This article was published last year in PC Gamer UK. It's my ode to co-op gaming, and it features quotes from Epic's Clifford Bleszinski and the excellent Harvey 'Witchboy' Smith. (Shame about that Blacksite game, eh?) I've revised it slightly for 2008.
It's our favourite abbreviation: co-op. We're not simply talking about your basic multiplayer here, and nor are singing odes to teamplay in Counter-Strike or World Of Warcraft. We're talking co-operation. A couple of gamers versus the game. That is where some the very best gaming moments lie.
You see, the joy of co-op is like the joy of conversation. You're not competing - you're working on something together, each with your own angle. Also like conversation, a good co-op session spontaneously generates ideas that you wouldn't have had on your own. In playing against the computer with the help of a friend you come up with different, and often wholly more entertaining solutions to the problems that games present you with. Whether it's fighting Nazis in Brothers In Arms, or purging the hive in Alien Swarm, there's simply nothing better than coming up with a plan, and then heroically saving your best mate when it all goes horribly wrong.
Despite our love for it, co-op has had a patchy history, and there's a crucial reason for this: it's really hard for developers to pull off successfully: the Half-Life games didn't have a co-op mode, and there's a solid reason for that. In fact the problems for the people making these games have only become worse over the last fifteen years. This issue is one of complexity. The simpler games, such as Quake or Doom, didn't really create many problems for designers in terms of implementing co-op. They were essentially just rooms with monsters and traps, so all they had to do was drop in a second player and Bob's your uncle sitting next to you with a gamepad in his hand. But as games began to learn the scripted, ever-so-finely-tuned lessons of Half-Life and Tomb Raider, they began to make such simple solutions near-impossible. When an experience was carefully engineered for the enjoyment of a single player, dropping in co-op, and a second player, became a task too far. Games broke down, enjoyment faltered, and the whole exercise just became too much effort to bother with.
Now though it seems that developers are beginning to crack the problem. Not only that, but their ambitions are bolder and their intention to provide co-op gameplay far clearer. Where games have long bolted co-op in as an afterthought or a neat alternative multiplayer option, new games such as Borderlands, Gears Of War, and Left 4 Dead have taken co-op as their central motif. With a second character on hand, often controlled by smart AI during a single-player game, there's often an option for player two to drop in and play through a game with their chum. It's not just a case of adding in player-two, it's a matter of making the second character absolutely integral to how the game works. How long, we wonder, before the big-shots like Half-Life 2 have a second playable protagonist...
Developers, many of whom used to to shudder when we asked about co-op, are now warming to the idea. Harvey 'Deus Ex' Smith becomes rather animated when talking about Blacksite's (proposed but not-shipped at the time of writing this) drop-in/drop-out co-op mode, but he's the first to admit that it was tough to do: “We started off being so arrogant that we said “oh co-op will be easy” but then at every turn it has fucked us. It's amazing how you can be in a room full of MIT grads, and people who have been working on games for ten years and play all the game, and look at the helicopter with one turret on it and then someone finally says “What about player two?”"
About Player Two
The lesson for Smith's Midway team was that two heads aren't necessarily better than one when you're trying to balance a complex action game for play. “It's about tuning,” says Smith. “It affects everything from how hard it is to play, to how many enemies you can get on screen. It even affects the fiction. It's a fun part of the game though, so I hope it works in the right way.” (Yeah, oh well.)
One group of developers who have consistently made it work the right way are the modders-turned-pro Black Cat, who made Thievery and Alien Swarm, and who are now working on Infested, a commercial version of Alien Swarm in the Source engine. Black Cat's Jonathan Sutton told us a little of what a co-op focus means for their game design: “At the basic level, we provide tons of information about what the other players are doing. The overhead view helps with this, as you can easily see where your squad mates are positioned and what they're doing. Then we have all sorts of detail on the HUD, showing you various stats about the other marines, such as their ammo, if they're reloading, getting hurt, and so on. We also have about 100 speech cues that fire off automatically in response to game events.” Left 4 Dead pulls off the same kinds of tricks - automatic barks, and the ability to see your buddies through the scenery.
It's this kind of scaffolding to player's perception that the developers of co-op are having to come up with to really make the experience one in which the players compliment each other, rather than simply being bodies in the same shooting gallery. Having one player able to pull the other to his feet while under fire in Gears Of War is only possible because the upright player can see his mate's location on the overview, for example.
The other way to make co-op compelling, of course, is to make the players work through their own skill sets – as we've long seen in RPGs. “We make sure the various equipment and skills in the game all have their own special role,” says Sutton. “In this way, you come to rely on the other players throughout the game, as their skill and equip selection will be better suited to certain problems. We also have direct dependencies, like relying on the medic for healing, or the guy carrying the ammo bag throwing you a spare clip when you're running low.”
Of course we'll have to wait until Infested turns up to see whether Black Cat actually know what they're talking about, but their previous work hasn't shamed them so far. An even safer bet is Cliff Bleszinski and his co-op shooter, Gears Of War, which has already been a blockbusting beast of a game on Cousin Xbox. Bleszinski talks of how tricky the co-op solution has been for modern developers, but he know longer believes that it's a hurdle developers should choose to avoid. “It is difficult,” says Bleszinski, “but if you want to have a multi-million selling shooter you have to have a great single player and a solid co-op mode. I think there's a huge gulf between casual and hardcore players, and co-op is way to bridge that. You can have a husband and wife, with one player leading another through the game. She might feel less intimidate with her husband's help. It's this kind of stuff that will bridge that gap.”
One of the most successful British games of the last couple of years was all about bridging that gap. It was Lego Star Wars, which featured ubiquitous co-op play throughout. Talk to the Lego team's executive producer, ex-PC Gamer Dep Ed Jon Smith, and he'll tell you how his primary goal was to create a game which kids could play, but in which parents would be able to help out with directly – by picking up a gamepad and jumping into the game itself, rather than having to shout advice from the sidelines. This is one of the most immediate and direct co-op experiences gaming has to offer – and it's as much about solving puzzles as it is performing action-oriented death. Incredibly, Smith points out, this was one aspect of the game that the press uniformly ignored. Why? Because the reviewers played the game on their own. Perhaps if they'd made an effort to get their mum to play with them scores would have been higher still.
Hands Across The World
Challenges for co-op still remain. As more players are catered for in a game, so the number of things a developer has to think about escalates. Even cutscenes become more complicated, as Bleszinski explained: “As a developer we have to craft the cinematic experience with co-op in mind. There's always the other character. What is Dom (the secondary Gears Of War character) doing? What is he doing if he's player by AI, and what is he doing if he's controlled by another player? The more characters you have, the more you have to figure out how you integrate them into the game.”
The interest co-op has generated in huge development houses such as Epic mean that there's another, even bigger ramification for PC gamers at large: co-op modding tools. Gears Of War, Bleszinski has revealed, will come with all the tools required to make co-op work in a mod. Transforming single player mods into co-op mod will become a hell of a lot easier with this new toolset – the one that Epic themselves used to put their game together.
“I'd love to see more co-op mods,” says B. “Modders often take the regular co-op mode and say “okay we're going to do this game, but in World War II”, but maybe they should take the co-op mode and say 'okay now we can make this puzzle-oriented'. There are so many more cool ways to interact with each other.”
In time both developers and modders will be able to come up with cool ways to create variants for new games concepts like Left 4 Dead, which brings a hybrid of co-op and traditional multiplayer to the table. Left 4 Dead suggests ways in which gamers could create incredible co-op mods: an Evil Dead mod with two players trapped in the demonic cabin in the woods, an aliens mod with Left 4 Dead's zombies turned Giger, a riot game with shop keepers defending a store from looters... Turn your co-op imagination to other games, such as the action-puzzler Lego Batman and Indiana Jones games, and you start to see that the possibilities are endless.
"Co-op" might have become a feature-list tick box for the most recent generation of games, but hot damn, if even a few of them get it right, we'll be laughing, and slapping each other on the back.
SOME CO-OP CLASSICS
The classic of classics. You can bomb through the whole thing two player in a few hours. Your best bet these days is to pick it up with the rest of Id's back catalogue on Steam.
Another Steam refugee from the past, Quake is even better than Doom for co-op action, not least because you get to fight shamblers together, with lightning guns.
It's tough to get hold of the classic 3D dimensional exploration shooter these days, but if you can pick up a copy of Ebay, or anywhere else, it makes a fun day in.
Getting through Baldur's Gate with up to six other real-life players really does take some commitment, but it's an interesting alternative to pen-and-paper D&D.
Half-Life Sven Co-op
This wasn't just the mod that made the original Half-Life playable over a network, it's also a mass of mad and maddening levels, packed with puzzles and weirdness.
Aliens Versus Predator
Defending the bunker against endless swarms of aliens: it doesn't actually get much better than this. Watch out for that flamethrower, though, it's not friendly fire.
Diablo and Diablo 2
People playing the Diablo and Diablo 2 campaigns over Battlenet is pretty much what made Blizzard the company it is today. It's still remarkably compulsive.
A long-term favourite of many people here at Future towers – our first map editing mission was to set up tractors to race across an island as we were hunted by a helicopter. The campaign is good too.
Op Flash's updated cousin, with some truly excellent co-op missions, and some less good ones. Few games are quite as tense as this – electronic war at its nail-biting best.
Brothers In Arms: Earned In Blood
The series of co-op skirmishes provided by Earned In Blood will cause you to scream “Go left! Flank flank flank! Aiiiie!” They're short and ever-so sweet.
Hidden & Dangerous
The bugs in H&D sort of add to the appeal of co-op, which is a slapstick nightmare at the best of times. When it does work, however, the intricate assaults are simply sublime.
The classic co-op RPG brings table-top RPGs to the PC with beardy panache. The entire sixty-hour campaign can be played through with chums. Let's hope they're patient, eh?
Numerous mods and add-ons have perfected what was already one of the most intense and diligently-imagined space combat games in the world. Unmissable.
Exploring Freelancer's self-contained galaxy is far more entertaining with a bunch of friends. A bit too much of a time-sink for most folks, but it's nevertheless a portal to a better world.
Incredibly tight assaults on urban environments are routinely cast into disarray by the randomised elements inside. No one action is ever the same, particularly as you scream into the ear of a chum.
Ground Control 2
Incredibly, any of the campaign missions from Ground Control 2 can be played with a second human-controlled drop-zone. It might not be the best Massive game, but it's still solid fun.
Lego Star Wars 1&2
You'll need a gamepad for this one: Lego Star Wars is co-op friendly throughout, and there are dozens of superb puzzles for you to get your head around. Simply not worth missing out on.
Garry's Mod HL2
The tools provided in Garry's Mod actually allows you to play through the entire Half-Life 2 campaign as co-op. It doesn't work all that well, but hey, who's complaining?
Gears Of War
Ahead of the curve, as usual, Epic have delivered a shooter that is as refined in its co-op play as it is beautiful in its Unreal-powered visuals. Muscular co-op.
And coming up...
Left 4 Dead
A hybrid of both traditional co-op versus hordes of zombies, and multiplayer, with other folks taking on the roles of the specialist mega-zombies. This is going to be huge.
Gearbox's post-apocalyptic sci-fi Mad Max on an alien world has a strong co-op mode. Very fast and brutal, and very beautiful. It could be the best game of 2008/9.
Dawn Of War 2
A fully co-op campaign for the game mostly likely to be something compared to Starcraft 2? Really? So they reckon. Exciting stuff.