Multiplayer has a somewhat deservedly bad rap. It’s often tacked onto a predominantly single-player release, crudely glued to the entire product as an attempt to keep a player base active. In many cases, these modes wind up being completely ignorable and uninteresting, merely copying and pasting ideas from more popular or well-developed counterparts.
But in some, there’s actually a true gem hidden behind a larger, more celebrated story campaign. The games who take the best of their single-player content and use multiplayer as a unique test of those skills can actually add up to something more interesting than it might otherwise be. That’s not to say it’s perfect; nothing ever truly is, and many of htes modes have their own issues. But, they’re good nonetheless, arguably better than they have any right to be. Here are five games whose multiplayer turned out to be a surprising success.
The Last of Us
Known mainly for its captivating and deeply affecting story centered on the survivors Joel and Ellie, The Last of Us’ multiplayer was able to capture something with which others struggle: it took the ideas and soul of the previous game and spun it into a side offering that still felt very much in-world and in character.
The Last of Us’ multiplayer was a team-based competitive mode in which teams of surviors helped one another raid an area for supplies while avoiding enemy factions who were scavenging for the same necessities. It was incredibly easy to die, and loadouts were limited to a handful of weapons, forcing the player to be very cautious and considerate of their actions. The result was a tight, tense matchup taking place in the corridors of ruined buildings and the alleyways of abandoned ghost towns. Additionally, there was a meta game on top, tracking your survival camp’s progress and current status with health and morale.
Everything about The Last of Us’ multiplayer was finely tuned to be as tense and calculated as its story content, and because of that, it felt like a separate part of the same world rather than a soulless add-on.
Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
Whereas many multiplayer modes are bombastic and overtly violent, Brotherhood embraced the assassin’s way of stealth and subtlety, pitting a player against another with the added requirement of caution and surprise.
In it, players were given one “mark” or “target” to take down, usually another player. They were given a handful of clues as to who they were looking for, and had to wander around a small city slice searching for them. The catch, of course, is that someone was always looking for them, too, so it was essential to utilize things like hiding in crowds, moving in ways that were not suspicious, and being quick to react when tracking prey.
Nailing subtlety like that can be difficult, but it worked to great effect in Brotherhood and remains one of my obscure favorites today.
Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect is a series built on a sweeping space epic, whose spine is made up only of characters and narrative. So, when EA and BioWare announced multiplayer would be in Mass Effect 3, people were understandably upset and assumed it would be another forgettable multiplayer mode borrowing precious development brain power from the main project.
It turns out the multiplayer was a surprise hit, a clever cooperative horde mode in which friends worked together as a team to drive back waves of different enemies. It was well designed and used many of the combat ideas of Mass Effect 2, giving it the feel of a wholly competent and fun third-person shooter. Feelings about its controversial ending aside, Mass Effect 3 is a great game, and the multiplayer oddly complemented it in this rare exception.
Perhaps the term “surprising” doesn’t apply here, but the cooperative multiplayer in Portal 2 is often an overlooked gem in the conversation about games taking place in the universe of Aperture Science. We tend to associate it more with an unsuspecting friend in Wheatley, learning more about Cave Johnson, and GLaDOS as a potato, but there’s great content available in its multiplayer.
Giving players control over one of a pair of robots, the multiplayer was a series of test chambers built for solving with two people in mind. It was the same mind-bending gameplay of the base game, but things become significantly more challenging with two players, forcing people to work together in order to thwart GLaDOS’ warped experiments. Like Assassin’s Creed and The Last of Us, it took all of the best mechanical parts of the single-player content and carried them over into a separate space, offering the chance to improve one’s use of these skills in a new capacity.
The Banner Saga: Factions
The Banner Saga is mainly thought of as a grim, dark fantasy RPG with turn-based combat, but it’s worth remembering it had an excellent free-to-play predecessor in The Banner Saga: Factions.
Released when The Banner Saga was still in development, Factions was the multiplayer-only aspect of the game, a solely PvP matchup feeling very much like a chess match between two players. It was purely the turn-based combat found in the base RPG, with a light leveling system and all of the brilliant art in The Banner Saga. Releasing the multiplayer element prior to the full game’s release was a wise way to introduce players to its concepts, and it is sadly underappreciated when compared to its counterpart.