Hey, remember when the worst a Mass Effect game could be was a letdown of a finale, and not singlehandedly shoot a franchise in the back of the head? Good times1.
Mass Effect 3 was the only game in the franchise I played at launch, rather than buying it discounted down the line, and to be fair that’s mostly because my then-not-wife tricked me into a copy for my birthday. You see, she’d been a tremendous fan of the series to that point, but more specifically, she wanted someone to play multiplayer with.
For those who never played it, Mass Effect 3 multiplayer was a ten wave third person shooter, with every third round being a varied objective (hack these terminals! Escort this drone! Etc.) to shake up gameplay a bit, and then an “eleventh” round of extraction where you all head to a landing point amidst crazy levels of enemies within a short timer. It was a bit generic in concept, so the bit that elevated it was the fact that at the end of the day, it remembered it was bolted onto an action-RPG, and granted you a variety of classes and builds. If you wanted standard run and gun, there were classes for that, and their skills tended to be passives to add damage types to ammo, or grenades and other more limited heavy hitting attacks. Wanted to be a biotic (space mage)? That’s in there too, and they were usually fragile, should be kept off the front lines, and could start removing dudes from gravity, sucking them into singularities, or igniting men with their minds. Then there were “tech” classes, setting mines or traps, using a summoned drone to flank, or a variety of other gadget skills. Add in that there were three sets of “hybrid” classes to mash up those three sets, and you were guaranteed room to find something that worked for you, even before the “race” system that would grant specific base stats the class augmented – some aliens were beefy tanks, others quick but fragile, some were Space DeVito, you know how it goes.
By and large, I’ve never been a multiplayer guy when it comes to my video games. I’ll do co-op, because that tends to involve just having fun with the pals, but most of the major competitive genres are things I’m absolutely terrible at – real-time strategy or precision shooting in action games. Still, I owned the game now and I had a partner who was egging me on to do some matches, so I kept playing with her, and it turns out I actually got quite into the loop.
Incredibly so. This screenshot was taken recently, but at one point I was top 1% in all categories because I was so bloody-minded about the game. Eventually I finished the campaign, but didn’t uninstall it, because the multiplayer kept getting new DLC packs, with new maps, weapons, characters, and enemies, and the design went from “canonical” to “what’s the dumbest thing we can do this week for the sake of fun?”
The final update let you run around as an extinct race or a giant-sized miniboss, among others, and I’m more than convinced the final weapons included in that were just ideas everyone had that got vetoed until then. More than anything, though, it was very much a decision motivated by having fun and not worrying about the precious canon, instead aiming to go out with something unlike the rest of what had come before. It worked, and kept myself and a pretty healthy playerbase going for the entire time of the game’s run until it died… and beyond. I booted the game up recently to take these screenshots and while I had to set it to Platinum difficulty to end up in a match, I did end up in a full group within a minute or so.
The thing is, there were two things that propelled this to a regular play for me2: the fact that it could be played solo if I didn’t feel like grabbing a mic or grouping up, and that it was moddable.
Not officially, of course. But a friend tipped me off to the fact that you could grind out unlocks with the aid of a resource editor and creating what were referred to as “husk lobbies”. A Husk was a shite-tier enemy with no ranged attack who just charged at you and could be rebuffed easily, effectively making the game impossible to lose without trying, and what you’d do was convert, mmm, every single enemy type to Husks in the code, so that you just had ten quick waves of mooks, extract, and get credit for a full round. There didn’t seem to be any anti-cheat to speak of, so unless someone wandered in and went out of their way to report you, you were effectively set.
But if you dug around under the hood, there was a lot more you could do to the game than just farm quickly. Every bloody variable was alterable if you found where it was to unpack it, from HP, to amount of enemies spawning at once, to players in a match. It was a throwback to the days of the early Command and Conquer series for me3, and an under the hood tweak known as “rules.ini” – if you were to screw around in the file, just like the ME3 screenshot above, you could change anything from the cost of units, to their health, to their weapon type, etc. Want to start breeding lightning dogs that bark Einstein quotes? That was doable.
In Mass Effect 3, it meant as long as I was the host (since if you just joined someone else’s game, it’d use their rules instead, rendering you cloaked as a FILTHY HACKER), I could cause all sorts of wild tricks, blending factions who didn’t play together, or making all miniboss waves, or just eliminating the worst of the three-round challenge types. And since I kept odd hours compared to most folks, it meant I got really, really good at doing these stupid things solo in what was ostensibly a multiplayer title.
Which brings me to Warframe.
Warframe is a free-to-play title that’s similarly a PC and console affair, third-person shooter, etc. Real similar, except remember how I said the ME3 multiplayer ethos seemed to be “fuck canon, what’s the most fun idea we can work with”?
Okay, that’s the entire Warframe design ethos, for better or worse.
I messed with the game a few years ago and put it down because it had an incredibly rocky launch, but rejoined it last year after a Twitch Prime promotion meant I got some gear for it, and it had dragged a few friends back to it, who convinced me to use my new toys. That’s when I learned that the entire thing had received a lot of overhauls for the better. There was now a set of progression “gates” from planet to planet designed to make sure you learned how some mechanic or other worked (stuff I didn’t know a damn thing about or that might not have existed when I first played). Matchmaking was improved.
And then there were the new cinematic story quests as you got further in which took this very weird universe and went “Hey, you know what? It’s queerer than you realize.“4
As well, there are a metric assload of different play types, and you choose what you want to do barring the initial “you must clear a path to move onwards” progression of the starmap. Somewhere while I was starting to screw around with the weapon customization, it hit me, though… this game felt like someone took ME3’s multiplayer and ran with it. And while I know “RPG elements in a third-person action game” isn’t specifically rare, well… lemme just run through a few points.
Both games feature a flexible modding system for your weapons, letting you turn the same basic items into whatever suits how you play. It’s just in ME3 you were limited to a little up and down on a few stats, and in WF you’re able to get as granular as “can reduce the number of bounces on a ricocheting weapon to speed up attack rate”, or the Riven system, wherein you unlock mystery mods via a challenge it assigns you, and upon completion, it randomly rolls a gun to attach to and effects to bestow upon it. It basically gives you a personalized Diablo-esque gear boost, and these can buff up a mediocre gun into something potent, or mutate a favorite into a portable war crime. It’s great fun.
In ME3 (see prior ME3 screen again), weapons were a hindrance and a help: the more you carried, the more you were weighed down, causing longer cooldowns on class abilities, meaning skill-centric classes wanted to have lighter loadouts and gear. In Warframe, both of these things are separate, but there are reasons to go into missions with less gear equipped (better XP distribution to what you do bring), or ways to tune a frame to be more power-centric than relying on weapons. Also, I feel it needs to be stated that while there are specific classes of weapons, you very quickly outgrow the standard “rifle, shotgun, bow, pistol” types and end up in “handheld beam cannon that treats enemies like a prism, splitting its fire across all nearby targets”, or “flamethrower that fires viruses”, or “bioweapon that feeds on your blood to reload but heals you if you begin sniping heads”, or…
They get buckwild in the best ways.
ME3 kept “classes” and let you customize within them based on your race/a few skill points per level, but you had shared powers and levels for each archetype. Warframe’s “classes” are the Warframes themselves, and while there’s a little bleed between some of them (These are tanky! This pair is lightweight and agile! This set are crowd control frames! Etc.), the game goes weird with later ones. Probably my favorite would be Nidus, who forsakes shields entirely for a health-only frame that has passive regen, powers that use the game’s MP mechanic for two of his four skills, the others relying on “infection” charges earned by hitting with the first two. It’s that latter pair which can turn him into a crowd-ganking monster who can stun enemies and heal teammates at higher level play.
Basically, most small systems from ME3 multiplayer were here for me to mess with, but taken somewhere past a mere 11 to maybe 30-something. In ME3, min-maxing came down to whether you wanted to build guns for a niche with mods, maybe using a consumable buff item for a match, and then just playing your role. In Warframe, if I want to screw around, I’ve got builds for survivability or taking damage to boost my attack, I can control individual resistances on a frame to different elements, I can weaken enemies based solely on their race, change how much my melee weapons can deflect bullets, or just power up a build that will allow me to literally walk through a level as everything dies around me. And these are just the easily explainable ones.
And trust me, there are plenty of things I could go into which go way beyond that meager framework I pitched this on. There’s an entire space combat mode with its own gameplay and mission types called Archwing. The game now has its own massive open world stage on Earth, with another planned for release sometime this year. I haven’t even touched on the faction system, or the fact that as I write this, we’re a week out from the release of Beasts of the Sanctuary, the patch introducing a new challenge mode which goes “Oh, you think you’re lethal? Let’s see, hot shot.” in an endless gauntlet that challenges you to keep a sufficient murder ratio to move onwards at all times. You have your own ship to customize, and more than a few people would tell you the endgame isn’t raiding or running bosses, it’s “fashionframe”, designing the silliest damn things you can for your frame, your pets (oh, you can raise pets, by the way, and trade DNA with other players for specific breeds or to create hideous digital DNA monsters), your living quarters, or your clan dojo.
And at no point, unless I really feel the urge, do I have to interact with any other players to do so. Warframe has become an excellent perma-game for me, something I can play a mission in before bed to chill after a shitty day at work, with a ludicrous amount of different things I can do to “progress”, or just blow some goons up and realize that I can mess with one of the ludicrous other guns or toys I haven’t yet tried and be in for something new and exciting. Sometimes I’ll even do it with friends! As much as I lone-wolf the game and have tried to get murderously efficient in my gear picks, anytime I do a team event I realize just how much Warframe is designed for player skills to complement each another, and you have to actively try to create a loadout to hinder the team.
Neither my lady or I have bought Mass Effect: Andromeda5. I’ll absolutely pick it up on the cheap at some point, because that’s kind of my entire schtick, and if it happens to suck, that’s also up my alley… but even if they evolved the multiplayer past ME3’s, I don’t think it’s going to have the same appeal to me now that I’ve gone to the big city of Warframe.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have another 250 or so toys to fuck around with. I think the next one on the list is “the bow which fires singularities”.
- Here’s an entirely unrelated rant that has nothing to do with this piece, but which I just wanted to get out, and this title screen is the most fitting place. Origin is hands down the worst digital distribution platform I have ever used, to the point that in reinstalling ME3 to take these screenshots, a 15GB game took three hours to download, the final one of which was it installing, a process that was such a shitshow it ground my hard drive to a halt and I couldn’t do a single other thing with the PC, including browse the internet. To top all of this off, I got to stare at the piece of shit staring at me while wearing the name of one of my favorite childhood developers, Origin Systems, whom EA bought up and murdered decades ago and now parade around bits of to hock their wares poorly.
- Three if you count my wife, who dropped off the game long before I did. Come to think of it, I don’t know if she even finished the campaign. Definitely know I’m the only one who had any paid DLC.
- And I’m sure at this point someone is going “Wait, you said you were godawful at RTSes. Why is this a nostalgia point for you?” Simple: the early ones came out when I was a teen and had single player modes with cheats. Ask me why I played Warcraft through WC3 and never touched SC2 – it’s because I couldn’t console command myself into cash or invincibility to fuck around anymore.
- And I do mean that in the sense of “queer as in not-straight” as well as “queer as in odd”, but while there were notes of it for the whole game I assumed I might have been reading into with my own background, it really hammered home about the time where there’s literal deadnaming of an NPC and my jaw dropped over… well, it gets surreal and I don’t want to ruin things.
- In fact, she actually told me in no uncertain terms to not buy it for her ever, when I offered it as a birthday gift on launch.