The Dreamcast Modem. Oh yeah.
The big three saw the merit to online play, and so the Gamecube, PS2 and Xbox all came with internet connectivity options. Granted, the Xbox had it built in, whereas the other two required use of a separately purchased modem, but the option was there. Phantasy Star Online even got remade for the Gamecube, which sold about as well as it had on the dreamcast. The stage was now set for the current generation of home consoles, and the networking behemoths we know as Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. The Wii has online connectivity, but I think I can reasonably state that Microsoft and sony's online experience is far more robust. Much as I love my Wii, I don't turn it on when I'm planning on playing with other people. Which brings us to co-op gaming today.
It seems to me that the current generation contains a type of game that was in limbo for years : those designed specifically with co-op in mind. Back in the SNES/Genesis days, there was an abundance of games like Turtles in Time and Streets of Rage. These games were not only at their best when you played them co-operatively - they kind of sucked if you didn't. Trying to clear Streets of Rage by yourself was an exercise in frustration, as the AI was programmed to punch you in the back whenever you started a combo up. Having a partner to watch your back made it not only much easier to beat, it made it a lot more fun. But in the in-between years, the big draw for multiplayer wasn't co-op gaming, it was the Versus mode.
Versus was easily as responsible for the creation of current console networking standards as co-op play. I can also recall many evenings spent playing goldeneye and Mario Kart 64, along with many fighters on the playstation. TimeSplitters, Mario Party, Marvel Vs. Capcom -- so many of the AAA titles of those days focused on the versus aspect. But now, we've got titles like Gears of War, Left 4 Dead, and Killzone 3 which are tailor-made for co-op gaming. They all have single-player modes, but having an AI as your teammate isn't the optimal way to play, as more often than not the programmers see fit to have extra redundancy on the "stupid" factor for your partner, meaning their only job is to give your behind a slap when you get low on health, and resume doing all the work.
That’s okay guys, I got it -- you relax.
Which may sound irritating, but it's just fine and dandy by me. Playing co-operatively in a game specifically designed around co-op is an awesome experience. But is online co-op the best way to go, or do we lose something to the experience.
Co-op gaming - both online and same-couch - is obviously great. But these two types of co-op aren't made equal. Couch co-op does some things better than online co-op, and vice versa.
Advantages of couch co-op:
- Couch co-op is more cost efficient for individual gamers. If you and a pal play a co-op game only with each other, then you either both put in for the game, or one of you's eating for free. That's something you don't get with online co-op, where you pay for the game itself, and in the case of the 360, the additional Xbox Live Gold subscription.
- For lack of an existing phrase, I'm going to call it "The proximity factor." That special something that gets added to the gaming experience by having your buddy in the room. That overly-energetic, palm-stinging high five when You finally get through a particularly tough wave of enemies in Gears of War. Seeing the sudden fright in a friend's eyes when a rocket slams into their temple in some Halo. And of course, seeing the murder in their eyes when you assassinate them and steal one of their towns in Dokapon Kingdom (I have a friend who to this day refuses to play that game with me). There's an intangible benefit when you play a game in the same physical space as other people. It's one of the reasons gamers still go to arcades, when most of us own the games at home anyways.
On the other side of the coin, however, there are some things that online co-op brings to the table that couch co-op just can't.
- Availability to other players. While couch co-op is great, getting two people together to play can be pretty tricky, and if both those people are adults with full-time jobs, it becomes a logistical nightmare. I like gaming with my roommate whenever possible, but we're around the apartment at very different hours. We practically never get to game together -- and we live in the same apartment. Trying to play with other friends is an exercise in futility a lot of days. But if you're looking to play some co-op online? You have a Murtaugh to your Riggs 24/7, no waiting necessary.
- Less taxing on system resources. Running two separate viewpoints, control schemes, and characters can sometimes tax a system's capabilities to the point where it reduces enjoyment. For instance, Left 4 Dead's frame rate when in split-screen co-op was significantly reduced than if you played it alone. This was combined with the fact that you only had half the screen to yourself. The game was still playable, but to purists and the obsessive compulsive (like myself) it was galling enough to make the co-op endeavour worthwhile. Conversely, playing online co-op means your system has less input and output to process, and your frame rates remain unscathed. Online co-op is less demanding on your couch space too - and sometimes, you just wanna sprawl.