Time to talk about something I hinted at not too long past:
A couple of weeks ago, I finally picked up Mass Effect 3. Yes, I'm late to the party, but understand: I haven't finished Mass Effect 2, yet. Not on PC, anyway, and having finished the first on that platform and determined to carry on through to the end with the same Shepard, I came to the conclusion that it wasn't worth it for me to spend $60+ on something I was just going to sit on for a while.
Also, Origin. I didn't need yet another download client cluttering my hard drive, demanding I fill up a new friend list. I still don't, but I gave in because the game was on sale and, damn it all, some of the free DLC that's come out for the multiplayer had me hankering for tight, sci-fi, third-person shooting action. I just want to be a space ninja.
It turns out, though, that "free" in Mass Effect 3's terms is a nominal descriptor at best. While the content can be downloaded and, in theory, accessed without having to pay a dime (yes, the new maps will work their way into your queue without a hitch or anything more required on your part), the game's multiplayer has everything except the most basic weapons and characters locked from the get-go.
There's nothing inherently wrong with this methodology. All six classes are represented and, while it may be somewhat boring to play as a "standard" human adept or engineer, there's a character who will at least mostly fit your play-style available from the start. My issue isn't with the rest of the races and weapons being locked up; it's with how one unlocks them.
Call of Duty popularized the model in which weapons and various enhancements are doled out over time, doing so by tying unlocks to levels. Gain experience points by performing various actions in multiplayer matches and level up, get new stuff. Mass Effect 3, rather than tying unlocks to experience or N7 level (a player's overall level, in a sense), makes you buy new stuff with currency you earn in matches.
That's cool, though, right? That way you can pick and choose what you want to unlock, rather than having to wait until level 70 to unlock that gun every dude is owning you with so you can properly fight back. Except, no, ME3 doesn't let you choose specific upgrades or buy particular items. It limits you to purchasing increasingly expensive supply packs. Each supply pack comes with an assortment of items, with various degrees of rarity. Buying more expensive packs generally gets a player more of the common one-time-use items at once as well as a guarantee of a certain number of unlocks from higher rarity tiers. This is how you unlock weapons, races, enhancements, even how you restock your supply of basic consumables, such as medi-gel.
The arbitrary nature of this system means that you can go weeks without unlocking a single new class to play as. I've yet to get a single race despite buying multiple high-rarity packs. My friend Dan, meanwhile, picked up three N7 classes over the course of two days, all of which he'd been hankering for. That's just cruel, guys.
Further, it's more difficult to get money from the get-go because, even if one levels up a class (classes, blessedly, level up as a whole rather than demanding that each individual race within that class be leveled), higher difficulties, which provide greater financial rewards, also demand upgraded weapons to give the players a fighting chance.
How does one upgrade weapons? Finding weapon mods and duplicates of weapons one already owns in supply packs. Yes, you're not even guaranteed to get a new weapon or race on any given purchase. Even if one shows up, it could very well be one you've already unlocked. Weapons get an upgrade, races get an additional color slot to customize (purely cosmetic) and an XP boost (kind of useless, in the end).
This would all just be an annoyance if it ended here. The multiplayer would be a needlessly frustrating grind, comprised of currency farming and little else, but no. There's a purpose behind the roulette system.
Rather than purchase supplies for in-game currency, a player can instead buy them with real money. Further, when you pay this real-life money, you aren't necessarily getting what you want. You're getting a pull of the lever on a virtual slot machine, the amount you spend determining how good your rewards could be. People who play, or have played, Magic: The Gathering will be all too familiar with this methodology: They're selling booster packs. I don't know if it's the concept itself that irks me or the fact that the starter set is so spartan.
Mass Effect 3's multiplayer is an excellent, addictive companion to the story-heavy, cinematic campaign. Unfortunately, its method of doling out content comes across as a shameless cash-grab, adding a system I'd expect in a freemium title, not in a full retail release. It's sapped my will to play and I've moved on to more accommodating co-op experiences, like Borderlands 2, but I still find myself craving that elusive N7 Infiltrator and her Vanguard counterpart.
Give me my damn space ninjas, EA.
Date: October 5, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*