Back the in the early days of DOOM people always wanted to play games together, first of all because human nature is highly competitive and there's nothing like beating your friends or complete strangers in an online game. As the game industry evolved to match the tastes and likes of the gaming community, it became apparent that the so-called free for all death-matches just were not going to cut it. Something new and interesting was needed; the first iteration appeared in the form of team death-match where you could now fight together in the common goal of smashing the opposition.
Team based gaming had arrived and variants sprang up, the immensely popular CTF (Capture the Flag) finally gave gamers a goal to strive for and suddenly the first person shooter genre was turned on its head, especially in the early days of Quake.
Now it was possible for a group of friends on or offline (as long as they had a LAN) to challenge the single-player story.
In 1996 Quake saw a revolution in team based games and the grandfather of class-based gaming was born. I'm talking about none other than Team Fortress, written and designed (based on the Quake engine) by: Robin Walker, John Cook and Ian Caughley. Team Fortress was a breath of fresh air in a genre that was now dominated by CTF and death-match game-types. It introduced objective based maps with numerous routes. It also brought classes into the first person shooter team-based adversarial experience.
These were fairly well balanced to begin with, with different styles and abilities. The most important innovation was the inclusion of these diverse skills, such as the Demoman's ability to place satchel charges and so on. It meant that a good group of players could concentrate on building a useful skillset in the online game arenas and with effective communication coordinate plans and attack strategies that consisted of more than 'frag the other team'
The Engineer could build defensive turrets to protect key locations from human, or in the case of Quake, the first BOT AI players as well. The Sniper could easily sit at range and cover a long distance access point whilst the other classes all had specific roles to fill. The core death-match/CTF mechanic would never be the same again. This was the beginning of the cooperative game experience that would spread across into numerous mods: such as Action Quake and usher in a new era of competitive gaming.
As the Quake engine matured, changed and shifted, the core gameplay mechanics didn't change. It was up to modders to fill in the gaps again with Quake II and so on.
In 1998 whilst the Quake II mod scene was on fire with mod after mod and Team Fortress was still one of the most popular, Valve gave a stunning entry into the video game market in the form of Half Life, a game that ran on GoldSrc, a heavily modified version of the Quake Engine - this engine set the mod scene gibbering with excitement since Valve also proved that they were 100% committed to helping the game community grow. In 1999 amidst a clamour of cheers and hoots the Team Fortress mod was released by Valve as a free addon to Half Life. Once again team based role/class gameplay was king of the servers.
In 1999 Epic and Digital Extremes unleashed Unreal Tournament (10 days before Quake 3) and this brought with it the addictive Assault mode, where the mechanic consisted of attack/defence rounds where the teams flip-flopped so that both sides could play attack/defence and experiment with different tactics on a variety of themed maps. UT also brought with it a variant of Team Fortress that proved to be fairly popular. The main innovation though came with the master of the Reaper bots for Quake, Steve Polge - he was hired to create the bot AI for UT and these bots meant that once again, human players could team up and cooperate against the CPU. This was extremely useful if the host had problems getting enough players together for a proper match.
1999 was also the year of Counter Strike, the mod that later on grew into a fully-fledged stand-alone (Counter Strike: Condition Zero) game that hit in 2004. CS plays upon the team-based round by round objective gameplay of mods like Team Fortress and introduces the player classes as Anti Terrorist Spec Ops and Terrorists, where they must complete an objective or numerous objectives to win the round. Yet the focus was still upon the core mechanics of objectives and death-match, with little love for the people who wanted to complete a game together against the single player story.
It's hard to pin-point the exact event and game that fully changed people's view of cooperative gaming. I can certainly talk about a game that altered my own. I would always sit and wonder wistfully about two player cooperative gameplay in the Splinter Cell series or lament the lack of multiplayer cooperation in the GTA series. Since then multiplayer games have come and gone, most of them have allowed you to experience the single player story with your friends, the Halo series being a prime example of coop gaming done well.
Until Splinter Cell 3: Chaos Theory. This for me was the epitome of cooperative gameplay and to this day there hasn't been a game to touch it in that regard. Yes, we've had Army of Two and Gears of War (1 and 2) that have had a similar kind of impact; they are both excellent to play with a friend. The level and puzzle design of the cooperative campaigns in Chaos Theory were what set the game apart from the madding crowd of others. The two player interaction required to bypass puzzles and progress further has been lauded as some of the best by popular press and critics alike.
It is the sheer amount of interaction between the players that makes this possible, cooperative moves galore litter the experience and being able to plan and communicate in a hushed whisper over Xbox Live was amazing. Since the terrorist AI was fairly sharp, the developers made it so they could hear you if you so much as raised your voice. They had good ears; I remember a dog barking outside caused my co-op partner to alert a couple of guards for instance.
Cooperatively infiltrating a base location where you had to use teamwork meant that the Lone Wolf gamer disliked Chaos Theory; since I'm not really a gamer of that type I adored it. Lining up a sweet cooperative sniper shot and taking down a pair of tangos at the same time became an art, one that could be refined with the right pair of players. There was a real sense of camaraderie as your companion saved your ass if you did something wrong. Having innovations like a transferable image from player HUD to HUD meant that it was possible to use a sticky camera to show your coop partner just what was around the next corner from where you had been split up.
I was looking forwards to more of the same on Splinter Cell: Double Agent but the developers took the series in an interesting and unexpected direction. Whilst the original Xbox version brought back the innovative 2-player cooperative game mode and Spy Vs. Spy versus, the Xbox 360 brought in the 4v4 Mercs Vs. Spy game and whilst it was possible to cooperate against bot driven AI (that was way too good even on Easy) or fight Vs. humans it just didn't have the edge that Chaos Theory did.
Cooperative gaming seemed to die a death again relegated to a supporting role where the other players were just mirrors of the same characters, along with you for the ride. GTA still didn't produce a full coop mode and whilst the Xbox version of GTA SA had a fun two player co-romp the story was still a single player affair. High hopes were set for the 360 GTA IV game and whilst there were team-based game modes galore, the cooperative game was once again an addition that wasn't as fulfilling as many gamers wanted. The smattering of cooperative missions was short and fun, but after a while they began to wane and even though you could romp around the city in a free-ride with a massive number of players, this too lost its charm.
Mercenaries 2 promised a cooperative game experience like no-other, and delivered partly on what it set out to do. The freedom to blow everything up was marred however by the fact that the game had a few design oversights. Like Army of Two before it that tried to mimic Gears of War and Splinter Cell with cooperative game mechanics, such as coop sniping and back to back shooting sections. Mercs 2 failed to deliver due to the fact your coop character lost all of their munitions when they went back to their game, nothing except the cash and fuel state were saved. You could ride shotgun in a vehicle, yet you couldn't grapple a coop helicopter and climb in, you were left swinging on the underside.
It was like taking a bite of a juicy apple only to find that part of it was sour.
It was left up to Saints Row 2 to pick up the mantle of cooperative gaming and run with it. Here at long last was the answer to GTA IV's flawed cooperative game mode and a game that smacked of being built from the ground-up with cooperative madness in mind. You only have to read the review of SR2 to understand where I'm coming from on this particular point. SR2 is all about sharing the experience with a friend, giving both players an equal spot in the limelight and letting you build your characters reputation online and take everything back with you to your game.
It had a smattering of team based modes that were fun and frivolous but SR2 shone like a beacon of hope in terms of cooperative gameplay and design. Every vehicle was designed with two players in mind, especially the assault helicopter that featured a pilot and gunner mechanic leagues ahead of Mercenaries 2. THQ made sure that Volition ramped up the difficulty when another player was added to the equation and balanced the challenge as well.
Fable 2 from Lionhead studios delivered cooperative gameplay, your hero becomes a henchman in the other player's world. It features drop-in and drop-out cooperative action and whilst Lionhead upset some players with their use of the henchmen mechanic, it still remains a great cooperative experience that is marred from time to time by lag issues, though the majority of those were sorted by a recent patch it seems. It is possible to trade and communicate, jump into another person's game and Lionhead included a few modifiers to allow the host to split experience and gold with the henchman player. The henchman is also paid a share of the other player's income per 5 minutes. There are numerous coop combat possibilities and even a few achievements for performing cooperative combat and expressions.
It seems that finally the game industry has woken up to the joys of cooperative gameplay. Call of Duty: World at War, features online cooperative action though the complete sp story. Valve software of course has stolen the first person shooter cooperative crown once again - I'm not talking about their excellent Team Fortress 2 for the PC and Xbox 360 either, no, I'm talking about Left4Dead. Valve and Turtle Rock's zombie-survival horror game features a cooperative gameplay experience that is unlike any other on the market at the moment.
Left4Dead is a 4 player coop survival horror game that pits you as 4 survivors against a massive zombie infection. These plucky characters and the game are built for cooperation since it's the key (either with excellent bot AI) or 4 human players. The survivors are thrown into 4 large campaigns that are different each time thanks to the innovative AI Director, a piece of code that changes the way the game plays each and every time. You must be careful of your shots since there's no option to turn off friendly fire in the game. You can work as a team to get to the end of the level, battling zombie infected and the special boss infected as you go.
You can heal team members, give them certain things and help them up when they get knocked down (or over). It stresses teamwork and communication. This is one of the ultimate cooperative games on the market so far. In a twist, there's also the innovative versus mode where teams of 4v4 take it in turns to play as the survivors or the boss infected as they attempt to make it to the end of the level, or prevent the survivors from doing so. With the infected, the Smokers, the Boomers, the Tank and the Hunter all being complimentary in terms of skills and abilities, it's possible for the enemy players to strategise and coordinate.
The Boomer can vomit over survivors and draw the horde, in the ensuing confusion the Smoker can strangle a survivor from a distance or pull them away from their companions allowing an agile Hunter player to pounce. The Tank is rare and is the ultimate wrecking machine that brings terror and incredible power with it. When one shows up it's best to support it and pick of stragglers in the confusion as a Hunter or Smoker.
Even in the adversarial mode Valve have made sure that cooperation is the key to victory, the true cooperative shooter has arrived and the industry had best take note of this particular fact.
With games like Rainbow Six Vegas 2 having coop in the story along with Halo 3, Gears of War 2 and so on, cooperative gaming seems to be popular once again and enjoying the single player story with a friend or group of friends is a great way to inject more life into the current game industry. Resident Evil 5 promises a great cooperative experience and more zombie (las plagas) action as two players fight to discover what's going on. Gearbox Software are working on an Aliens shooter that is touted as having 4 player class-based cooperative gaming. They are also working on a title known as Borderlands that's looking very promising indeed in terms of 4 player cooperative gaming as well.
I'm hoping that 2009/10 will be the big years of cooperative gaming and that Ubisoft return to the excellent mode established in Chaos Theory for their Splinter Cell series. There's no doubt about it, cooperative gameplay is finally starting to shine.