Sure, I'm a vocal champion for storytelling in video games, but I do love me some online multiplayer. Where campaigns build a calculated experience and make you the focal point of an epic tale, multiplayer tips straight into pure competition. What beats shooting your best buddy in the eye with a rocket and repeatedly telling him all about it later? Nothing, I say.
Hold still. This'll just be a tickle.
The thing is, while a new game occasionally popularizes a new(ish) mode — Gears of War 2's Horde and Battlefield: Bad Company 2's Rush mode spring to mind — most developers fall back on the same old Deathmatch/Team Deathmatch/Capture the Flag/King of the Hill model. Crazy Kings might be my game of choice, but too much sameness can stagnate anything.
So when a new multiplayer game comes along, my first question is "What's different?" Because I can easily pick out five games that employed a little imagination to turn a standard match into something far more compelling than what Call of Duty tends to reach for. And if you haven't taken these babies for a spin, however briefly, you really should.
Mode: Fragile Alliance
Game: Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days
Rules: You and your team of godless thugs shoot your way into a bank vault (or similar money-rich environment), kill anyone in your way, steal everything you can, then run for the escape van…killing anyone in your way. But eventually, somebody gets greedy. You can turn on your fellow players — or one of them can turn on you — at any time. Gun them down, take whatever cash they're holding, and voila…one less scumbag to share the take with. Oh, and you're also marked as a traitor, so the survivors might be less than trusting.
Why it's awesome: Tension. You constantly watch your back while carefully picking a moment to screw your "friends" over. And when (if) you reach the escape van, it's time to decide whether to wait for your compadres to increase the haul or bribe the driver to take off without them. You keep half your money, but everybody else gets nothing, so a winner is you. Fragile Alliance has flaws, but it begs for someone to come along and iron them out. Preferably in a game worth buying.
Mode: Payload Race
Game: Team Fortress 2 (PC only)
Rules: Take the best class-based shooter ever forged by human hands and add two big, big bombs on rail carts. Both teams try to push their cart (which can't be destroyed) to the opposition's base to blow it up while simultaneously preventing the enemy bomb (which also can't be destroyed) from advancing. Easy!
Why it's awesome: Unlike the standard Payload mode (where teams alternate between pushing one bomb), the race element creates one seriously frenetic atmosphere. Teams split between those advancing their own cart and others harassing the enemy, and every class fits in perfectly with both scenarios if you've got your thinking cap on. Plus, if choke points and ambush spots a'plenty weren't enough, most maps feature areas where both tracks run very close to each other…sometimes within a few feet. Those fights go from zero to insanity in 1.4 seconds.
Vhy is leetle bomb not pushing!?!!?! I push it real good!
Mode: Bomb Squad
Game: SOCOM Navy Seals 4
Rules: Think of this one as Team Control Points Juggernaut. You've got 16 terrorists guarding three bombs. Only "the bomber," a heavily armored bomb disposal technician, can diffuse them, and his 15 Special Forces buddies play escort. So 31 players focus all their energy on either protecting or killing that one guy. All the bomber has to do is beat the clock…and stay alive.
Why it's awesome: The bomber might be "it" in this high-caliber game of Tag, but he's also got the heaviest armor and the biggest, baddest weapons on the map to compensate for all the attention. Taking him on requires real nerve, and being him just plain rules. It's not unlike spawning as the Big Daddy in BioShock 2's multiplayer, but a bit more populist. On death, the bomber role goes to someone else waiting to respawn. Someone with better luck, hopefully.
Mode: Gold Leader
Game: Halo: Reach
Rules: You really haven't played this one unless you've joined a Bitmob game night, but you can make it yourself…that's what Bitmob Co-Founder Dan "Shoe" Hsu did using Reach's game mod controls. Take a standard Slayer free-for-all, give it a 10-minute time limit, 25 or 50 points to win. Now tag the score leader with a waypoint marker so everyone on the map can see him at all times, force-paint his armor gold, and make killing him worth three points instead of the normal one point. Then laugh cruelly.
Why it's awesome: Instead of running around aimlessly, hoping to find another schlub to light up, you've always got a fat, juicy target on your HUD. Also, the point structure makes nailing a last-second, come-from-behind win imminently possible, keeping everyone on their toes. But Gold Leader's best trick? It effortlessly balances high-caliber players with those in the low/mid-skill range, because if you're the best, everybody's gunning for you.
Typical 4th of July in Bakersfield, CA.
Mode: Bleed Out (Mutation)
Game: Left 4 Dead 2
Rules: If you think regenerating health is for wimps, step right up. One of Left 4 Dead 2's Mutation campaign variants, Bleed Out slowly saps your health with every passing second. No health packs, either. Pills and adrenaline perk you up, but without fail, you'll become a hobbling mess desperately forging ahead and dreading any enemy encounter. You won't die from the bleed out, but the lightest touch from the attacking zombie hordes will flatten you…and your entire team.
Why it's awesome: L4D2 generally demands teamwork, but Bleed Out heightens that intensity by making everyone so vulnerable. It also fosters something you never see in co-op games: self-sacrifice. I've shouted at my teammates to leave me behind so I could hold off the infected hordes while they limped to the next safe house checkpoint. Worked, too.
Hey, that's not a definitive list! I totally missed Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood! If you've got a favorite multiplayer that bends the rules and might be worth my valuable time, tell me about it in the comments below.