I like to play blackjack. I’m not addicted to gambling, I’m addicted to sitting in a semi-circle.

The British Board of Blog Classification (Game Plot Revelation Committee) has classified this post as Spoiler Free for the single player story of ‘Mass Effect 3’. Please refrain from any revelations in the comments, especially about that bit where that thing happens. I mean I was all totally like “NO WAY!”, and the game was all totally like “WAY!”, and then when the thing turned out not to be that thing but the other thing? Definitely don’t tell anyone about that. Though I was a bit disappointed when it all turned out to be a dream.

Like much of the rest of the galaxy I’ve been desperately fighting off the Reapers in Mass Effect 3, but I haven’t got terribly far in the story yet, so there really won’t be any spoilers. If you’d manage to insulate yourself from ME3 information so completely that “fighting off the Reapers” is a surprise, I apologise for ruining the first 17 seconds of the introduction. One of the main reasons for lack of single player progress is that I keep getting distracted by the multiplayer.

The mechanics are pretty simple, you create multiplayer-specific characters from slightly cut-down versions of the main classes (Soldier, Infiltrator, Adept etc.), kit them out with a couple of guns, then either host or join a co-op fight in a squad of four against 10 waves of opponents. I haven’t heavily played an online shooter since Unreal Tournament 2003 so I’m a bit out of touch, but the combat elements of ME3 stand up well enough on their own, and one round is a nice 20-minute chunk of gaming (so long as everyone hits “Ready” fairly promptly to start things off, and three of you aren’t sitting in the lobby staring at one “Not Ready” status).

There are a couple of slightly troubling aspects to the multiplayer, though. The first is the contribution to the single player story; success in multiplayer improves the “Galactic Readiness Rating”, which is helpful in the single player story. It’s not a bad idea, to give people a bit of a nudge to at least try the multiplayer to see if they like it, but it sounds like it can have quite a significant effect on how the game ends rather than being a bit of an optional bonus (I might revisit the subject after finishing the game myself, until then: NO SPOILERS!). It’s particularly jarring in light of the separate settings for Combat and Narrative that allow a player to adjust one or the other to their preference, whereas the multiplayer is exclusively combat, and not particularly forgiving.

It doesn’t take a conspiracy theory of “world leaders are giant lizards in human skin polluting our essence by fluoridating water” proportions to connect the less than subtle shove towards multiplayer with the second troubling aspect, the equipment upgrades. You earn credits through your battles, and with those credits you can buy Recruit, Veteran or Spectre packs containing a random mix of consumables, weapons, upgrades and multiplayer characters (you can always create a human of any class, other races like Salarians and Krogan are unlocked via the upgrade packs). The kit you get is mostly Common, but with a chance (or certainty, depending how much you spend) of Uncommon or Rare items. Sound familiar? As Evan Lahti of PC Gamer put it, “When I play it I smell Magic cards.” It’s not Magic for me, it’s 1983 Panini Return of the Jedi stickers, isn’t it? Wasn’t it? Small boys in the playground, jumpers for goalposts, got, got, got, got, need! Need! I’ll give you two ewoks and a quarter of the death star for the top of C3PO’s head! No, Mrs Brown, I wasn’t playing with the stickers in class, don’t confiscate them!

Random loot alone isn’t so much of a problem (or churches surely wouldn’t hold so many raffles), it’s a staple of many games, and though it can be annoying when you seemingly turn up endless shotgun upgrades and nothing for your favoured assault rifle it’s nothing that hasn’t been hashed out many times here and elsewhere around the blag-u-spore (and doubtless would have been on the Panini Stickers forum in 1983, had it existed; “drop rate of admiral ackbar is REDICKKYEWLESS!!1!”). As well as being available for in-game credits, though, the Veteran and Spectre equipment packs can be bought for real money (in the form of Bioware Points). I’ve got no fundamental issue with microtransactions (again, see repeated discussions here and elsewhere), but the combination of real money and randomness puts gambling on the table, then spins a big wheel and shouts “faites vos jeux”.

I haven’t really got a problem with gambling, but for whatever reason it’s not something I particularly enjoy, perhaps I’m too risk-averse. I can appreciate the appeal (win lots of lovely money, check), I’ll happily bet piles of virtual money on virtual blackjack in something like Fallout: New Vegas (especially when there’s a Quick Load option), but I’ve no desire to to shovel 10p coins into a slot machine. Mind you the slots player might be just as baffled by me and a friend doing the same thing with a Golden Axe cabinet when there isn’t even a chance of getting money out of it. (Note: adjust for inflation and substitute a more modern game to avoid too much 80s nostalgia.)

Turbine’s treasure hunting event in Lord of the Rings Online has similar overtones, offering random loot and requiring Treasure-hunter’s Picks that can be obtained either via in-game quests or from the store, although they sound quite easy to obtain via quests. Cryptic have rightly been drawing more flak for the Cardassian Lockboxes in Star Trek Online that can only be opened with a store-bought key. Some people can get into serious trouble with gambling, and though a stack of lockboxes are unlikely to cost someone their rent money or bring down a bank, a friend who worked in a games shop had enough stories about Magic players begging, borrowing or stealing enough for a couple of booster packs, feverishly ripping them open, and collapsing in a sobbing heap surrounded by discarded Sorrow’s Paths without a Yawgmoth’s Will to show for it. At least ME3 multiplayer is co-op rather than PvP so it really doesn’t matter if other players are tooled up with diamond-encrusted hyperguns, worst case your comparative contribution to the team might be reduced, but you’ll get the overall team rewards.

Venture Beat spent $100 on Spectre equipment packs in an interesting investigative piece that doubles up as a genius wheeze to claim Bioware Points as a tax deductible expense, and the results aren’t terribly impressive; as it concludes: “I’m sure there will be those who purchase just a couple packs and get some awesome stuff, while others will go on to have worse luck than I did. That’s the problem with gambling. But according to our little test, the odds are stacked against you in Mass Effect 3.” There is another method of boosting your single player Galactic Readiness as well, an iOS game that doesn’t sound terribly good, and *also* has an option to purchase equipment upgrades for cash.

It’s not that the purchasable equipment packs are a hideous abomination that completely ruin Mass Effect 3, they’re just a bit of tarnish on what is otherwise a rather nice addition to the game. If the co-op multiplayer was a separate free-to-play download with microtransactions that would be one thing, buying equipment packs seems a little excessive on top of a big-box full price game, but then so does launch-day DLC and the piles of tie-in merchandise unlocks, such is the way of so many titles these days. The Galactic Readiness aspect of the single player game may not turn out to be such a big deal after all, rendering this something of a storm in a teacup; perhaps we should just be thankful that Bioware didn’t use a less subtle approach to hook in players who care more about the story and relationship between the characters…

“Commander, over the course of our mission I feel we have become close, so close that I can’t help myself, I have to ask… Have You Tried Mass Effect 3 Co-Operative Multiplayer? Why Not Do So Now! Buy A Spectre Equipment Pack For Just 160 Bioware Points!”

“Shepard, I treasure our time together, but… it’s just… your Galactic Readiness score is rather low, so there’s a good chance I’ll die in the climactic confrontation. If you really loved me, you’d play Mass Effect 3 Co-operative Multiplayer and buy lots of Spectre Equipment Packs for just 160 Bioware Points!”

7 thoughts on “I like to play blackjack. I’m not addicted to gambling, I’m addicted to sitting in a semi-circle.

  1. darkeye

    Lotro does have their own version of lockboxes with store bought keys, plenty of outrage when they were initially introduced, in fairness they have been attempting to make them feel less like cheap tricks. What that ammounted to was adding stat tomes to the loot tables and removing some of the ‘booby prizes’ (1 vial of pink dye was supposedly a mistake, so too were class specific gear). The drop rate of keys in game was supposed to be improved too, even if they doubled it would still not be noticeable, keys sell for ridiculous amounts of gold on the AH. Being the cynic, adding stat tomes to buy some goodwill was just a ploy to introduce items that confer an advantage into the boxes.

    I think it all comes down to the minimum value, or what are the least useful items that can be gotten from the boxes, the difference between ‘better luck next time’ and ‘oh well at least it is something I’ll use’ is going to have different thresholds for people. Unfortunately I suspect you’ll never see any of these that will settle on the side of containing items that are at the very minimum somewhat useful to the majority of people.

  2. Jim

    I am sadly old enough to remember the gaming crash of 1983 when Atari felt there was no limit to the amount of money gamers would pay for whatever content they produced.

    I sense things are moving in that direction once again. There are limits to what we will pay. US$60 should purchase a complete day 1 experience. US$15/month should rent the entire house and provide a complete set of keys to every room.

    I bought ME1 and 2 and Shadows of Angmar and Moria and Mirkwood. I’m currently (still) exploring Skyrim and Telara. I am not the only gamer voting this way…the gap between haves and have nots is great enough in the real world for it to exist in my virtual worlds as well.

  3. Derrick

    The “ingame advantage” is meaningless. Those other things – MP, and the mobile apps – add content in that the MP is multiplayer content and the mobile app has it’s own content, however these things do not prevent you from getting the “best” (hahahahahahah!) endings just playing the regular SP campaign.

    The only real “advantage” gained from the Multiplayer is it raises your Galactic Readiness rating, which is a multiplier to your overall alliances’ military strength. The resulting number determines a *very* tiny difference in the ending. As you can get the “best” ending with a regular SP only score, the bonus from multiplayer only allows you to get that same ending without doing a lot of the single-player content, or rather without doing a lot of the single-player content successfully.

    I imagine more than 90% of Mass Effect 3 players are going to do *everything* regardless, and this means they’ll get the “best” ending no matter what, so it’s all moot.

    The iOS (and soon WinPhone and Android) app just allows you to receive extra “flavour” chat from characters in the game. It’s neat, but is in no way necessary for anything.


  4. Vic Sandman


    But yes.
    Mass Effect 3.
    Wonderful game, that. Played the whole thing. Doing a second playthrough. The ending is…interesting, I’ll give you that.
    But that’s about all I’ll hint at.
    Gameplay is so much better than 2’s. So much more fluid and organic-feeling. 2 feels clunky now. The N7 pack weapons are exceedingly overpowered. Haven’t played multiplayer, no interest in doing so, never was one for playing matches with the ilk of CoD and Gears players. Maybe I’m underestimating the multiplayer community, but any game that’s this popular on launch will have more than a few gankers and pricks playing it. Singleplayer is more than enough for me, please and thank you.
    It’s remarkably easy to gain war assets if you play the singleplayer “the right way”, however, at this point, your decisions and mistakes in Mass Effect 2 will have a massive impact on your decisions and mistakes in Mass Effect 3. So much so that, when comparing notes, many gamers feel that they’re playing different games, with different characters, and divergent plotlines.

    But that’s the beauty of BioWare games, isn’t it? The breadth of illusions of choices we have. It’s a beautiful lie, as the endings all converge.

    Perhaps Mass Effect 3 is more social commentary than game. Maybe BioWare are asking us whether we truly have “choice”, or whether it’s all just an elaborate illusion in our minds, and we’re all just actors on a stage, playing our roles and strutting on and off as we are cast.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go fetch some coffee. All this philosophizing has left my head rather sore.

  5. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    I just started playing Mass Effect. The first one. So, let me say: Reavers attack? OMG SPOILERZ!

    On a somewhat more serious note:

    Jim wrote:
    I am sadly old enough to remember the gaming crash of 1983 when Atari felt there was no limit to the amount of money gamers would pay for whatever content they produced.

    The crash in the 80s isn’t usually attributed to Atari. The blame is usually laid at the feet of fly-by-night developers who put together cartridges for the Atari VCS/2600 to cash in on its popularity. Nintendo learned from this and protected the NES with a load of patents and a licensing requirement (the Nintendo seal, if you remember that).

    Not that I disagree with your sentiment, but I always feel the need to share a bit of history when I can.

  6. Zoso Post author

    @darkeye Ah, I had half an idea there were lockboxes with store-bought keys in LotRO and/or DDO as well, but haven’t really been keeping up with them. Not sure if STO is worse by only having keys on the store, or whether dangling the possibility of them dropping in the world but with a really small chance makes it more frustrating…

    Minimum value is a good point, you can always use the consumables from a ME3 equipment pack, even if they’re not as shiny as unlocking a new gun or character.

    @Jim In many ways I reckon Harold Mcmillan would be justified in saying that PC gamers “have never had it so good” with many viable free-to-play options, cheap and innovative indie games, Steam and other digital distributors holding frequent sales (sometimes with crazy discounts), and places like Good Old Games serving up real classics. Azuriel at In An Age put it quite nicely, I thought, when talking about picking up a brand new game at release as paying an “enthusiasm tax“, something I don’t necessarily mind, for the right game. It’ll be interesting to see how things develop, though, the console market looks like it’s going through a more major upheaval that will inevitably have some effect.

    @spinks At least Shepard doesn’t use oh-so-subtly product-placed hardware in the game…
    “Joker! Joker! We need evac, now! Dammit, it’s no use, I’m not getting through on the comms…”
    “Here, Commander, why not use my iPhone 574G? On the AT&T-Mob-Orange super deluxe plan, you need never worry about running out of inclusive minutes and data on the battlefield again!”

    @derrick Like I say, I’m only going by the other articles about the effect that Readiness can have on the ending, the PC Gamer article mentions you can still maximise the war effort without any multiplayer by scouring every nook and cranny of the galaxy. I think you’re considerably overestimating the dedication of the average player, though, from a couple of posts, according to Bioware only 50% of players finished Mass Effect 2, let alone did all the optional content.

    @Vic The multiplayer works rather well due to those improvements in the basic shooting gameplay, and my experience of the community so far is fantastic. Possibly because Mass Effect 3 appeals to a friendlier player in general, or possibly due to the complete absence of text communication and the rarity of anyone using voice chat (I think I’ve heard someone speak once in 20+ games). The vast majority of players just get on with it with silent competence. I’m not sure if I’m only connecting with European players or worldwide, I apologise in advance if that tempts you into trying multiplayer and you end up in matches with people insisting on playing music down their mic and randomly shouting “WTF NOOBS”.

    The result of choices in previous games is an interesting one, something Melmoth and I were chatting about; you have to presume the general structure remains the same, but the presence or absence of certain characters or decisions can subtly shift different players experiences.

    @Brian Fortunately we escaped the ’83 crash in the UK; in fact that was the boom time of 8-bit home computers like the ZX Spectrum that introduced me to the crazy world of BASIC and Thro’ The Wall. Oddly enough there’s been a flurry of interest here recently in the ultra-cheap Raspberry Pi that’s trying to recapture those days.

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