Editorial | 7/20/2010 at 8:01 AM

Near, Far, Co-op Wherever You Are

I had to go to the bathroom twice during this film, it was soooo long

When Celine Dion sang, “near, far, wherever you are”, I guess she was not talking about co-op gaming, but she could have been.  The debate over how people play co-op has raged (or more correctly simmered) on Co-Optimus on and off for years.  Local, online, system link, arcane magic; which is the best method?  But I’m not writing about physical proximity of players today, but a new issue that has arisen in the past few years as virtual worlds become larger.  What about closeness of characters within games?  The recent releases of Crackdown 2 and LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 have shown me that although you may think you are playing co-op you perhaps are not, especially when it comes to open world titles …

The success of Halo 3, Gears of War and Left 4 Dead took a while to filter through to all game developers, but even the most blinkered fan of solo campaigns must admit that there are now more games being released with integrated co-op, or at least some sort of co-op mode, included.  In the next few months we’ll have at least Kane and Lynch 2, Halo Reach, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, Fable 3, Colonial Marines, F.E.A.R 3, Call of Duty Black Ops, and others beside.  However, although they claim they will include co-op how close will the players actually get?  Co-op can be included in all types of games from FPSs, RTSs, MMORPGs and even GLIMs (one of these genres may be made up), but perhaps it is in the open world genre that it is proving the most taxing.

Let me explain using two games, similar in some ways, but very different in others: Mercenaries 2 and Crackdown 2.  When I loaded up Mercenaries 2 and played with a friend I was faced with a bizarre system that meant you could not travel too far from your co-op partner.  You had to remain within a set distance of one another or the game would stop you.  This meant that we almost always entered a situation together because we had little choice.  After a while it became second nature and the fact we were ‘forced’ together didn’t matter as it made sense to attack a camp from two sides and work as one. 

I’m King of the world

On the other hand in Crackdown 2 up to four players can inhabit the same world and if they wish have nothing to do with one another.  Imagine this scenario; perhaps four players are on the way to a mission when the tell tale sound of a missing orb rings in you ear.  All of a sudden you turn around and one of your allies is missing.  You pass an enemy base and another friend decides to investigate, then suddenly another pal dies and is transported elsewhere.  Before you know it you are fighting alone against insurmountable odds.  There are so many distractions in Crackdown 2 that keeping four individuals on the same wavelength is a challenge itself.  Data links, enemy bases and orb chasing can be tackled more easily as a foursome, but can also be done alone.  Only the special Live Orbs truly require you to be in the vicinity of an ally.  There is a good chance in Crackdown 2 that you’ll suffer from the Burnout Paradise issue of all the players working together, except for one who is doing donuts on the other side of the map.

Which style of co-op is best, the game that forces you to stick together, or the game that gives you free reign to do as you wish?  The answer of course is neither of them has got it quite right.  No game should blatantly force you to stick together, but a co-op game should incentivise co-op play.

Luckily you could separate slightly further than this

I don’t think that it is good enough to create a world and just allow more than one player to run around it at once.  To be truly co-op you have to have some sort of gaming mechanic that actually encourages players to work in co-op, be that in specific co-op mechanic like Army of Two: The 40th Day, or a system that encourages co-op play e.g. Left 4 DeadLeft is a brilliant example of a game that does not force players to work alone or in co-op, it just feels natural as the game is programmed so that harmony breeds success.  LEGO Harry Potter was fun to play together, but I found that splitting up and smashing things separately bred success as you got more done in less time.  In previous LEGO games it was annoying to be stuck in the same screen, but at least you witnessed all the hidden Easter Eggs in the game.  In LEGO Harry Potter my partner and I often found ourselves revealing hidden secrets whilst the other player was occupied elsewhere, a shame.

One aspect that brings players closer together is death, not in a Twilight Saga hand holding type of way, but in the mechanics of the game itself.  Crackdown 2 does offer a revival mechanic, but it’s not necessary to succeed in the game.  You can respawn and make your way back to your teammates with relatively little impact on the gaming experience.  On the other hand games like Gears of War 2 require that both players are kept alive if you want to finish the game.  This means that you always remain within a safe distance of one another just in case you need to be revived. 

Are open world games with co-op aspects an attempt at pleasing both single player fans and co-op fans?  In a more linear game like Halo 3 you can experience the same set pieces as one group, but with massive playing areas you can often end up playing a separate game on the same map. Throwing players into a huge world with no co-op specific challenge will make traditionally single player games more fun, but is it enough?  I don’t want to see a world were you are tied to a co-op partner on the same screen Fable 2 or Clash of the Titans style, but I would like elements of the experience only to work if you are together.  There is room for all types of co-op game be it single screen Zombie wrangling or open world orb hunting, but for me the best experiences are always those that you have characters side by side on screen, no matter where the other person is in the world.