op multiplayer to the acclaimed singleplayer Mass Effect series for next March's Mass Effect 3. I've played it, and while I don't love it, I see why they're doing it and I see how it could be great.
Mass Effect 3's co-op is optional. You'll be able to finish the sci-fi role-playing game without touching it and even get the best ending, BioWare's David Silverman told me when he gave me a shot at playing co-op a couple of weeks ago in New York City (I'd agreed to not write about co-op until today; such are the deals for getting access to games).
You'll even be able to get the game's best ending without touching multiplayer, though it may take you longer.
Multiplayer in the game is co-op, for four players (online, not split-screen) to join together as an elite squad of bad-guy-shooting warriors. You don't play as the game's hero, Commander Shepard, nor as any of the major side characters from the series. You instead can take on the role of a crack commando from any of six of the game's main character classes and from any of the game's major races-Salarians, Krogan, Asari, Turian and more, i.e. the races of the major side characters. You play together, fighting through areas tied to the game's single-player campaign, battling through 12 waves of randomised enemies, completing randomised objectives.
It plays, no surprise, a bit like the Horde mode popularised by Gears of War, but with role-playing game levelling. There is no multiplayer conversation, no multiplayer morality decisions (and no multiplayer Mass Effect romance—I asked!). There is, however, all of Mass Effect's evolving, improving combat. You play in third-person, utilising the kind of guns and powers you would in single-player Mass Effect. You gain experience points for kills and completion of objectives, and you can spend those points levelling up your character's powers just as you would Shepard and her squadmates in the singleplayer game. Each class has their own specialties. Each race has some unique abilities.
The multiplayer matches are part of Mass Effect 3 concept of a "Galaxy at War". Playing multiplayer or singleplayer earn players Galactic Readiness points. Accumulating enough points enables players to charge to the end of the single-player game and get a better ending (there are other ways to get those points too, which I'm guessing are things like Facebook games, but BioWare won't say.). The areas for multiplayer are represented abstractly on a map of the Mass Effect galaxy. BioWare's Silverman told me that some of those areas will light up with alerts that they're getting attacked. You'll be encouraged to go in as a multiplayer squad to suppress those threats, earning points as you go.
I played a couple of matches of co-op, mixing powers and guns with decent success. Our network connection at the demo venue was poor, so we ran into some syncing glitches, but I got the gist of the experience. We could pick a map, scale it to a desired size (we chose "giant"), pick an enemy type ("Cerebus" for us) and a challenge level ("bronze") and then hope for the best. We played in a multi-room urban map, where enemies could snipe from catwalks and rooms away from the main bowl of combat often contained objective goals. We rotated through a few objectives; we had to hack terminals, disarm bombs, and often just kill all the bad guys. As we the waves progressed, the enemies got tougher. We were fighting foot soldiers at first, but later were tangling with snipers and cloaked enemies. I died getting choked by a giant mech.
We weren't playing the smoothest of games. Mass Effect's combat, while improved, still animates a bit stiffly, as players of Mass Effect 2 can recall. It suffers a comparison to Gears' gunplay. But tossing a singularity into the middle of a battle while my Turian buddy unloads a clip in the floating bad guys is fun. We had a good time.
I like co-op multiplayer, and I was satisfied that playing Mass Effect 3 would be a pleasant diversion from the main game. I just don't know how often I'll play it. I play Mass Effect for the story and the interactions between characters. That's not what this new game's multiplayer delivers, and I'm sure it's because what multiplayer does offer -- combat -- is what many of those who don't play this series are looking for. The co-op feels designed for people who have ignored the series until now.
If you want to see Mass Effect's conversation system at work in multiplayer, go buy Star Wars the Old Republic. If you want to see the character dynamics (and the sex) of Mass Effect in multiplayer, keep dreaming (and keep it to yourself). If you're interested in Mass Effect combat and levelling in a challenging Horde-mode—if you like Mass Effect as a way to rack up kills -- you'll like the co-op. And if you don't care, you can ignore it. That best ending can be yours, anyway.
Mass Effect 3 will be out for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on March 6.