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Fear and loathing online

The trouble with online play in 2006...

If we purchase a video game nowadays there’s usually some form of online mode incorporated; whether it’s scoreboards, downloads or playing with the rest of the world, such functionality is taken for granted. The majority of countries that indulge in videogames are now able to support home broadband lines or better, and demand has never been higher to take to the online arena. But it was only towards the end of the 1990’s when the internet, world wide web and home PC’s became massively popular, that online gaming could truly arrive. As a result, the first online games that became available were those on the PC; developers spawning many new titles including this new and interesting option. However it didn’t take too long for one of the gaming greats to formulate a console with online capabilities.

The Sega Dreamcast was the first console to include a modem on launch, making online gameplay a reality for console gamers. Providing a relatively smooth experience and community, the demise of the Dreamcast unfortunately killed off any hopes of a Sega service becoming establishing. Nintendo’s GameCube offered some support with the release of an up to date network adaptor later in its life, but never really became popular with the Nintendo crowd. Leaving the two other competitors of the industry; Microsoft and Sony to release their online services; the PlayStation 2 launched online capabilities first and whilst it didn’t receive the most publicity, there are still a lot of people who have played online with the PS2. With Microsoft having such a heavy background in online services it only made sense to create a new offering for the Xbox, and so they created a heavily promoted service known as Xbox Live. Whilst everyone’s opinion may not be that Xbox Live is the godfather of online gaming it is currently without a doubt the most established online gaming service in the world. But as a result of this success, what sort of a community has Microsoft crafted?

Halo: Combat Evolved lacked an online mode and growing in popularity it was inevitable that Bungie would add a long awaited online multiplayer mode for the second game. This would also create the largest online community for the Xbox and almost two years later it’s taken its toll on Xbox Live. If you power up your Xbox and prepare to go online with Halo 2 you’re immediately hit with controversy. Choosing a game from the pre-determined play lists is more like a chore with all 14 game modes bundled next to each other, often enforcing some completely pointless restrictions (not allowing guests for example) and leaving some game types unexplained. Even if the play lists don’t take your fancy you still have the option of having a custom game, whilst a lot more flexible (and generally more fun) it only allows clan members or friends in, so in hindsight if very few people are online you’re unlikely to even start the game. Moto GP is another online title which, like Halo 2, has heralded some online success at least. Even featuring early on as online demos for both Xbox consoles, Moto GP keeps it simple and ensures all players are ready, with complete customisation of your game and most important of all - an easy to use interface. Another thing Moto GP did that Halo 2 really should have done is to include AI bots playing instead of humans and although Moto GP rooms often become filled with all 16 players the AI does a great job filling in for anyone who’s not there.

This said, I’m still a little more concerned with the flaws Halo 2 has when you actually play it online; the game seems to have incorporated more problems into online gameplay as time has gone along. Why Bungie have failed to iron these out is beyond me, despite the many updates the game has received. Once you push past the inconvenience of the play lists, you’ll soon find out that Halo 2 still faces some quite annoying problems. For example you can find yourself booted out of the game for no reason, end up on uneven teams, dead as soon as the game starts, spawned with hindered vision or in the line of enemy fire upon entry. These are some very basic errors which get repetitive and frustrating extremely quickly. It’s not like Halo 2 is the first online game Bungie have made either; they’ve created online modes for the Marathon and Myth series' previously, but have yet to perfect their talents on Live it seems. With Halo 3 inevitably heading for a release in 2007, Bungie are hopefully ensuring that the finale in the Halo trilogy is watertight; both offline and online.

Sweeping asides the technical problems that the game has in the online mode for the moment, there’s another problem – the community; without people there wouldn’t be a game to play, online at least. But perhaps because Xbox Live has now reached a wider audience and tapped into the chestnut of popular culture, the community and games have somewhat lost the quality and standards they once possessed. People seem to have a short attention span as it’s extraordinarily hard to play Halo 2 online without someone leaving. It’s a shame to see players leave because they didn’t get the game they wanted, they’re losing or just can’t be bothered. Then we have something even dumber - betrayals. An accidental betrayal is fine but when it’s ongoing, it tends to tick you off just a bit, making you wonder “does this person know the meaning of the word team?” The amount of abuse that exists in the online arena is appalling at times too, with racism and screaming just a couple of ways to waste away your eardrum. Even if you disable players voices for just one game, you’ll be reminded how nice the sound of silence is (ignorance is bliss at times). One game which has kept itself steady is Dead or Alive 4, another Xbox 360 launch-window title. Above all it breeds innovation when you go online; the lobby system is 3D and you can even watch games in progress. DOA4 has managed to retain a healthy community since being launched on the 360, probably due the established and mature fanbase that the series has already, something the Halo series is in need of.

But if you’re looking for some guaranteed multiplayer fun then the logical alternative is the LAN party. You know who you’re playing with, you’re all in the same building and if other players get annoying you can go in the next room and properly get revenge. The only downside? Finding somewhere with enough space and getting that many people together in one night. Not the most feasible answer for your average Joe. Another alternative would be to ditch your console and use your PC online, which has enjoyed a slightly smoother community if anything. Just in the last 2 or 3 years we’ve seen players form relationships, trade items and above all take a friendlier approach with regards to the etiquette of play. Many of these stories have appeared in the news from games such as Half-Life 2, World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, Unreal Tournament and many more, all enjoying very healthy online communities.

Turning to the future now, Microsoft are going to have to work harder than ever to keep their share of the online market. Nintendo are going into the online world more than ever before with the virtual console for the Wii, and the PlayStation 3 is arranging its own online service too. If Microsoft are to keep their share of the market then Halo 3 is going to have to be a game that doesn’t disappoint, omitting the mistakes and perhaps some of the community problems facing Halo 2.

Looking at the state of online play in current console games makes you wonder how our console communities are shaping up, and have been for the last few years. Above all there should be better standards adhered to by console owners, because many of those currently indulging online are - at times - simply ruining the experience for everyone else. Next time you go online with your console, just take a look and see who you're playing with, and what state the multiplayer game is in generally - ask yourself whether this is really how we hoped it would be all those years ago, in the Dreamcast's salad days. It could be a wake-up call.