We’re starting off 2015 with two games heavily featuring asymmetrical multiplayer: Evolve and Dying Light, the former being heavily focused on it. Every so often we get another game that truly embraces the style, however it hasn’t had the focus that many fans wish for, until now.
Asymmetrical multiplayer modes are those where two or more teams of human players play two or more radically different teams, often with different objectives. Common examples would be Left 4 Dead, with its versus mode, or the Spies vs Mercs mode in certain Splinter Cell games. While it’s arguable RTS games have asymmetrical gameplay as, for example, a Terran player will play differently to a Zerg player in Starcraft 2, the two players have the same goal and achieve it through similar styles. Asymmetrical multiplayer modes typically have more differences, such as different objectives or a focus on mechanics like stealth or teams fighting a strong enemy. RTS games typically won’t be considered to have ‘asymmetrical’ gameplay. Asymmetrical multiplayer is often a mode that is glued on to the main game, although that’s changing.
The original asymmetrical games were tabletop games. Dungeons & Dragons, in a way, was one of the first, with the use of a dungeon master acting as the enemy to the adventurers. Since then, asymmetrical board games have been very popular, with games such as Star Wars: X-Wing and Lords of Waterdeep being two very recent examples.
In videogames, asymmetrical gameplay took off with Aliens versus Predator in 1999, taking humans, the Aliens, and Predator as three different teams and pitting them against each other. This continued with games like Giants: Citizen Kabuto, Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow, and Natural Selection (a mod for the Source engine but still massively popular). Towards the end of the last decade, asymmetrical multiplayer began to disappear. Splinter Cell: Conviction didn’t have it, the Alien vs. Predator series didn’t return to living room consoles or PC until 2010, and games like Call of Duty and Halo with symmetrical multiplayer were massively popular.
One of the few asymmetrical multiplayer games was Left 4 Dead and its sequel. Versus mode is actually my favourite mode in the game, simply because it’s so flexible. One second you’re a hunter, looking to pick off that survivor who is on his own, the next you’re a boomer looking to sneak up on the 4 survivors and cover them in your bile. This wasn’t nearly as popular as it could have been and it wasn’t quite the focus of the game. As of 2010 Garry’s Mod had the incredibly popular mode Trouble in Terrorist Town, where innocents must kill the traitor and the traitor must kill the innocents, although killing everyone won’t be in your best interests as the innocents. Again, however, it wasn’t a full release or even close to it, Trouble in Terrorist Town plays on the unreliability of others rather than the asymmetrical style.
In this current decade, the mode has become a focus of a number of popular games. One of the first of these to focus wholly on the style is Natural Selection 2, the full-release sequel to the original Source Engine mod. Two teams fight to annihilate the other, one being humans and the other being an alien race known as the Kharaa. Both play very different, however, as the aliens can very efficiently create structures and evolve, while the humans have to work as a team to capture points on the map and ensure the aliens can’t pick them off. I’d really point to Natural Selection 2 for the resurgence of this mode.
A few months later, Dungeonland was released. A comedic take on the style of games using a ‘many-on-one’ mechanic, a dungeon ‘maestro’ can take control of a deadly theme park, placing enemies and traps to try to kill the party of adventurers. It was released to good reviews, however it is a game that is really at its best in a group with friends, so it didn’t have the general appeal something like Natural Selection 2 has. The comedy and overall silliness were really complimented by playing with a few friends.
Again, the asymmetrical multiplayer games began to hide away again. While we had games like Omegalodon and a number of modes in Garry’s Mod, there weren’t any releases that were almost solely asymmetrical multiplayer. So, when Evolve began to rear its monstrous head, it was the game many people were really hoping for. On top of Dying Light’s ‘Be the zombie’ mode that was announced closer to its release and the currently in development SpyParty, this year seems like a fantastic one for those who enjoy the genre.
What’s so great about the style though? Trouble in Terrorist Town is regularly one of the most played game modes on Garry’s Mod, and Evolve (according to vgchartz.com) has had over 140,000 preorders simply in the USA alone. I feel like the biggest positive aspect is the mix of one or more players feeling incredibly powerful, although often alone, with the others feeling like the underdogs. In Natural Selection 2, the Kharaa are, in my opinion, the overall stronger side. This is balanced by a number of weaknesses. The hulking great unit for the Kharaa, the Onos, is impossible to miss and blocks up entire corridors. Its specialisation is in head-on damage and tankiness, however if the marines adapt around that, they can defeat it. The Fade, a stealth Kharaa unit, is especially strong at taking out a weakened or separated enemy. However, a team that stays together will be able to quickly take out one of these units. Where the Kharaa have clearly strengths, they also have clear weaknesses, and the joy in Natural Selection 2 is found in either playing to your strengths as the Kharaa or abusing the weaknesses as the marines.
Evolve is similar: the monster, in a one-on-one fight, will destroy anyone. However, due to it being on its own, it must use its habitat to outwit the group. The monster should know its surroundings and how to use them to its advantage, where the hunters will often be in the dark. These games also create interesting commentaries on the idea of ‘adapt to survive’ – where aliens are often portrayed as adapting very fast, often on a physical level. The humans (or human-like race) will usually have to adapt just as fast – albeit this will typically be mentally, through the use of different tactics based on weaknesses. That’s another article for another day, though.
When the reviews for Evolve come out we’ll get the best idea of whether asymmetrical multiplayer is here to stay, but I love it. Creating two or more unique sides with their own goals is a challenge for many developers, however it pays off in spades in my opinion. Many of the monsters in Evolve seem to be fantastically designed around the theme and SpyParty has gathered a lot of attention without even being available outside its website. On top of that, the modes on Garry’s Mod that feature asymmetrical multiplayer ideas have become massively popular on YouTube, people flock to the many groups who play Murder or Trouble in Terrorist Town.
While Evolve may or may not be a good game, the fact that it’s taking relatively unsung idea and putting it into a full release shows hope for the gaming industry. Major developers are realising there’s potential in fantastic design over strong gameplay, thanks to the success of indie games which put emphasis on their design. Asymmetrical multiplayer is bringing unique ideas to the table, it’s the break we need from the 5v5 MOBAs or FPS team deathmatches.