Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Tale of Two Co-Op Games

Recently I had the pleasure of playing two excellent games that feature co-op gameplay. The games in question are Gears of War and Crackdown. While I thoroughly enjoyed both games, my opinion on the quality of the cooperative experience varies greatly for each game. To me it seems that Gears was created with co-op in mind early on. On the other hand, Crackdown's co-op strikes me as a feature tacked on late in the development cycle. In principle, sandbox games would seem like the perfect fit for a co-op experience, but Crackdown simply missed the mark for me.

Co-op feels like it was weaved into the design fabric of Gears of War. Even in single player, there is a strong teamwork component built in. I was a little disappointed that your AI stand-in couldn't revive you, but I felt a duty to back them up when they got into rough situations. The single player game also featured conversational interplay between members of the squad. While a lot of this dialogue wasn't exceptionally deep, it was amusing and fit with the character archetypes presented. Many of the game scenarios specifically split the squad up and provided "windows" into which you could provide cover for the other half. If one of the squads died during these segments, both had to restart from the previous checkpoint. This lead both sides to focus not only on what was ahead, but what was going on with the other squad.

The high quality of the co-op experience really hit home when playing online with a friend. While playing through the harder difficulty modes, it was essential to lay down a game plan for how we would navigate upcoming encounters. Feelings of guilt arose if a game over screen appeared when I had missed an opportunity to protect my friend. Fundamentally, Gears put me into a gaming mode that is usually limited to MMOs or team based multiplayer experiences. My fate in the co-op story mode was intricately linked to my ability to support my team mates, a rare thrill indeed.

Crackdown provided an entirely different experience. On the positive side, it featured a great multiplayer interface. I could immediately find and host co-op games or jump into someone else's world whenever I wanted. Crackdown was one of the first games where I used the Xbox Live friend invite functionality regularly. The trouble is, once in a game with my friend, there wasn't a compelling reason for us to stay together. Maybe I didn't get the co-op vibe they were going for. YouTube features several videos of emergent gameplay that is fostered by co-op multiplayer. I suspect the loosely structured single player experience was a major part of the problem. While there was a framework - namely, hunting down mob bosses, the fiction surrounding this hunt was stretched thin. I rarely felt that defeating these bosses made me feel like I was affecting the world until all of the bosses in a particular section were defeated. In addition, it was easy enough for one player to defeat the boss while another was returning to the scene. I also loathed the friendly fire that was constantly present. I spent most of my return trips grumbling about a stray rocket that was fired while we were engaged in a close quarters fight with our enemies. My friend would wait for my return to finish off the boss, but eventually I realized I wasn't missing much and he took them out while I headed off to the next mark.

The co-op experience improved substantially when we started doing the vehicle stunt achievements. Some of the car stunts were fairly hard to accomplish and we would take turns trying different approaches, including the infamous "toss a car occupied by your friend into the ring" trick (or cheat, depending on your point of view). Together we were able to cut down our completion time on these challenges. Even if we failed many times in a row, it was hilarious to watch spectacularly failed attempts. I think the main story mode could have benefited from requiring more teamwork in the way that we were able to assist each other for the stunt challenges. In the end, I was very satisfied with my overall Crackdown gameplay experience, but I'd love to see the co-op mode fleshed out in future versions, which I'm definitely looking forward to.