Friday, January 13, 2012

The 11 Best Co-Op Games of 2011

Having officially made the transition from a person who writes about games to a person who makes games, I find it a little odd writing a post like this one now; however, I think there is some genuine value in sharing my thoughts on games that I've played and enjoyed. Given all the coverage of gaming that already exists, the only thing I can really hope to bring to the table when talking about games are my own personal experiences with them, so I've concluded that topics like this remain viable, at least for now.

Still, I'd feel a little weird doing a "Best of 2011" list that could potentially include my own game on it. So, I'm going to sidestep that issue and simultaneously address an aspect of gaming that I feel is often overlooked when constructing these sorts of lists: co-operative or co-op play.

In a lot of ways, co-op has become one of the most important things I look for when selecting what new games to play. As I get older, and my time becomes more and more limited, I find myself less and less inclined to spend large chunks of it playing single-player games. Granted, there's a part of me that will always love the sense of immersion and focus and ownership that comes from a great single-player experience, but there's an even bigger part that really appreciates the ability to tie social interactions into gaming. Those shared experiences, when done well, are so satisfying, so worthwhile, that they quite simply bring a deeper meaning and value to gaming as a hobby for me.

So, without further delay, here are my top 11 (see what I did there?) co-op games of 2011:

#11 - Portal 2

I know a lot of people will bemoan this game not appearing higher on the list, but the truth is that I found the co-op in Portal 2 simply "good." I totally appreciate the craftsmanship and novelty of it, but I also have to acknowledge that it didn't click for me the way any of the other games I considered for this list did. So, for me, this is where it belongs.

#10 - F.E.A.R. 3

In some important ways, "F.E.A.R. 3" is a very average game. The shooting mechanics, the combat scenarios, the enemy designs all feel a little "been there, done that" having played a lot of First-Person Shooters (FPS) over the years; however, there's just enough going on in this game to keep it moving. Whether it's the occasional mech suit for player one, or the special psychic abilities player 2 sports, or just wanting to see the next totally messed up thing that happens as the campaign unfolds; there's just enough there to make the shared experience worthwhile. This is a great example of a game I never would have bothered to play through myself but that was pretty fun with a buddy at my side. The other co-op focused multiplayer modes are also cool.

#9 - Hunted: The Demon's Forge

This is a game that won me over despite some annoyances. I really like the idea of a co-op Action/Adventure game with RPG elements where the strengths and weaknesses of the two unique characters compliment each other. Some of the environmental design felt a bit lackluster and there's some definite jank hurting the core gameplay, but there are also some great high points that kept things moving and made the overall experience worthwhile. Much like "F.E.A.R. 3," this is a game that needs to be played co-operatively to be any real fun.

#8 - Sanctum

Unlike a lot of the other games on this list, "Sanctum" is something I enjoy playing solo or with friends. The hybrid FPS/Tower Defense mechanic really works and if not for some annoying difficulty spikes and balance issues, which supposedly have been patched since the last time I fired it up, this one would have been higher on the list, but regardless, the things it does right outweigh the things is does (did) wrong.

#7 - Battlefield 3

As a huge fan of "Battlefield 2," "Battlefield 2142," "Battlefield 1943" and "Battlefield: Bad Company 2," it really pains me that this game didn't quite live up to my expectations. Don't get me wrong. "Battlefield 3" (BF3) is a great co-op game, but I also recognize its shortcomings. For every new bell and whistle, there's a missing or ignored feature. For every innovation, there's a step backward. The overall experience is still great, but I have to say that BF3 has not quite captured me the way that "Bad Company 2" did and I've found myself returning more and more to that game as BF3's "new and shiny" factor begins to fade. Who knows what BF3 will be like six months from now, but at the moment it's not quite good enough to make the top half of this list.

#6 - Star Wars: The Old Republic

I've played a lot of WoW (World of Warcraft). To be blunt, an almost un-healthy amount of it and that game will always hold a special place in my heart, but in most respects, WoW has left me filled to the brim with the trappings of the MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online Game) genre. As a result, I had resolved to not even try "Star Wars: The Old Republic" because of its evident, almost slavish devotion to the tropes of the genre. It therefore speaks volumes about the game's quality that once convinced to give it a try, I find it at all worthwhile. Unsurprisingly, it's the things about it that are different from WoW (the emphasis on interactive story presentation and the fact that everyone gets a "pet" to name a couple) that make it worth playing for me.  Having said that, I don't see myself playing this game for years the way I did with WoW, but it is compelling, and fun, and for the most part well made.

#5 - Dungeon Defenders

If this were all about value for money, "Dungeon Defenders" would be the #1 game on this list without question. The sheer amount of content that's been jammed into the overall game package is almost overwhelming. Much like "Sanctum," the melding of the Action-RPG and Tower Defense genres present in this game is so well executed that it really is in a class by itself. Having said that, this is a game that I never play alone. For me, it only works when playing with at least one or two other people, be them friends or random folks online. Still, it's a great game and well worth every penny.

#4 - Brink

I love this game. I love it in a way that's almost dangerous to my credibility because so many other people seem to hate it, but for my money, "Brink" is the best co-operative FPS experience of 2011. If you haven't played it, and you're not playing it with other people, you're doing it wrong. In a lot of ways, the innovations in this game were what I was hoping for and didn't get from "Battlefield 3." Is it perfect? No. Is it for everyone? No, but if it clicks for you, you'll be hard pressed to find a better Team/Objective-Based FPS.

#3 - Dead Island

Best four-player co-op game since "Borderlands." Best first-person melee fighting in a while. Great weapon/gadget crafting system. Great environmental diversity. Serviceable story and quest structure. In short, a must-play if you've got friends to play it with. "Dead Island" is the closest you can get to seeing how your social circle would handle a zombie apocalypse without getting infected. :)

#2 - Lord of the Rings: War in the North

Perhaps I love this game because it was such a pleasant surprise. Perhaps I was taken in by just how well it captures the feeling of being in Middle Earth and being one of its heroes, or perhaps it is simply one of the best co-op Action/Adventure games with RPG elements ever made. The moment to moment action is great. The sense of "fellowship" and shared experience playing it with friends provides is fantastic and the overall package just comes together in a way that many other games should envy. I will never understand how this game didn't get more critical love because it was easily one of the best co-op games I've played in this or any other year.

#1 - Saints Row: The Third

The thing that makes "Saints Row: The Third" so special is surprisingly easy to define. It is fun. Just about every moment from beginning to end is individually or some combination of funny, clever, innovative, delightfully-crass, original, empowering or exhilarating. Yes, it can be a bit low brow and the subject matter's certainly not After-School Special worthy, but it all works and entertains on some level. Now consider that all of those experiences can be shared with a friend and it's clear how this is not just the best co-op game of the year, but the best game of 2011. (See what I did there? And yes, I played "Skyrim," but then I took an arrow... Oh, never mind!)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Division of Labor

I know. I know. It's been over three months since my last post and for that reason alone I don't expect that many people will see this right away, but if I'm going to keep this thing going I need to start somewhere so I might as well begin by explaining why there haven't been any posts for three months. :)

It should come as no surprise to anyone who read my last post that I've been spending considerable time and effort over the past few months promoting the release of "Powergrids" for iOS. In point of fact, I've spent nearly as much time marketing this version of the game as I spent creating it but I'm rapidly reaching the bottom of my bag of tricks and coming to the realization that I need to move on to a new project and let the cards fall where they will where "Powergrids" is concerned.

This is in no way a bad thing since I'm more than ready to move on creatively, but the simple truth is that the better "Powergrids" sells, the more options and flexibility I have when defining the scope of my next project, so it was very necessary for me to pursue every reasonable path toward making as many potential customers aware of it as possible.

As with anything in life, looking back on it, there are some things I definitely could have done better that I will absolutely be keeping in mind in the future, but overall, I'm happy with what I've done and learned thus far, and managed to pull off what I believe to be a few really great marketing coups for an indie iOS game created and marketed by a single person.

In particular, there is one remaining promotional effort, which should be bearing fruit within the next few days that I tend to view as a sort of "last chance" for mainstream recognition of the game. As a result, I've found myself compelled to consider two distinct outcomes that basically amount to nothing or everything about my future plans changing. Needless to say, waiting to see how that event plays out has proven... difficult, but it's also been very interesting in the sense that my overall goal will remain the same regardless of the outcome. The only thing that will change is the way I go about it.

I know that's all a bit cryptic but it's reflective of my current state of mind. A good analogy would be knowing that you're planning to go somewhere far away but not knowing until the last minute the mode of transportation. Will it be a rocket or a bicycle? That remains to be seen.