Friend or foe? The new multiplayer changing gaming forever

A new breed of games are tearing up the multiplayer rulebook, and rewriting things for the better, meaning capture the flag will never be the same again...

When you think online multiplayer, you think Call of Duty or Halo 4 grudge matches, face-offs to see who’s got the fastest trigger finger in the west - or on the web, anyway.

This generation of consoles are always connected to the web though. Now you don’t have to log in to an online lobby to see who else wants to play, your machine can sort that for you automatically. That’s opened the door for whole new types of multiplayer, ones which spill into your single player game, and don’t even bother with rules - and they tell us a surprising amount about ourselves. These are the games breaking out of the box:

Always on co-op

Even played with your console’s ethernet cable yanked out, Journey was one of the finest games of 2012. The PlayStation 3 title’s basic premise - wander across a desert vista towards a lofty mountain goal - sound bland, but the beauty’s in the game’s design.

You can shout and jump, that’s it, and it’s what makes your random encounters with other players working their way through the game as you so fascinating. Now and again your world will cross with that of someone playing at exactly the same time as you: you can guide each other through the labyrinth with a yell and a nudge, but nothing more, and eventually you part ways, vanishing back into separate universes.

This new form of seamless co-op has popped up in other games too. Last year’s iron hard Dark Souls lets you leave messages for others, or place markers down when you need help, letting other players in the same spot tear through dimensions and jump in to slay a boss with you. Unfortunately, doing so also leaves you open to something much worse....

When help is your worst nightmare

Asking for co-op help in Dark Souls also leaves you open to invasion. Players can hop into your game, and try to fight you to the death instead, just to ruin your day. It’s this element which makes Dark Souls’ single-player/multiplayer so exciting: you’re throwing the dice every time you ask for help.

The team at creator Namco-Bandai like to mess with gamers’ minds, and if you needed further proof get a load of one nasty extra they didn’t need to add: the Gravelord. You can unleash this undead pest on another player’s world, and it’ll pursue them until they die. You’ll never know if it worked, so why do it? Just because you can.

Survival of the fittest

Multiplayer games used to have rules - capture the flag, win the race, first to 10 - but there’s a new multiplayer now, one that asks you, what do you want to do? While Journey and Dark Souls chuck people into each other’s paths now and again to see what happens, we’ve recently seen a trend for open-ended multiplayer games where you can do whatever you like.

DayZ’s the best example: the insanely popular zombie game drops you in a map with hordes of the infected, and plenty of other survivors. Do you work together and help others to survive, or do you kill other innocents just so you can eat? That’s up to you. Even the game’s creators have a hard time making these choices.

"Players have got the choice as to whether people want to kill each other or not,” the team’s production manager told Red Bull UK last year. “It’s all about player driven stories,” he said, before admitting that he can be “horrendously cruel” in the game. Psychologists are studying how the game’s millions of fans play in the hopes of finding out more about human instinct when dropped in life or death scenarios they’d have no other way of creating.

DayZ’s not the only example though. It’s inspired games other games like The War Z, where you can all work together if you like, or turn things into the Hunger Games at the push of a button, and then there’s the multiplayer mod for Just Cause 2, which drops thousands of people on an island stuffed full of helicopters, boats, tanks and rocket launchers. Plenty of people work together to create mayhem, driving speedboats up mountains or grappling off the sides of fighter jets: plenty more just run amok with machine guns.

What’s next

There’s more to come for fans of unconventional multiplayer too. We’re just months away from the launch of Grand Theft Auto V, and we’ve got high hopes for the ultimate crime-spree sandbox game.

The creators at Rockstar Games haven’t spilled details, but have teased  that “GTA V will do for multiplayer open world games what GTA 3 did for open world single-player games.” That’s a promising sign: a whole city to explore together with no rules could make the finest multiplayer mayhem yet. Here’s hoping you’ll be able to gatecrash other players’ games too.

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