The Year in Multiplayer
2009 was the year that you could finally stop shooting your friends without giving up on multiplayer. Co-op got a big boost in 2008 with Left 4 Dead and Gears of War 2's Horde mode. But it really took off -- actually, you could say it went clear into orbit -- in 2009. Resident Evil 5, Halo 3: ODST, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Modern Warfare 2 all featured fully developed support for cooperative multiplayer gaming. None of these games simply included multiplayer support. Instead, it was an integral part of each game, given every bit as much emphasis as the single-player or competitive multiplayer.
If you didn't play Resident Evil 5 with a friend controlling the other character, you didn't play Resident Evil 5. Halo 3: ODST had a new single-player campaign, but it stood out mainly for how it finally flexed all that fantastic alien artificial intelligence in the Firefight mode, in which you and your friends held off waves of Covenant attacks. Uncharted 2 gave you plenty of co-op options, including a great variation on Gears 2's Horde mode that forced you and your friend to work your way across the map rather than hunkering down in one spot, waiting for the AI to throw itself at you. New Super Mario Bros. Wii let up to four players work their way across the series' traditional platforming, with plenty of ways for less-skilled players to come along for the ride.
And as for Modern Warfare 2, it wasn't content with any single approach to co-op. The Special Ops mode, which represents fully a third of the game along with the single-player and competitive multiplayer, was a smorgasbord of nearly every kind of cooperative multiplayer you can imagine. With games this big on the co-op bandwagon, the trend won't be going away any time soon.
Another trend in 2009 was picking up where Geometry Wars left off: needling you in-game with your friends' best scores. Both Trials HD and Shadow Complex constantly goaded you with reminders of how your friends fared, particularly the one who was ever-so-slightly better than you. This was a major part of what made games like GeoSpark on the iPhone and Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook work so well.
Speaking of Facebook, the games that leech off social connections have only a thin claim to being actual games, but 2009 saw an explosion in their popularity. It's only going to get worse. If you people keep feeding these beasts, soon every game will be Mafia Wars or Farmville, at which point you'll have only yourselves to blame.
2009 also saw some really weird multiplayer that defied categorization. Noby Noby Boy had a strange take on cooperative multiplayer and downloadable content. As you played, lengthening your weird wormy Noby Boy, a server tracked your accumulated length. When all players' accumulated lengths reached certain milestones equal to the distance to other planets, new levels representing those planets were unlocked. Noby Noby Boy reached the moon easily enough, but Sony had to offer a bit of a leg up to get everyone to Mars.
Demon's Souls, the brutally unforgiving PlayStation 3 RPG, had its own weird take on multiplayer. As you played through the world, you came across messages left by other players. They were basically helpful graffiti tips. What's more, there were ways to play with the world thrown open for other players to come in and help you, or hinder you. Demon's Souls was all about forcing you into difficult choices between risk and reward. Its unique take on multiplayer support took that concept even further.
Among the unsung multiplayer heroes of 2009 was Comet Crash for the PlayStation 3, which added a head-to-head option to traditional tower-defense games. Local players only, though. Similarly, the excellent Swords & Soldiers WiiWare game was a refreshing take not just on RTSes, but on split-screen multiplayer gaming. But the best kept secret of multiplayer gaming in 2009 was Section 8, a sci-fi shooter clearly inspired by Tribes. That it didn't do well and doesn't have a thriving community is a sign of the times. Players would rather level up their accounts in Modern Warfare 2 than work with a team to complete missions, control territory, and use customized classes against excellent bot AI.
Solium Infernum and UniWar both breathed new multiplayer life into turn-based strategy gaming by accommodating players with hard-to-coordinate schedules. The idea is that players take their turns whenever they can rather than having to all show up at the same time. Solium Infernum is a rich play-by-e-mail game about the conquest of Hell. UniWar is a simple Advance Wars clone folded seamlessly into the iPhone.
Screwing up multiplayer support is as easy as falling off a log, and game companies showed they were plenty capable of it in 2009. The mishandled launch of Demigod very nearly killed the game's chance to build up a multiplayer community. Empire: Total War was supposed to have a cooperative multiplayer campaign which only recently showed up in beta form. Fat Princess, a multiplayer only game, suffered some launch hiccups, but its greater problem was that it was a team-based game without a built-in way to work with your team. Resident Evil 5 included a couple of fantastic variations on cooperative zombie killing, but you had to pay an additional $5 to unlock them. And if you bought the game on the PC, Capcom reneged on its promise to include these additional modes. I'd also call the multiplayer in Brütal Legend a cock-up for how few people knew a really sweet multiplayer RTS was part of the game. But since we got a really sweet multiplayer RTS out of the deal, we ultimately come out ahead.