The Art of Cooperative (PC) Gaming

 28 October 2006  |   19 May 2018

What could possibly more fun than playing a PC game on your own? Why, cooperative gameplay mechanics of course! Every modern released game nowadays features at least one cooperative (co-op) game mode where you can play with your friends, mostly against the computer AI. Since this is part I, let’s talk about Strategy games on the PC and its coopeartive capabilities. I can’t possibly imagine a strategy game without multiplayer options available, even games from 1998 came with some (limited) multiplayer modes, mostly using the IPX protocol. What really separates a couple of games is the unique co-op mode. You can play with your friend, not against him.

The Strategy Games

Technically speaking, an average multiplayer death match mode can also be classed as co-op as long as you and your buddies are on the same side. So I should at least mention a dozen strategy games where you can play a quick skirmish among a random chosen map, with the computer AI and anyone who joins your created game isntance. Warcraft or Starcraft mostly play like this and are still overly popular. Sometimes, one side shares resources and you should work together more carefully. Mostly though your team mates are there in case your army fails and some backup is required or they can help you defend towns. Rise of Nations, among other well-known classic RTS games like Age of Empires, also feature a dozen multiplayer options where strictly speaking “co-op” is one of them. In most RTS games, this mode is disguised as a standard Multiplayer Game, where the creating player adjusts a set number of players slots (Open, Closed, AI or Reserved) and team allocations.

Age of Wonders is not your average Strategy game. Your are still instructed to gather resources, build towns and enlarge your army, but instead this is all done in a turn-based fashion. Once your turn is over, you hand it to the next player - possibly the computer AI. TBS Strategy games also feature complete multiplayer game mechanics where everyone can join your newly created game. If you wish you can divide the players into different teams, who work together: cooperative gameplay. Although most games are not made especially for co-op. The sad part about multiplayer TBS games is - obviously - it’s turn based! If a human player is away for a short time you can still kick that person, teams will become unbalanced after a while. Some TBS games offer a solution: play-by-email. Civilization for example offers this alternative play style. Other well-known turn based strategy games are Disciples II or the Heroes of Might & Magic series.

Let’s proceed to some real co-op games. These games do not even feature a standard multiplayer option: it’s either playing with your buddies (of course still against the AI), or not playing at all. Commandos 2 for instance is an excellent cooperative game! You can play the game just like in singleplayer mode, except the commandos teammembers are divided among players. For instance, one person picks the Green Beret and the Sniper, while the other controls the Spy and the Thief. Together you can try to accomplish the various missions in all unlocked maps. Most co-op games utilize the singleplayer campaign but let two or more players join the Nazi killing fest.

Commandos 2 features a local network or internet multiplayer mode, where elsewhere located players also can join your game. Do not forget to apply the 1.3 patch first since some maps with more than one player can become quite buggy after a while. When you control a couple of commandos instead of your usual team, you can concentrate more on them and the enemies they are facing, instead of trying to watch the whole map. This enables players to cooperatively conquer the map much easier by working in small teams, without having to worry about a commando getting caught. For instance, your mate starts at the top of the map and you start below. You can systematically work your way through all German or Chinese enemies, picking them off one by one, while your buddy does the same. Or he can provide sniper support if you manage to screw things up. Don’t forget to quicksave often if you are better in setting of the main alarm than your friend!

Pyro Studios decided to add the well-known multiplayer options like death match and capture the flag to Commandos 3 the sequel. Sadly, this game plays a lot less fluid during multiplayer sessions. Time to install Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom! This strategy game is actually more of a city building simulation. It’s the Zeus follow up by Impressions Games - actually the game was developed by BreakAway games, using the Zeus engine and concepts. Anyway, Emperor is the first title in the City Building series to feature a multiplayer option! There’s even a (Sierra) game lobby when playing via the internet instead of local LAN.

As most of us city building fans already know, in Caesar/Pharah/Zeus you could try to initiate a trade between different cities. If you paid enough tribute to one city, they might provide you with the very needed resources the next year. Of course you can also create enemies that way, if you do not listen to their demands. Emperor takes this concept to a higher level: in a co-op game, players each build their own city and you cannot directly interact with each other. But you are able to set up a trade convoy to your friend and vice versa! This works exactly the same as all AI cities: by building a trade post and setting the buy/sell resource values. You can declare war or peace, or even be in alliance with that particular city. There is indeed limited interaction available for co-op players but the result is very satisfying.

For instance, when I start a map with my imaginary buddy Jake, we both get a completely separate terrain to build upon. This indicates the availability of various resources: in a wet and green area you are more likely to have rice, and in a dry area you are more likely to plant cabbage. Since your inhabitants will start demanding more than two different food products, trading is at some point virtually requried. Unless you do not care about upgrading your house levels of course. Maybe my friend Jake agrees on trading rice for cabbage (at the same price level), and we’re both set!

The Not-So-Complete List

A quick list containing most available PC Strategy coopeartive games. To complete the list, add all “traditional” RTS Strategy games. Rating based on overall co-op feeling and gamaplay.

 Age of Wonders series
 Civilization series
 Commandos 2: Men of Courage
 Disciples II & expansions
 Dungeon Keeper 2
 Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom
 Etherlords II
 Galactic Civilizations series
 Heroes of Might & Magic series
 Warcraft Series
 Worms series
 Starcraft Series

Shooting side by side

While many strategy co-op variations exist, the roots of real cooperative gameplay lie in the PC Shooter genre. The release Id Software’s of Doom in 1994 was a real breakthrough in network gaming. Doom featured both the classic death match mode, as a cooperative gameplay mode. You can play with up to four other players over a Local Network. The singleplayer campaign difficulty was slightly adjusted to compensate for extra human players. Since 2000, many Shooter games included a multiplayer option at some point, sometimes even embedding dedicated co-op plays. Id’s next three games also contained a full co-op play mode.

The Games

Doom deserved all respect the game could get. It was responsible for many gaming revolutions: the game engine, the texture package system (WAD files), the entirely new multiplayer modi, e.a. You can read more detailed history information on the game here - even how some Binary Space Partitioning Trees computer graphics algorithms made it into the game. Duke Nukem 3D included a split-screen or network multiplay option, partially thanks to Doom’s multiplayer success. It’s very satisfying to shrink a nothing suspecting human player and squeeze the poor guy, instead of your usual monsterish enemies.

Most recent shooters did not explicitly include a form of cooperative gameplay but instead provided a competitive co-op option in which players are divided into different teams. This works exactly as the traditional RTS games. ‘Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (MoH) was one of the many Shooter games released in the early 2000s which also implemented various multiplayer game mechanics. The heavily focused team-based co-op play is what really distinguished MoH from previous shooters. As a WWII game, Medal of Honor logically introduced two main teams: the allies and the axis. Each team has to complete different objectives within a time limit. These gameplay mechanics gave the co-op play a much needed twist.

A bunch of WWII shooters followed MoH’s example. Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and later Enemy Territory further developed the team-based objective-based play mechanics, introducing different classes. Although the class system partially existed in shooters before those games, thanks to the modularity and huge fan base of Unreal Tournament and Counter Strike. Still, competitive cooperative gameplay always existed - this is nothing completely new. But those modes became standard thanks to the success of early 2000s multiplayer shooters and the internet boom.

Addendum - Woah, I simply forgot to mention one of my latest favourites: No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s way, including the freely available multiplayer extention. There is a full cooperative gameplay option present in this retro game from Monolith. You can choose to clothe your character as Cate, using the classical “Spy” costume, dressed as various enemies, etc. All full campaign maps are available in co-op: from Russia to Japan. Sadly not every map is stitched together using a plot like the singleplayer campaign.

Technically speaking, the Rainbow Six (R6) games introduced mass thriving competitive clan based (co-op) multiplay before MoH. Mplayer.com and Zone.com became very popular after the first release in 1999. Many internet websites offered various ladder lists for R6, but after the closure of Mplayer.com, the game’s popularity waned greatly. Since then, most players switched to a more technologically advanced tactics shooter. But the R6 series co-op mode still stands apart. In Rainbow Six 3, Raven Shield, you are able to play all singleplayer missions with your friends online or on local LAN. Instead of dividing your buddies into two or more separate teams, every human player enters the game as a Special Agent, hunting for terrorists and rescuing hostages. This allows players to work together to achieve all map goals and eliminate enemies more precise.

Defining real cooperative gameplay is very hard to do. Is competitive co-op play actually co-op? Look at this mode in another direction and you will see clan-based co-op is actually just a minor team deathmatch variation where all players are human. The only achievements you are able to make is winning the game round. While in other co-op play, you actually have to work together to achieve something in the game. It’s almost impossible to tell both apart. Are you playing with all your friends against the AI, or with a couple, against other friends? Of course while playing against the AI, you won’t encounter the same action level as playing against other humans. Only a few recently released games are actually dedicated to full co-op modi.

Talking about co-op games without even mentioning Unreal Tournament (UT) is suicide. UT is another game which is partially responsible for the popularity of mulitplayer/online gaming sessions. UT’s gameplay mechanic can be expressed in one word: speed. People who played Unreal Tournament will know what I’m talking about - UT’s gameplay is very fast paced. This logically enables users to play quick bursts of matches against others, online. Most Unreal Tournament games featured quite unique multiplayer options such as Domination and Assault. The last one is actually quite interesting: in Assault mode, your team has to complete a few objectives before the enemy team. If you handle all objectives within the time limit, consider yourself the winner. Assault gives you a more cooperative feeling than most other mulitplayer modi: you are able to achieve something within the game, with your friends - or against them. Every mode has its on game maps.

Who invented which multiplayer modus? Technically speaking, Rise of the Triad introduced the Capture the Flag game mode in 1994, but the mode was popularised thanks to Quake and various fan-made modifications like ‘Team Fortress. Remember the CTF mode can also be found in some nowadays strategy games, or even platform games. Wikipedia tells me the term Deathmatch was coined by game designer John Romero while he and lead programmer John Carmack were developing the LAN multiplayer mode for the computer game Doom. Since then, many spin-offs were made like Bombing Run, Last man Standing, etc.

The Not-So-Complete List

A quick list containing most available PC Shooting coopeartive games. To complete the list, add all “traditional” Shooter games. Rating based on overall co-op feeling and gameplay.

 Doom
 Rainbow Six series
 Unreal Tournament Series
 Medal of Honor Series
 Enemy Territory
 SWAT Series (3, 4)
 Duke Nukem 3D
 Rise of the Triad