When videogame historians look back at the year 2008, two developments will immediately stand out.
The first is that it’s been a banner year for downloadable console games. Whether it was the PlayStation Network (Echochrome, PixelJunk Eden and The Last Guy), Xbox Live Arcade (Braid and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2) or WiiWare (LostWinds and World of Goo), the online stores for each of the three major platforms served up bite-sized titles that were pound for pound as entertaining and engrossing as their full-sized counterparts.
Sure, it’s been another stellar year for disc-based games; the preceding 12 months have produced, as I write, such highly rated games as Grand Theft Auto IV, Metal Gear Solid 4, Fallout 3, LittleBigPlanet and Gears of War 2. And, yes, there is a lingering bias by some, when summing up the year in videogames, to gloss over short-session titles. Nevertheless, I fully expect two or more of the aforementioned small games to make it on to the various and sundry Top Ten lists for 2008.
If the May-through-October time period was enough to make 2008 The Year of Downloadable Games, a two-week period in November saw the release of three titles – Resistance 2, Gears Of War 2 and Left 4 Dead – that comprise the second and arguably more interesting development: the breakthroughs that game creators have made with co-op play that goes beyond adding support for more players to the story mode.
Each studio went its own way. Insomniac built a separate co-op campaign for up to eight players, modelled after raids in massively multiplayer online games. Epic not only lets you play the main campaign with one other friend, but also created a new mode called Horde, in which as many as five players take on wave after wave of Locust enemies on the same maps used in Gears Of War 2’s multiplayer mode. Valve, for its part, pits up to four players against massive, relentless and fast-moving packs of zombies, hounding gamers into eschewing lone-wolf tactics for the wisdom of teamwork whether it’s in the singleplayer/co-op campaign or in the versus mode where four player-controlled humans face off against four player-controlled infected bosses.
Insomniac’s approach is at once the most intriguing and the least fully fleshed out, mainly because it appears to have been designed with just a single strategy for success: soldiers out front, spec ops in the middle, and medics bringing up the rear. Whether the enemy AI or the encounter design is to blame I can’t be sure, but if Insomniac can find a way to mix things up more it has the template for something both unique and special in the world of consoles.
Epic’s spin on co-op, by contrast, is completely straightforward – and that’s precisely why it’s so enthralling. By marrying play mechanics (run, take cover, active reload) and AI behaviours that have been buffed to perfection over two games against the brilliant simplicity of two to five players trying to defeat each new set of enemies as it spawns, Horde achieves the arcadey perfection that The Club never quite managed.
And while Left 4 Dead’s battles may seem as chaotic as those in Resistance 2, they aren’t. That’s because Valve’s much-touted AI director technology – aided and abetted by a terrific score and sound design – paces the encounters masterfully against the backdrop of levels that have been carefully constructed for both navigation and confrontation.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with giving players the ability to play a game’s campaign mode with their friends. In fact I approve wholeheartedly. Co-op serves as a motivator for me to start and finish games that I might not have completed in a timely fashion were it not for teaming up with a friend. It adds a social element, whether it’s planning strategy with my teammate or simply commiserating over having to retry a boss battle for the umpteenth time.
And despite what I may have said last month about why developers should reconsider how they approach a game’s difficulty, one of the side benefits of a co-op campaign is that it allows me to play a game’s story mode on a higher difficulty setting than I would have otherwise; that’s how I wound up finishing Halo 3 on Heroic and even tackling several of the levels on Legendary. I get to experience the enemies at their toughest with the help of my comrades, rather than being beaten into submission over and over again.
Challenge without undue amounts of failure – what’s not to like? But as much as enjoy a co-op campaign, I can’t help but feel as though co-op gameplay brings with it a set of possibilities that are worthy of more exploration, untethered by the dictates of a story that has been authored for a single player – or untethered from story entirely. And for two weeks in November, three of the industry’s best developers pointed their peers in that direction. Kudos.