Mass Effect 3 is remembered for a lot of things, most of them good but some especially bad and memorably so. Mobility, cover, gunplay, and the use of powers felt fluid and refined; RPG elements were expanded after Mass Effect 2 went too far in streamlining everything; several major plot threads were resolved over the course of the game; and then there was the pick-a-colour, I-have-no-idea-what’s-going-on ending, which reduced the Reapers from an inexplicable, terrifying, nigh-unstoppable foe to simple AI lackeys of another nonsensical AI. However, for once, I’m going to mostly ignore single-player component and focus on an underappreciated addition; the cooperative multiplayer mode - “Galaxy at War”.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the impact the multiplayer component initially had on your single-player “Galactic Readiness” rating, a numerical score based on your accumulated allies and past choices, something that could affect your ending. Playing Galaxy at War would boost your overall rating, rendering the side quests (which were bland in ME3) unnecessary. Given the backlash from those who were only there for a single-player RPG, this mechanic was eventually patched, and you no longer needed to play online for the best ending/s.
At first, my friends and I were part of the vocal crowd dismissing the multiplayer as unnecessary and shamelessly monetized (it was, I think, the first appearance of EA’s now ubiquitous loot boxes); however, once we all wrapped up the game and exchanged several bewildered messages regarding the ending sequence, we figured it was time to give it a go for a lack of anything better to do. None of us had spent much time online (I was rocking a 384kb ADSL line at the time), preferring couch co-op sessions and impromptu LANs when the stars aligned, but it was time to see what the fuss was about.
At first glance, the interface was great; a galactic map, subdivided into five regions, which change colour as you complete more missions and assert Alliance dominance over the Reapers. Your first stop was character-creation, and, to much excitement, the opportunity to play as other races. You could pick race, gender, your favourite class from the main game, then customise them to your liking, before speccing them up using a simple ME2-style skill-tree that ensured every power was assigned to a single button for quick access. Your character would gain experience and – with a level-cap of 20 - you could make them a jack-of-all trades or specialist. Very few characters were all-rounders, so plenty of time was spent just chatting about different class skills and how they would synergise. For what it’s worth, the class-synergy system still provides more tactical depth than most modern competitive or cooperative shooters.
After creating a lobby and filling out our team of four (you could go in with less if you were brave), you could select your difficulty, enemy type, and map, before being tasked with surviving 10 waves of enemies, with 3 random objective waves (waves 3, 6, and 9), and a time-limited extraction on the 10th wave. Missions objectives were all time-based and usually involved capturing points, hacking terminals, or killing specific foes. Formulaic, sure, but that simple structure remained satisfying for hours on end, especially when the online mode received five free map packs, a new difficulty, classes, weapons, and even enemy type.
Everything that made squad combat in single-player satisfying worked even better when you had actual people in your squad. Certain classes synergised well together, able to hold a chokepoint while the other players flanked the enemy, and others were perfect for solo endeavours (my Infiltrator was always on standby to cloak and dash through enemy lines to revive a fallen comrade or complete an objective without drawing fire). By lowering the difficulty, or ensuring there was one or more high-level players, new players had room to breathe and find their feet.
The levelling mechanic (which unlocked several impressive powers) was paired with continuous weapon and attachment unlocks from loot boxes (which we only ever bought with mission credits); this ensured everyone felt a sense of progression for their time invested. Later weapons and classes felt unbalanced, but this was a PVE mode and it only added to the fun as we’d crank up the difficulty to gold (and later platinum), aiming to maximise experience and credit gains. I fondly remember a human Infiltrator that I specced for maximum cloaked weapon damage, wielding a Black Widow rifle with stacked piercing mods, that could fire at a highlighted target through walls and still score a kill (much to the annoyance of my mates - at least before they realised a teleporting Shadow Infiltrator was even worse at stealing kills).
Friends who had no love for the unforgiving competitive scene were suddenly pushing to play every other night and happily engaged with a light competitive element that assigned a total score and several badges at the end of each match (and upped your online profiles N7 rating). The free map packs kept us coming back for months, even more so than the excellent DLC that the game would eventually receive. It was a glorious time and we swiftly forgot the disappointing ending debacle.
Fast-forward five years to 2017’s disappointing Mass Effect: Andromeda, and, once again, we eventually found ourselves online – with much better internet connections this time – playing dozens of matches of the online cooperative mode. It’s still good – though I miss the more deliberate pace and variety in ME3 - and still accessible to anyone, regardless of their skill level. As with ME3 before it, my total playtime is skewed heavily in favour of the online mode. Amusingly, I’ve even reinstalled ME3 several times over the years and you can still find an active player base, something very few other online games from early 2012 can claim.
Ultimately, Mass Effect 3 may have been an incredible ride to a rubbish destination, but one aspect that I'll always remember is the sheer amount of fun I had with friends in the Galaxy at War mode. Friends that, to this day, I still get together with weekly for some cooperative online gaming.
Enjoys games with awesome stories and characters, along with new and interesting hardware. Dislikes day-one patches and driver updates.
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