I've been having a jolly old time playing Mass Effect 3, but the game's pressure to abandon the main story in favour of multiplayer and mobile extras left a bad taste in my mouth.
I'll keep this as spoiler-free as I can, but if you're committed to ploughing through Mass Effect 3 with no prior expectations, avert your eyes now. But y'know, don't leave the site. We have other articles.
I spent the best part of my precious Bank Holiday Monday playing Mass Effect 3. I was having a properly roaring time, tearing through Reaper foes like tissue paper, and dismantling malevolent mechs using my character's maxed-out biotic Charge ability, which is a technique that plunges you chest-first into an enemy.
Sensing I was just a few missions away from the trilogy's epic conclusion (shhh, don't ruin it for me), I swarmed forward like a one-man plague of handsome locusts, along the way cementing alliances with the other characters on my ship, puzzling out mind-bending moral decisions and uniting warring races under my fluttering space-banner. I was in the zone, and loving every moment.
I was instructed that I was about to embark upon the final mission. I was ready. But just to be sure everyone else was ready (that's the kind of caring management style you get when you ally with LukeShep), I took a peek at my war console, which tells me how likely I am to win the ensuing final confrontation.
Low but measurable
This system is complicated, but important, because it determines how the game ends, and having sunk a lot of time and emotion into the game, I want the best ending possible. But despite having completed every side quest I could find, my 'Galactic Readiness' rating stood at a mere 50 per cent, with my chances of winning the final fight deemed "low but measurable". Ouch.
A quick Google search revealed that the easiest way to bump up my Galactic Readiness (that didn't involve scanning endless planets for extra war assets) was to play Mass Effect 3's multiplayer, which increases that percentage as you play. That's not something I'd counted on doing in a game with such a strong focus on the single-player story, but I guess it was what I was 'supposed' to do.
By my standards, Mass Effect 3 has already messed up by this point, because instead of playing the game I'm now hunched over my laptop, Googling with one hand over my eyes to try and avoid spoilers, trying to get my head around the mysterious formula that balances my Galactic Readiness with my Effective Military Strength.
In fact, so poorly is the mechanic explained that developer BioWare had to issue a statement to let gamers know how it actually it works. Which isn't ideal.
Two minutes later my estimation of the game had dropped another notch, as instead of waging interplanetary war against Earth's eldritch foes, I was using an on-screen keyboard to sign in to Origin, which is publisher EA's horrible and controversial network through which it controls online gaming. Oh, and I had to enter one of those awful codes that stops you selling the game. Nothing says 'space opera' like entering a 25-character code.
Another two minutes, another two notches, as now I'm skipping fruitlessly through multiplayer lobbies, trying to find a group of online gamers who won't kick me out straight away because I'm only level 1 (the multiplayer is co-operative and features gamers teaming up to survive waves of enemies. Who wants Johnny-no-levels on their team?).
After about half an hour, I make it into a game. Which is kind of fun, but so very different from the hugely compelling single-player mode. As I watch one of my team mates trying over and over to hit me to death with his gun (I have no idea what I did wrong), my heart sinks as I remember that just an hour ago I felt like I was the galaxy's greatest hope. I am no longer in the zone.
By the time I download the two accompanying iOS apps that can be used to bump up your Galactic Readiness (one of which is £2.99; both of which are absolute pants; neither available on any other platform), the process felt less like a game, and more like a cynical mechanic to make me sign into Origin and hand over my details to EA as many times as possible.
Which of course it is, let's not be naive. But the best games -- like movies -- make you forget that you're filling a publisher's coffers (did I mention multiplayer gaming through Xbox carries a monthly charge?). By the time I'd ramped my Galactic Readiness up by 10 per cent I felt manipulated, cynical and bored.
I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with multiplayer modes or downloadable apps impacting a solo game -- in fact, it's a cool idea, and something other entertainment genres can't manage. But it must be handled delicately, or you'll break gamers' focus on the story. And that's what happened in my case.
The moral of the story is, if you want gamers to be absorbed in your narrative, don't make them register for a publisher's content-distribution system halfway through. Ick.
Did you like Mass Effect 3's multiplayer, or do you think it broke the flow of the game as well? Let me know in the comments, or on our Facebook wall.