Thursday, June 27, 2013

Take a Look at Banner, Michael!

Hey, look! I got my banner!

I've been pretty surprised at every stage of my experience with Mass Effect 3 co-operative multiplayer. At first, I was surprised that it even existed: who put online multiplayer in my single-player RPG? Then I was surprised that I was playing it: why did they create the Galactic Readiness system that "forced" me to play multiplayer to get a better ending in single-player. Then I was surprised that I was enjoying it: hadn't I given up online multiplayer after the original Half/Life? Then I was surprised that I was getting good at it: who would have thought that a nearly-naked space monster setting all the things on fire would appeal to me so much? And now, I'm shocked that I've beaten all the challenges and, somehow, gone out near the top of the huddle.

I've already described how I started out as a Bronze-only player, just repeatedly playing an Engineer (Human or Salarian, rarely Quarian) up to level 20, then promoting and doing it again. That was pretty fun. I started to expand my horizons a bit by participating in the Weekend Challenges. Early on, these were insanely difficult challenges that I wasn't even tempted to tackle; I think that Week 2 was "Extract against Reapers on Gold," to which my response was "Hahahahaha NOPE." But, there were also Community Challenges that you could participate in (for example, a total of 10,000 extractions against Reapers for all players on all difficulties), and achieving these would give lesser but still nice rewards.

Later on, the weekend challenges got more specialized, to the point where even weaker players like me could beat them. Something like "Score 50,000 points against Cerberus" would go much more quickly for Gold players, but I could do it just by playing enough Bronze games. And, as I started beating more of the weekend challenges and getting commendation packs, I started getting some really good weapons like the N7 Hurricane.

My purchasing system was all messed up throughout the entire game. I later realized that, as everyone says, what you should do is buy nothing but Recruit packs at first, which will upgrade your starter weapons and, more importantly, give you Common Mods for those weapons. A mediocre weapon with good mods is actually often better than a strong weapon with no mods. Along the way, you'll occasionally unlock Uncommon characters and weapons. After you've maxed your mods, move on to Veteran Packs, which will unlock another six characters and a higher tier of weapons and mods. Finally, once your Uncommons are maxed, switch over to the top tier of Spectre, Premium Spectre, Reserves or Arsenal Packs, which will give you the highest tiers of weapons, characters, mods, and gear.

The advantage of doing it this way is that the middle-tier cards in your packs will give you more high-level single-use consumable equipment. From the beginning, though, I had pretty exclusively purchased Premium Spectre Packs, which guarantee 2 rare cards and a higher chance of ultra-rares. This was actually pretty exciting... sure, it would take 6 Bronze games to buy a single pack, but I was able to get early access to some fairly exotic items like the Vorcha Soldier, Volus Engineer, Omni-Capacitors, Shredder Mod, and Black Widow sniper rifle. So that was cool. The down-side, though, was that the middle slots of my packs were often unlocking, say, the Avenger II or the Shuriken III. At the time, that didn't really matter. However, much more recently when I started making the transition to Gold, it was frustrating to be so short on consumable equipment, and I started to wish that I'd followed a more conventional path from the beginning.

However, because I'd been so good at unlocking Rare characters and weapons, I was actually able to make a ton of progress on the Challenge system once they added it to the game. Many challenges take one of the following forms:
  • Extract 10 times as character X.
  • Complete 200 waves as character X.
  • Score 140,000 points with weapon Y.
  • Score 50,000 points with power Z.
 So, with access to so many weapons and characters, and their corresponding powers, I could make huge progress just by playing lots of Bronze and Silver games. In fact, in some ways this made things easier, at least for the Extract and Waves challenges, since that tends to go much more quickly on the easier settings.

Along the way, I was being gently encouraged by both the weekend challenges and the standing challenge system to try new things. It broke me out of my Engineer Only rut and made me appreciate newer characters. Sometimes I would just use them until a single Challenge was over, and then never use them again. Other times, though, I would really click with a certain playstyle, and put them into a permanent rotation.

I definitely became a much better player as a result of all these changes. Playing weapons-heavy classes forced me to improve my aim, sharpen my reflexes, and figure out exactly where the head was on every enemy. (It's not always where you'd expect!) Playing power-based classes prompted me to dig deeper into the surprisingly rich and strategic Explosions system, and helped me learn how to coordinate my build in the lobby with other players (even in the absence of any microphones). Playing tanky classes made me acutely aware of which enemies had a sync-kill and when and where they could use them. And on, and on.

For a while, I thought that I'd retire my Mass Effect multiplayer playing once I unlocked either the Squad Elite or the Spectre Mastery banners. The former requires a wide variety of interesting achievements, including reviving squadmates, using your missile launcher, and extracting a certain number of times. The latter is more of an endurance achievement, and requires scoring a large total number of points, completing a large number of waves, and winning many medals (of any kind).

After I won the Operator title by completing Squad Elite, though, I decided that I wanted to take a crack at Gold. For my very first game, I took my favorite character, a Vorcha Soldier, loaded him up with my best equipment, took a deep breath, and launched into a Gold match against Reapers on Firebase: Ghost. It was... painful. Embarrassing, even. This guy is a beast on Silver, able to tank lots of high-level opponents at the same time. On Gold, though, I died on the very first wave, facing nothing but 3 cannibals. I learned my lesson, started playing more conservatively, and, with tons of help from my squadmates, we made it to a successful extraction.

Since then, I've spent the last month mostly playing on Gold. It's a much tougher challenge than the games I'd been playing before, but also seems to attract stronger players, and has pushed me to continue improving myself. I started to think that the Best of the Best banner might be achievable, and looked at what it would require. The biggest obstacles were the "200 waves as X" challenges, which would be time-consuming but could be done easily in Silver; the N7 Mastery challenge, which would require promotion 60 characters from Level 20; and the Map Mastery challenge, which would require a minimum of 120 Gold games to complete.

I decided to try and tackle these in parallel as much as I could. As an ideal setup, I would be using a new character (for 200 waves), with a new weapon (for 140,000 points) and/or power (for 50,000 points). I would start with him or her in Silver for at least a few matches to get used to their mechanics and develop a strategy. Depending on how confident I felt with them, I might jump up to Gold as soon as level 12 (for a character like the Batarian Soldier), or wait until nearly hitting 20 (like the Asari Valkyrie), or forego Gold altogether. As soon as I hit level 20, I would promote the character. Then, I would pick the highest-level class of my remaining characters, see what Challenge I could beat with that, and then start the cycle again. Thanks to character cards, I could usually get my classes up to level 8-10 before I even started playing them, so I could jump right into Silver with a somewhat-decently-leveled character.

By the time I finished up my Aliens challenges (with the 200 Waves requirements), I was getting close to N7 Mastery. I promoted a few more times while running characters around in Gold, then stopped once I reached 58 promotions, figuring I'd stick with my favorite classes at Level 20, and then promote them at the end after finishing my Map Mastery requirements. By this point I had basically settled in on a favorite kit for each class, and in the absence of any requirement for a particular challenge, I generally stuck with them:
  • Adept: The vanilla Asari Adept was my go-to, particularly in a lobby with other Biotics. (Weirdly, the Asari Justicar was one of the very last kits I unlocked, even though she was added to the game long ago.)
  • Sentinel: The Vorcha Sentinel is a more-powerful version of my beloved Vorcha Soldier. He's still a high-risk character to play... I often end the game at the top of the score charts, but also die more than anyone else.
  • Soldier: Lots of good options here. Batarian Soldier is probably my favorite, but the Turian Marksman was fantastic for completing Weapons challenges, and the Turian Havoc has great survivability.
  • Infiltrator: My favorite class to play in Gold. I unlocked the Turian Ghost very late in the game, but he ended up as my single favorite kit to play. The AIU was another late addition, and she was a lot of fun; I switched to her whenever I had a lot of Shotgun Rail Amps. The Geth Infiltrator is also fantastic, and my go-to when I have a stockpile of Drill Rounds.
  • Engineer: Weirdly enough, the Volus Engineer was my favorite to play in Gold. It's tough to get a handle on playing Voluses because they have so dang many options at their disposal (cloak! boost! bubble!); once you have the hang of it, though, they're incredibly survivable, and if you play them well, they can be a big asset to your team. I loved pairing him with the Scorpion; on certain maps, I could single-handedly block off an entire corridor or room against any number of enemies with him, thanks to the endless mines and explosions and staggers.
  • Vanguard: It's unimaginative, but I do love the Krogan Battlemaster Vanguard. I try to play him exclusively against Geth, but he's a beast, and can easily tank two Primes simultaneously.
Early on in ME3, I primarily relied on the wiki to research kits and plan out builds and strategy. The official forums have a lot of useful information, but the signal to noise ratio is pretty abysmal. Fairly recently, though, I've found a fantastic resource in an unlikely place: Reddit's MECoOp subreddit, which has collected together an amazing set of incredibly pertinent data: the Big Bad List of Builds, a ranked collection of different builds for each kit, along with often-useful discussion on the quirks of each build; and the ME Co-op College, a set of essays that clearly explain every aspect of the game: shield-gating, armor, the store, moving from silver to gold, soloing, etc. This was the perfect find for me, since all the information was located in one place, and it was curated such that I could find the most useful data quickly without wading through a lot of fluff.

Along the way, I stopped finishing near the bottom of the score charts, and now often end in first or second place. Of course, score doesn't really matter in this game - credits are what everyone wants, so as long as a mission is completed everyone will be happy - but it makes me happy to feel like I'm elevating my team and performing at a higher level. In a weird way, it makes me think a little of my changing attitudes towards physical fitness. When I was in school, I absolutely hated sports and gym class, which were focused on dividing into teams and creating winners and losers. (The fact that I often lost couldn't have helped.) In my adulthood, though, I've discovered the satisfaction that comes from pushing myself personally to improve and grow stronger, whether it's through hiking, cycling, whatever. Similarly, I have no interest in video game systems that force me to defeat another person, or suffer that ignominy myself; but, I love tracking my own progress and seeing myself improve over time. If I can help other people have better games because of the actions I take, so much the better!

As a side-note, it was interesting to see how my rankings changed as I played. When multiplayer first launched, there was a single ranking, the N7 rating. This tracks how high you have leveled your classes, and how many times you have promoted a character. I'm pretty sure that it was intended as a quick indication of how experienced a player was, but in practice, it wasn't very useful: many of the best players had N7 ratings of just 120, since they liked playing multiplayer and always kept Level 20 characters around without promoting; other players like me had significantly higher ratings, but weren't terribly talented.  Once BioWare added the Challenge system, though, the Challenge rating gave much more useful information about how experienced players were. If a player had one of the more difficult banners, like Hardcore or Nomad, then you would know that they had played the game a lot to achieve it; conversely, if they had one of the weekend challenge banners or no banner, they were probably fairly new to the game and/or a casual player. Similarly, a higher challenge rating tended to correspond to a stronger player. Finally, players with higher-upgraded rare weapons often were veterans; granted, they could have simply bought them with Real Money, but even then they tended to play better.

(Why does this matter? It doesn't, really, at Bronze or Silver. On Gold, though, most players will be investing limited consumable resources in their games, and spending a lot of time, and they really want to complete that Wave 10 objective. If you're in a lobby with 4 players who all look experienced, have strong weapons, and have Level III/IV equipment, then you can probably cruise through a Gold challenge in less than 20 minutes. But, if most of the players have a Challenge rating of less than 100, and are wielding weapons like the Avenger IV, and don't have any equipment, then either the team will wipe, or one more experienced player will end up burning all of his Cobras, Medi-Gels, and Ops Packs, and it will take him or her 45 minutes to drag them all through to extraction. That's not fun. These quick looks help experienced players rapidly evaluate their lobbies, and either quit or, in rare cases, vote to kick if some people don't belong there. Not that it's the players' fault; for some asinine reason, BioWare set the default search for matches to "Any Difficulty" instead of "Bronze Difficulty," so there's a steady influx of unprepared newbies trickling into the higher difficulties.)

I also noticed some trends in my relative standings over time. In addition to your raw N7 and Challenge point ratings, the game also tracks your overall standing on a global leaderboard. I'd taken a multi-month break from multiplayer, so when I returned, I think my Challenge ranking was just something like 50%; interestingly, my N7 was still quite high, I think something like 10%. It didn't take very much playing for me to rocket from Top 50% Challenge ranking up to Top 10%; I strongly suspect that most players will only casually play a couple of games and score a few incidental Challenge points, so anyone who starts actually playing multiplayer for the fun of it will quickly outpace the crowd. However, after I reached 10%, I stalled out there for quite a while, even when I was actively playing a few matches every day. Based on this, I would venture a guess that roughly 10% of the player base is fairly active; so, even though I was winning points while playing more matches, the other 10% were also gaining points at roughly the same rate, leaving us at overall similar rankings.

Then, within a relatively short timespan, I moved from 10% up to 5%. I wish I could remember exactly when this was, but I think it might have been around the time I transitioned to Gold. That makes sense on a few levels - Gold matches offer a lot more points, so it's quicker to complete point-based challenges (which includes every single Weapons challenge) on Gold than Silver; also, I was now accessing an entirely new set of Challenges, and so had a larger pool in which to progress. As an alternate explanation, since I was typically working on multiple challenges simultaneously, I also tended to go for a while without completing any of them, and then wrap up a bunch at around the same time. There are big point bumps from the top-tier challenges, and hitting a few of those at around the same time may have been what vaulted me up.

From there, it was a slow and gradual progression upward. I ended up in the top 2% of both N7 and Challenge ratings. So... yeah, I really can't consider myself the "Best of the Best" if I'm not even in the top percentile; but still, it's something I'm pretty happy with.

Some final random thoughts follow.
  • Favorite map: Probably Glacier. It's tiny, and claustrophobic, and brutal, and fast-paced, and incredibly fun, especially when you're with a strong team who can crush everything in record time.
  • Prettiest map: There are a lot of good ones. Hydra is probably the nicest. Jade is also great. 
  • Least favorite map: This depends a lot on objectives and team composition. London can often be stressful.
  • Hardest map: Hazard Ghost (but I do really enjoy this map - it's tough, but great atmosphere, and a lot of fun).
  • Ugliest map: Either Giant or Reactor.
  • Easiest map: Depends on the team, but probably Glacier, Giant, or White.
  • Easiest to solo: I swear by Ghost. I did both of my Gold Solos here. It's big enough that you can draw enemies away for the 4 Devices or the Hack objective, but broken up enough by the buildings that you can easily escape the enemies' line-of-sight.
  • Favorite kit: Ghost Infiltrator, with runners-up of Batarian Soldier, Vorcha Sentinel, and Geth Infiltrator.
  • Favorite sniper rifle: Black Widow. The Javelin is really cool, but requires more patience than I have.
  • Favorite assault rifle: Cerberus Harrier! Probably my favorite weapon in the whole game. I actually used to use the Geth Pulse Rifle a lot, mostly because I had it at Level X and it didn't weigh anything. Now that I understand how armor works, I'm a bit embarrassed by that.
  • Favorite SMG: Probably the Hurricane. I used my Collector SMG a lot on my Ascented Collector Adept, though, and that was a lot of fun too.
  • Favorite Shotgun: I didn't use shotguns a whole lot. The Reegar is probably technically the best, though it doesn't feel like a shotgun at all (apart from the limited range). Likewise, I loved throwing the N7 Crusader on my Turian Havoc, but it's very un-shotgun-y. I did like the Raider, whose two shots made it a bit more forgiving than the Claymore while still packing a huge punch.
  • Favorite pistol: Really hard to pick just one. The Acolyte was my most-often-used pistol in the endgame. The Eagle is a lot of fun to use, if not a particularly effective gun. The Blood Pack Punisher was both fun and effective, though challenging to use. The Arc Pistol was my favorite gun in single-player, and a great fit for certain classes. The Scorpion was a ridiculous and enjoyable gun. The Carnifex and Paladin were solid, satisfying shooters. And the Talon was a terrific pairing for most casters who didn't need the Acolyte.
  • Hardest enemy: Collectors, by far. In the early days of co-op, though, it was the Reapers, before Bioware toned down the Banshee's ridiculous reach.
  • Easiest enemy: Depends on the class and map, but usually Reapers (for any kit strong against armor) or Geth (for melee units or kits strong against shields).
  • Most frustrating enemy: Either Cerberus (sync-killing Phantoms, stomping Atlases, and charging Dragoons) or Geth (endless staggering stunlocks!)
  • Favorite ammo: Incendiary! Hey, I just love setting things on fire!
  • Favorite armor equipment: Highly class-dependent, but it's always fun to slap Adreneline III on anything. Putting it on a Drell Adept is just ridiculously awesome.
  • Favorite gear: Max Grenades, Warfighter Package, Shock Trooper, or Omni-Capacitors. I love the idea of the Geth Scanner, but never got mine up to a very high level.
  • Best weapon mods: Anything with piercing, on any weapon, stacked if possible. Follow-ups: Smart Choke on Shotgun or Extended Clip on Assault Rifle.
  • Favorite heavy melee: Batarian, with Krogan a close second.
  • Favorite dodge: Asari, though Vorcha was the most fun.
  • Favorite grab: Vorcha, hands-down. (And throats-off.)
  • Favorite cheer: "*Kssshhh* Let's get paid!"
  • Favorite activation sound: Vorcha howl.
  • Favorite weapon sound: The Harrier is very satisfying, but I'm going to go with the Javelin.
  • Favorite weapon look: Collector sniper rifle (firing) or Black Widow (stationary).
  • Most lamented missing race: Elcor, with Hanar a close second.
  • Favorite banner, apart from Best of the Best: I really like both of the Council Operative ones. The alternates for Earth Mastery and Lone Wolf are also cool.
  • Easiest mission: Assassinate targets.
  • Hardest mission: Almost always the 4 devices one; depending on map and team, it varies from annoying to impossible.
  • Favorite mission: Escort and Retrieve are challenging but really fun and tactical.
  • Favorite play-style: Run-and-gun as a squadron. It took a while before I could manage this as a caster class, but it makes things so much safer, faster, and more fun.
  • Biggest teammate annoyance: Lone wolf types who rush off killing things during a hack objective and die on the far side of the map.
  • Biggest annoyance: Credits that disappear after you leave a lobby. (Close second place: getting disconnected during the Extraction wave and losing everything [including your equipment!]).
  • Favorite sight: The shuttle flying in for retrieval in the last moments before the LZ is overrun.
So, that's that! And I do mean it. Despite my having said the same thing multiple times before, I'm pretty sure that I'm done with multiplayer - it's still fun, but my other gaming has suffered a serious slowdown while getting my banner, and I'm itching to jump back into Neverwinter Nights and a few other projects. I'll gladly hold onto my banner for posterity's sake, and bask in the weird pride that comes from having killed tons of fake monsters in a video game.


  1. You don't play any online multiplayer games (other than ME3, obv)?

  2. Not currently. I did play Star Wars: The Old Republic for a few months. I was a big Ultima fan back in the day and played Ultima: Online for about four months right after launch, and tried World of Warcraft for, um, about three days. I always try to play MMOs like single-player games, and all those other people just... get in the way and annoy me.

    For non-RPGs, the only other online game I played was the original Half/Life back in 2000... which I enjoyed, but I haven't been tempted to return to the world of multiplayer FPS games. Other than ME3, for the reasons described in the post.