03 Jul 09
Forget the Zune. Xbox Live is the Social.
Since its inception, Xbox Live has been hailed as the definitive online experience for gaming consoles. Originally only available as a paid service, it branched off into two tiers with the launch of the Xbox 360. A free Xbox Live Silver account (which every owner should have, at least) lets you browse the online marketplace and try demos. The real money for Microsoft lies in the Gold account, which allows for online play.
I’ve had a Gold account basically since the day I bought my 360, but truth be told, I wasn’t always convinced that it was worth the money I spent to keep it going. I realized that I really didn’t enjoy playing online competitively, because I basically suck at games (relatively speaking). I don’t have the patience to commit a huge span of time to getting good at Call of Duty or Gears of War, because it’s not even fun – it’s just work.
But recently so many of the games I’ve been playing have been offering some pretty attractive online co-op options. Fable 2 and Saints Row 2 both have modes for jumping into a friend’s game and playing through it, the same as you would when you’re alone. Then there are games like Valve’s Left 4 Dead, in which a single-player mode exists but really is not the point of the game at all – I’ll come back to this shortly.
With so many interesting games out there, my other frustration was that I had nobody to play them with. I am pretty shy about just jumping into games (well, any situation, really) with some random strangers, and that is another big factor that has prevented me from just randomly playing online. There was the occasional game with someone on my friendslist, but for the most part we all were emerged in completely different worlds, and they rarely intersected.
Something seemed to click, though, earlier this year. My BFF Jill (srsly) picked up a 360 in the spring, and so we started to play some stuff together. Then I started to become friends with her friends, and suddenly there were eight of us playing Team Fortress 2 and we all actually knew each other and it was amazing.
What’s even better is that Live now has something called parties. You can start a party with another friend, and it basically opens a voice chat session between the two of you. More interestingly, your other friends can look at their friendslist and see that you’re in a party with others, and join in if they’d like. If you’re all playing together in the same game, this doesn’t function much differently than the lobby of the game itself – and in some cases (such as team-based competition) that’s a more practical solution.
Where parties shine, though, is in their ability to unify two people who may not even be playing the same game. Single player games are still my preference, but if I’m working through some levels in Prince of Persia or blowing through some races in Forza, I can open up a party and talk to my friend who’s playing Portal and we can bitch about our respective challenges. Or there was that one time where three of us were trying to see who get through Half Life 2: Episode 1 the quickest.
Epilogue: Left 4 Dead edition
Left 4 Dead is a game about zombies. This in and of itself is not particularly enthralling to me. What makes L4D unique is its near insistence on playing with others in the campaign mode. The game puts you in control of one of four survivors, who are working as a team to escape the zombie hordes. Interestingly, you will always be working as a team of four – the only variable is what percentage of that team is real people versus AI.
As I mentioned above, you can play the game alone, and mechanically it’s very good. But it’s not really any fun. Much better to save the (only) four campaigns for nights when you and a couple of friends are all in the mood for some zombie hunting. Those are the times when the game becomes truly special and suspenseful.
Nothing that happens in L4D comes across as particularly scary – the game only has so many weapons in its arsenal in the form of a few specialized zombie classes. The real action happens when you or one of your allies gets pinned or knocked down, and you have to figure out how you can rescue them without getting taken down yourself. When you’re playing with the computer, you only want to save them because you need the firepower. But when you’re playing with friends, you want to save them because you feel bad – you’re emotionally attached by default, and that’s where the game really succeeds.