Multiplayer in Single-Player Games: Is It Really All That Bad?
Aside from next-gen rumors or reboots of beloved games, it’s arguable that some of the most polarizing news a developer can announce is the fact that there will be multiplayer modes in a traditionally single-player game.
The most recent example, of course, being the upcoming Tomb Raider. When we first heard about the possibility of the game having competitive multiplayer modes alongside Lara’s epic campaign, fans across the internet cried foul, saying that the modes had no place in a game like Tomb Raider and that it was nothing more than a sellout tactic trying to keep the game in people’s hands.
And that’s kind of true. Kind of.
But maybe there’s a silver lining to be found here. Maybe, just maybe, competitive multiplayer in traditionally single-player experiences really isn’t all that bad.
Now, it should be noted that I’m mostly talking about competitive multiplayer, not cooperative. The inclusion of cooperative multiplayer in a single-player experience is a completely different discussion in my mind, simply because the addition of another player in a linear, story-driven campaign runs the risk of breaking the experience. Take Dead Space 3, for example. While co-op offered a unique look at the game and yielded some interesting narrative content, it still managed to somewhat break the traditionally isolated feel the franchise has come to be known for.
No, I’m speaking strictly of competitive multiplayer here, and there’s a very specific reason why it exists in games we’re used to playing alone: like downloadable content, it’s meant to combat used game sales by keeping the player engaged long after the 12-20 hour single-player campaign is over. Theoretically, the player is meant to be so absorbed by the world that they want as much of it as they can possibly take in, even after the game’s main story is complete. Therefore, if they have a great multiplayer experience that keeps players engaged long after buying it, they’ll be more likely to want to hold on to the game longer in order to continue to enjoy playing it and being a part of that ecosystem. Keeping the game longer equals no selling back to institutions like GameStop, which is a win for the game’s publisher and developer.
In the past I’ve been one of the majority, feeling let down every time a multiplayer mode was announced for one of my favorite games. But there have been a few titles that have managed to turn my opinion around 180 degrees, to the point where I no longer despair at every rumor and announcement hinting at the possibility. After all, the mode is completely optional and isn’t required if you don’t want to play it. It’s simply there if you do. And they’re really, really hoping you do.
Of course, there are plenty of examples of terrible multiplayer shoehorned into games. Some of the most notable being Dead Space 2 and BioShock 2. But in these cases, the multiplayer didn’t necessarily hinder the experience in any way. In fact, I’d say the reason they were so bad was because they lacked any ingenuity and creativity in order to make them compelling and worthwhile to the overall experience.
But for all the bad multiplayer modes we see shoved into single-player experiences, there are still a few trailblazers that prove the modes aren’t the doomsday that hardcore fans make it out to be.
Mass Effect 3
I’ll admit to being a little angry about the announcement that Mass Effect 3 would contain multiplayer. I’ve gone on record defending some of the actions of EA in the past, but this was the one bit of news that really bothered me. It felt so cheap, so…typical. Mass Effect is not a typical game, and seeing it get treated in such a manner was unsettling.
But on a whim, I did jump in and try the multiplayer one day. And I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
When it first started up, I was afraid it would be a weak Team Deathmatch mode with a bevy of Shepard clones gunning each other down in a tiny arena. Instead, it was a horde-mode style game tasking you and a squad of up to three others with holding off waves of enemies and completing objectives during the match. It was challenging, it was intense, and yes, it was fun.
Now, I know this goes against my previous statement of cooperative multiplayer. But in my mind, there is a difference here, simply because the mode is a standalone experience apart from the main narrative. It doesn’t hinder the game’s main story in any way, making it a suitable mode that allows the single player experience to be its own separate entity.
The quality of Mass Effect 3‘s multiplayer is what really speaks to the success of the mode as a whole. It wasn’t a half-realized afterthought tacked on to the game. Rather, it was a clever and fun mode that fit beautifully within the game’s context and provided a necessary bit of continuity. Sure, the in-game purchases and interaction with the game’s single player campaign left a somewhat sour taste in my mouth, but ultimately, it was Mass Effect 3 that really changed my perspective on multiplayer in single-player games.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
Being a master class in video game storytelling is a difficult thing to do, but it’s what Naughty Dog’s flagship franchise seems to achieve almost effortlessly with each new installment. From its breathtaking cinematics to touching encounters between players, the Uncharted series is a shining example of what a great single-player game can be.
So it’s a bit awkward to think of people taking each other on in a Team Deathmatch-style multiplayer game when you’ve just finished up a meaningful encounter between Drake and Elena. After all, the Uncharted series is more Indiana Jones than it is Call of Duty.
But there’s something about Uncharted 3‘s multiplayer that is genuinely good. It’s well-developed, fun, and interesting, all while introducing new ideas not previously explored in the single-player campaign.
While Drake’s Deception wasn’t the first Uncharted game to have multiplayer, it managed to take the conventions of Among Thieves and refine them in such a way that made it an engaging and fun experience. Everything from the varied gameplay modes to the perk-like Boosters made a compelling argument for the possible value of multiplayer in a traditionally single-player game. And while it wasn’t necessarily as immersive as the game’s narrative arc, it was still a good time to be had.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
Assassin’s Creed is a franchise known for its deep and twisted narrative, spanning centuries and tying together both science fiction and history in an interesting manner. It’s primarily a game meant to be experienced alone, allowing the player to take in the game’s story and really lose themselves in the world of the Assassins and Templars.
But as we all know, the true draw to multiplayer is the fact that you’re no longer taking on an AI bot in combat as you test your skill. Rather, there are actual people behind the characters you’re facing, adding a new layer of competition and punishment to the mix. You’re suddenly in need of proving you’re a player worth your salt when you enter into the multiplayer sphere, and that’s important to the overall appeal of multiplayer as a whole.
As such, the multiplayer in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is genius. Pitting players against each other in combat as they test their Assassin skills in real time? Rewarding players for streaks and allowing them to work together as a team? While it might not have been a multiplayer mode with the most depth, it was still a great game that offered some new and unique gameplay options that couldn’t be explored in the same capacity within the single-player space. For that, Brotherhood‘s multiplayer is a unique feature that shouldn’t go unnoticed.
So while one might have their reservations about multiplayer being added to a traditionally single-player game, it shouldn’t be counted out completely. After all, if it’s well-designed and makes clever use of the mechanics established in the campaign, it could allow you to spend more time in that beloved universe and offer a unique take that only comes from a shared experience within the multiplayer sphere.
Just keep an open mind, friends. That’s really all I’m asking.