Mass Effect 3 multiplayer: Bring your friends to the war

Hands-On with BioWare's controversial step into online co-op

Make no mistake about it: despite being invited out to deepest Alberta to cast our eyes exclusively over the first build of Mass Effect 3's long-rumoured multiplayer, Bioware continue to stress that single-player is their priority.

Executive Producer Casey Hudson waxes lyrically about the whole game - calling it the "pinnacle of everything we've been working on" - but particularly about the solo experience: it's got "better action, deeper customisation and a feature set now so rich you can play your own way."

And yet, he claims, multiplayer was there, in the background, from the start. "We've been interested in multiplayer (since the original Mass Effect)," he reckons, "But it never really worked out. We didn't want to compromise our cornerstone - single-player. We wanted to integrate multiplayer in a way that made sense, and complimented the story."

So, what changed? "We finally figured out a way to do it," he smiles. It's worth exploring the rationale behind Bioware's belated venture into online.

Just three words encapsulate the Canadian developers' multiplayer vision: 'Galaxy at War'. Obviously, this ties in perfectly with the narrative events of ME3 - the dreaded Reapers have finally manifested, and Team Shepard's dire warnings have become flesh... or, at least, steel.

The ancient robotic race has invaded and conquered Earth. Systems all across the galaxy have fallen to their collective knees. It's Shepard's job to hightail it around the universe, garner the remnants of various fleets and focus what Hudson labels 'war assets' upon the Reaper hordes in the final showdown between man, extraterrestrial and machine.

This is no 'Dirty Dozen'-esque sojourn a la ME2 though - it's a full-scale galaxy-wide armament programme. Things just got epic.

Galaxy Quest
But the 'Galaxy at War' mechanic doesn't just take place in the single-player. Instead, it appears to play out like one gigantic, universe-wide game of Risk - in essence 'framing' the solo adventure. The shots we were shown (but, sadly, weren't allowed to leave with) did bring to mind the classic board game, with green territories repre-senting captured assets, amber colours representing those hanging in the balance - and red pointing out Reaper/Cerberus-controlled zones.

"This is a concept that has never been done before in games, ever," reckons Hudson. "Not simply a story device, it's fundamental to the game. For the first time, wherever you go - online, mobile, on social networks - you'll be able to follow your progress. You'll never have to leave the Mass Effect experience."

Hudson straight-bats further questions about how multiplayer, on different formats, will communicate with one another, but we catch glimpses of an all-new social game for Facebook and Google+, as well as a bespoke iPad and iPhone adventure.

Above all else, Bioware are determined to situate the multiplayer experience within the context of the trilogy; a final fight by a galaxy collective to save their homeworlds from being trampled to mush by the Reapers.

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