Mass Effect 3 is all about long-term plans finally coming to fruition. After two games of steadily inching ever closer to their target, the Reapers have finally found Earth, and while the single-player campaign will dart about orchestrating the beginning, middle, and end of a planet-wide conflict that's been thousands of years in the making, elsewhere on the start menu, other promises are being fulfilled too.
That's because Mass Effect 3 is finally taking the plunge with multiplayer - a bold move for BioWare, which hasn't tangled with anything other than a solo campaign since, what, Neverwinter Nights? After an hour with the game last week, though, the delivery looks a little less bold. This is definitely entertaining stuff, but it's also pretty standard co-op fare.
With the single-player eating up man hours over at BioWare Edmonton, and the Austin studio toiling to piece an entire galaxy of Star Wars treats together for the Christmas launch of The Old Republic, Mass Effect multiplayer's being handled in the main by the freshly-minted BioWare Montreal, a team that's been up and running for about a year. The end result appears to be a series of four-player co-op missions where you form an elite squad with your friends and fight for control of territory throughout the stars.
Single-player characters will not be invited. It's a strictly No Shepard Zone. Instead, the big draw is the ability to play as a different race for the first time in a Mass Effect game, with six of them available: that's Asari, Drell, Krogan, Turian, Salarian and good old humans. Seeing them all lined up, something's immediately apparent: going by names alone, Mass Effect's aliens sound weirdly delicious.
The game's six classes will also be available, and each class will have two playable species. An Asari, for example, can be both an adept or a vanguard, and will have different attributes for both. It's a system that should form a nice muddle of powers and load-out options, and that's before you start levelling up your stats and using in-game credits to mod your weapons.
You'll need plenty of offensive options, incidentally, because the meat of Mass Effect multiplayer is yet another version of Hoard mode, tasking players with fighting through 11 waves of enemies across a range of different maps, murdering as many as possible before you're eventually overwhelmed - or until whoever has Virgin Media gets randomly disconnected.
There's a twist, though: as you're battling away at each wave, you'll also be given a randomized mini-mission - defusing a bomb, say, or powering up a series of terminals that have been scattered around the place. You'll need to complete this objective and kill all the enemies in order to progress to the next wave - and it's trickier than it sounds.
"Between biotics and ballistics, melee was the great forgotten option in my quick playthough. Maybe we should have a fundraiser."
Playing on a map that's set around a frosty snow-bound spaceport nestled in the heart of a huge mountain range, it's worryingly easy to get sucked in. Mass Effect's weapons have gathered quite a pop to them over the course of three games and, playing as a Drell vanguard, I had a load-out of a shotgun and a pistol to screw around with.
Ammo's scattered all about the map in crates, and my guns' relatively shallow clips ensured that I always had to keep a route back to those crates in mind. On top of that, this being Mass Effect, I also had three attributes, split across the bumpers and the Y button - the selection wheel has been removed for multiplayer - meaning that a handful of familiar Biotic powers were never too far away, allowing me to send enemies floating through the air with Pull, or do that Biotic Charge thumping super-powered headbutt that always looks so painful for both parties.
Enemies ranged from simple Cerberus troops to nimble undead husks and horrible, blister-skinned cannibals. At the top range, you can expect towering Atlas Mechs, complete with grabbing, squishing claws, and punch-happy Brutes, both of which ar big enough to require a full group of four players to take them on, Monster Hunter style.
Elsewhere, although the various mission objectives are pretty basic, they offer just enough challenge to keep you at cross-purposes and enforce teamwork. Levelling between rounds, meanwhile, sees you pouring talent points into a pretty standard upgrade list - there's a cap of level 20, incidentally - and it will be fascinating to see whether BioWare can keep the game balanced with so many variables in play across class, race, and build.
If there's a problem, it's that, by taking on Hoard, BioWare's not just getting a great template for satisfying co-op. It's also inviting comparisons to some fairly illustrious competition. Sure, Mass Effect has steadily become a much more convincing shooter over the series' lifespan, but when it comes to movement, aiming, and ease of dropping in and out of cover, it's rarely going to be able to measure up against Gears of War, which doesn't have a whole RPG thing to worry about elsewhere. Can the development team shake some of the stiffness out by next February, while also picking up the terrifyingly nuanced art of great multiplayer map design at the same time?
BioWare's certainly got the whole context angle taken care of, anyway. Tying Mass Effect 3's various modes together is the new Galaxy at War system, which charts your 'Galactic Readiness' for the game's final confrontation. You'll be able to boost your readiness purely by sticking to the main campaign if you want, and BioWare's already taken pains to assure players that they'll be able to get the game's best ending without venturing into multiplayer at all. (Eurogamer has spies deep within the studio who inform us that the very best ending features Shepard and Wrex visiting Legoland Windsor, with Wrex then pushing candyfloss in Shepard's face.)
Multiplayer just gives you an optional means of raising your readiness, by transforming fully-levelled characters into war assets, and sending you off to defend specific quadrants of the space chart. You'll also be able to keep track of your galactic progress on iOS and Facebook - the latter will even let you find out how your mum did in her driving test, and what happened to Aunt Bennet after that hilarious mix-up at the dentist. (She died.)
Ultimately, the developer's walking a delicate line with this one, offering incentivized multiplayer for those that want it, while retaining a single-player balance that ensures that soloists won't feel they're missing out on anything very important. It's a typical BioWare solution, in other words: measured, thoughtful, and sturdy. Next February we'll get to see if it pays off.