In Defense of 'Tacked On' Multiplayer

By Janitor Doon, 5 years ago
Some games are just meant to dominate the online community. Halo 2 and Xbox Live were essentially synonymous terms during the heyday of the original Xbox; Counter-Strike defined PC shooters, and arguably still does today; more recently, games like League of Legends show just how much influence competitive games have on the medium as a whole, with an astounding average of over 12 million players per day.

So what about the other guys, the games that try to venture into the multiplayer space without a strong pedigree behind them? What about games like Tomb Raider or God of War, franchises that have traditionally been single-player experiences but decided to branch out with an added competitive mode?

Well, unfortunately, these games usually get barraged with a hail fire of criticism, the most common among them being that their multiplayer components are “tacked on.”

On one level, I understand these complaints. Seeing a beloved franchise that has historically delivered rich, engaging, and thoughtful single-player experiences adding something like competitive multiplayer to its formula can be alarming. Most often, the concern is that resources are being allocated disproportionately, that crucial manpower is being taken away from creating another stellar single-player experience in order to craft a functional multiplayer one. However, the time I’ve spent with some of these “tacked on” multiplayer experiences have proven them to be anything but: two games in particular, Singularity and BioShock 2 (Xbox 360), are living proof that strong single-player games can also have satisfying and even competent multiplayer counterparts.

Bioshock 2

I’ll start with the most controversial example. Bioshock 2 was often denigrated not only because it was handled by two different development teams (2K Marin and Digital Extremes), but also because it featured a multiplayer component. Outraged cries of blasphemy followed the game’s announcement, claiming that the beloved Bioshock franchise would be reduced to some Call of Duty clone with a Rapture palette swap. A closer examination of Bioshock 2’s multiplayer, however, actually shows some artistic vision and an earnest effort to create a convincing multiplayer experience.

Developed by Digital Extremes, the multiplayer component of Bioshock 2 is set in a separate timeline; it focuses on the Civil War between Frank Fontaine and Andrew Ryan that set the stage for the events of the original BioShock (Xbox 360). Your character is a plasmid tester for Sinclair Solutions, and with that pretext you are sent to go battle it out in various sections of Rapture. Although the game features fairly standard FPS elements, there are several aesthetic touches that Digital Extremes uses to prevent it from just being a stale replica of other games in the genre.

Most notable among Digital Extremes' nuanced additions is your apartment, which serves as a sort of interim lobby. Here you can physically walk around and access different objects, such as a newspaper box to check leaderboards and see your friends’ stats, a gene bank to modify your loadouts, a wardrobe to change your appearance (including different face masks and melee weapons), and, most interestingly, an audio log that gives you background information on the game’s different multiplayer characters, each with their own histories that you unlock as you rank up. It would have been easy for Digital Extremes to just slap together an generic ensemble of Rapture citizens and crazy splicers to play as, but the fact that they actually created distinct backgrounds for their characters—such as Danny Wilkins, the cocksure football player who uses one of his own trophies as a melee weapon—illustrates Digital Extremes’ desire to produce something faithful to the elements that make Bioshock so distinct.

To be fair, however, the actual mechanics of the multiplayer are more of a mixed bag. The Bioshock formula of plasmid/weapon dual-wielding works well here; my favorite loadout to use is the electro-bolt to stun, the crossbow to lay down some heavy damage, and the pistol to finish off what the previous two hadn’t done. That being said, the weapons aren’t all balanced (the nailgun seems pretty overpowered), and certain elements like the Big Daddy suit can be exploited (a coordinated team can cause some serious havoc with one on their side). Player movement feels fairly wooden and stiff, and there are some connection issues that leave you scratching your head as to how you got killed or how someone else didn’t die. But obviously Bioshock 2’s multiplayer wasn’t expected to be its main selling point—by and large, its sales were predicated on the original Bioshock’s success, and most people who bought Bioshock 2 were doing so for the single-player experience anyway. As such, I’m sure its multiplayer didn’t get all the polish it needed. If anything, the faults within the multiplayer are direct proof that the widespread fear of it detracting from the single-player experience was unfounded.

OpEd 2

Perhaps my favorite thing about the multiplayer though is its sense of character, and here’s where I really loathe the “tacked on” criticism. The characters you choose to play all have unique dialogue (fitting for their respective personalities), and often shout out gleeful taunts or snide comments as you bash your foes with a melee weapon or blast them with a shotgun. Destructible parts of the map allow you break through walls or crawl through ventilation ducts and get the jump on your foes. Familiar elements of Bioshock’s campaign like turrets and vending machines also make an appearance, and actually have clever, functional uses in the multiplayer. The turrets are neutral to either team, and can be hacked (and re-hacked) to attack your enemies. Vending machines, which provide crucial health and EVE, can also be rigged to explode—indicated by a red light on the side. In the heat of battle, however, this can easily go unnoticed and many times I’ve found myself rushing up to one, thinking I’d be saved but instead being blown to pieces. This constant dynamic of hacking turrets and vending machines provides an interesting environmental factor to each level (there are no weapon pickups, other than the randomly spawning Big Daddy suits), and also provide ways to gain some extra experience. The inclusion of all these Bioshock standards--turrets, vending machines, Big Daddy suits--helps to set the game apart from the FPS crowd; it's a Bioshock game first, a multiplayer game second.

Admittedly, Bioshock 2’s multiplayer doesn’t hold up to more polished FPS games. The weapons aren’t the most exciting, the levels aren’t particularly memorable, and in general it doesn’t have that many players. However, its surprising sense of character (the backstories behind the characters, as well as their dialogue, remind me of Team Fortress 2 in many ways) and faithful adherence to the atmosphere and architecture of Rapture make it more than a shameless money-grab or a way to extend its lifespan. It’s disappointing that gamers weren’t more receptive of the multiplayer in Bioshock 2; once you actually sit down and play a few matches, you’ll find it’s strangely addictive.


Singularity, in addition to being somewhat of a sleeper hit, also had a surprisingly enjoyable multiplayer experience that was a valuable addition to its single-player component. While it may not draw as much heat as Bioshock 2 for its multiplayer (since not many people seem to even know about Singularity), the game is obviously designed from the ground up to be single-player.

In Singularity there are only two modes—a team deathmatch mode and a capture-point mode called “Extermination.” What is unique about Singularity’s multiplayer, however, is that it’s composed of human soldiers, with standard weapons and loadouts, and the time-warped monstrosities you find in the single-player, known as “creatures.” This facet of the multiplayer changes the entire dynamic of the gameplay and provides some seriously tense and exciting matches.

While this setup may sound somewhat similar to Gears of War (Locust vs. COG), the creatures actually have distinctly different gameplay mechanics from the soldiers. They don’t use guns, but rather various sets of abilities defined by which creature you play as. The Zek are enormous, tank-like creatures that absorb damage and deal massive amounts of it; the Phase Ticks are small and fast, and have the ability to possess enemy players; the Reverts can spew bile on enemies and heal teammates. Essentially, Singularity has a lot of elements seen in Gears of War: Judgment ’s OverRun mode or Left 4 Dead 2 ’s Versus mode; the play styles of each team are vastly different. And again, it would have been easy for the developers to abandon this notion entirely and simply create a range of adversarial modes between only human players with only guns and standard modes like capture the flag and deathmatch. Nevertheless, in an effort to adhere to their own fiction and deliver something more interesting, developer Raven Software created a multiplayer experience that, like Bioshock 2, is criminally underrated.

OpEd 1

Vomiting--a legitimate strategy in Singularity

Now I realize that the critics of these “tacked on” multiplayer experiences are more vocal than their supporters. There are plenty of people who play games like Bioshock 2 or Singularity and enjoy them, both campaign and multiplayer. Despite the fact that the communities of these games are significantly smaller than juggernauts like Gears of War, Call of Duty, or Halo, that perhaps isn’t such a bad thing: for anyone looking for new gameplay experiences, many of these “tacked on” multiplayer games provide something fresh and entertaining beyond the typical military shooters that dominate the competitive space (especially on consoles). Too many people scold multiplayer games for not innovating, and watershed titles like Halo 2 or Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare haven’t come along in some time to inject new life into the multiplayer arena. If you feel like you’re in need of something new, give one of these “tacked on” multiplayer games a try—you might just find that they’re even more enjoyable than the big-budget titles they’re supposedly imitating.