Going all the way back to the days of Super Mario Brothers, games have always been more fun to play when you have a good friend, or not so good if you’re losing, with you on the couch to share the experience. Now looking at gaming in the present day it’s clear that this game type has still not lost its appeal, as games continually take advantage of the friendly functionality. Of course there was never really a dark age of cooperative play in games, but the recent popularity has come along with the high notoriety of console shooters, especially the Halo series. But while this gameplay is at its peak of popularity, can it really hold on its own as the central theme of a game?
The game that can be used as a prime example for this question is the recently released, Army of Two. Leading up to its debut Army of Two was hailed as the ultimate in cooperative gameplay, as the title was designed from the ground up for not just you, but a buddy as well to fight the good fight of friendship. Although the prospect of having a game entirely devoted to cooperative play sounded intriguing, the final results were mostly mixed. Since Army of Two was designed to be played with another individual, the game does not exactly function as well with just one player. It does provide an AI controlled companion for all of the loners out there, but you’re probably better off finding some homeless crack addict to partake in the campaign with you than rely on this incredibly useless computerized comrade.
Army of Two was built for coop, unfotunately that was it.
The faults of this AI include running blindly into enemy fire, not taking advantage of the stealth you provide while taking all the enemies attention using the aggro function (a feature meant to be used in tandem with another player), and various other annoyances. Now many of you may attack this criticism by saying that the game is meant to be played with another, so judging its gameplay while flying solo is not fair at all. However I tend to disagree, because while fun, cooperative play is not a mode that can really stand up to being the central experience within a title. First of course you need a friend willing to play the game with you, and not everyone knows other gamers personally, or someone willing to commit to an entire game since everybody has different tastes, although if they prefer not playing Army of Two your friends’ probably have a better pallet for games anyways.
You can venture into the online world, but we all know that that place is not quite regarded as a realm of friendship and harmony perfectly suited for teamwork. So with those two options gone, and a single player with weak AI, there is very little left to offer unless you happen to personally know someone willing to invest in the same game as you. Now this also brings up the notion of multiplayer centric games, and that many people play those just for the social experience, so how can that be any different? Well multiplayer is based upon playing with a number of other individuals across a variety of gametypes, and is also not limited to a campaign, which eventually ends. Therefore it’s apparent that there is a distinction between the two.
In Gears of War another player was welcome, but not required.
Cooperative play, in the games that we remember loving, is not found to be the central gaming experience but rather a supplemental experience, albeit a great one but never the less an add on. The essence of coop is not simply having player 2 present, but the sense of sharing a core experience with another person. This is evident in games going all the way back to Diablo II, or more recent titles such as Gears of War, that stand well on their own for just playing by yourself, but company is always welcome. Or take Rock Band for instance; which presents some of the best cooperative play around, but it is based off of an original concept of one person taking center stage, Guitar Hero. The experience I especially like is “jump in” gameplay that allows your friend to come along and join the fun even in the middle of a level.
These cooperative experiences work so well because at heart, the core single player games were of great quality, and being able to enjoy them with a friend was just the icing on an already delicious cake that would have tasted just as sweet without said icing. A great game should exist as it is, without you relying on finding another person to construct the experience with. EA’s mistake was concentrating on a gameplay mode, rather than gameplay itself, but of course it’s not an unusual occurrence for EA to chase after popular rather than unique game design. This does not mean that co op should simply be tossed into the batter halfway through development (let’s keep the baking motif going?) and it should be something the developers have in mind going into the design process. So let’s learn from past misunderstandings of cooperative play, that it is not the game mode in itself that we find ourselves in love with, but the application of it to an already great game.