Video Game Cooperative State of the Union 2009

There's been a flurry of recent activity in the cooperative online gaming front and I thought I'd sum up, in part because a lot of it has been appallingly bad.

1) Call of Duty:World at War - Boy was THIS a disappointment. I enjoyed the early Call of Duty titles but as my gaming focus tightened enough to lose single player FPS titles I only played CoD3 briefly and I didn't play Modern Warfare at all. But the new one is supposed to be really good *and* have a cooperative campaign for four players. Woohoo! Turns out the the "really good" part isn't the "cooperative campaign" part though. We started playing on the hardest difficulty level, because we played Halo 3 on Legendary difficulty. That was a mistake. We cranked the difficulty down one notch and breezed through two levels without much of a scratch. Then we hit the Level of Designer Bullshitâ„¢. The level opens with you riding on the outside of a tank that gets shelled and you have to jump off and then run for cover, all while your screen and audio are all screwed up to simulate shell shock. Look that's bullshit already, but whatever. In the four player mode 2 players are on the far side of the tank line. So while you're trying to run through the tanks you can't see they reverse course and run you over. Instant death, let's start the level over. WTF? It goes on like that. The enemies can respawn right behind players, and frequently you checkpoint with somebody spawning in behind a player (close enough to hit them with a rifle butt without even moving). And the AI has an unlimited amount of grenades, which are basically insta-kills. The whole game bogs down into trying to stay far enough apart so a single grenade can't kill everyone. Don't buy this for co-op, you'll be sorry.

2) The Resident Evil 5 demo. Long term readers will remember that I took a minority opinion on Resident Evil 4, feeling that the controls were awkward and annoying. Well, the controls in RE5 are utter garbage. In order to switch your gun you have to press on the dpad, pop up inventory, navigate to to the new gun, hit a button which pops up a menu, then select "Equip" from the menu, then play an animation of swapping the guns. Except the game doesn't pause for ANY of that so you probably get your face clawed off partway through. You have to switch your gun because you ran out of ammo for your primary gun well before you killed all of the first wave of guys. Oh, and guys spawn behind you as well. Bullshit. Also you can't move while firing. At all. Oh and within the first five minutes of play some boss dude shows up who can insta-kill players with a single axe stroke. At the least the demo saved us all $60 on actually buying the game.

3) Left 4 Dead. If you were quick, there was a L4D demo on Xbox Live. For some reason it was time-limited, so you can PLAY it if you have it, but you can't get a friend to download it. WTF? I actually like Left 4 Dead, but it's co-op mode isn't going to have enough content to justify a $60 purchase. Hopefully the price on this comes down in a few months. But if RE5 left a bad taste in your mouth, I'd recommend L4D as a palette cleanser, even if I hate the stupid marketing-driven "Kids like texting" title.

4) Resistance 2. Wa-hey! I actually know three people who play video games and have a PS3 now! We can check out R2! We did on Thursday, and so far I'm glad I only rented it. PS3 online is abysmal. First off, everyone has to buy and configure a headset. If anybody buys a cheap headset then the sound is shitty and echoe-y and everyone suffers. (BTW, the PS3 Bluetooth headset seems the best thing we've tried so far although it's a bit spendy. The PS2 SOCOM USB headset works, but it lacks a mute button or any volume controls.) Once everyone gets their headset set up, and the game installed to their hard drive, and the latest PS3 system patch installed, and the Resistance patch downloaded you can get everyone in a Resistance "party" which allows voice chat. This seriously took us an hour Thursday night and only 3 of the 4 of us were done at that point, one was still patching the PS3 OS. Then somebody can make the co-op game. Remember *every time* you do this that the PS3 will set the "private game" option to off. (gnashes teeth). Then apparently everyone in the party just sort of magically go to the lobby to pick their character class and loadout. If anybody hits the Circle button at this point they are kicked out of the lobby and get stuck. They can still talk at the voice chat, but they can't hear anybody. So they just say "Can you hear me?", fiddle with their microphone, and then say "Can you hear me now?" until somebody calls them on the phone and says "please stop that." Turns out everyone has to abandon the lobby and make a brand new lobby to recover the errant person. Who if they are drunk and are named Alan immediately hit the circle button and drop out again. (sigh)

The game seems ... OK if you actually get a co-op game going. The first level seems to start in several different random locations, one of which seems completely stacked against the players. Basically if all players are dead at the same time then the mission fails. We did a little better in the last session we played, but I think that was mainly because I forgot to set the private flag for the Nth time and we got some super-hero players with way more powerful weapons than we have show up. But the last part of that particular sojourn ended up with running from one point of the map back to a previous point 3 or 4 times (seriously - goals kept popping up at the other location and we'd walk there and then a goal would pop up back where we just were), and then ultimately one of the god-like players got into some part we couldn't find an entrance to so we just watched on the map until he killed everyone a door right in front me opened on it's own.

Oh yeah, if everyone dies then the mission fails and it kicks you back to the main screen. You'll want to create a new lobby, but you can't use the default name because your lobby is still on a server list somewhere, but you're not in the lobby anymore.

Seriously the whole party/lobby system is straight out of the mid-90's PC gaming playbook for everything. It's unforgivably sloppy, especially in Sony's flagship online title. (I guess you can make an argument Little Big Planet is the flagship title, but I think R2 is more mainstream.)

We haven't tried Gears of War 2 yet, but at this rate of shitty co-op games it won't be long. I thought going into January that we had a total surfeit of co-op titles, but it turns out that most of these people aren't bothering to actually balance the co-op experience properly, much less make a remotely useful UI navigation experience. Note to developers: Play the Xbox 1 Splinter Cell titles, play either of the Rainbow Six: Vegas titles, Gears of War or even GRAW. If your co-op isn't at least that good then you aren't done.