Where did all the Split Screens go?

Me and my best friend Adam were hanging out at his place, it had been several months since we’d last seen each other. We’ve known each other since 2003, when we were both 13, and we practically grew up together playing co-op games.

In the mid-naughties, when we were around 15-16 and really starting to get into games, there was this explosion in co-operative shooters.

We played through all of Halo 2 (2004), Halo 3 (2007) and Halo: Reach (2010) together. We also had a lot of fun with Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (2006), mostly by activating turrets on each other, and failing to throw grenades through doors. And of course we can’t forget the iconic, bro-ing it up, co-op legend Gears of War 1,2 & 3 (2006, 2008 and 2011).

But for us the ultimate the co-op game was Army of TWO (2008) and Army of TWO: The 40th Day (2009). Gears of War could be played single player, but Army of TWO could only be enjoyed through co-op play. What’s more one of the characters was actually called “Elliot”! I mean, he still has the too many “L”s for me, but its the best I was ever going to get! FINALLY A CHARACTER WITH MY NAME!

Was it the best game ever? No, honestly it wasn’t. We had so much fun though, with its over-powered weapons, mask customisation and hilarious rag-doll physics. I loved making a fully automatic rifle with a sniper zoom that had zero kickback. You could unload a clip from a mile a way with complete accuracy and no recoil, this breaks a shooting game.

I also loved the insane logic of a completely pointless moral choice that either released a Siberian Tiger onto some unsuspecting burglar, or causes the entire species to go extinct.

No seriously, the moral choice with the Tiger was real. Because ‘reasons’

On top of all that something about Elliot Salem and Tyson Rios spoke to our video game aliases, Rabbit & Billy Buck. More so than any other game, we connected with Army of TWO in a way that felt unique to us.

So what do we want to do when we see each other again? Play co-op games of course.

Except, we can’t find any!

Adam had the latest Splinter Cell game, but due to his Xbox 360 being the same one that has also periodically wiped his saves, we had to start from the beginning again.

Oh dear god!

I am not kidding when I say there was a 5 minute opening cinematic, which was followed by another 5 minute opening cinematic. When we were allowed to skip, we had to skip 3 or 4 times to actually get to the game.

Then, it turns out we have to play through the whole tutorial mission before we can unlock co-op games. Which we only knew by googling it.

Bloody hell, for a tutorial mission it was long, and had another 3 or 4 cinematics in it. And for some reason a game which primarily started out as a stealth game, now had us running from convenient shoulder high walls, to other, convenient shoulder high walls, firing assault rifles.

Anyway, we finally get to the “co-op” aspect of the game, which was advertised on the back. Except it wasn’t co-op, it was online multiplayer missions.

These were dumb to say the least. They were basic, short, and were entirely an after-thought no-one had but any effort into making. At one point, instead of hitting the “Open Door Slowly Button” I somehow managed to press the “Kick The Door Into the Face of the Guard Behind It” button. Naturally this set off the alarm, but it didn’t fail the mission.

In fact, we happily sprinted through the whole map, barrelling through every doorway and tripping every laser sensor, punching anyone who go in our way and knocking them down with doors.

Remember when you used to have a light and sound bar? And Splinter Cell was, you know, a stealth game?

Presumably it was designed like this to cope with the idiots you will invariably find in online match-making, because online matchmaking for a “stealth” game – if it even is that – is a fundamentally dumb idea!

Unfortunately, it offered nothing to us, who used to delight in carefully assessing the situation, sneaking into the room from two angles, and then throwing a grenade at the other one so that we’d have to start the mission all over again. It was a kind of added challenge to complete the mission, while your team-mate did everything in his power to to ruin it for you.

So we gave up, and played Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel, instead.

…..The new Splinter Cell was bad, but this…..

Me and Adam don’t speak of this game anymore.

It is the worst game with have ever played.

It is horrendous.

But while the previous Army of TWO had faults which were funny (like being able to take an RPG to the foot in a cinematic, and be totally fine in the next scene) this game was just bad.

But it was that special kind of bad. Not “so bad its good”, or “so awful its a warning to mankind”. This was a completely flat bad. So bad there is nothing of note to even remember it by. Bad like the Hitman movie in that you know you’ve seen it, but you can’t remember anything significant about it to really get mad.

You remember this being a thing don’t you? It’s okay, I can’t remember what happened in it either…

Devil’s Cartel was a complete non-game.

For one thing, we weren’t playing as Rios and Salem, but instead some greenhorn punks who..I don’t know, one had a girlfriend, one was aggressive but was also the honourable one?

I don’t remember, but already we’ve taken away the one thing the series had going for it: its established characters. Casually tossed aside for no reason, just like the Aggro system.

The whole point of the previous Army of TWO games was that one player could draw Aggro, causing enemies to pay attention to him, while the other could flank them. This was a core concept to how you thought tougher enemies, as many carried shields or had weak spots on their back. This was the whole reason why you upgraded your grenades to be diamond encrusted. Nothing says “Look at me jackass!” like unprecedented swagger!

Did I really need a gold plated AK-47 with an under-mounted shoutgun and zebra stripes? Yes! Yes I actually did. It was a core mechanic to the game!

So we’ve got none of that now. We’re just too random dudes in a shooting game. Just shootings things. Great.

Lets get onto why the game was so awful it should be used to teach future generations how not to make games.

Character model design is pretty key to any game, but especially shooters. In Halo the Grunts never stopped being fun to shoot, the Elites required some effort, the Brutes were genuinely terrifying, Hunters were a challenge and might force you to use actual teamwork, and the Drones were just really bloody hard to hit.

Whereas Devil’s Cartel had us shooting at shirtless teenagers in baggy jeans and gang tattoos, because we’re in Mexico, right?

It was hard to feel righteous and totally badass when you had just gunned down your hundredth kid in nothing but a do-rag, menacing you with a table leg.

By comparison, Army of TWO: the 40th Day was game of the century for its enemy design.

They got the memo which had been delivered to the games industry a decade ago: Introduce basic enemies, add a tougher enemy in a set piece, slowly make them more common, introduce mini-boss in a set piece, slowly make them more common, rinse and repeat.

But Devil’s Cartel just sends nothing but shirts street gangers in endless waves, and I mean endless!

Remember in Left 4 Dead 2, how if you took too long to advance, the game would send a large horde of zombies to get you to hurry up? Well imagine fighting that many unarmed Mexicans charging at you, 5 times in a row, and you might be one quarter of the way through one Devil’s Cartel mission.

This game was so padded with unecessary waves of racist portrayals that you could’ve used it to make bedding for all the homeless in San Francisco.

Enemies getting more complex is a good way of measuring how far into the game you are. Halfway through our second day of self-imposed torture, and we still had no idea if we were in the final Act or if we were trapped doing the introduction.

And then, their big reveal – Oh no, its Elliot Salem who is your nemesis! He’s been in disguise all along!!

A disguise which consisted of wearing a different mask….an attribute that only principal characters in this game series wear. The fact that it was clearly the same character model underneath, or that he had been carefully killed at the start, even though we never saw his body, mean that we were so totally surprised by this.

And then everyone suddenly feels all betrayed, including the two characters who knew Salem for a whole two cut-scenes and one mission, which amounts to less than an hour. Every protagonist in this game is, and has always been, a mercenary. Salem’s a big boy, he can bat for the other side if he wants! It’s just business.

So into our final showdown with Salem, which has him in a truck for some reason, despite his undeniably cool mask.

And he’s dead.

And the game’s over.

For a whole weekend we shot at nothing but hordes of outgunned Mexicans without any concept of how much of the game we had completed. A game that was more dragged out than the extended edition of the Hobbit movies, and it had the audacity to end abruptly.

I can’t even remember why we were shooting Mexicans…its not like they had ever done anything to us. At least the last title had a sense of humour. The 40th Day practically parodied the genre, with a plot that was literally “You’re going to take down an ideological terrorist organisation, because they interrupted your holiday”.

We were disappointed.

The co-op genre seems to have died an unceremonious death. More so than ever now, console publishers need to ship units of games and machines, and this means no more split-screen co-op.

The idea of two people sitting on the sofa together, sharing a game, surrounded by snacks and good music, with an endless supply of tea, is proving increasingly unprofitable, and that’s what makes me sad.

It was the one thing I actually wanted from console games, and it was the one thing I felt only a console game could do. Its something Skype just can’t quite replace, while I see here alone at my PC.

You will be missed split-screen co-ops, and sadly, I am sure you won’t be coming back.

Paul Tassi wrote a great piece on this subject for Forbes and you should totally go read that too: http://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2015/09/21/the-new-loneliness-of-video-games/