Written by Craig Will Thursday, 14 July 2011 05:00
Competitive multiplayer used to hold very little value to me as a gamer. I was always much more interested in the single player experience and RPGs were the best providers of that. As the technology of each new console generation moves forward other genres better embrace the grandiose storylines and complex characters that RPGs made popular. There were, and definitely are now, genre bending games like Deus Ex that really sunk their hooks into me. But the biggest impact I've seen are the level up mechanics implemented in competitive fragfests. This has given me a reason to be excited about playing First Person Shooters but also makes me wonder what makes them so fun.
I loved the original Halo and setting up LAN parties with friends to play Pistols Only, No Shields, Hang 'Em High matches was as awesome as anything could get. Halo 2 took this a step further with Xbox Live functionality. That's not what sold me on Halo 2 though. I didn't really care about the online play. I was much more interested in the campaign, though I did log a lot of hours in online matches. The same can be said of the Medal of Honor PS2 entries; they were good games because of the single player experience (they didn't even have online).
Then Halo 3 came out and everything changed. I found myself not caring about the bloated uninteresting space opera anymore. All I wanted to do was hop online and blow up other Spartans (and those pain in the butt Elites) with my buddies. This was in large part due to the implementation of a ranking system. Not leaderboard ranking but a leveling system that matches you with others of similar level/skill. There's always been an issue with the TrueSkill ranking system in that there were matches where I dominated but ultimately our team lost and I would lose a rank or matches where we won and my K/D spread was in the negative but I'd gain multiple ranks. Even so, being rewarded for doing well was intoxicating and addictive. It's important to note that the most fun I ever had playing Halo online was when my roommate and I would play split-screen. Actually, that's the only time I played Halo, it got to the point where I was worse when playing with the whole screen to myself.
After the Halo series got me into online FPS Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was my next foray into the multiplayer wilds and from an RPG standpoint it did not disappoint. CoD ditched the seemingly arbitrary TrueSkill rankings as levels (though I imagine they were still running in the background) in favor of a more direct reward system: experience points. There was now positive reinforcement for every action performed, as well as challenges to accomplish in order to receive even more experience points. And once enough experience points were garnered, a level up unlocked new toys to use in future matches. This really fed into my love of RPGs and got me more involved in the shooter genre than ever. Looking back though, it seems that there wasn't much "fun" in it for me, just a desire to advance further and see what was around the next corner, but that's been enough to get me to buy each new entry in the CoD series.
That brings me to my third love in the FPS playing field: MAG. ZipperFish's online only experiment of stuffing as many players into one action packed map has it's devoted fanbase as well as it's detractors and I definitely fall into the former. Using a CoD-esque progression system but RPGing it up just a bit more by actually using skill points to work your way through a skill tree is exactly what I dream of every night. Well, not EVERY night. There are limitations to the actual game though. Graphics aren't as sharp as the latest entries in the previously mentioned series, hit detection feels a bit off sometimes, every once in a while matches seem a little unbalanced, long respawn times, and the insane amount of time it can take to get into a match are all reasons that Halo and CoD are better games than MAG. Not only that but MAG is a slower, tactical shooter and I much prefer the arcade-y speed of other shooters. Yet somehow I'm having more fun with MAG than with any other shooter I've ever played online (without split-screen).
While Halo showed me that Team Deathmatch could be a blast I didn't enjoy it when I was by myself. I'd play, sure, but instead of laughing and talking about all the awesome things that happened in the previous match I found myself cursing and getting upset when somebody killed me. Call of Duty lacked the fundamental offering that made Halo so much fun: split-screen online matches. It didn't take long for it too to devolve into a shouting match with my TV. That doesn't happen with MAG even though it lacks the split-screen functionality.
I think it boils down to the player base. I have not played a match of CoD: MW2 recently where I left everybody unmuted. The same is true of Halo: Reach. On the other hand, there hasn't been a game of MAG, ever, that I muted everybody. Sure, the occasional 13-year old pops up and starts shrieking profanity and derogatory comments in his pre-pubescent shrill voice but overall there are more mature communicators than that.
This isn't an article on why I think MAG is such a great game and the others aren't. No, MAG has as much room for improvement as any other game. What's the takeaway from all this then? If this article was presented in list form it'd look something like this:
- FPS games need to offer split-screen online, a la Halo.
- Customization should run deeper than apparel and scopes.
- More players doesn't necessarily equal more fun. Keep the match size down to keep queue times tolerable.
- Something developers have no control over but that impacts the game almost as much as anything they do - I don't want to hear tweens calling everybody the N word.