Things have changed. Co-Op is now a big deal in the world of games, and, as ever, there is an exact moment at which a well-informed observer such as myself can point and say “this, this is where the trend started.” Imagine there’s a timeline projected on the wall, and I’m probably wearing a suit, and with a laser pointer I confidently direct your attention to Halo: Combat Evolved, way back in 2001.
That’s right, before Halo there was literally no such thing as Co-Operative campaign mode.
Okay, fine, so that’s not strictly true. Or true in any sense. But Halo arguably marks the start of Co-Op gaming moving into the mainstream so that today, as we stand here in 2009, you literally can’t walk over a pile of games without tripping over one that has a Co-Operative mode. There were great games with Co-Op campaigns way before Halo of course, classics like Perfect Dark and System Shock 2 offered it years earlier. But it didn’t become ubiquitous until Master Chief and… I guess Master Chief #2, a shadowy figure who only showed up in a couple of the cutscenes and was completely ignored by all the other characters.
Even genres you wouldn’t expect are jumping onto the hurtling Co-Op bandwagon; major RTS titles like Red Alert 3 and Dawn of War 2 brought two player teamwork into the main campaign game, and it makes sense – a good way to split the strategic overheads and launch two pronged attacks. You could even argue that bringing a whole band into play in Rock Band and Guitar Hero World Tour is another form of Co-Op campaigning.
The growing numbers of arcade titles being remade and finding their way to consoles also have a venerable multiplayer campaign heritage. Many of the original titles coming out for XBLA are riding the current wave, and are aimed at two or more players, with games like Castle Crashers expanding upon the classic multiplayer side-scrolling brawler formula and several old school 2D shoot-em-ups (Ikaruga, et al) offering two player modes.
These days, it seems as though a publisher throwing in a major new feature for the latest iteration of a long running franchise will look to a Co-Operative campaign mode to freshen things up; Resident Evil 5 and Call of Duty: World at War are the most notable recent examples. Major franchises like Gears of War, Marvel Ultimate Alliance and the Lego titles have made it central to their approach from the start, being clearly built with it in mind.
By the time Halo 3 rolled around, Bungie had come up with a better way to make player two feel like part of the story than showing them at the beginning and never mentioning them again: adding a second superhuman hero by teaming up Master Chief with his one-time enemy, the Arbiter. This also meant that when only one player was playing the campaign, the AI would take control of the second character. This has become a common approach, and is often one of the main problem with Co-Op in general – when player two is controlled by the AI, the drop off in helpfulness, skill and teamwork from a human player is often enough to, well, it would probably give you some kind of metaphorical vertigo. You see what I mean, it’s a big drop. It’s a looong way, straight dow-oh, okay, you got it.
In addition Halo 3 featured four player Co-Op online, which is also increasingly prevalent – Resistance 2 on PS3 even allowed for eight players to work together against AI hordes. With broadband now standard for the consoles and things like friend invitations and party creation built into their interfaces, online Co-Op looks set to become an increasingly popular trend, and the limitations of splitscreen (two, or no one can see what the hell is going on) no longer apply.
Left4Dead, Valve’s latest megahit, makes Co-Op the main focus and central theme. Taking the seemingly obvious decision to throw together four players, crowds of zombies, guns and explosives, Left4Dead makes players heavily reliant upon each other to survive – once again proving the old adage that nothing brings out the best in people like a zombie apocalypse. Left4Dead feels a little like an FPS recreation of the top-down, small Co-Op squad vs. swarms of monsters lineage of games; things like The Chaos Engine and the Alien Swarm mod for UT2004, to mention two at random. So successful is its primary focus of a small team of human players battling against a multitude of AI foes that I fully expect it to spawn a whole sub-genre of FPS titles. I predict some of the AI foes will include dinosaurs, robots, aliens and various permutations of these – Attack of the Robosaurs?
As might be expected, Co-Op has proven most effective when closely intertwined with the story and game mechanics from early in the design stage, rather than tacked on because someone thought it might help marketing and sales to include the latest thing that everyone else is doing. This being the game industry, examples of both mentalities are common.
Still, I must admit that I’m very happy about this overall trend. I’ve always felt that Co-Op is the most enjoyable form that games can take, combining the camaraderie of multiplayer with the story driven, more expansive gameplay that single player can provide. There’s something about standing back to back as creatures pour through the barricades on all sides that always makes me smile. Finally, games are giving us those same buddy-movie dynamics we’ve seen in all those films, throwing us in with someone we can’t get along with but are forced to trust. How long until we see a Tango and Cash game? How long, indeed.