Wednesday 14 March 2012

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!”

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