In Search of Local Multiplayer

There’s something going on in gaming right now that’s really bothering me, and I wanted to address it today. The definition of multiplayer is changing.

Multiplayer used mean only one thing. That it was you sitting, around with one to three other friends, playing Mario Kart, Streets of Rage, NBA Jam or a million other titles for older consoles like Genesis, N64 and the like.

Today , it’s something very different. It simply means you’re playing with other people via the internet, and no one needs to be in the room with you. Your friends are no longer sitting next to you, they’re a garbled voice in your headset. And often, that’s the only way to play.

My friend is in town for the summer, the one I grew up playing those aforementioned games with, and we’ve been on the hunt for a good LOCAL multiplayer title now that we’ve worn out our enthusiasm for Call of Duty: Black Ops after 5,000 more or less identical matches. We were very pumped when that game offered split screen co-op, though it puts you at a significant disadvantage, as the tiny screen gives you poor vision of distant enemies, and the sound across both players mean you can’t tell whose being fired upon and who isn’t. But at least it has the option, unlike Modern Warfare which didn’t even bother with it, and I presume will have the same philosophy for their third game, out this fall.

Graphics so good, you won’t want to share them!

So we began a hunt to find a game we could actually play at the same time. First stop was Brink, where when it said “players 1-2” on the box, we hoped it might be something we could both play together. But after scouring an endless amount of menus, we found that the badge we needed to see on the back was “co-op,” as such a thing didn’t exist in the game, and I have yet to understand what “players 1-2” actually means.

We’ve tried games like Army of Two, which promise the entire purpose of the game as co-op, but it’s just a shit title. We could play Mortal Kombat for a while, but tagging in and out was only fun for a brief period, and you’re not actually playing “together” as it were. Eventually we headed to Gamestop to hunt down ANY title that would have split screen co-op. Rows and rows of games were either terrible, or didn’t have that magic co-op badge. What we decided on was Dynasty Warriors 6, a hack and slash that would hopefully be reminiscent of old beat-em-ups like we used to play.

Upon opening the box, it took about 45 minutes of Googling to even UNDERSTAND how to play the promised “co-op” on the back of the box. I figured we could create our own characters, start up Empire mode, and begin hacking our way to victory. But no so, first I had to win a certain number of battles by myself in order to convince roaming officers to join my team. Only then could I allow him to play, but stumbling upon his custom character in the game was practically impossible, and he was forced to make do with who was available. He had to share stats with me, and could barely upgrade his character in a unique way. And when we finally started playing? The game has the screen cluttered with so much information and text, that with split screens it’s almost impossible to enjoy. Why is a game that is little more than hacking up legions of enemies, obviously more fun with two people, make it so hard to play with a friend? It should be the foundation of the game!

“Only another hour until I unlock the option for you to play!”

What I don’t understand is WHY local multiplayer is becoming extinct, especially with the success of the Wii. Those in the industry must realize that the reason the Wii was fun for so many as is that it was entirely based around the concept of local multiplayer. Families playing Wii sports together, four friends fought in Super Smash Bros, the fun was had together. In person. The Wii has by FAR a worse online system than PS3 or Xbox, but it trounced those consoles in sales handily. The reason it was popular was because of the shared experience, and that’s something games are shying away from now. Come fall, if I want to play Modern Warfare 3 with my friend, I’ll literally have to send him HOME in order to do so.

There are fewer and fewer games that understand how to do this correctly. One shining example is the Halo series, which is one of the few titles in existence to still offer FOUR player split screen for those rare occasions when you might have more than one friend over. Yes, it does happen. Sure, it’s harder to play, but I’ve many a drunken fun night with friends goofing around in four player Halo. There just aren’t many games where you can have that same sort of experience anymore.

Co-op campaigns are getting increasingly scarce as well, though there are a few models to learn from. Borderlands is far and away one of my favorite games of this console generation, and it not only supported co-op, it ENCOURAGED it, as the game was built around classes that complement each other, and looted items that were meant to be traded. The game was infinitely more fun with friends, and between two playthroughs, and about four DLC packs, it was the best co-op experience I’ve had in years.

Killing: Better with friends.

Portal 2 recently also showed that any game can successfully adapt itself to co-op play. When multiplayer was first announced for the game, people groaned  at the thought, but when put into practice, it was almost more fun than the single player storyline. Working together with a friend to solve the mental puzzles was a blast, and coordinating strategies that required precise timing felt great when you were able to pull them off with a friend.

But these games are the exception, not the rule, and so many titles these days are not putting in the necessary effort to  make local multiplayer a viable option, despite the fact that after all these years and all this technology that can let me play with my friend across an ocean, it’s still more fun if they’re in the room. Whatever the next console generation shapes up to be, I hope that there’s a return to proper multiplayer that comes with it, as I’m tired of shouting into a headset when I’d rather just turn to my right.