Why Can't We Play?

This is a good time for videogames. You could even argue it's pretty much the best ever. Visuals run with crispness and clarity and at resolutions we couldn't even fathom when we were scooting the Atari 2600's large colored boxes around the screen of our wood-grain Magnavox televisions. Sound isn't any longer an ear-piercing series of blips and squeaks. Writing and design have taken us to the point where many games are indisputably works of art in the incredibly rewarding way that is becoming the norm in game development. I remember fondly the sense of accomplishment and exhilaration as I scrambled out of High Charity or saved the Citadel from annihilation. I saw first-hand the awesome power of nuclear weaponry, unraveled mysteries reaching back to the dawn of recorded time itself, and recharted the course of evolution for an entire star system.

Yet, for all of these 'water cooler' events in my gaming history, few of them have the allure of sitting on the couch with my wife and plunging headlong into bloodthirsty throngs of fodder, looking to crack them open like loot pinatas for a tastier enchanted mace for her, maybe a beefier shield for me.

Sure, the Diablo formula of whack-smash-upgrade-rinse-repeat is dated. So is the idea of manipulating a digital football team. In Diablo's case, it has an allure that lasts and keeps gamers coming back for the next adventure, the next powerful magic spell, the next awesome suit of armor.

Current-generation videogame consoles have hundreds and hundreds of titles to choose from, and yet not a single one of the current iteration can match the fun of the loot-n-hacks of years past. I speak of course, of Baldur's Gate, Champions of Norrath, and Return to Arms.

I've heard 'co-op gaming' as being the latest buzzword in game design. Ask your friendly neighborhood videogame retailer for a good co-op game and you'll get directed to Gears of War 1/2, Left for Dead 1/2, the Halo series, and others similar to it. Every single one of these are quality, immersive games - with one problem.

Not everybody likes first-or even third-person shooters.

Yeah. I said it. It's true. A lot of people find dual-stick running and gunning to be disorienting and downright sickness-inducing. When my wife wasn't the slightest bit interested in playing Halo 3 with me, I didn't get it at all. Nothing could be simpler to me - I've been crawling down digital hallways and splattering them with my enemies since before Wolfenstein 3D. But my wife cannot stand it. And you know what? She's not alone.

The kind of games I mentioned before - Two-player offline loot-n-hacks for 'couch co-op' are what got her interested in videogames again. (Well, that and Spyro the Dragon.) We'd squabble over items, discuss strategy, tackle the toughest of enemies and dungeons, and have an awesome time just being with each other and doing something that we enjoy.

So why, five years after the release of Champions: Return to Arms for the Playstation 2, can this experience not be found on current-generation systems?

Sure, there's Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 - which is an awesome game. However, you're essentially locked into playing one of a team of superheroes, you're not creating a character and affecting his appearance through the armor/weapons you find.

And oh yes, there's Fable II. My wife and I both enjoyed creating characters and playing through its rich and expansive world. We didn't enjoy that to experience it together required the use of a ham-fisted two-player system that wouldn't even let you import your own character model into the game.

It's like a cohesive and enjoyable two-player couch coop system for these types of games died with the exit of Snowblind Studios from the genre. They're making dinky tank artillery games now. Sad, really.

So when I heard about Sacred 2: Fallen Angel, I was excited. Could this be the return of the gameplay experience I'd been missing? Would the processing power of the Xbox 360 deliver fantastic high-res character models and particle-laden spell effects? Can it take that tried-and-true pastime that my wife and I both shared once and take it to the next level with HD visuals, thousands of items, and an engrossing story?


Ascaron's game didn't survive five minutes in my XBOX. My wife and I groaned simultaneously at the clunky non-intuitive menu and upgrade system, the horribly glitchy visuals, the atrocious voice acting, and the overall unplayableness of the whole damned thing.

It looks like exactly what it is: an unbelievably shoddy port of a one-player MMORPG front-end title that probably works passably on a PC, but fails miserably on a console system. The 'couch-coop' mode was most likely slapped on as a damned afterthought, and it shows. There's no simultaneous inventory management for starters, and it just goes downhill from there.

There are some games that make me think, 'this seems intimidating right now but I'll get the hang of it.' Not this one. It feels like a literal slap in the face to those of us who enjoy sitting on the couch and tackling dungeons with a friend.

So, in summary, if you want a good local multiplayer experience with good gameplay, pick up any of the LEGO series of games, or Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 1 or 2.

If you want this experience in a well-designed fantasy setting that builds on the gameplay greatness of titles past, you are shit out of luck.

I'm only left with one question, which I direct as a challenge to videogame developers everywhere: If I want a quality Diablo-style game designed with two-player action as its focal point, why in the hell do I have to look backwards? Certainly system limitations aren't the issue here - it's outright laziness and ignoring gamers like my wife and I. We're out here, and we've got money to spend. Build on the success of the classic dungeon crawls of the past instead of giving us a half-assed barely functioning PC port and I will give you money.

Even though the Everquest universe has essentially been murdered outright by World of Warcraft, it shouldn't be too hard to find a fantasy universe to draw inspiration from.

I can't be in the minority here. Has 'couch co-op' gaming become the sole purview of the Wii? Oh well. At least with the Wii and a few Gamecube controllers, I can play Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, which is still light years beyond Sacred 2.