It seems weird these days that most games would rather your friends be countless miles away than right on the sofa next to you. The glory days of the split-screen seem to be behind us, moved over in favour of push-to-talk chat and ping. I still don’t even know what the fuck ‘ping’ is, just that I often have a problem with it.
While pwning noobs can be a lot of fun, and online multiplayer is a cool way to socialise with friends you don’t often see, nothing beats having some mates over for some good old couch co-op or competition. Whether you’re working as a team or dicking each other over, games are inherently more enjoyable if you’ve got chums to share them with, and if they’re in the room with you it means you can punch them, too.
With split-screen multipayer seeming rarer and rarer in the big releases, it’s great to see it returning to form as the focus of many new games, especially independent titles. What’s more awesome, is that even more games are beginning to be intrinsically geared towards having up to four players. If you’re lucky enough to have three friends and multiple controllers in the same room (I know it’s hard, both are expensive), it means a far more involved and exciting game session, with a lot less pad-passing and a lot more ‘friendly’ punching.
As Christmas and New Year’s shenanigans are fast approaching and, for a short time, people will pretend each other don’t smell, I’ve decided to compile a list of my top 5 games to play in four-player local multiplayer. Every one of these has a hefty mileage at mi casa, and are the bread and butter of my game nights. If you’re looking for something new to play with the lads/gals, look no further. And don’t punch too hard.
Accidentally electrocute, incinerate and obliterate your friends on PlayStation 4 (PSN), Steam
Magicka 2 is a game that’s nigh impossible to play well, and it’s all the better for it. As a group of nameless wizards, you and your friends journey through a brilliantly witty, enjoyably throwaway plot as you Magick the shit out of everything.
The game’s magic system is perhaps one of the most unique in gaming. You have eight elements – fire, lightning, cold, water, earth, life, death and shield – of which up to five can be chained to create a spell. Certain elements combine to make new elements, such as water and fire to form steam, whereas opposite elements negate each other. Once your spell is ready, fire it out as a beam or projectile, blast it around you, apply it to your weapon or embody it as a shield. If you’re wet, don’t use a lightning spell until you’ve dried yourself with fire, or you’ll get zapped. If you’re on fire, prepare to feel the third degrees until you wet yourself (with water). And don’t forget about the numerous spellbooks there are to find, turning certain combinations into cataclysmic conflagrations.
If that sounds complicated, it’s because it undeniably is. You’ll spend ages tinkering and working out how to cast useful spells, but in the heat of battle your mind will go blank and you’ll be casting who knows what, who knows where. Add in the fact that friendly fire is a thing and you can expect to be accidentally blowing your compadres to the moon with a misplaced deathsplosion in a matter of minutes.
As a single-player game, Magicka 2 is by no means essential, but when four people are squawking like seagulls over bread, burning each other to Brandenburg and trying to remember the revive spell, it’s a real hoot. Please, for the sake of your friendships, remember the revive spell. Friendly fire is definitely a thing.
Race, trick and trap your friends on Xbox 360 (XBLIG), Steam; Xbox One & PS4 TBA
Often likened to a 2D Mario Kart, SpeedRunner HD/SpeedRunners (depending on whether you’re playing the XBLIG original or Steam remake) has you dressed in block-coloured lycra supersuits and racing each other around an endlessly-looping obstacle course. Should you fall behind and off-screen, you’ll lose a life, and the game continues until only one racer remains.
With a host of gadgets available to you as mystery-box pickups, you’ll be using grapples to grab and boxes to trap your rivals, as well as the odd homing missile for good measure. You’ll use every dirty trick in the book to ensure you’re the one in the lead, smiling a villainous smile as you watch the poor bastard in fourth trail in your dust, creeping closer to the screen boundary.
Then, suddenly, plot twist. He shoots out a grapple, pulls off an impressively acrobatic manoeuvre and you’re the fourth-place loser. The race goes on.
One thing I absolutely adore about the game is its sudden death mechanic. If there are two contestants left and the game shows no sign of ending, those ominous words will appear and the edges of the screen will start to shrink, giving you less of an indication of what’s ahead and an increasingly smaller area in which you are safe. Platforming finesse becomes a lot more important, and weapons far more deadly. Every overtake is fraught with tension, every stumble an all-too-possible game-ender.
With sweaty hands slipping on pads, one person will make the fumble that spells failure and the race will be over. Calm down. Take a breather. Then, rematch.
HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT
Hide from, find and assassinate your friends on Xbox 360 (XBLIG), Steam
The premise of Hidden in Plain Sight is so simple that it’s in the title. In five differing game modes, players must identify themselves in a room full of identical NPC characters, move inconspicuously through the crowd and attempt to fulfill certain objectives without being detected. Think of it like a party game version of Assassin’s Creed’s multiplayer, but a lot more fun and a lot less Ubisoft.
The first of the five modes, ‘Ninja Party’, is the best implementation of the game’s mechanics. The screen is overflowing with ninjas, and you are each cast as one of them. There’s no indication as to who’s who, so you need to move your analog stick in such a way that reveals your character to you, without drawing attention from everyone else.
Once you’ve found yourself (hey, you didn’t even need to go to Thailand), there are two ways to win the game. The first method is to touch five statues that are positioned around the room, but keep in mind that the statues ring when touched, and your enemies will be on the lookout for suspicious movement. The other win condition is a bit more violent, requiring you to seek out and assassinate all of the other players.
Striking a ninja down is risky business, because if you cock it up and attack a computer-controlled shinobi, he will get straight back up and everyone will have been alerted to your failure. If all goes wrong, you have one smoke bomb up your ninja sleeve to help you blend back in, but you’ll want to study suspects carefully before you make your move, keeping an eye on the areas around the statues and listening out for the telltale ring.
Another favourite mode is ‘Death Race’, which has a long line of wizards, knights and trolls racing from the left side of the screen to the right. Once again, you are all placed in the boots of a random character, but this time you also control a crosshair with a single bullet to shoot one adversary. Holding one button makes you walk slowly, while a second makes you run, but be wary – only players can run! Shooting willy-nilly is also a bad move, as if only one player is left to fire, they’re free to run towards the finish line.
Because running and shooting can both be dangerous, the game mostly consists of you endeavouring to trick and bluff each other, by doing mad things like putting your crosshair over yourself and saying “what’s up with this guy”. Nothing will work, and as your friends pick up on what you’re doing you’ll have to try something else that won’t work. It’s a riot, and you’ll all be laughing maniacally as once again the person who isn’t really trying claims another undeserved victory.
The ‘Catch a Thief’ and ‘Assassin’ modes shake things up again, pitting two snipers against two characters, who are tasked with surreptitiously stealing coins or assassinating targets respectively, and the final mode, ‘Knights vs Ninjas’, has players either attacking or defending a royal family. All five games require very different tactics and are endlessly replayable, meaning Hidden in Plain Sight always goes down a treat. Just don’t try to cheat by watching each other’s controllers. That would make you a right scumbag.
MOUNT YOUR FRIENDS
Mount your friends on Xbox 360 (XBLIG), Steam
One of the most famous and popular games ever to be released on Microsoft’s mostly-questionable Xbox Live Indie Games platform (XBLIG), Mount Your Friends has been played by every YouTube ‘let’s player’ under the sun, from the Yogscast behemoths all the way to the 11-views-per-video kids who delude themselves into thinking they’re a big deal. “I’m going to do a giveaway for all of my subscribers!” Yeah mate, your subscribers are your family and your giveaway’s a fucking tissue box.
As a game that involves creating a tower by stacking massive, burly men with massive, wildly-rotating knobs, it has YouTube appeal written all over it, but it’s at its best when played as a local party game. With no player limit and the ability to use either multiple controllers or one passed around, it’s always appropriate to whip it out.
Players take it in turns to control a humorously-named man in a QWOP-like fashion, with each of the face buttons on the 360 controller being tied to an individual limb. Holding a button unlocks that limb, which can then be controlled using the analog stick. Connecting a limb to the body of another man and releasing the button sticks it in place with a rather satisfying slap, holding it as you position your three remaining appendages.
Mastery of these controls is necessary to succeed, as each turn you are given 60 seconds to mount your friends, climbing the existing tower of men and extending it by reaching the top. As you may have guessed, the game gets significantly harder as it goes on (could make a cock joke, won’t), and you’ll soon find yourself frantically racing against the clock to reach that last friend at the apex of the pile.
You can grow accustomed to the controls relatively quickly, though they are unwieldy enough that you’re never entirely comfortable with them. Managing limbs can be hard work, something that is amazingly and hilariously reflected by the noises of exertion grunted out by the climbers as they reach for the next thing to grab on to. All too commonly you will be nearing your destination, only to press the wrong button at the wrong time and watch in futility as your man detaches from the pile, slowly tumbling through the air as the timer ticks to zero.
In your last moments, you have enough time to climb up to the first man, so you do, and you stick your legs out awkwardly just to add another obstacle for your friends to tackle.
You may have lost, but you lost with style. That, and a massive, wildly-rotating knob.
Shoot, evade and Mario your friends on PlayStation 4 (PSN), Steam, Ouya (but who the fuck has one of them, innit)
Finally, we arrive on the well-trodden doorstep of the ultimate four-player game: Towerfall: Ascension. It’s an incredibly fast-paced elimination game in which four archers bounce, leap and dodge around a series of single-screen maps, shooting arrows, catching arrows, collecting special arrows, getting hit by arrows and generally doing a lot of things with arrows. If you run out of ’em, take a page out of Mario’s book and start jumping on some heads. That works too.
Chests provide a bounty of crazy pickups that add spice to the mix, with shields, wings, bombs and lava traps coalescing to create five seconds of rip-roaring entertainment over and over again. Matches can be over within no time at all, or they can become fiercely intense battles of skill between two surviving players. The game somehow succeeds in making every fight thrilling and copious gallons of fun, no matter how it goes.
The multiple worlds you battle across provide a lot of variety too, mixing up scenery, adding new hazards and introducing you to unique arrow types. Bramble arrows spread killer thorns over the surface they hit, though are a lot less worrying than laser arrows, which ricochet off surfaces like they have completely no regard for human life. These will occasionally lead to self-served death, but like Magicka, that’s kind of the point. Mistakes are funny.
With simple enough controls allowing you to aim, shoot, catch and evade, Towerfall gives you all the tools you need to allow you to continuously generate fantastically memorable moments that will keep you playing for a long time. If you need more tools, you’re free to invent your own game mode from scratch, dabbling with dozens of variables, controlling pickups and adding curses to make something that really does belong to your group. Why not remove arrows altogether and give everyone wings for a furious, soaring Mariothon? Or how about limiting ammunition to laser arrows, and having dodges kill you unless you catch an arrow mid-air (you monster)?
Here’s a personal favourite – enable slow motion, give all players a single arrow, play on the lava-filled ‘Towerforge’ world and blast John Williams’ bombastic Star Wars hit ‘Duel of the Fates’ on a decent set of speakers. Trust me, it’s some of the most epic gameplay you’ll ever experience.
Towerfall: Ascension (or, ‘the archer game’ as a friend insists on calling it) is very good in its own right, but what makes it an utterly compelling classic is its function as a platform for all the best things about local multiplayer gaming: laughter, excitement and plenty of top bants. There might even be some punching.
And thus endeth the Word of Tom.