GTA IV has finally arrived on PC shores after an agonising six month wait, giving us keyboardites a chance to savour its multiplayer innovations. Based on initial impressions, it’s really rather good, proving to be far more than the expected ‘deathmatch in a city’. While the single player mode is essentially the same as the last three games, only better, the multiplayer aspect feels genuinely new and exciting. This comes only a few weeks after online gamers commenced battle with the zombie hordes in Left 4 Dead, leading me to wonder if the next few years are going to see a sea change towards more innovative multiplayer offerings.
Multiplayer gaming has always been a big ‘if only’, constantly skirting around greatness but never quite having the courage of its convictions. Deathmatch was perfected in the late 90s and hasn’t really progressed since. Not that it really needs to: as the purest, simplest form of online combat is does exactly what it sets out to do. The various Battlefield games shook things up a bit by massively expanding the player count, throwing in vehicles and attempting a vague semblance of teamplay. The rare moments when it felt like you were working as part of a highly trained squad of soldiers showed a glimpse of the side of multiplayer gaming that was being woefully overlooked: cooperative play.
Oddly, there have always been coop mods. Alien Vs Predator had a coop mod which was almost entirely unusable but still showed how a cooperative Alien game would be so much better than the lone gunman style so far employed. Half Life has had coop mods, as have a bunch of other titles cruelly limited to single player or the most basic of multiplayer (Half Life 2‘s toilet-throwing online antics are amusing in a Benny Hill fashion, but bear little resemblance to the magnificent sci-fi epic of the main game). There have been a handful of proper coop games, such as Gears of War and Neverwinter Nights, both of which operate in entirely different genres but which benefit immeasurably from the presence of fellow combatants/adventurers. Neverwinter in particular is a dry and statistical affair until you’re accompanied on your dungeon raids by friends, particularly when they start getting magical spells wrong and accidentally summon a malevolent Balrog.
Until this year the most effective coop game I’d experienced was SWAT 4, an atmospheric and hugely tense tactical shooter that involved a small team of police clearing out various hostage situations. An innovative game in several areas, such as its emphasis on not shooting the bad guys, it was the multiplayer that really shone, removing the slightly clunky AI companions and replacing them with slightly clunky human players. It was tense, it was unpredictable and it absolutely required you to work together to avoid catastrophe.
The current king of coop is Valve’s Left 4 Dead, about which we’ve already written far too much. What I wasn’t expecting was for GTA IV‘s multiplayer to scratch a similar itch, thanks to its multitude of different game modes, each offering different objectives including, crucially, the ‘free style’ option. This allows a bunch of players to roam about the massive Liberty City doing exactly what they please, ranging from anarchical violence to improvised street races, comedy stunts and police getaways. It’s a playground in which you can make up your own games within the loose rules of the GTA game mechanics. Other large player count games such as Battlefield or MMOGs like World of Warcraft always have strict objectives driving you and everyone else forwards due to their relatively limited options for interactivity, while GTA is able to set you free to roam about its world to make your own entertainment.
Both Left 4 Dead and GTA IV are offering new ways to play with friends online, approaching multiplayer from unexplored angles. They’re not simply single player games in which another player can run about behind you; instead, they’re actively embracing the benefits of having multiple human players in an unpredictable space.