Co-op: it's the New Wave of multiplayer. For most of the '90s, online co-op was something gaming fanatics clamoured after, but developers shied away because "no one ever plays it". That's all changed.
With burgeoning broadband and the increase in online matchmaking efficiency, games are queuing up to offer you the opportunity to play through an epic with a friend.
Adding co-op to a singleplayer game is one thing. But now co-op has risen to the status of Anointed Messiah in the game designer's religion and they're desperate to see how far the concept can go. They've stopped just adding co-op to a game, and are reconceptualising games as co-operative first and foremost.
In increasing order of bring-a-mate-a-bility, we're looking forward to titles like Kane & Lynch, Army of Two and Left 4 Dead. It's a new frontier being explored, and the rewards could make us all rich in the precious currency of gaming goodness.
Except, while this gold rush is going on, back in the heartlands, the cities are falling into blight.
This was brought into focus when I was reviewing Halo 3 recently. The problem with co-op struck me at several points while playing, but was epitomised by a section near the game's close. Echoing the end of the first game, you're escaping in a Warthog Jeep.
In the back, the computer-controlled Arbiter lays down machinegun fire as you skid along. Enemies come in from all sides and he fights them off in a whirlwind of lead and... man, the AI looks like he's having a lot of fun. I wish I was the computer controlled player instead of the boring old driver.
This goes from irritant to annoyance when you realise that behind the Warthog - in view of whoever's in the turret, but completely unnoticed to the driver - the entire level is exploding in one of the most spectacular moments of the game. Which, if you play solo, you'll never see.
The point being that co-operative play was originally viewed as an addition to a game. Now it's a subversion of a game. The solo player in Halo 3 is getting, in places, a qualitatively worse game than people who bring peers along - not just because of the basic joy of playing with someone else, but because the experience is being designed with co-op excellence in mind. A game can't have two masters. Something's got to give.
It's always been there. Look at the genres which have always been, fundamentally, co-op. The persistent-world online RPG, for example. Many developers have been talking about trying to integrate a story into them. All fail. This is because no one engages in a story when there's someone waiting.
Play through Guild Wars, and the party will be voting en masse to skip the cutscene portions in favour of running and grabbing the phat loot. It's difficult to relax into a world when everyone else is shouting "Hurry up!" If more games become fundamentally co-op, all these magical parts of games - your Stalkers, your Half-Lifes, your Planescape: Torments - are turned into dinosaurs.
There's nothing wrong with co-op, per se. The problem is when it spreads cancerously in a great singleplayer game, twisting it, perverting it, sickening it, preparing it for death. That's one thing I won't co-operate with.
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