New Game+: Forced co-op and the downfalls of A.I.

November 9, 2012

I love co-op. I don’t think there will ever be a time when I don’t love co-op, and I hope it continues to be a popular trend in gaming. Whether it’s local or online, playing through a game with a friend is something that can enhance your experience tenfold. I even love going through single-player games with friends. There’s something about that experience that will never get old. However, I would never want all of my gaming experiences to be cooperative. There are plenty of games that benefit from being played solo, and while I sometimes I can appreciate the focus on co-op in franchises that were once solely single player experiences, it can lead to a large problem.

I’m talking about forced co-op. And by that, I don’t mean a game that literally forces you to play with someone else to progress, but a game that has such a fatal design flaw that playing it by yourself becomes more of a chore and essentially does not represent the game that the developers most likely want to promote. The co-op itself could be a blast, with plenty of amazing moments to be had with a friend (or perhaps several). That being said, there are a select few games that focus on a cooperative experience over providing a single player one and, because of that, the overall game suffers. The biggest reason for this that I have encountered is A.I.

If a game has “forced co-op,” usually it means that they stick you with an A.I. partner that is mostly incompetent to the point that you cannot enjoy playing a game by yourself because of it. You are left with two options: continue forcing yourself through a less than desirable gaming experience, or grab a friend and play through the game how it was “meant to be played.” Certain games are definitely designed from the ground up with co-op in mind, but they can still be played through solo and be rewarding experiences. One of my favorite series to play cooperatively is Gears of War, and yet if I do decide to play by myself, that experience is still solid. Sure, the A.I. is less than helpful at times, but it never hinders my game progress.

Now let’s talk about Resident Evil 5. I consider the Resident Evil series one that is all about playing solo, despite the series’ continual shift in focus from horror to action. Resident Evil 5 was not at all scary, but that never bothered me as much as long as I could play it just as I always played the RE games: by myself. Even then, without much in the way of scares, there is still plenty of tension to be had. And then I find out about the co-op, and it had promise. You’ll always have a second character with you, which I considered possibly similar to Resident Evil 0, but they would actually be able to function on their own. That would allow me to play the game by myself and focus my second playthrough on playing with a friend. Sounds like a recipe for success, right?

When I think about forced co-op, RE5 is the game that immediately comes to mind. The A.I. was atrociously bad. It was inexcusably bad. It turned the game into one giant escort mission, but unlike the sections of RE4 that involved keeping Ashley safe, your partner in RE5 always did whatever they could to make sure they were getting in your way and endangering themselves.

The worst part? There was nothing you could do about it. Sure, that brought some of the tension back, as I raced to constantly save my partner before they died and I would have to start from the last checkpoint. Oh, they did die? Next time I’ll give them healing items. Now they used them all without a care in the world? I guess I’ll just stick with them and try to heal them. Now they are constantly running off on their own, leading me right into enemies? I hit the power button and rest my forehead in my hands, tempted to take the disc out of the console and never play again.

Playing Resident Evil 5 with a friend was an amazing, unforgettable experience. It almost completely erased my awful prior session with the game. So, why is it a problem? Because in my mind Resident Evil is, and always will be, a single-player experience. I never want to play it again because if I do, I’m almost forced to play it with someone else to enjoy it. In certain situations that’s fine, but it shouldn’t be that way all of the time. As a result, it is not a well-designed, balanced game. Instead, it is a lopsided experience, one that needs to meet specific requirements in order to be engaging. Because of this, it fails on many fundamental levels. It’s not a bad game, it’s not even a mediocre one, but this one fatal flaw is enough to ruin an otherwise enjoyable title.

This wasn’t Capcom’s only failed attempt at bringing together single and multiplayer experiences, and Lost Planet 2 is one of the worst offenders. This was a game that was all about single-player and multiplayer integration, and it all but told you upfront that you should never play it by yourself. While I consider the game to be a pretty awful sequel to an otherwise-promising debut game, I think I understand why some have fun playing the co-op. Trying it solo, however, is borderline nightmarish. The A.I. will often jump right into hot water before you even have a chance to control your character. It turns what could have been a decently enjoyable single-player campaign into something almost unplayable.

There is no balancing for single-player either, as the developers thought that their brilliant A.I. was enough to compensate for the frustratingly-long and sometimes-tedious missions. Either that, or they were doing everything they can to make sure you never play solo, even going so far as displaying fake gamertags above your A.I. partners’ heads as well as defaulting to “online mode” as soon as you start the game, removing the basic ability to even pause the game. They went above and beyond to make sure you know that playing cooperatively is the way to go.

If you’re someone who has never played Resident Evil 5 or Lost Planet 2 solo, you may consider them to be good or even great games, and everything I said means nothing. That’s fine; you are clearly playing the games the way the developers intended them to be played. But why give people the option to play solo if the experience is so poorly designed that it almost forces you to play cooperatively to enjoy it? It may require more effort to put actual work into designing decent A.I., but wanting to include a co-op mode in a game is not an excuse to ruin the single-player as a result. This isn’t a popular trend, but it pops up enough times that I can see it continuing to be an issue. I just hope that, if anything, developers strive to improve the experience for those who wish to continue playing these games by themselves. They love cooperative experiences, but a little cooperation with those who might not is all that I’m asking.