Mass Effect 3 will include an online multiplayer mode.

Even now that the feature is confirmed, it still feels weird to actually say it. After all, this is a hardcore BioWare RPG we’re talking about here, and the third one in a trilogy no less. But it’s true: when the trilogy-closing Mass Effect 3 arrives on March 6 of next year, players will be able to connect with fellow fans of the series online.

I got to have an actual hands-on session with the mode in its early form a few weeks ago when publisher Electronic Arts came to New York City for its seasonal fall/winter preview day. A lot of the following info is already out on the Internet and has been for a few weeks, but you’ll also get a taste of some of my own experiences playing.

Multiplayer in ME3 is essentially an analogue to Gears of War‘s Horde mode. Enemy forces attack groups of up to four players over a series of increasingly challenging waves. The single player game’s RPG focus is in full effect online, as well; the more that you play, the more you’ll level up.

The big difference with ME3‘s online mode is that Commander Shepard is nowhere to be seen. Instead, you’ll create and develop characters from the ground up, selecting their race from within the Mass Effect fiction as well as their class. The actual process of leveling is still being tweaked, but from the look of things, players will make a choice between two different stat boosts with each level earned.

The big wrinkle that separates multiplayer in ME3 from the likes of Horde is the set of mission parameters you’re assigned. In the mission I saw, a series of capture points appeared on the map indicating a terminal that needed to be “hacked.” To do so, you simply get at least one member of your group into that zone and sit tight while enemies continue to pour in from all sides. As objectives are completed, more difficult enemies appear, culminating in a boss battle against a mech or some other super-sized bad guy.

Playing the mode, I was immediately impressed at how well BioWare was able to adapt the basic rhythm of combat encounters in Mass Effect for an online setting. Make no mistake: Your opponents are challenging. Even the first bunch you face — in this case, it was a gang of Geth — pose a serious threat. Downed teammates can be revived, though unlike single player you’ll actually need to walk right up to the character in need of aid.

Overall, the mode feels like any of the campaign’s bigger combat encounters. Having a team of human players that you can coordinate with makes a huge difference, however. The game’s controls aren’t really built for the twitch gameplay you’d normally associate with a wave-based survival mode such as this one, but a well-coordinated team can effectively communicate and cover each other’s flanks.The challenge definitely feels considerably higher than it does in the campaign (remember that the mode is still being massaged), but the ability to work with real people makes a huge difference.

Unfortunately, BioWare isn’t quite ready to show off how the Galaxy at War multiplayer mode ties in with the game’s single player campaign. It’s already been confirmed that players will be able to carry their successes online over into Shepard’s ongoing struggle to keep the galaxy safe, but the nuts and bolts of how that works remains to be seen.

That said, it looks like there’s a solid addition here, something that feels authentically Mass Effect while delivering an experience that is entirely new to the series. Any benefits that can carry over from the multiplayer space into the single player one are entirely optional, but you’ll probably want to give Galaxy at War a whirl either way thanks to its strong grasp on the series’ fundamentals.