Next-Gen. High definition: check. Full online support: check. Community: che… wait a second
by Adam L
This current generation (namely the PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii) has changed gaming in a multitude of ways. Graphics have never been this good, online capabilities rival those traditionally found on the PC and the ways in which we can interact with our consoles (dancing without a mat and bowling with a wand) have changed completely with motion control. This is all well and good, and I’m certainly glad to still be gaming in this generation, but I still can’t help but feel sorry for anyone just getting involved now.
Allow me to explain: I started online gaming properly back on the PS2, when broadband internet was an incredibly rare find in the average home and you were typically confined to sharing a screen to enjoy multiplayer. I was lucky enough to get broadband in late 2003 after enduring years of dial-up 56k, and got a hold of the particularly difficult to find Network Adapter for my PS2 that Christmas. Most people weren’t even aware the console had the capability to go online, but as an avid gamer I was ecstatic about the prospect. So, on New Year’s Eve 2003, the recently turned 15 year old me removed the expansion bay at the back of my PS2 (that many thought to be redundant) and attached the clunky Network Adapter.
My first online experience was on Tony Hawk’s Underground which, in hindsight, had a reasonably basic online mode. All I really did was play around in the free play, simply astounded that I was playing with people all over Europe without any visible lag. I exchanged small talk through the use of the on-screen virtual keyboard (which was a truly laborious effort) and just messed around, trying to get high scores. I quickly realised through this session that I wasn’t as good at the Tony Hawk’s games as I thought I was, as within the first hour I recall seeing a player from Sweden (who I later ended up in a ‘clan’ with on the game) pull off a five million point combo, seemingly effortlessly.
Sadly my time on the game was cut short when I was pulled away to a New Year’s party by my parents (I still get angry merely thinking about it), but I was able to play online again the following day, and I decided to try my only other online title: a third person shooter by the name of SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs, which I had received a few days earlier for Christmas. I had only about an hour of experience with the game before playing online for the first time; I had played the demo on a magazine disc a few months beforehand, and on Christmas Day itself I had briefly tried the single player portion (which wasn’t all that great). The main reason I had asked for the game in the first place was to try the online, as when I saw a glimpse of the mode at the end of the demo level, I was utterly fascinated. It bragged about 16 player online combat, with full voice communication through use of the included headset. It sounded like an absolute delight.
So, there I was on New Year’s Day, 2004, with the game that was about to change my life. I connected online, made my account on the old “Central Station” service, and created my own lobby. Back then, there was no such thing as matchmaking; the game had a bunch of different servers, separated to accommodate the different European countries, and within each server there were a number of pre-made match lobbies and then whatever the players had made themselves. My lobby was called “n00bs Only Please”, in a probably naïve effort to avoid getting destroyed since the game had been out for six months already. I spent about five minutes in the armoury screen, looking through all the weapon stats and eventually decided upon the one-hit kill sniper rifle.
By the time I returned to the main lobby screen, one other player was waiting. If you’re unfamiliar with the game, SOCOM is a single-life (without regenerative health or any means to heal your wounds), round based shooter that is very much designed for 8v8 play. It is perhaps best described as the third-person, console equivalent of Counter Strike. Without further hesitation, I typed “good luck” to the other player and started it up. The map was Frostfire, one of the ten available on the disc, which I had chosen simply because I could tell from the picture preview that it was similar to the only single player level I had experienced.
I spent the first few minutes wandering around the map, looking for my opponent; I imagine he was doing the same thing, probably furious thinking I was camping somewhere. I was just sat in awe, like a young kid with a new toy. I explored the map gradually (by no means a large one), and eventually ended up climbing a ladder. I saw gunfire ahead of me, my opponent clearly bored of searching for me on this oil rig. I finally saw him atop the a nearby platform and, after I zoomed in, I tentatively fired. When he actually died from my first ever shot online, I was ecstatic. I ran around the map jumping like an idiot as the AI announcer proclaimed: “SEALs victorious!” during the round close-out. Each game was a best of 11 rounds, and at the start of the next I was surprised to see the same victory message.
It turns out my opponent had quit, or “aborted” as I later learnt to call it. I stupidly didn’t realise what had happened until this instant-win cycle was over, and after undeservedly winning the map 6-0, I was returned to the lobby to set-up for the next match. My first match on this game is probably one-of-a-kind, since most players who speak of their first SOCOM experience usually recall struggling to get a kill, as the game is renowned for being incredibly skillful, due to the difficult weapon recoil and no way to recover your health bar.
Before continuing, it’s probably best that I at least attempt to apologise for how long-winded this story may have been; I’ve told it so many times now, about the game that changed my life, that I honestly can’t help myself. To get to the point, after my first game I joined a different, full lobby, and got a taste of the actual team-based gameplay SOCOM is known for. The game was boxed with a USB headset, so practically everyone had – and used – one. You had to hold the Circle button to talk, and you could only communicate with the teammates who were alive (or dead) with you, to stop people cheating. There was no way to interrupt or talk over one another, so communication was nothing like the scream-fest you’d find on Call of Duty nowadays if you dared to brave public voice chat.
The very simple way this game was played basically typifies the point of this article. So few people at that time had the capability to play online, there were merely a few thousand of us on each evening… and do I mean each evening. No matter which lobby you joined, you’d recognise someone’s gamer handle. You got talking to random people every time without hesitation, people of all ages. Almost everyone was polite and you actually got to make proper friendships over the game. You would stay in the same lobby for hours on end, possibly for the entire session that night. The lobby only disappeared once everyone quit, so as time went on and people left, they were usually promptly replaced by someone else and it was pretty rare to see a game below the 16 player limit.
Amidst this nostalgia, I can’t imagine how this generation’s gamers do it. If they were to start now, at 15, they’d barely stay in touch with any of the people they met. The combination of matchmaking and party chat has essentially killed any chance of finding or experiencing an actual community in today’s online games. Granted, it’s nice to be able to just chat exclusively with your friends, and I suppose matchmaking does make finding a fresh batch of people to play with fairly effortless, but if you don’t already have real life friends you can play with to begin with, I can imagine online multiplayer feeling pretty damn lonely. When I began playing, no-one I knew personally played online, but I quickly made friends who, believe it or not, I still play online with to this date. We’ve essentially grown up together over a variety of different shooters, and a few of them have spoken to me almost every day since as early as 2005. Could someone starting out now experience the same thing? I very much doubt it.
To conclude, this subject is one that my online friends and I have discussed plenty of times. We were all “Socomers” (and passionately referred to ourselves as such), all met through the series and all became nothing less than addicted to it. I personally tallied up no less than 3,500 hours in two years on the sequel, SOCOM II. But it wasn’t just the fact the games were actually good that fuelled our addictions, it was simply the people who played it. As I said before, even though there were several thousand players online each evening, you could literally pick any lobby on the UK server and find a recognisable name. There was incredible banter in the countdown to each game, with each team trash-talking one another over the headset in the lobby. Everyone knew one another and that made playing, competing and winning that much sweeter. And that’s not even the tip of the iceberg; I haven’t even got into the online clan scene that pretty much ruined every Socomer’s education… but perhaps that’s a story for another time.
Last five articles by Adam L