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The Day the Multiplayer Died


We’re in the middle of a mistake. Games are abandoning local multiplayer in favor of online experiences, whereas most people I know prefer to play action games while sitting next to each other. Xbox Live, PSN and WFC are no substitute for the facial exchanges and rib poking fun you get from being present with the people you are playing with.

It’s a common trait of technology to mistakenly think that progress is linear, when it’s actually much more cyclical and open. Rather than marching forward leaving old ideas behind, we often find ourselves returning to old concepts for inspiration. The tech may have gotten better, but old, creative ideas are just as valid today as they were back in the day.

Split screen multiplayer is a prime example. Currently it’s old hat, an absurd idea we consign to the annals of gaming history with GoldenEye, TimeSplitters and Perfect Dark. But this won’t last. In an industry driven by the two pillars of creative ideas and consumer spending, game makers will realize that the concept of shooting the person next to you on the couch will always be a big win.

There are already some emerging green shoots – a renaissance of local multiplayer games. Nintendo shows that it understands this with the Wii’s slender online offering. If it wanted to, Nintendo could create an online architecture to rival Xbox Live; it certainly has the money. However, it’s not a priority, and I think this is because Nintendo doesn’t see online gaming as a big part of the future.

What we see Nintendo focusing on is great games you can play with the people you share space with. Smash Brothers Brawl, Mario Super Charged Strikers, Mario Kart and New Super Mario Brothers all offer great simultaneous four player multiplayer modes.

Although this is all well and good for some casual multiplayer fun, it doesn’t satisfy my hardcore gaming needs. I still think back to the excitement of playing cutting edge games like Halo, Ghost Recon or Call of Duty with a group of ten friends, all in the same room. Such was the excitement of these console LAN parties that we would haul TVs and consoles to one of our houses, rent enough copies of the game and spend the night playing our system link split screen matches.

The latest games simply don’t offer four players on one system, let alone enable you to system link at the same time. Don’t believe me? Have a check, some games offer split screen, some still offer system link, but those that do both I can count on one hand – Ghost Recon War Fighter 2, Call of Duty 3 and Halo 3, with a last gen look-in from Halo 2 and TimeSplitters 2 and 3.

If, god forbid, you want some bots in your split screen game, you have even less choice. If I’m not missing something, I think it’s just Ghost Recon War Fighter 2 that lets you do this. I thought Unreal Tournament may help me here, but even after the v2.0 patch, there’s only two player split screen available. You may actually be better off reaching for the XBLA version of Perfect Dark – although for the life of me, I can’t work out how to get more than four CPU controlled enemies in a multiplayer game.

It’s not limited to shooters either. Serious racing games have also been steadily culling split screen options in favor of single player visuals and an online offering. Long gone are the days of proper split screen system link racing from Lotus Turbo Esprit, Stunt Car Racer (am I showing my age?) or, more recently, Project Gotham 2’s four player split screen mode.

Thankfully, there are more driving games here that buck the trend than shooters. Particular credit should be given to Motorstorm Pacific Rift’s awesome four player split screen mode. Also, Blur, the upcoming semi-serious kart racer from Bizarre Creations, is stepping up with a four player split screen mode, kudos! And then Drift Mania and Wheelspin on Wii let eight people play together on one console.

I realize this may all sound like I’m simply harking back to the good old days. But I’m really not. I’m happy to leave the blocky visuals, clunky controllers and poor AI back in the day. But that doesn’t stop me from missing the features we seem to be forgetting were so much fun. In the middle of the current abandonment of local multiplayer modes, it is quite a difficult case to make. But I think we will look back at the current decline as a peculiar blip in game history.

I imagine a future where consoles support multiple displays from one box so you can play with more friends. They will also wirelessly link up by default, so you can play against anyone else in your home, regardless of the system or whether it’s a handheld or console. In my future, each system will support more controllers and offer new ways for us to cooperate in game play.

Looking back from there, these days of limited local multiplayer games will seem odd – a peculiar and short-lived blip on the gaming landscape. Well, that’s what I imagine anyway. Time, as they say, will tell.

Game People is a rag tag bunch of artisans creating awesomely bizarre reviews from across the pond.

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