For all the hours I’ve spent playing it, I have a hard time explaining precisely why I love Mass Effect’s multiplayer modes so much. In 2021 especially, half-baked multiplayer tacked on to a single-player game feels like a relic of a previous generation, one of those features you forget as time goes on. Does anyone remember the multiplayer mode for Tomb Raider (2013)? So it’s strange that, years after launch, Mass Effect’s multiplayer modes are not only something I remember quite fondly, but something I return to regularly with friends. Even playing today, I feel something compelling about them that Gears of War, it’s closest gameplay competitor, lacks. And I don’t think this comes mostly from the simple pleasure of well-designed combat (though that is certainly a factor), or because I get to spend more time in a universe I love with friends (though, again, that is a factor). And there are many, many more factors that should have prevented it from being enjoyable at all. For starters, it is, charitably, a technical mess. The 3rd game especially, based on early Origin netcode, is filled with inconveniently placed loading screens in menus as it accesses online features. It often requires port forwarding to be able to reliably join games, which are filled with frequent disconnects and crashes. Mass Effect 3 is relatively technically solid otherwise, but the netcode makes the experience of getting into the game a hassle nearly every time. The metagame is also mired in troubling design decisions. As a free add-on to a $60 game that requires server costs, the game has an incredibly slow grind for better and more varied gear, characters, and stat upgrades. These can only be acquired through various forms of random loot boxes, with no way to directly purchase items or characters a player wants with real money or in-game cash. And this is one of the famously slow grinds that helped define the negative reputation of the first loot boxes in the early 2010s. I sunk well over 100 hours into the mode and I still never approached completion of the progression system, or even a relatively high level of power. Going even further, the game itself is a single game mode: ten waves of increasingly difficult enemies, with three of those waves being objective based. There are a few, incredibly simple objectives to accomplish, and the different enemy types become predictable after a few hours in the game. So, with all of this working against it, how could the game possibly appeal for 100 hours without getting boring? I believe the answer isn’t a single magic bullet, but instead a series of smart design decisions that add variety to each match, despite their samey format. First, it translates the complex combat loadouts from the single player into the multiplayer, adding more creative abilities that would have been too complicated to balance in the single player. Next, it implements enemy variety masterfully, with clearly readable and unique enemies. And finally, it polishes these elements with sound and visual design that make it feel incredible to play and experiment. The end result is a strangely cohesive experience that pushes players into exploring the game’s systems, making each match feel unique.
One of the core challenges of Mass Effect’s multiplayer modes is the lack of gametype variety. As previously mentioned, you’re locked into one game mode, on a set series of static maps, with a few objective-based rounds to mix it up. This means that, generally, the player is accomplishing the exact same goals every game. So, variety is first injected through the tools the players take into each mission. Initially, this means the weapons the player has to choose from. There are multiple categories of weapons, each with their own strengths, and the player will probably be fairly familiar with them from other shooters. Shotguns, assault rifles, pistols, these are things the player already intuitively understands. Fortunately, Mass Effect isn’t afraid to take advantage of its sci-fi setting, putting more conventional modern military-themed weapons alongside more creative alien weapons like the particle beam. Its setting frees it to create weapons that feel genuinely unique. The player isn’t choosing between two assault rifles with a 0.2 second difference in reload time, they’re picking between a marksman rifle and a rifle
that shoots lightning. This makes the decision on which weapons to pick more complicated, which is further increased by the weapon weight system. Taking fewer or lighter weapons decreases the recharge time of the player abilities, creating a tradeoff between weapon effectiveness and ability effectiveness. These tradeoffs make it genuinely interesting to decide on loadouts, and unlocking new weapons can entirely change up your playstyle. Compare that to Rainbow Six Siege, which, while each match plays out in wildly different ways, has rarely encouraged me to change up my loadouts for a character once I’ve settled on one. But the unique weapons are only a part of what makes loadout creation in Mass Effect interesting. Much like the single-player game, it’s the characters that really make the experience shine.
The various character classes of Mass Effect’s multiplayer are where its real value lies. You aren’t just picking another version of a human soldier with a weird gadget, you’re switching between hulking krogan vanguards and a tiny volus biotic god. While many classes share similar abilities, the way those abilities play off each other makes each class combination feel unique, and presents an entirely new playstyle. Switching between them is fairly easy, and the player isn’t penalized with hours of required grinding for doing so. So, players will be switching up their entire playstyle on a game-
to-game basis. Even playing on the same map against the same enemies, no game will feel the same. I’ll talk about this particular class in more detail later, but the Human Vanguard class, for example, is a hyper aggressive melee tank, that charges enemies and drops high-damage AOE melee attacks. A well-played vanguard basically never uses cover, and is always charging around the map. This experience is radically different from playing the salarian engineer, my go-to for high level platinum difficulty runs. This class is much squishier than the vanguard, and has to constantly use cover and longer-ranged weapons. However, his tech abilities have low enough recharge times that the player can set off tech combos on enemies consistently, making him ideal for burning down top-tier enemies at higher difficulties. While he’s nowhere near as aggressive as the vanguard, he can maintain map control in a way that the vanguard, with its high-risk, high-reward play, simply can’t. Not all classes play as wildly different as these two, but with over 30 classes, there are a lot of experiences to pick from. This encourages players to talk to their friends about their favorite builds, partially to optimize their own, but also to discover new playstyles from new classes. The social element continues to enhance this throughout the experience. Get a new class in a loot box that you don’t know how to play? Maybe a friend already has it, and the two of you can swap strategies. I’ve made a few online friends from these multiplayer lobbies, despite the horrific netcode and lack of text chat, and I think this encouraged conversation is a huge part of why.
The Game Field
All the loadout and class variety in the world wouldn’t mean that much if the maps and enemies weren’t designed to make them interesting. And, fortunately, Mass Effect’s maps and enemies do just that. The maps are the more standard of the two, so I’ll start with that. They’re mostly unremarkable, with a few unique environmental quirks in the third game that really stood out. And while I don’t have the level design background to say how the levels do this, they do push the player into consistently risky situations. Even on the highest difficulties, players must be moving constantly, and rarely get to hunker down and camp for more than a minute at a time. Players must regularly shift their position and strategy, engaging enemies at different ranges. Andromeda even took advantage of that game’s new moveset to add greater verticality to the maps, but in a post-Titanfall world, feels much less impressive than it could have been. The maps are mostly there to set the stage for the real stars, the enemies.
While it’s Mass Effect’s character variety that adds the most depth to the multiplayer, it’s the enemy design that really makes the multiplayer click. Each game has the player picking from one of four enemy factions: Cerberus, Geth, Reaper, and Collector. While they do mirror each other at the high levels (foot soldier, tougher foot soldier, sniper, tanky enemy, smaller enemy with an instakill), the specifics are where they really shine. Each faction, and even specific enemies, are weak to specific weapon and ammo types, encouraging the player to mix up which weapons and effects they play with. Going into a game against the synthetic Geth? Better bring disruptor ammo for its bonus damage against shields and synthetics. Hell, maybe play an engineer, with some abilities to control enemy synthetics! Fighting Reapers? Probably best to bring something with fire to burn down those husks and armoreds. Furthering this, each enemy beyond the basic grunt has at least some interesting mechanic to engage with. Sometimes that’s through creative use of weak points, like the slot on the Cerberus Guardian’s shield for easy headshots, or knocking off chunks of armor on reapers. Or it could be actually unique mechanics, such as the cluster grenades dropped by the Geth Bomber to further discourage camping. While this is a horde mode, most enemies are not faceless, each one has a specific role, and the higher the difficulty, the more you have to play to their weaknesses.
Like all good forms of variety in design, these enemies add depth exponentially, making all other decisions more interesting. Unique enemies abilities make the maps have even more of an impact on player positioning and rotation. Some areas of a map may be great for fighting one enemy type but not another, encouraging the player to shift where they’re hunkering down as new enemies appear. Enemies with different weaknesses encourage mixing up your loadout even more to play into that. And with how many unique consumables the game throws at you, players aren’t encouraged to horde useful ones; they’re getting more than they can use after every round. The enemies are the glue that makes all the individual components stick together, and this is highlighted by comparing the game to something like Digital Extreme’s Warframe.
Warframe is a great game in its own right, and one that I’ve sunk hundreds of hours into with friends and on my own. It has map and loadout variety that puts Mass Effect to shame, and it should, it’s a full, games-as-service game! But each match of Warframe…kinda feels the same to me, outside of the more unique raids and events. This is, in part, because the enemies feel very similar, so the player has no real reason to switch to anything but their main character and weapons. Mass Effect, meanwhile, uses the enemies to force the player to engage with the variety in its other systems if they want to progress. And this all comes to a head in the game’s Platinum difficulty.
Platinum difficulty Mass Effect runs are the most genuinely terrifying co-op content I’ve ever played in an action game. Instead of picking from one of four enemy types, platinum difficulty throws all of them at you at once. The toughest enemies from each faction all appear at once, in a grueling fight that tests the player on every aspect of the game’s systems. Here, the player can’t take the anti-geth character on the geth mission, they have to prepare loadouts that are dynamic enough to tackle nearly all of them. They have to coordinate with teammates to make sure they have all potential enemies covered, and that no one is too specialized. With enough grinding and optimization, these interesting decisions can be mitigated or even ignored outright, but until the player reaches that point, platinum is a treat. Players have to stay together, have to be constantly communicating, calling out enemies, and coordinating ability cooldowns. If Mass Effect’s design was not this solid, platinum would become a slog of grinding and finding the most overpowered characters to exploit it. But, because each system plays off one another in all their various incarnations, it ends up being the best version of the game, and by far the most interesting.
A Brief Love Letter to The “Manguard”
Mass Effect’s multiplayer would have been tactically interesting with just the elements I’ve discussed before, but it’s the sound design, VFX, and other “game feel” aspects that really give it the final push. Starting with Mass Effect 2, BioWare really started putting effort into its sound design, making the SFX of the player’s biotic abilities especially punchy, bass-heavy, and satisfying. Mass Effect 3 itered on this wonderfully, but that is most apparent in the previously mentioned “Manguard” class. A community nickname for the human vanguard class, the Manguard has by far the most aggressive playstyle in the game, and the series’ improved game feel and SFX design really helps sell it. Available from the start, the vanguard is a high-risk, high-reward character that zips
around the battlefield dealing catastrophic damage. Play with a well-played vanguard on your team on the lower difficulties, and you’ll be hard-pressed to get a single kill. When specialized correctly, the vanguard opens with a charge attack, which instantly refills their shields and deals massive, single-target damage. They then follow this up with a nova attack, an area of effect attack that deals so much damage it would be overpowered if it didn’t also drop the vanguard’s shields, leaving them vulnerable to a counter-attack if they don’t immediately follow it up with another charge, refilling their shields. The result is an experience that constantly feels on the edge of catastrophic failure, even as it rakes in the kills. And this is cemented in my memory because of the incredible sound and visual design for the vanguard’s charge and nova abilities. Each one feels like a power trip diluted into a few seconds of audio, so much that it’s almost distractingly exciting. Manguards may not be viable at gold difficulty, and especially not at platinum, but the experience of playing on silver is something I’ve genuinely never experienced in another game.
For a game starting with so much against it, including its own tech stack, Mass Effect’s multiplayer ended up being a surprisingly polished experience. Design-wise, it achieved a level of elegance that tacked-on multiplayer has, to my knowledge, never achieved. It pulled from the series’ design strengths to make the experience of playing a 10-round horde mode wildly compelling, even beyond other games in the same space with an actual multiplayer focus and a much bigger budget. It did get a proper sequel in the form of Andromeda’s multiplayer release, but marred as that game was by its own technical failings, it never got the same community as the third game. And, given the recent announcement that 3’s multiplayer will not be included in the upcoming Mass Effect: Legendary Edition release, it looks like the game and its model are probably only going to last the few more years that EA bothers to pay for their server costs. But, while I am disappointed that I won’t get to see more iteration on this idea, I’ve found revisiting 3 and Andromeda to be a fascinating dive into what makes multiplayer games really work, and how to make each round of play feel like a genuinely unique experience.