Rock, Paper, Shotgun recently did a feature whereby the worthies discussed the “best game weapon“. Guns, naturally, featured heavily, but I am of course penning this post because everyone was wrong. This is because nobody mentioned the game with the best guns. It was, you see, actually Mass Effect 3.

No, really. The best, most satisfying, most interesting gunplay I’ve experienced in computer gaming so far has been in a story-based RPG with third-person cover-based combat. And what’s even more astonishing is that it wasn’t in the game’s heavily-authored single player campaign: it was in the somewhat tacked-on “I guess we have to do this because the publisher wants it” multiplayer segment.

Accidentally brilliant multiplayer

ME3 had a quite basic sort of swarm-style multiplayer, where up to four players co-operated in holding off waves of enemies while attempting to accomplish certain objectives. A successful game would last eleven rounds: rounds 3, 6 and 10 were the objective rounds, where enemies would infinitely spawn until the objective was met. Objectives included everyone staying in one place for a certain amount of time (a test of sustained DPS), moving slowly across the level on a pre-set path (a test of survival) or getting one team member to interact with four objects in semi-random locations without being interrupted by enemy attacks (a test of control and cooperation). Enemies came from one of three factions, and players could choose variations on six unique classes to play. As the game grew in popularity, a fourth enemy faction was patched in, and more and more options were added to those basic six classes until the game had an astonishing depth of nuance in how you played it. So far, so RPG.

One thing which didn’t make it into ME3 multiplayer was the ‘pause’ function of the single player game. In single player, the player can pause the game to look around, target a power to use, or order her AI-controlled squadmates around. The game can feel pretty frantic, and having the ability to stop time and plan your next move worked very well in making the game accessible and strategic. Obviously this is not the sort of thing that’s easy to make work in multiplayer, so they simply removed it.

Another thing which multiplayer lacked was the sheer power of the single-player player character. In single player, the player controls Commander Shepard, a highly-trained and experienced special ops soldier (players can choose her backstory as either the sole survivor of a military exercise gone horribly wrong, a war hero who risked her life to save her comrades, or a ruthless commander with a reputation for getting the job done whatever the cost) who’s recently been made a sort of uber-special-agent for the highest political power in the galaxy. Shepard is never portrayed in the games as a particularly amazing soldier – the emphasis instead is on her ability to influence people, connect the dots and generally be in the right place at the right time. But at the same time it’s clear that, not only is she a great soldier, but her continued successes in combat situations make her a sort of legendary combatant in the eyes of those who hear about her. (I particularly enjoyed one of the NPC’s remarks in later games about her presumed proclivity for solving problems through judicious application of nuclear warheads.) Her defeat at the hands of an enemy agent in the middle of the final game of the series is all the more startling because, by this point, even Shepard has begun to believe her own legend. She expected to win. She almost can’t deal with losing – which, by the way, is also a great feature of Mass Effect 3 which is worth some words another time.

In multiplayer, though, players instead control sort of Joe Average soldiers from the various species who have banded together to fight a common enemy. Their presumed relative prestige is represented by the rarity of the ‘cards’ which unlock them. Common unlocks include those presented as fairly standard members of the armed forces (e.g. the “human soldier” class), while rare unlocks represent those more towards the special forces end of the scale (e.g. Asari adepts, Salarian engineers, and in later expansions, even members of the elite human N7 special forces of which Commander Shepard is a member). Basically, none of these options is meant to be even close to as good in a fight as Cmdr. Shep and none of them has two AI squadmates who are only moderately less legendary than Shepard herself obeying their every order. This is why it was thought that four people would be necessary to even stand a chance, and why the successful end of a multiplayer game involves everyone escaping onto a shuttle as enemy combatants swarm the landing zone rather than beating all the bad guys.

By way of example, Shepard has access to eight ‘talents’ which get progressively stronger as she levels up and can invest more talent points in them; ultimately, it’s possible for Shepard to just about max out all eight talents. Multiplayer characters, however, have only three active talents, a passive which boosts their class abilities, and a passive which boosts their health – and never enough talent points to max them all out. Their health and armor values tend to be lower too. All in all, going from SP to MP sort of feels like going from flying a state-of-the-art fighter jet to jumping in the cockpit of a Spitfire.

Of course, that’s part of what makes it so much fun. Limitations are awesome.

But what about the guns?

Well!

Somehow, in the midst of all this RPGing and whatnot, ME3 ended up with the most fun guns of all time.

Five reasons why

First off, variety. Or, perhaps I should say design. There are lots of guns and they are by and large all extremely well designed. I’ve heard a lot of praise for the variety and fun-factor of guns in the Borderlands series, but honestly, Borderlands’ millions of procedurally-generated firearms are rubbish compared to ME3’s small arsenal of hand-designed weapons. Some guns in ME3 are really poor, but that’s almost part of the fun – can you use this gun effectively? Some are very powerful, but even then you have to learn to make use of that power. There was never a gun you could stick in the hands of a new player and watch them win everything. What’s more – amazingly – many of the most powerful and most fun guns were only usable by very skilled players, for reasons I’ll get to later. And each weapon had great, unique sound effects, projectile effects, recoil, reload times, accuracy, range, and so on, not to mention plenty of unique and interesting mechanics like the shotgun which fired moderately-homing energy pellets. More than that, they were also really, really satisfying to use. So few games make firing a virtual weapon into anything more than glorified point-and-click. ME3 made each weapon feel like wielding a paintbrush.

As the multiplayer game matured and received updates of its own, more interesting weapons appeared. There was a gun that shot mini sticky grenades, a beam weapon gun that had to slowly charge up by firing it for a period of time before its beam reached full power (best on classes which excelled on maximising ammo in a clip), a shotgun which fired like a machine gun but was rubbish at anything less than point-blank range, a pistol which could be charged up by holding down the trigger before releasing a pellet of energy which depleted shields and bounced off walls – the developers clearly had a lot of fun, but naturally, the players had even more.

Secondly, shooting wasn’t the focus: it was only part of the wider problem. Surviving, working as a team, accomplishing objectives, moving around the level effectively – all of this was at least as important as shooting things. Your gun was a powerful tool, but not the focus of proceedings. Learning how to integrate its use into the multiplayer game was almost as important as aiming and firing. Which leads into…

Second and a half: combat isn’t just guns. Players have ancillary powers which they can use in conjunction with (or, in extreme cases, instead of) their guns. Different classes (and subclasses) had different levels of emphasis on weapon use. What’s more, any gun could be modified through the use of special ammo varieties which could combo off various abilities. For example, you could put fire ammo on your shotgun, then watch as a teammate ‘detonates’ the burning fire ammo into a powerful explosion, hurting enemies in a small radius around your original target. Other ammos specialised in roles such as melting armour, disrupting shields or incapacitating minor enemies, allowing the weapon itself to function in a specialised, team-supporting role. In addition to all this, every character had two melee attacks, both of which could be genuinely useful (even life-saving) in the right circumstances.

Third: this is the real icing on the cake, and it’s called reload cancelling. In ME3, reload cancelling is kind of a bug, whereas in some games such as Gears of War it’s a feature, usually referred to as ‘Active Reload’. What happens is, a gun might take 3 seconds to reload. This is a very long time to wait, and it tends to be big, powerful guns which have long reload times. However, the gun is considered reloaded perhaps half-way through the animation, and it’s possible to cancel the animation at any time through use of a special ability – even if that ability doesn’t actually ‘go off’. What this meant was that a very skilled player with good timing could bind a key to, say, medi-gel (which revives them if they die) and press it at just the right moment to reload their gun twice as fast as normal. Single-shot doom canons like the Claymore shotgun went from being unwieldy as a cantankerous cow to paragons of grace and power, able to sustain continuous killing sprees of reload-cancelled beauty.

I don’t know if weapons were designed with this in mind, but it was a real game-changer. Once you mastered reload cancelling – and the cost of getting it wrong was resetting your reload entirely, thus making it take longer – it added a whole new area of expertise to the game, and changed the essential nature of some of the most potent weapons.

What’s more, unlike the active reload of some other games, reload cancelling in ME3 really felt like you were doing something dodgy that could go horribly wrong and break your gun because of the sheer amount of player input required to get it to function. Gears was just about pressing an assigned button at the right time. ME3 was about putting all the tools in the right place to be able to press that button (and dealing with the consequences of, say, accidentally using your medigel when you were trying to reload cancel and something went wrong).

Fourthly: weapons (initially) weren’t really designed for multiplayer. Sniper rifles, for example, were designed to be used in conjunction with the single player game’s time slowing abilities which, though they existed in multiplayer, lacked the slowdown effect when used. This meant that in single player it was far easier to, for example, line up a headshot through a sniper scope. This meant that coming into multiplayer, players had to create and adapt their own toolkit to make things like effective sniping possible – especially as multiplayer levels tended to be utterly tiny compared to some of the single player combat arenas.

Number five: characters steered like cows. Controlling a character in ME3 was not as smooth, fluid or easy as controlling the average character in an FPS. The series made leaps and strides in character control from 1 to 2 and from 2 to 3, but even where it peaked in ME3 it could be really difficult to get your character to do exactly what you wanted – to move with the sort of precision we often take for granted in dedicated shooters. This added yet another extra factor to the gunplay. And rather than just being an extra layer of difficulty, for me this also added a greater sense of sort of whole-body involvement in what I was doing – something definitely enhanced by the third-person perspective. Instead of a gun and perhaps a disembodied hand or two floating in a window in front of you, you can see every movement made by your whole avatar. Seeing them vault over low cover, spring around a doorway and grind to a halt just long enough to line up a medium-range headshot before doing a little dodge-roll towards the next piece of hard cover just felt immensely physical and satisfying.

Putting it all together

The Javelin sniper rifle is a good example of the intersection of several of these factors.

I could just as easily name any of several other weapons – I’ve already mentioned the Claymore shotgun – but the Javelin does really stand out. An insanely high-damage long-range weapon, when zoomed in it could see through walls. The catch? Well… most levels in ME3 multiplayer were very small and tight, but sniper rifles have artificially poor aim if fired unscoped. And, um, most enemies moved quite quickly. Plus, erm, there was something called ‘shield gate’ where no matter how much damage you did in a single shot, it wouldn’t hurt an enemy who had any shields left whatsoever (it’d just deplete their shields). Also it took a very long time to reload. And finally, the real killer:

It didn’t fire when you pulled the trigger.

It fired just a few fractions of a second later.

And it was amazing.

Equipping this as anything less than an expert player or a member of a very, very co-ordinated team was tantamount to suicide, as even hitting some of the ‘boss level’ enemies was quite hard to pull off with all those issues. But the marvellous thing was that every single one of those issues could be overcome by creative use of game mechanics.

Quick-scoping to mitigate the short range issue. Took a lot of practice, but you felt like you were really developing a skill.

The right combination of class abilities and equipment could largely eliminate the shield-gate issue in later patches. Likewise, using certain talent-tree abilities could make enemies stay still (or move predictably, which is almost as good) just long enough to land a shot if you needed the help aiming at moving targets.

Reload cancelling obviously helped mitigate the long reload delay.

And that fire delay? Well, you just learned to live with it. Literally: that delay gave enemies a few fractions of a second extra to shoot at you as you lined up your shot. Learning to survive while pulling the trigger was all part of the skillset.

And when you learned all of that, every time you fired you’d hear this wonderful “whoop!” noise and something would fall over dead.

Oh and one point I forgot which is sort of related

There was also the fact that the whole active power system in the game used linked global cooldowns to control how often a player could use a power – any power. Guns weren’t on this cooldown, so even pure caster-type players could still find a use for them. However, the weight of guns could affect your cooldown either positively or negatively. Players desiring the fastest cooldown would have to choose the most powerful weapon within the weight limit of their sub-class and talent choice. Other players might opt for a more balanced approach and take a gun with more power at the cost of using their powers less. The fact that each sub-class had different weight allowances made this even more interesting; for example, one of the squishiest classes was the Drell Vanguard, and yet he was also able to carry the biggest guns – and was part of a class designed (ostensibly) for front-line combat. Playing a Claymore-toting Drell Vanguard was a glorious exercise in fast-paced hit-and-run.

There are plenty of examples of ME3 multiplayer gameplay on my YouTube channel, and it still makes me feel excited when I watch them. It’s amazing that something which seemed at first glance little more than an afterthought could be so much fun, and even more amazing how big of a factor the guns were in creating that fun.

And that’s how a narrative-focused RPG with a tacked-on multiplayer ended up having the best computer game guns of all time.

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