Time for an epic game roundup post.
LAN parties, for me, and the best way to play games. Getting a load of friends together in the same room for some quality gaming time is great. There is just one recurring problem: finding games that are enjoyable for everyone to play. Ideally we all play the same thing, and the preference is for something co-operative, or at least team-based, to smooth out skill differences. However I’ve found that multiplayer games fall into one of a few categories:
- AAA, easy to play, polished and enjoyable experiences. That generally cost £20-40, which is a lot of money for something that will likely only get played for a couple of hours.
- Free to play (in the sense of actually being a reasonably fun game to play without having to pay anything). Except they usually require 5-10 hours of playing/grinding to get going.
- Complex strategy games. Which have a massive learning curve and require tens of hours of play to get good at.
- Cheap, fun, indie games. Where tutorials were last on the ever growing list of features, making them inaccessible without substantial background reading.
I’ve tried a lot of games at LANs over the years, so here’s a summary of a few old favourites along with some recent attempts:
Dawn of War
Dawn of War is a Warhammer 40K RTS game, released in 2004. It’s the go-to game for one of my groups, who have been playing it (and the various expansions) since release. It’s a Category 3 (along with almost every RTS), but luckily we all had loads of free time back then are were fans of the licence, and it’s given us years of gaming in return.
Pros: Flexible player numbers, 2-4 co-op play versus AI (stretching to 5 vs 3 AI on the hardest difficulty). Runs on any system.
Cons: It’s showing its age. And frankly it’s getting a bit repetitive after nine years.
Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory
I wrote about Enemy Territory a while back. It’s a team objective-based FPS from 2005, and is the other old favourite of the Dawn of War brigade. The game has always been available for free, and is great fun if you can get at least six players. I would put this in Category 4, as being an unfinished game there is no help for new players (each map requires learning by heart because there is no on-screen information about where to go and what to do).
Pros: Supports large numbers of players (6-20+). Free. Runs on any system.
Cons: Steep learning curve. And again, we’ve been playing it forever.
Left 4 Dead 1 & 2
I’m sure you all know this one, but the Left 4 Dead games are zombie survival shooters. They’re great co-op games if you have exactly four players and even better in versus mode if you have exactly eight players. This actually avoids all of the problem categories, so gets played most times (or at least is the backup game).
Pros: Frequently on sale for a couple of quid.
Cons: Best with exactly 4 or 8 players.
Diablo 3 is an isometric dungeon crawler where a bunch of you run around killing hordes of monsters and grabbing loot. This sounded like the perfect LAN game – highly polished, four-player co-op, easily accessible and a challenge requiring some interesting teamwork. It’s a Category 1 game, but four of use bought it at release and sat down one evening to play through. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. The game was just too easy, unless you put in 50+ hours of repeated playthroughs to grind up through the difficulty levels. Even the bosses seemed to fall within seconds. I know it was meant to be accessible, and it certainly is, but some kind of configurable difficulty option could have saved this game.
I believe that the recently released Reaper of Souls expansion fixes most of these issues so it may be worth another look, but it’s not cheap.
Pros: Requires no thought or skill. Very accessible.
Cons: Requires no thought or skill. Far too easy when starting from scratch. Expensive.
Everyone loves giant hulking robots, and when we came across MechWarrior Online recently it sounded great: a team-based, slower paced, tactical game with lots of room for strategy and less reliance on twitch skills. Unfortunately everything about the game itself conspired to make this as difficult as possible. The frontend UI is possibly the worst in any game ever (may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s really terrible), it’s a definite Category 2 in that you need to put a few hours in before you can buy and customise your own Mech (which is when the game gets fun), and the community was pretty hostile to new players.
The worst part though was the team options – each match is a fixed 12v12, but the allowable team sizes are 2, 3, 4 and 12. We got around this with our group of seven by forming two groups and hitting Start at the same time, which mostly got us into the same game, but that may just be an indicator of the number of active players. I understand that the point of the team size restriction is to allow the matchmaker to make fairer games, but I’ll stick my neck out and say that actually being able to play with your friends is much more important than slightly fairer matches. Having said that I’ve played the game a fair bit solo, and I quite like it.
Pros: Free. Fun for small groups of experienced players.
Cons: Restrictive group sizes. Not at all friendly to completely new players.
After failing with MechWarrior we found out that most of us had picked up Terraria in the Steam sales and never played it. Terraria is basically 2D Minecraft, where you dig, build things and fight monsters. It’s a Category 4 with no explanation of how to play, but luckily we had a couple of experienced players to show us. Exploring caves in a group is pretty fun for an hour or so, but it got samey quite quickly. It’s not a bad way to break up and evening though.
Pros: Freeform drop-in/drop-out gameplay. Cheap.
Cons: No real point to the game. Can quickly run out of things to do.
Various Call of Duty/Battlefield games
I’ll lump all the more recent Call of Duty and Battlefield games together, as they’re all the same from the point of view of a LAN. You can’t fault the technical quality of the multiplayer modes in any of these games – very polished, good fun, progression systems to keep you playing, definite Category 1 games. But it’s no secret that we’re getting older, and our 30+ year old reflexes just can’t keep up with the teenagers. Since the move to online-only multiplayer, these types of games have become more frustrating. The inclusion of the grinding aspects of free-to-play to unlock decent equipment further puts me off (I gave up on Battlefield 3 when it came out because I rarely got more than a couple of kills per match, although I hear the equipment is supposed to be more balanced in Battlefield 4).
Pros: High quality experiences. Flexible teams. They’re shooters so minimal learning required.
Cons: Frustrating if you don’t have pro-gamer skills. Even the old games still command high prices.
Taking a step backwards, Battlefield 2 was a great successes. It’s old, but still looks acceptable on modern PCs. The main bonus is that it’s from an era of local LAN play and bots, which caters perfectly to our preference for cooperative experiences for a range of skill levels. I think we settled on 8 humans vs 14 bots, tweaking the difficulty level until we got close matches. It’s got guns, tanks, comedy helicopters (“Who wants to be my gunner?” – “HELL NO I value my life”), and introduced Commander mode where wannabe-Eisenhowers can set objectives and airdrop vehicles and supplies.
Maybe I’m just not that into competitive gaming but local multiplayer against AI frequently gives the best experiences, where everyone succeeds or fails together. And when you fail you work out what went wrong and have another go. Very satisfying when you finally succeed.
Pros: Local multiplayer. Flexible numbers. Highly configurable difficulty level.
Cons: Starting to show its age.