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The Fall and Rise of Cooperative Multiplayer

    Before games entered the realm of extreme graphical realism and fidelity there were times that gameplay took the cake in player enjoyment. There were times that the graphics weren't such an indispensable part of what made a game worth playing. There are still new games released today that approach the form of entertainment that elder games provided. Many of them, though, come in the form of skirmish multiplayer, in forms of both strategy and shooter games, and it is becoming increasingly recognized that these are not true cooperative-multiplayer games.
    Today, cooperative multiplayer is just another way of saying you get to play together against a common enemy. This may be an accurate description of a cooperative game from a technical point of view, but as do many modern games, it lacks the spirit that has made past games in the genre so enjoyable. The closest we usually get to cooperative multiplayer any more is in games like Counter-Strike. More simply, this involves two teams of human-controlled characters that battle each other with identical or similar weapons and methods. Almost every game with this competitive team-based multiplayer claims to add some new spin or twist to the usual run-and-gun multiplayer. In my experience, few live up to the task.
    Despite the clear convergence to this type of tried-and-true multiplayer gameplay, I believe that there are still many of us that desire the familiar feeling of true cooperative multiplayer. Many of these people are members of massively multiplayer games, where something akin to true cooperative multiplayer still thrives. Those of us who can't spare the monthly subscrpition to these games, though, are left somewhat high and dry, though I would also argue that some MMOs offer only a fraction of the cooperative feeling that is native to the archetype of the genre.
There have been a number of games that I have had the pleasure to partake in that I find to be very enjoyable cooperative experiences. Commandos 2 is probably the leader of the pack, as its entire single-player campaign is nearly flawlessly recreated for multiplayer. What is absolutely essential to the cooperative feeling of a game is codependence. Commandos 2 delivers this in spades since it is extremely difficult to complete the campaign without fairly precise coordination amd cooperation between the players. This is exemplified in the Commandos series in the roles that the players must undertake depending on the characters they control. No one player can do everything, which is a significant element of the formula of codependence.
    The critically acclaimed Battlefield games have always prided themselves on the "kit" system and vehicle combat for a rock-paper-scissors feeling that many games have tried to accomplish in place of true cooperative multiplayer. This system encourages and sometimes rewards players for cooperating and working as a unit, though it is infrequent that you'll find a game or server where many of the players will do so. This is mainly due to the fact that while the rock-paper-scissors style does lend itself to cooperative play, the implementation is almost always such that a lone gunman with, enough practice, can be just as deadly as entire squads of less experienced players.
This doesn't mean that cooperative games don't allow players to be more effective or efficient with more experience, because Commandos 2 certainly demonstrates that practice makes perfect, and perfection is satisfying indeed.
    An underannounced and underplayed real-time strategy game, Soldiers: Heroes of WWII, takes a page from the Commandos formula, and takes the battle into an entirely 3D environment. On the downside, certain elements of the game make cooperative play more difficult and less entertaining than the Commandos games. The artificial intelligence is my largest gripe with the games, as even though it is a real-time strategy game, success almost unfailingly requires the use of a "direct-control" mode in which you actively command a single unit on the field. This breaks from RTS gameplay more than it does cooperative gameplay, but the mode leaves the game feeling inconsistent with the evident favoritism of the "easier" mode of control.
    Games like the Xbox version of Halo allow players to play cooperatively through the single-player campaign, but again, each player is more or less capable of fending for himself, depending on the difficulty of the game and the experience of the player. Multiple players offers more firepower against the enemy and an occasional opportunity to flank the non-player characters, but the player codependence is minimal, and unnecessary at best.
    As you may have surmised, codependence is the keystone to good cooperative gameplay, because without it, there is only the player's inclination to cooperate in your efforts, rather than the insistence that you do so. There are definitely other elements that contribute to the feeling of cooperation in a multiplayer game, and in designing the style of future games, I hope that developers will listen to the multitudes of gamers that await the return of true cooperative multiplayer.

Real Time Strategy Games and "In-Game Footage"

Nearly every major game release is preceded by the public release of tangible evidence of the developer's progress with the product. This comes in the form of game demos, videos and screenshots. When the game in question is a first-person shooter, there's usually little doubt about what the game will look like when you play it. Even with the fancy angles depicted in videos and screenshots, you'll almost always get a look at what the game looks like in action.

Now, when I say in action, I don't mean "in-engine." Sure, the Company of Heroes trailers are "in-engine," but do you ever actually get an idea of what playing the game will be like? Only on an extremely rare occasion will you see the cursor and HUD that's actually controlling the action happening on the battlefield.

I like a good cinematic trailer as much as the next guy, regardless of the inability to reproduce such vistas in real gameplay, but when a game comes out and I haven't even seen the GUI, it makes me think that the designers don't really want you to focus on that part of the game. This is the "graphical user interface" we're talking about here. Sure, all the pretty stuff goes on in the 3D battlefield below, but you can't get to the game at all if you can't interact with it in the first place.

Don't take this as some cockeyed plea to game PR specialists to release screens of the "options" menu of their upcoming game. Sure, that stuff is important to some degree, but if I don't have to deal with it during the actual gameplay, it can be overlooked, especially for pre-release photos. Hiding the entire HUD from me in an RTS "gameplay video" doesn't give me confidence in the playability of the final product. When I watch a gameplay video, I want to see the game being played. What I don't want to see it some doctored-up version of what the game looks like.

I believe that there has been a recent exception to this trend of hiding the RTS GUI, in the form of Joint Task Force. In at least one of the videos shown here on GameSpot the GUI can be clearly seen, which gives me a lot of confidence that the visuals demonstrated can actually be recreated in the course of playing the game. Games like choose to use exclusively demo-recorded and cinematically organized footage to demonstrate their engine (see "Company of Heroes Gameplay Demonstration). I do like the Company of Heroes game engine, from what they've shown me so far, but do I think I'll like the game? I don't have a clue, because I haven't seen what the game actually looks like yet, unless Company of Heroes is going to claim you can interface with the game entirely telepathically.

So even though a major appeal in a modern RTS may be its graphics, as they are in almost any game to come out nowadays, I think the only way for potential players - and therefore customers - to accurately judge the game experience is to give them the real game experience, which only seems to come in the form of demos anymore. Demos are becoming rare as well, but that's another issue entirely.

New games or lack thereof

It's been a good while since a good game I've been following has come out. I say a "good game" because, let's face it, Ten Hammers didn't quite live up to what I hoped it might become. The last really good game release I can remember was Battlefield 2, and that was nearly a year ago.

I've been playing Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory on and off for the last week, and though I like the stealth-action genre, Splinter Cell is better suited to be a stealth-only game. The action elements of the game are so inconsistent and unfriendly that every mission is an effort to go entirely undetected. I guess it's supposed to be a little like that, but when you've got high-tech guns at your disposal, you'd otherwise never imagine hating the opportunity to use them.

But enough about that. I don't mean to turn my blog section into another review section. Where would be the sense in that?

Having missed my most recent opportunity to go to a LAN party, there ought to be another coming up soon. I don't know what games I missed at the last party, but since the onset of E3, my appetite for new and better games has grown steadily. Numerous games that were supposed to have come out already have been delayed to later this year. Namely, I was looking forward to Company of Heroes and Faces of War.

In case anybody actually reads this, and in the off chance that somebody from the Sacramento area reads this, my usual LAN group should be getting together sometime in July, but the date hasn't firmed up yet. Get more information here.