Games that bind – Culling Bros approved Co-Op games

I don’t think I’ve made a secret of the fact that I put a pretty big emphasis on co-operative action, and generally anything that one can participate in a group. We talked about everything from how horror games can be affected by being played by a group, to how the industry has some promising titles down the line that could innovate how co-op games are even played. I likewise don’t pretend that the reason behind this is a secret, since I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I was fortunate enough to blessed with two brothers during the golden-age couch-co-op games, a fact that’s done a lot to define my taste in video games.

The reason I bring this up is because we’ve just had the end of the year holiday season, which marks one of the few times where all three of us can really sit down and game like we used to do (namely, for far too many hours in one sitting). While we had less time than usual this year, we still managed to scrap together a good few sessions like we used to, and as usual I tend to get all nostalgic after such a time.

To that end, I thought it would be neat to go through all the titles that have come to define my favourite co-operative experiences with my bros, both the new and older ones. We keep it in a classic ten point list, though in a way this is only a small handful of all the stuff we’ve managed to play over the years.

It’s worth mentioning that the list is HEAVILY affected by our own personal preferences. This isn’t a “greatest co-op games of all time” kind of deals, more just an excuse for me to gush about all the co-op games that my bros and I enjoyed the most. As such, the list has a lot of lot of fringe cases where a game might not be considerably…well, technically co-op, but we made it work.

(And before anyone says anything, yes, this was supposed to go up before the New Year; how something called a ‘holiday’ can end up being as hectic and busy as this year’s was I’ll never understand.)

Anyway, without further ado, crowd around the screen, grab some snacks, stop elbowing me in the side, and let’s take a look.

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Champions of Norrath/Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance

We might as well start…well, not the ‘beginning,’ but definitely the early days.

One of the first games we collectively owned on the PS2 was the excellent Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. A title that often easy to over-look when compared to its legendary mother game, it’s a real time combat game with some surprisingly in-depth RPG features. While somewhat more limited compared to the main Baldur’s Gate, it was none the less a fun romp around on a fantasy adventure tour of the lands surrounding the titular city. The most important thing, however, was definitely the looting. While later games would perfect the formula and the games that came before it created the formula, Baldur’s Gate DA was our first real exposure to the sheer addictiveness that is a good loot system. It cannot be over stated how deep into the game’s loot cycle that all three of us were: I was barely old enough to understand what was happening in the story, but watching the numbers attached to our equipment slowly climb as we found better and better items was as fulfilling to me as a philosopher finally pondering out all of life’s mysteries. I literally couldn’t care why were running around these crazy monster infested ruins, so long as said monsters where dropping a steady supply of better loot.

Of course, the game went out of its way to make you glad that Co-Op was an option. Enemies were relentless in the game, and thus it frequently devolved into a horde of monsters rushing you while both players frantically fought them off, often times followed by a cheer as we saw a piece of good loot go flying out of some recently decapitated monster’s body. Hell, you definitely needed as good loot as you can get, since the game didn’t pull it’s punches when it came to difficulty, though that fact just made the team-effort that we put into it all the better. The only downside to the game was it was two-player only, which meant we had to alternate to separate games between the three of us.

…Which is why I’m also throwing up Champions of Norrath on this spot on the list. Champions of Norrath was made by the same group that made Baldur’s Gate DA, Snowblind Stuido (which has since unfortunately been folded into Monolith Productions at the behest of Warner Bros, once again proving that we can’t have nice things), and was basically the better version of Baldur’s Gate DA. Now with sweet four-player support, more types of characters to choose from, an even grander adventure on a larger scale, and even better loot, the game really was one of our shared favourites.

An important improvement that Champions of Norrath made to the formula was even more importance being placed on teamwork. When more players were added to the mix, the total health and damage of enemies were increased exponentially, and thus it became vital that you had something of a plan: the mage could indeed nuke the targets from half the room away, but they were going to need the warrior to body block the monsters before they were rushed down. The warrior could indeed wade straight into the fray, but they sure as hell were going to be thankful the cleric was just behind them when they did. While combat was still fairly simple in the minute to minute fashion, it was these relatively simple added steps that really brought the game up to a new level, and why it’s still a strong classic of the era in my eyes.

These games would form the bedrock of our collective love for action-RPGs, and to this day I regret that local three player action-RPGs aren’t a more common sight. Though, maybe that’s more because it’s a pretty narrow superlative…

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Perhaps the least ‘gamey’ game on this list, and not technically even a multiplayer title, it still managed to find its way onto the list.

I briefly mentioned the game during the article about interesting up-coming co-op titles, but to sum it up: the game is about (surprise surprise) two brothers going on a risky journey through a beautifully realized fantasy land in a quest to save their father. The game is technically a single player game, wherein each half of a single controller controls one of the brothers, but it’s pretty easy to make it into a multiplayer game. All you need to do is hold one half of the controller each and balance it between the two of you, a control method that actually makes the more intuitive if anything.

The game is not overly difficult, and indeed the gameplay elements clearly take a backseat compared to the narrative and setting. Most puzzles are fairly obvious, and even the slightly more challenging puzzle-bosses aren’t not exactly going to slow you down too much. But to the game’s credit, everything else is pretty damn excellent: the game manages to get a lot of out of the story despite the fact that all the dialogue is in some kind of Simlish, and there are some genuinely beautiful locations along the brother’s journey.  Likewise, the sheer effort that the game goes through to make you understand the bond between the two main characters is superb, and makes for one of the most effective endings to a video game I’ve seen in a while.

While only two player, the game managed to sneak on this list for being such a well executed story dealing with the themes and ideas of brotherhood. It’s in every part of the game, from the major events to even the smaller moments: there’s a optional scene where the two bros are sitting by a cliff and one makes whale call to a group of passing whales, just in time for one to leap and spray out of the water. The genuine joy and look of ‘holy hell, did you see that!?’ that the brothers shoot each other is so pitch perfect to life that I’m almost certain at least one person on the development team must have had a couple of brothers himself.

In short, this title getting on here is kind of a cheat, since it’s only a co-op game at a pretty big stretch AND not even a three player one. Despite that, I’ll freely admit that playing through the game alongside one of my own brother was one hell of an emotional experience, and one that’s stuck with me enough to just about earn a spot on the list.

Resident Evil: Remake

While we’re on the topic of not technically multiplayer games…

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not the biggest fan of horror games, since I’m squeamish as a hell.  Despite that, I find myself enjoying quite a few horror games purely because they’re a genre of game all three of us can play together, even if they’re official only single player. We went into detail about this before, but to put it simply: horror games can work well for groups both because they have a lot of spectacle and flair, and because their controls tend to be on the simpler side, allowing easy switching between players. While some of the scare factor is lost when you’re experiencing horror as a group, it’s definitely something that’s worked for us three, maybe because we’d never have got around to even attempting the games if we were alone.

This space on the list had some competition between Until Dawn, a few other Resident Evils, and even Outlast, since they’re all good horror games that all three of us managed to come together for full play-throughs. However, in the end I had to give it to the suburb remake of the first Resident Evil, which managed to be genuinely unsettling and creepy while still retaining some that campy Resident Evil charm. Likewise, it was definitely more of a team-effort than a lot of the other horror games we’ve tried, since managing items and trying to figure out the safest routes through the terrifyingly dangerous mansion were both activities we all needed to put our heads together for.

Another big plus towards the game is the fact that it actually adds and changes some things in the mansion, including an entirely new sub-plot and boss, compared to the original game. While we’d forgotten damn near everything to do with Resident Evil 1 thanks to the passing of years, these new additions still managed to trip us up on our run through the game, which kept that crippling feeling of uncertainty that made the original game such a classic. There’s a potent cocktail of both excitement and trepidation when you finally gain a new type of key, and suddenly a ton of rooms open up to you: you’re both looking forward to all of the progress that you can now make, and not looking forward to all the ways the game is going to screw you over as you try. This makes going forward as a group even better, since everyone’s debating whether they could remember this part of the game or not.

The only thing about the game that might not have fit us perfectly was the limited save system. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a legitimate stroke of genius; the game pushes you to make your own risks and try and push just a little further before you save, because you know there’s a only a certain number of times you can try. This system ratchets up an already super high amount of tension, since you want to take that risk and save yourself some bother if you die, all the while knowing that you could screw up and end up with more trouble anyway. The only bad part of this system is that, since we only had some limited windows to actually play the game in, there were times where we were having to either rush or save too early for all our liking since our schedules didn’t always aligned with the hours needed for a full session.

Still, despite that minor hiccup, I still hold that Resident Evil Remake is an absolute gem of a game, and one of the better ones to play as a group. To that end, it does more than enough to take this spot.

Diablo 3

THE most well played game on this list, and definitely for good reason.

So, I mentioned that one of the things that really got us into Baldur’s Gate and Champions of Norrath were the games’ excellent loot cycles. They gave victory in combat a little more oomph thanks to the fact the gear you earned made a tangible difference, which helped to make even miscellaneous encounters feel somewhat worthwhile. However I also said that later titles would take this frame-work and perfect it further on down the road.

I say with complete seriousness and without irony that Diablo 3 has one of the most addicting loot-cycles any of us has encountered.

This is mostly down to Blizzard realising that the only thing you needed to make the satisfaction from a really good drop even better is highlighting the loot drop, and doing it with as much flair as possible. And what better way to give the loot drop some punch then using a sound like some vengeful god had just lain a weapon to slay your enemies at your feet? This sound that activates when a legendary item (the second rarest type of item) drops has such is such a satisfying noise that it still causes a small ripple of joy to hit me when I hear it, and almost never failed to cause a cheer to raise up from all three of us. This tied into a loot cycle, where every time a piece of legendary piece of loot dropped actually caused the desire to get legendary equipment to increase.  Add that to an end-game that is nothing but “loot to gain loot that allows you get more loot,” and we almost didn’t realize when looting had become both the mean and the end.

Of course, there was more to like about the game than just it’s absurdly good loot. Blizzard really nailed the combat in this game, mostly by making every single one of your attacks have a really good punchy feel to them: deceased enemies are sent flying by even your most basic attacks, and your super attacks can clear entire hordes of enemies in seconds. Oddly enough, this doesn’t detract from the difficulty: some enemies can and will smash the ever living hell out of you, and thus it helps to make sure your team has a certain amount of synergy. This is especially true if you decide to go down the questionable route of making your character ‘Hardcore,’ wherein death is permanent, which often sees your character die to any number of terrifying and stupid reasons. Not that I’m speaking from experience, of course…

Beyond just that, though, the game was a real gem for three player action. Forgoing a spit-screen meant that we could all see with perfect clarity, it’s console version is extremely quick to jump into action, and it makes sure that the story (while actually pretty decent) doesn’t get in the way of the player/s charging from one room to the next. Combine that with the fact that all three of us were fans of the first games, and this becomes a real knockout success for us. Out of all the games on the list, this is the most played by far, with all three of us going through at least a few play throughs across several difficulties. In short, if we had pick a game to take with us to a deserted island, I’m confident this would be the one.

I pray every day that Diablo 4 will be a reality in my lifetime, but this is Blizzard we’re talking about and to be honest I’m getting a little concerned…

And so we come to the finale, the big one. This is a game that, much like others on this list, isn’t technically multiplayer, but none the less become something of a group effort. Its game’s already on a lot of other top-ten lists, and more than earns it’s place, though perhaps my reasoning for thinking so is steeped in sentimentality. It’s a title that- oh screw it, you all know what it is.

The Last of Us.

To the surprise of no one.

If you’ve ever scrolled through the blog, right at the beginning, there’s a post that’s mostly thoughts on The Last of Us Part 2. While there are a couple of posts before that one, I’d hold that article is still the first ‘proper’ upload we had on the blog, if only because it’s the first post that wasn’t a test in disguise.

The important part of that upload, however, was more on the fact that The Last of Us became a game that was greater than the sum of its parts. TLoU is already a fantastic game, and one that deserves all the praise it gets, but I was extra lucky when I experienced it; it was one of the few games that managed to not only draw us three in, but also managed to drag our dad onto its roller-coaster of heartache. If the banter between the three Culling Bros is great, then dad’s banter is pure legend, not to mention he’s tactical genius. The playthrough of the game would have been good regardless since TLoU is a good game, but it was made all the more excellent because he was involved. My one and only regret was that our mum isn’t the biggest fan of video games, and thus abstained from jumping on the feels trip that makes up most of the TLoU, but I guess I’ll just need to wait for the stars to align in that regard.

It probably helps that the game is actually pretty compatible for a group, though. There’s a lot decisions regarding what to do with the limited supplies that make for good discussion, and the spectacle of combat and stealth is always a good romp. Heck, even the freaky fungus monsters add an element of horror to the mix. Hell, the scavenging aspect almost puts me in the mindset of gaining loot from those action RPGs. Maybe one of the reasons The Last of Us has made it to the top of this list is because it somehow managed to do everything that the previous games did, more or less all at once?

The real selling point is something similar to Brothers: that the game’s story about the importance and effects of familial bonds is a hell of a lot stronger when you’re experiencing it right alongside your actual family. That was something that felt wholly unique and personal to me as we were going through it, which helped to put me into the right mindset for how the story unfolds. It made an already excellent and gut punching story all the better, and in a pretty personal way. Although, that does make me a little concerned over the sequel.

Who know that the future of The Last of Us Part 2 holds? A part of me doubts it could ever reach the same heights that the original game did, though a bigger part of me is hoping to be proven wrong. Regardless, as long as we can somehow drag all the family around to have another play through, I know that my bros and I will make it work. After all, we all ways do.

Thanks for the read into just a little slice of something important to me, ya’ll! Hopefully the rest of the posts for this year won’t be as sentimental (or delayed). I wish you all the best, and have a great new year!

Extra: A short message to my bros

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get TOO sappy.

Just though that, in an article all about the games I play with your guys, I might as well add something, since I know at least one of you will read it (if only to rib me about spelling mistakes).

There’s not really enough words or articles that I can make that will really do the sentiment justice, but I just wanted to thank you guys. I don’t have to think very long to know that my life, not just in video games but in every which way, would be a lot less fulfilling if you guys weren’t sharing it with me. You two help me to understand myself a little bit better every day, and I hope that you continue to do so, even when we’re all old and greying.

In short, you two are the most magnificent beans I have the luck of knowing.

Rock on, you glorious beanheads.

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