Anyone that knows me knows how much I love the Mass Effect series. Mass Effect 2 is in my top 5 favorite games of all time, and needless to say, I am really looking forward to Mass Effect 3. However, the reason I love the series is because of the characters, the amazingly well realized setting and lore, and the compelling overarching story. The gameplay was decent in the first game, and greatly improved in the second; but if good third person shooter gameplay was all it took to win me over, then it would be Gears of War as one my all time favorite series, not Mass Effect. So obviously, I was skeptical of the co-op mode in Mass Effect 3, given that it is basically removing a lot of what I love about the series in favor of straight up action.
I say I was skeptical of the co-op in Mass Effect 3, but unlike some people, I am not necessarily against the idea. I have always praised Mass Effect 2 as having combat that is just as good as the top third person shooters. What really sets it apart is the rock/paper/scissors mechanic with the various types of powers and defenses. Some powers are only effective against unshielded opponents, while others excel at taking down shields, barriers, and armor. Luckily, this basic mechanic is maintained in Mass Effect 3, and overall I would have to say I have really enjoyed what I’ve played of the multiplayer.
The co-op mode in Mass Effect 3 is a wave based survival mode, and a good one at that. This type of mode has become very popular since Gears of War 2 kicked off the trend in 2008 with Horde Mode, and everyone has their favorite. In my opinion, Firefight in Halo Reach and Horde 2.0 in Gears of War 3 are the best examples of this mode, but I have to say I do like Mass Effect’s take on this mode. It works just like you’d expect, with each wave the enemies increase in numbers and difficulty, with the ultimate goal of surviving until your squad is extracted. The one twist is that every few waves, you will get objectives your team needs to complete in order to move on. These are usually time sensitive, and consist of things like holding a specific area, eliminating certain targets, and activating several nodes at various spots on the map. There are three difficulty levels, and let me tell you, the game doesn’t mess around. To have any chance of completing even the easiest difficulty, you basically need a squad of 4, or at the very least, a skilled squad of 3 all communicating. I was able to routinely complete the bronze difficulty level with squads of just 3 other random players, but I have yet to get much more than half way on silver. I’d imagine you would need a group of highly leveled characters to complete the higher difficulties.
Which brings us to a feature that really sets this mode apart from other similar modes, character progression and customization. The character leveling you’ve come to expect from the Mass Effect series is fully present in the multiplayer. All six Mass Effect classes are present in the co-op, and they remain mostly unchanged from Mass Effect 2. The Vanguard still has that awesome biotic charge, the infiltrator still has the cloak, and each class plays like you would expect them to. As you level up, you gain points to spend to unlock powers, with each character having 2 powers in addition to the specific class power. Obviously the game has to take place solely in real time, which is why you are limited to just three powers mapped to buttons, not having access to the power wheel. When you begin, you only have access to human characters, one for each class, with all the other races being locked from the get-go. To unlock them, you have to earn credits.
The way the unlocks work is actually really unique, and it brings some classic RPG style to the Call of Duty style unlock system. All your powers and passive health, damage, and shield upgrades are unlocked with points from leveling up, but all the weapons, items, mods, and characters require money to unlock. However, you don’t simply buy the items you want, instead you buy a box containing five items, with a random selection. You can choose to spend 5000 credits for 5 items, with a small chance of getting a rare. If you want to save up 20000 credits, you can buy a box of 5 items with a guarantee of getting at least one rare. Rares are basically the things you really want; weapons, characters, and mods. The non rare items are mostly one time use items like ammo for your rocket launcher, medi-gel (which allows to revive yourself if you go down as opposed to waiting for a teammate), and an other similar one time use items. I think the system is simply awesome. It can certainly get frustrating when you play for hours on end just trying to get a certain item or character, but every time I buy a box, I get those feelings of anticipation, like opening in a chest in a loot driven RPG. Maybe this is the time I get that awesome rare item!
As far as the actual gameplay goes, it’s not as big of a leap as from Mass Effect 1 to Mass Effect 2, but there are definitely some improvements. The move set has been expanded, with human characters now being able to roll and jump between cover, bringing the game more in line with what you’d expect from a third person shooter. The other races handle a bit differently, though I’ve only unlocked 2 to this point. Turians can’t roll or slide between cover, but they do start with more shields than humans. Drell are the other race I’ve played as, and instead of the basic combat roll, you do cartwheels and back flips. Aside from the movement stuff, the only major change to gameplay is the addition of special melee attacks. Each class has their own heavy melee, which does more damage than a regular melee in addition to looking awesome. There are also several new powers spread out across the various classes and races, and they all seem to fit in well. The rock/paper/scissors style balance has maintained, though there have been slight changes to warp and overload, which I was at first against, but when I thought more about it, seemed to make sense. In Mass Effect 2, warp was effective against barriers, armor, and unarmored organics, while overload was effective against shields and synthetics. Now, overload works against barriers, shield, and synthetics, while warp works against armor and organics. This makes more sense from a balance perspective, even if not really from a fiction perspective.
Overall, the co-op in Mass Effect 3 seems like a nice feature for those that want it. Many people lost their minds when it was announced, proclaiming the end of Mass Effect, and cursing EA for “ruining the franchise”. I don’t think we will ever really know how much input EA actually has in the development of Bioware games, but whether Bioware would have done this on their own or not, I think it’s a pretty cool mode. Obviously, the core essence of Mass Effect could never be maintained in a wave based survival mode, but with the leveling, the classes, the powers, and the loot, there is enough RPG and enough Mass Effect in this mode to make this a nice diversion. When I finally get my hands on the final game, I will more than likely play through the single player multiple times before I ever boot up the co-op, but it’s nice to know it will be waiting for me once I’ve played the story a few times.