Asymmetrical multiplayer is big right now. Nintendo have to take their share of the blame for this, really, having designed an entire console around the unique properties of a GamePad that only one person can use when it comes to local multiplayer, but I'm talking more about the likes of Evolve and Fable: Legends and BioWare's upcoming Shadow Realms. We've expressed admiration for the inventive nature of asymmetrical multiplayer in theory -- looking more to the player count side of things, where there's usually a team of players up against a single adversary, rather than the design approach of something like Nosgoth -- but we've also posited that the reality could be quite different, particularly for the lone wolf player.
The thing about all of these games, and actually this does extend to games like Nosgoth too, is that the importance of teamwork is evident as soon as you start playing. Most multiplayer games have elements of this, of course, but there's generally space for solo artists and multiplayer mavericks to be able to do their things as well. To take a look at the biggest name touting asymmetrical multiplayer right now -- Evolve -- is to see a game where every human class has a crucial role to play in the battle against whichever monster you find yourself up against.
It's this aspect of the game that makes Evolve a genuinely thrilling proposition when everything falls into place. The problem is, however, that you either have to do some legwork outside of the game to get that to all fall into place, or pray that the matchmaking system is up to scratch, that you can look for other players wired for sound, hope that they have stable connections and are competent with the character class they're inhabiting.
In short, the things that make games like Evolve interesting in the first place are the very things that make it difficult to build a consistent experience.
And consistency is important, especially on consoles. The entire nature of gaming consoles is to provide a static point in terms of hardware, so that developers can work around fixed resources to better optimise their games, and allow for (hopefully) more imaginative design and a rise in quality that working with familiar tools might deliver. As consumers, we prize convenience and consistency over most other considerations: we want the games we've bought to work properly, and we want them to work without faffing around.
But there are simply too many variables for a game like Evolve to deliver that consistent experience. I'm loathe to write the game off based on my time with the alpha build and preview setups, but actually that's exactly what happened as a consumer. When a test period comes around for a game that you're interested in, you tend to jump in. It beats going in blind, after all. But from a development standpoint, that's a risky move. Such openness can certainly generate more attention and more pre-orders if things are up to scratch, but understanding that alpha and beta builds are unfinished is important, and these experiences can actually serve to offput the previously curious if things don't go to plan.
You need a much greater degree of communication and co-ordination in games like these. Evolve just wasn't fun with players who weren't mic'd up. The same can be said of player capability -- in these games, more so than any others, it's crucial for players to be on a level playing field. Turtle Rock have balanced their game out brilliantly amongst the human players, but that makes it glaringly obvious when someone's not up to scratch. Skill level has to be something that's balanced out as well, and the alpha's matchmaking was not exactly a model of stability.
It's a shame because these games look really interesting, the concepts underpinning asymmetrical multiplayer are genuinely intriguing, and that's why I feel they'll find homes in the eSports market where talent and skill and communication abound, but these aren't games that you can really dip in and out of. They don't seem to be pick-up-and-play titles, and, in Evolve's case, there's nothing else there right now to offset the disappointment. One of the best things about co-operative games like Borderlands, for example, is that the game still feels compelling without the perfect group of friends assembled. It's the same with other shooters like COD and Halo and Battlefield, the latter of which still allows for Commanders to dish out orders with visual indicators.
It's clear that games like Evolve are striving for something different, that's to be applauded, and in Nintendo's case they had new hardware that needed to be justified. But when it comes to the Wii U, its best multiplayer games are still those built on pick-up-and-play foundations like Mario Kart 8. Nintendo Land is a curiosity piece, for the most part, but outside of the Wii U's first month of release, I can't say that it's been a particularly compelling, go-to package when it comes to game nights. Straight-up multiplayer, whether co-operative or competitive, usually wins out.
And that's why I won't be picking up Evolve, or Fable: Legends; it's why I was disappointed with BioWare's Gamescom announcement for Shadow Realms. I can see the virtue and the potential in asymmetrical multiplayer of this sort, but no-one cracked the formula for making these experiences compelling in the long-term -- compelling enough to warrant paying £50 for them, anyway. Evolve will almost certainly be a bargain bin purchase for me, if I do end up picking it up, and that's a plan based upon 2K's chequered history with server troubles. If the year-in, year-out difficulties NBA 2K has with providing a stable, online service are anything to go by, I'm a little worried about Evolve.
I'm not writing off asymmetrical multiplayer of this kind as something to be abandoned. When everything comes together, Evolve is really quite thrilling. But the "when" part of that statement currently stands for something far too infrequent, and therefore ultimately disappointing.