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Opinion: Have we been spoiled by online multiplayer?

I remember a time, not so long ago, when I would sit down at a console and the word “online” would be completely absent from the menu system. Apart from the story mode, campaign, or whatever the developer decided to call it, there would be few other options on the main menu; maybe I’d get to go through to the settings, or if we were lucky the developer would have included some form of local multiplayer mode and while I’m all for the addition of new features in games, particularly those that have the potential to redefine gaming, online multiplayer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Whilst it may look all fine and dandy on the outside, if you dig a little deeper you might find something extremely disturbing (read: mildly frustrating).

Don’t worry, I’m not going to be ranting on about how the addictive nature of online gaming is corrupting the minds of children and forcing them to shoot taxi drivers against their will. I’m merely talking about how it’s affected video games throughout different generations and how we, as consumers, expect more from a video games than we did before online multiplayer became such an important part of the industry, particularly on consoles.

007: NIGHTFIRE! I apologise for starting this paragraph so suddenly, with the capitalized title of a ten year old game, but it really is the perfect example to help demonstrate my point. It had a fantastic story mode which, if I recall correctly, was much longer than some of the rubbish thrown into FPS games today , along with what was one of the best multiplayer modes I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. If Nightfire was re-released, for this generation of consoles, would online multiplayer be stapled onto the product as a cheap way to attract sales? Yes, definitely. Would it improve the experience? For me, it wouldn’t and although I can appreciate that some people may buy games primarily to shoot their friends in the face from another part of the world, it would potentially ruin what was, for me, the best and most important part of what I consider to be one of the greatest games of the PS2′s lifetime; the thrill of playing such a great local multiplayer mode for hours and hours with the people you know, sat by your side.

Gamers have been spoiled by online multiplayer and the amount of replay value that it can add to a game. Thankfully, the majority of us can still truly appreciate a game when it provides nothing but a polished campaign, but there are some consumers who expect nothing less than an in-depth online experience and developers are, unfortunately, delivering on this. It’s certainly not a bad thing that games are being shipped with the content that fans want, but they seem to be forgetting about the rest of their audience, who would rather have an enjoyable, deep, singleplayer experience. The majority of games now, specifically those of certain genres, seem to be crafted with online multiplayer at the front of their creators’ minds, and a tacked on singleplayer mode being their last worry, rather than the other way around. More often than not, this all leads to a decline in quality of what I believe matters the most; a fun, engaging story mode that I can sit down and play, with no interruptions and no 12 year old boys (or girls, or whatever they are) shouting expletives down my headset.

If my experiences are anything to go by, we’ve got to the point where you can’t sit down and play a game without receiving a message in your inbox, questioning the online capabilities of the title that you’re playing. I’ve even been asked if Fallout: New Vegas and Just Cause 2 had online multiplayer. Granted, this might be down to the ignorance of certain individuals, but these are two great examples of games that still put single-player first and both have so much content that the inclusion a multiplayer mode of any form didn’t even cross my mind as a possibility.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy playing online and I’m no stranger to the multiplayer universes of Halo or Call of Duty, but this probably wouldn’t be the case if the majority games actually gave me another option. If there’s multiplayer in a game, it will most likely be online, with no guarantee of a split-screen or local co-op experience, which is rather heartbreaking. Sometimes, there’s nothing I love more than a quick round of ‘shoot your friends in the head’ or ‘smash your friend in to a wall’ with some of my best mates, sat next to me, on the same sofa; it provides a sense of friendship, fun and connection that online multiplayer just can’t deliver. Too many developers are completely ridding their games of local multiplayer and sometimes, it just doesn’t seem like a logical move, and when we are treated to local multiplayer it just doesn’t seem to be of the same quality any more. A perfect example of this is Burnout Paradise; It’s a great game, one of the best arcade racers I’ve played in years in fact, the social focus of its online multiplayer and co-op challenges definitely support the industry’s decision to move away from local play, and it provides a true sense of freedom by letting you race whenever you want, wherever you want, but what the hell is ‘party play’? It’s a load of nonsense, is what it is. What did Criterion do to the multiplayer that I’ve grown up with? The split-screen races and true, competitive crash mode that I hold close to my heart. Burnout has always been one of the best multiplayer games in its genre and it’s held that title for many years, until it entered a world where online is more popular then ever. It’s a shame to see such an established franchise wave goodbye to its roots and without that defining feature, it just doesn’t feel right. It feels almost unfinished, despite the 100s of hours of gameplay that it offers.

Thankfully, single-player isn’t quite doomed yet, with almost the entire RPG genre, powerhouses like Uncharted, and some of the more under-appreciated titles such as Enslaved and Madworld providing unique and gripping stories, but unless they’ve got a predetermined following, there isn’t much chance of them getting a foothold in an industry full of other titles that offer more, in terms of sheer content. Uncharted, for example, has sold well, very well, in fact, but when you look at what it has to offer, it’s success is most likely down to its PS3 exclusivity. Saying that, even Uncharted 2 saw the addition of online multiplayer, alongside new instalments of multiplayer in other story-orientated franchises, like Assassin’s Creed, because developer’s obviously think that it’s necessary for sales, otherwise they wouldn’t waste the resources and staff that it requires. Compare the success of Uncharted to that of Enslaved,  both were very critically acclaimed and both, arguably, amazing, but one released to significantly lower sales than the other. If you haven’t guessed, Uncharted was the most financially successful of the two even with Enslaved providing a fantastic, story driven campaign that, in my personal opinion, shouldn’t be missed by anyone. But if Enslaved, being a multiplatform title had included some sort of multiplayer mode, would that still have been the case?

Going through the topic of Madworld, we can drag Nintendo’s Wii into this. It’s no secret that the Wii doesn’t allow gamers to just jump into the online world and with a complicated friend code system and lack of support from some of the industry’s biggest names, it would be easy to label this as one of the system’s biggest flaws, but it’s also one of its greatest strengths. It may not have been their intention, but thanks to what seems like Nintendo’s dismissal of online gaming, the Wii has managed to maintain an appreciable level of go to games for singleplayer or local multiplayer experiences, even through the mountains of shovelware that have plagued the platform.

As I said, I’m a supporter of online, I’m just not a supporter of this ‘online before offline’ mentality that’s spreading throughout the games industry. I think there’s a place for games that focus on online play, that place being the PC. It’s where they work best after all and I think a lot of console developers need to take a step back and see what they can do with offline modes, before adding the online component later in development. Online definitely shouldn’t be ditched all together but in some cases it should be left as a minor feature, before we reach a generation of consoles and games, in which ‘offline’ is nothing but a relic of gaming history.

Edited On 12 Aug, 2011

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