It’s 2:00 am on September 21st, 2012. I lazily recline in my desk chair watching as a green line steadily grows on my screen. Suddenly, a small black box pops up in the bottom right hand corner to tell me that Borderlands 2 has finished downloading. I boot the game up immediately, and am quickly joined by two of my friends who had also pre-purchased the game on Steam, as eager as I am to return to Pandora and shoot growling snarly things in the face with hyper-violent Nerf guns. It has been around a year and a half since I finished the first Borderlands, which I completed primarily on my own. It was highly enjoyable and addictive, with a flawed ending, but a core experience so compelling, it didn’t matter one iota. I choose the Gunzerker for the sequel, and begin to watch the opening cutscene as the four fortune hunting misfits are attacked on a train by Handsome Jack. And then the scene disappeared. One of the two monkey’s I have chosen as a companion has decided that the witty, hilarious and well written story of Borderlands 2 (a feature not quite so prevalent in the first game) is not for them, and they’re just here to jump around in my peripheral vision, whine about watching cutscenes that I want to watch, and run off ahead stealing all the good loot. Things are off to a bad start, and only get worse.
Consequently, I am yet to get anywhere near a satisfactory conclusion to the game. When people applaud writer Anthony Birch and his sister Ashley for their sterling work on the character of Tiny Tina, or the sheer malevolent charm of Handsome Jack, I am at a loss for not knowing what they’re talking about, because Player 3 had chosen this time to spit out some generic complaint about work and his customers that made me wish that friendly fire with permanent consequences was an option.
On the surface, this problem makes little sense; I am a huge fan of multiplayer. I count Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Left 4 Dead 2 and the multiplayer of Battlefield 3 as amongst my favourite gaming experiences this generation. The instant satisfaction of taking down three counter-terrorists in a space of five seconds armed with the Mag-7 shotgun, the shout of appreciation from a stranger when I save him from a Smoker, and the elation of a hard fought battle against a team of sniper wielding opponents armed only with a Spaz shotgun and a decent amount of agility, all these things have made up some of my most satisfying moments spent behind a keyboard and mouse. But put me on Pandora, on the ice planet of the Dead Space 3 demo, or the co-op portion of any big franchise on the consoles, and I can get pretty miserable with how things are going.
Am I just a misanthrope? Can I just not stand the interference of others in my game time? This wouldn’t make sense, as most of my gaming time is spent in Team Deathmatch, yelling at, laughing with and congratulating/commiserating my comrades. I love the banter and the building of relationships with people many hundreds of miles away over a shared goal. I am definitely not one to shy away from company.
Going back to Borderlands 2, I feel much of my lack of enthuse was down to the constant nattering of my co-op partners as NPC’s enriched the universe with their humorous dialogue, a dialogue which I’ve read that truly make Pandora a more realized fictional universe than its prequel could even dream of. With cutscenes suddenly disappearing before my eyes, with conversations with lunatics and delinquents drowned out by Player 2 telling Player 3 about that hilarious thing they both like, and with constant disappointed at finally catching up with these “partners” only to find a sea of empty loot chests, the true intended experience was lost to me.
Obviously, it could be debated that I chose the wrong team for this game. I needed two guys or girls who were willing to stick together, to experience the game, to shut up when the game tries to let you experience it, and to not steal all the cool stuff. Whilst these friends do exist in my list of Steam friends (a list bolstered by my time with Left 4 Dead 2, the ultimate team work simulation), there are always the problems of incompatible schedules, time restrictions, or just them not owning or being interested in the game, or not being willing to wait for you to be online before progressing. Of all co-op games, Borderlands 2 makes it the most difficult to maintain synchronicity within a group, due to leveling, progressing through the campaign at uneven rates, and the multitude of side quests they may have done and not want to repeat because you haven’t done them. This is a combination of problems that made me switch off my computer, vow never to return to Pandora until I’d finished the main campaign on my own, and instead booted up Devil May Cry 4.
This is why, therefore, I shall be completing Borderlands 2 four months after I purchased it, alone, and I’m perfectly fine with that. So long as the multiplayer mode is optional, no harm done right?
Or so I’d have thought. Worryingly, this is not a trend which is going to die down soon, and by that, I mean the trend of shoehorning near-obligatory co-op modes into narrative driven single-player experiences. The aforementioned Dead Space 3, whilst offering the opportunity to play single player completely, worries me greatly. How lacking, compared to the two previous iterations, is this game going to feel when much of the effort has gone into designing a co-op mode which could entirely miss the point of a horror game? Time will tell, but if my time with the co-op section of the demo is anything to go by, it will be the single player mod which will get my attention, despite any weaknesses it may now demonstrate.
Meanwhile, we have companies like Insomniac (Ratchet & Clank, Resistance series) claiming they are now done with single-player only titles, and we have the next SimCity game going online-only as they believe that single-player is a “lonely experience” to its detriment, and that the experience is meaningless without others around to appreciate your work. However, I for one cannot imagine anything more stressful than carefully planning and building a city only for some internet folk to come in and start dashing my plans, and lament the idea of more games like Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One appearing. Despite a wealth of games that already feature multiplayer which I can go play should I feel like it, developers are intent on making sure that you are rarely left alone during your private gaming time.
I don’t want to give the impression that I think all games with multiplayer modes are bad. Indeed, Borderlands 2 offers a perfect opportunity for four players to have a swell time, so long as one of them doesn’t pull a Rambo and speed off into the distance. My only quarrel with the game is it does not make it easy for players who are at different stages to play together without one player either being overly powerful, or severely underpowered. The likes of Uncharted and Gears of War, games which have a large focus on single-player, still manage to offer an entertaining and convenient way for multiple people to enjoy the game together, not to mention the surprisingly fun multiplayer elements of Max Payne 3 and Mass Effect 3, two games which belong to two series of purely single-player focused games, and did not have a single-player mode that suffered at the expense of token multiplayer.
The truth is, multiplayer is great. It is one of the purest forms of gaming around. It’s you versus someone else, and one of you will win. Additionally, co-op is an amazing idea if done right, with the pinnacle being Left 4 Dead, a game in which your survival almost entirely relies on your teammates, and vice versa. But most games with tacked on competitive or co-op multiplayer are sullying themselves as developers clamor to tick every box to make their products a “more rounded” product for consumers. Whilst some achieve an admirable balance, many (and arguably, most) lose focus of the end game, the thing that people like myself slam down £40.00 on launch day for; escapism, achieved though appreciation of a world crafted for just me, and not for the misguided individual who can’t stop falling in the lava or running off ahead to steal the sniper rifle that can be used as a boomerang whilst reloading.