Making Multiplayer Fit
The announcement earlier this year that Mass Effect 3 would feature multiplayer caused a riot. The more vocal elements of the ME fan-base lambasted Bioware for sullying their headliner with bollocking multiplayer and opening the floodgates for an army of mic’d up imbeciles that would ruin everything with their teenage swagger. They wrote to their local Member of Parliament, burnt effigies of the Bioware doctors and cried themselves to sleep for a solid week. Panic stricken, they convinced themselves that the evil empire, EA, had finally consumed Bioware and that we were only months away from the series being re-located to current day Afghanistan and re-branded as a modern warfare shooter.
I have played a dozen or so rounds of ME3's co-op over the last fortnight and am happy to say that all the fretting was for naught. I found it to be simple yet well designed, a worthwhile addition to Mass Effect 3 that can add umpteen hours to its shelf life. Combat is fast paced, challenging and satisfying but I am conflicted by the way in which it is tied to the narrative. To explain, multiplayer sessions contribute to your galactic readiness rating, a figure that starts at 50% but increases slightly with each round of multiplayer. This percentage corresponds to the fighting strength of the forces you collect throughout the single player campaign in your effort to destroy the genocidal Reapers. For example, if you have 2000 units (single player) and a preparedness rating of 75% (multiplayer), then your final fighting strength will be 1500 units. The number of units you take into the final battle has a small, but not insignificant effect on one of the endings.
I'm torn by this intertwining of campaign narrative and online modes. On the one hand I'm pleased that Bioware made the effort to work the multiplayer into the narrative, something that not all developers do, thus justifying its existence within the ME universe. On the other, knowing that it was affecting the strength of my forces but not yet aware of the extent to which it impacted the narrative, I felt pressured into playing it when all I really wanted to do was push forward with the campaign. Playing co-op alongside the story doesn't do ME3 any favours, as the single player combat feels sluggish and predictable in comparison; I'd have preferred exploring the co-op after finishing the story, which is how I approach most games with single and multiplayer modes.
|I liked the idea of Assassin's Creed multiplayer far more than the finished product|
It is easy to see why a publisher would want to add multiplayer wherever possible: it adds value and increases the likelihood of the customer retaining the game, which reduces the number of used copies in circulation and maintains a user base that can be sold DLC. However, creating worthwhile online play and running servers must be hugely expensive. In all likelihood, funds would be syphoned from single player and pumped into the multiplayer, which could potentially lead to a less polished core experience.
We expect online multiplayer from certain genres; it is a given in an FPS and all but standard in sports and racing. However, online modes are increasingly appearing in other genres and games that do not lend themselves so readily to multiplayer, and the results have been mixed. Assassin's Creed made a decent attempt from Brotherhood onwards, though I still feel that it adds very little to the series as a whole. It gets bonus points for trying something a bit different - a slower and more nuanced take on the traditional deathmatch - but ultimately it falls flat, rather bare in comparison to the layered campaign. There was no good reason, at least from the player's point of view, for Dead Space 2 to branch out with online necromorphs. It sacrificed the terrifying quiet, loneliness and claustrophobia of the single player for dime a dozen multiplayer thrills. I have lost count of the number of games I have played in the last year where I have all but ignored online modes, deeming them superfluous and undeserving of my time.
Some games do succeed in making multiplayer fit where you'd be surprised to find it. The last thing you'd expect from a game as simple and as personal as Journey is a co-operative focus. Despite limiting your communication and hiding the identities of your co-travellers, Journey is infinitely more enjoyable when experienced with another wandering soul. This understated use of the PS Network is brilliant, though the illusion is shattered when, at the close of the game, you learn the names of your partners. These handles are inevitably a threat or brag followed by a collection of numbers, which is rather galling after an hour of majestic soaring and Zen exploration. I liked it so much better when DaGunz69 was an anonymous scarf.
|"I'm gonna frag you up you floaty twat". Sometimes silence is golden.|
I was far from convinced when I first learnt that Uncharted 2 would include multiplayer, but it has since become a vital part of the series. It has achieved this on quality alone as, at least initially, it didn't try to pair itself with the single player narrative. Red Dead Redemption did an excellent job of building multiplayer around familiarity bred in the campaign, using the map as a sandbox hub from which to interact with other players and launch a wide range of modes.
In today's market, it's difficult to get away from multiplayer. Whether you embrace it, ignore or detest it, it is most definitely here to stay, both where it belongs and where it doesn't. As we move towards the next generation and beyond, the distinction between single and multiplayer is likely to become less defined, which would necessitate narrative becoming even more important in competitive and co-op modes. Hopefully that will spell the end for shoe-horned-in online modes, though who knows how this will affect the traditional single player experience.
Odds & Ends
As you may have noticed, I haven't kept to my usual posting schedule so far this month. Things have been a bit hectic as I've struggled to find the time and in some cases the motivation to get stuck into my writing. I hope to eventually return to my old routine but updates are likely to be sporadic for the next couple of weeks. Do keep checking back though, as I will post as and when I get the chance - hopefully twice a week, but don't hold me to it! Cheers.