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Why co-op can be a terrible idea

So, F.E.A.R. 3 (I’m not calling it F.3.A.R. until Warner Bros. send a gang of samurai around to make me) has co-op then. Yay! Co-op! It makes everything better!

Or so goes the logic of the woefully misguided. Because it actually doesn’t. No, while it’s good in the right place, co-op just for co-op’s sake is more than capable of ruining what would otherwise be a perfectly pleasant experience. Like a cheeseburger at a wedding dinner. And right now I'm really worried about the effect that it's going to have on F.E.A.R. 3. Here's why.

Co-op kills atmosphere

Above: Ambience KILL! 

The fact is, the ways in which your mind reacts to stimuli in single-player and co-op are completely different. Hunched over a monitor or goggling at your TV alone, you have a relationship only with the game. It’s you and the game-world, reacting to each other and bouncing off each other’s subsequent reactions. You’re totally immersed, and in a horror game it feels great. With a mate rambling down your ear about what you did in the pub last night, a new relationship takes over and the game becomes comparative incidental background noise.

We’re told that in F.E.A.R. 3 ‘There'll be visions, messages and scares that one character can see that the other will remain blissfully unaware of’, but that doesn’t convince me that the atmosphere will be preserved at all. Particularly when playing online, it doesn’t matter what your partner can see. After all, singling out individual scares for each player seems a bit irrelevant when you're both going to be playing in rooms anyway. The fact that a co-op partner is there at all kills any possible tension. And even if you play it in single-player, the modern co-op design model means that...

Co-op NPCs kill your whole game

Above: Artifical players = realistic misery 

It’s ridiculous. Really, really idiotic design. But it’s the way almost all co-op-ready games work these days. If you want to play on your own, you’ll have to carry the player two character around regardless, like the stinky old dog who followed you home, and now won’t take the hint and just piss off. Contra got it right back in 1987. In a single player game, there's a single player character. Easy.

If you choose a one-player campaign, it’s because you want the unique experience of playing on your own. Believe it or not publishers, we don’t just choose single-player because we have no friends or possess an crappy internet connection. We do it for reasons of gameplay preference and personal enjoyment. Thus, we do not need your moronic artificial friends following us around like automaton buddies for the futuristic lonely, spouting crap and trying to get involved, but only ever getting in the way of us enjoying the game you’ve made for us. When we want that, we’ll pay  a crack-addled hobo to come round and play with us for the night.

Hmmm, that sounded wrong. So moving swiftly on to the next point...

Co-op kills pacing

Above: Alyx never does this, and that's why we love her

Seriously, it does. The best thing about modern single-player gaming, the absolute best thing, is the sense of taking a journey through a vibrant, detailed and beautifully-realised new world, learning about and interacting with it as part of an epic and cinematic story. Emergent gameplay and player-driven experiences might have been buzzwords for the last few years, and in multiplayer they’re exactly what it should all be about, but in campaign mode there are some things that should be left to the devs. And the way the player experiences that journey is one of them.

The order, pace and choreography of the way that story unfolds is vital to how affecting your experience of it is. Anything screws that up, and the power is lost. Examples of things that can screw that up include your mate getting stuck behind a wall for five minutes, your mate getting trapped behind a glitching door, your mate getting booted and having to start the level again and your mate wandering around looking for ammo while you’re being feverishly drawn to the next story point. Find me any way in which co-op would have improved Half-Life 2 and I’ll find you someone who is very, very wrong.

Co-op kills level design

Above: Do you really want to crawl through one while staring at your mate's arse?

Co-op does not open up the possibilities of game design. People think it does, but it doesn't. Unless you’re playing a tactical shooter requiring innovative new ways of flanking, it actually limits level design, as the devs always have to think of two players rather than one.

Correctly and subtly signposting things for one player is a finely-tuned art form, but when it’s done right, it makes even the most linear game feel real and immensely rewarding to explore. Unless we’re taking about an open-world carnage spree, designing levels for two players to navigate simultaneously leads to wider, simpler layouts and blindingly obvious ‘Player one this way, Player two this way’ branching.

Intricacy, detail, and the freedom to explore on the player’s own tangential terms go straight out of the window. And that latter experience really can’t be emphasised enough in terms of creating a bond between the player and the game-world. Consider how brilliant a voyage of exploration and self-driven discovery the latter sections of Portal were. Now consider the fact that maybe there’s a really, really good reason Valve is keeping the co-op campaign separate in Portal 2.

 

But what do you think? Am I right? Is F.E.A.R. 3 fundamentally ballsed-up before it’s even started? Or am I, as I so frequently tell everyone else they are, wrong?

Let me know in the comments, or via Facebook or Twitter.

27 comments

  • talls - April 20, 2010 10:18 p.m.

    Yah, I say CO-OP is a terrible idea for SOME GAMES.
  • DriveShaft - April 17, 2010 9:07 p.m.

    I prefer solo. Too many people let retards go online and they ruin the game for me.
  • soren7550 - April 17, 2010 2:28 a.m.

    I've read what the co-op in F.E.A.R. 3 is going to be like, and quite frankly, it sounds stupid. Moment I saw it, 'killed atmosphere' popped in my head.
  • Mexiflan - April 13, 2010 7:54 p.m.

    Resident Evil 5 in professional it's a very good example on how not to do a co-op game. Your partner's stupidity is way more dangerous than any of the enemies.
  • LeeCarvallo - April 11, 2010 9:54 p.m.

    The only game that did Co-Op really well without sacrificing Single Player immersion is Demon's Souls. Everything else turns Co-Op into nothing more than a modern version of Smash TV.
  • Persona - April 10, 2010 12:51 p.m.

    ehh probably because Paxon Fettel isn't scared at the shit that his (and point man's) mum throws at him. Co-Op was like the most requested thing a few years back, now it's back full f*cking force and we want it out. Oh woe is to me
  • philipshaw - April 10, 2010 10:53 a.m.

    Have to agree, look what it did to RE5. Also Monolith aren't developing this which makes less excited for it
  • loonybomber - April 10, 2010 6:49 a.m.

    DON'T EVAR DENIGRATE CO-OP SINGLE PLAYER MISSIONS!!! Lack of Co-op play is the result of the same laziness and greed corporations brought into the mix ten years ago when publishers stopped routinely releasing free updates, patches, and addons. Doom had great co-op. Co-op, where it's just like a single player game except that one or a few friends can join in with you on the single player missions. I mean come on, thats can be the most enjoyable way for noobs to learn how to play a game. Any time you have single player missions, you should have an option to do them with others. If you don't like the option then you don't have to take it, but, for golly's sake, how the heck can you argue against another game mode and not be a numbskull. There was a time when gamers expected games to include a co-op mode but we were beaten by the same numbskulls who think it's ok for american publishers to censor speech that would not be subject to censure under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Apr 10, 2010, 02:12
  • Sabtos - April 10, 2010 2:25 a.m.

    I agree, especially with pacing. When you're playing with other people, (Resistance 2 for example), there is no reading the mission brief, the secret documents, admiring the atmosphere or listening to the radio and story elements, and there's really a lot of extra content to be had there that's totally looked over. I still haven't gone back in to read the documents even though I said I would after I completed it. It's rush rush rush keep up with everyone kill as many things as possible make sure your friends don't die all because you get points points points. And even if you don't get points for anything, it's still like that, like there's this pressure to not make it suck for anyone else (unless you're a jerk) and you all want to make it as non-boring as possible for each other so you all run directly to the next blip on the map until the mission is a success.
  • RebornKusabi - April 9, 2010 11:03 p.m.

    No I completely agree with you, in the context of playing a co-op game with a complete stranger. The funny thing is that I played the Fatal Frame series in the process of three nights in a row with my good friend and it didn't kill the atmosphere... it actually was worse because we both kept seeing, hearing and jumping at things that was either there or not. The sad part? I was 23 and he was 22 >_> Co-Op also didn't kill RE 5 when me and my other friend played through it from start to finish....... but then again, there wasn't much atmosphere to ruin either lol I think co-op can work but it completely depends on your partner so my opinion is some games with goddamn co-op should really start allowing me to either play the game by myself (as in, not even have an A.I. partner with me, just me) or make my A.I. partner invincible.
  • JamesTQuest - April 9, 2010 10:03 p.m.

    As with any co-op or online play, I feel as though as soon as a player dies, they should be cut off from the rest of the team. Now in games like MW2, this isn't a big deal because you just rapidly tap 'x' and re-spawn, but if you're playing a co-op level, and the player has to wait for a re-spawn point, they should be cut off. For F.E.A.R. 3, it could be that if the partner is in a "fright moment" maybe they are cut off and the partner hears something creepy. Either way, online content is great for some games, for instance MW2 (where tons of people just jump on and play online, and haven't touched a moment of offline gameplay) but shouldn't be the goal for all games. Story is something important, and it is just impossible to plan a fun gaming adventure where you have to consider the movements of two players.
  • crumbdunky - April 9, 2010 9:08 p.m.

    Meh, all he needed to say was "do we NOT remember how Resi5 killed that great series by making co-op king of it's game design?". That would have done me as al the lessons as to why any co-op has to work alongside the single player campaign rather than ruling over it are there for al to plainly see in the many mistakes Capcom made with a far higher profile game. The problem lies between the different issues making NPC characters FOR the SP and not making the SP work AROUND what they put in place for the co-op. Halo manages it OK but in any game where tension or scares are in order I think co-op's a non starter. I just don't think the genre and the mechanic do much for each other.
  • rafoca - April 9, 2010 8:01 p.m.

    Co-op rules. I never had fun with Resident Eivil since Resi 1, but Resi 5, because of co-op, made me have fun again. Co-op is ALWAYS better, except in Fable 2 :P
  • rafoca - April 9, 2010 8 p.m.

    I am sad to read this article. Gamesradar always supported co-op. Why that now? I understand what you meant in the article, but co-op can be done... they only need to make in a way that if you play single-player you dont have a NPC that will help you, so anyone can have fun.
  • Revanjd - April 9, 2010 7:22 p.m.

    Would be cool if it had an MP mode though. F.E.A.R. 2 reminded me of the Rainbow Six: Vegas games, and those games had a kick ass MP/Co-op mode!
  • frmonth - April 9, 2010 4:19 p.m.

    I also totally agree with the whole articule as I have avoided playing Resident Evil 5, Gears of War, Army of Two and even Left for Dead as I detest playing co-op games. I don't think its fun at all seeing as it ruins all of the atmostphere and pacing, plus I don't like having to revive or heal my teamates at all. I was excited about splinter cell coming out but now I don't i will buy it even thought the coop is seperate because I wont be able to play the entire game. Btw I bought borderlands and played the entire of it single player and had a very good time! Sorry for the long post but i wanted to get that of my chest!!!
  • oryandymackie - April 9, 2010 3:34 p.m.

    Bravo.
  • blitzpoisonpunk - April 9, 2010 2:40 p.m.

    I think co-op wont make a difference, they could still split you up for sections, also if one persons fettell it's going to add to the story.................Still, this isn't monolith(for some dumb ass reason) so I'm not going to say it looks good until I have physical proof
  • WrathLord03 - April 9, 2010 1:41 p.m.

    I suppose co-op with another player could open possibilities for horror and you could just be talking about something (for example, that time you vomited at the pub after trying to down an entire keg of beer) when something scary happens, and all of a sudden you have a cliched yet admittedly effective moment where both you and your partner fall silent waiting for the other guy to investigate. Also, survival horror is supposed to be about limited ammo and limited moving space(e.g. tight corridors and whatnot) so if you've been playing the FEAR series often enough you should know not to wander off. If they do everything right you'll always have players sticking together and not daring to wander off, and since horror's really about suspense and learning to expect danger around every corner, most players should (the keyword being should) stick together. And not all NPC co-op partners are horrible, speaking mostly about immortals like Elena, Chloe and the like, as you're too busy worrying about saving your own ass to notice. Besides, the script between them should be no different from the conversation with a mate or even a random.
  • drewbian - April 9, 2010 1:38 p.m.

    great article, agree with all the points, gear sof war pic made me laugh btw haha nice one. world at war got it right and so do the lego games but there are a lot of terrible co-op games liek you said, nice article

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