A Great Year for the Multiplayer Shooter

A Great Year for the Multiplayer Shooter

2015 IN REVIEW: This year, fans of PvP shooting games had a lot to choose from. Jaz picks the winners.

This time last year, I was writing about how 2014 was a vintage year for first-person shooters. I think that this year has been an even better one for them – in particular, for those with a focus on PvP.

Battlefield Hardline got the ball rolling in March, eschewing the franchise's usual military focus and replacing it with a classic case of cops versus robbers. It was an interesting experiment that wasn't exactly a triumph, but Battlefield Hardline did at least bring some new modes to its PvP aspect that were a lot of fun.

What works for Battlefield Hardline is its sheer variety. It features a broad range of game types, so whether you're in the mood for a spectacular shootout featuring loads of players, vehicles, and helicopters, or want tight, tense five versus five combat played out over a smaller map that concentrates the conflict, Battlefield Hardline can deliver both - and plenty in between. The game is quite well balanced, and while some of the larger maps can sometimes result in protracted downtime during battles as you get back into the action following a death, it's nevertheless a solid and entertaining PvP game.

The other big-scale multiplayer shooter from EA this year was, of course, Star Wars: Battlefront. This arrived on a huge wave of hype thanks to its successful Beta, and delivered massive multiplayer battles that looked and sounded absolutely fantastic. The audio-visuals are definitely Star Wars: Battlefront's strong suit: the photo-realistic modeling of the environments is absolutely gorgeous, and really captures the essence of the original trilogy's settings. Add in terrific-looking vehicles and player models, and round it off with audio that puts you right in the thick of a frantic Star Wars battle, and you have one of the best-looking and sounding games of this generation.

However, it does fall a little short in terms of its overall experience. That's because Star Wars: Battlefront feels like it was launched more as a platform for expansion than a full game: Additional content will be released over the coming months, which will round out the game with more maps, modes and heroes. That's going to be great, but for now, Star Wars: Battlefront feels a little on the lean side in terms of its content. It only takes a few days to unlock everything the game has to offer, and that makes it a little disappointing. That said, it's still a lot of fun – but it's clear that Star Wars: Battlefront's full potential has yet to be realized, and that by the middle of next year, the game will be in a far better shape than it currently is in its somewhat nascent guise.

Speaking of a game building up over time, Destiny has gathered a lot of momentum since its release last year, and in 2015 its first major expansion, The Taken King, brought with it a host of new improvements and content. I loved it, and had a blast leveling up through its very engaging storyline and subsequently gearing up in its endgame quests and strikes. But its PvP continues to be the strongest draw for me. It's constantly being fettled and tweaked for balance, and while sometimes you end up with flavor-of-the-month weapons, overall I think Destiny's competitive element is very good indeed.

There weren't a huge amount of changes made to Destiny's PvP in The Taken King – but then again, it was already in pretty good shape before the expansion launched. Rift is the new PvP mode this time out, and it's essentially a capture the flag game – only there's just one flag, a "spark," that can be picked up and carried to the enemy's portal to score points. What makes this mode fun is that having what is ostensibly one resource focuses the conflict into a central area, and that makes for some intense firefights. Carrying the spark also makes you a magnet for enemy fire, and that can lead to some adrenaline-pumping moments as you attempt to shoot your way through to the enemy portal.

Combine that with Destiny's other PvP modes, and the fact that there are special PvP events like the Iron Banner, and you have a game that feels really solid and well designed. Like most PvP games, it can be a little brutal and unforgiving at times – especially if you're new to the game, or when you get stuck on a weak team – but despite that, Destiny continues to deliver one of the best multiplayer experiences around.

Halo 5: Guardians is another game that provided a strong PvP component this year. It's really three games in one – a campaign mode and two different flavors of competitive action. While I was a little ambivalent about the former, I did enjoy the latter.

Arena offers smaller-scale battles, and pits teams of four against one another on maps that help focus the conflict. What particularly appeals to me about this mode is that players are grouped together using a rating system that ranks players on seven different levels, which results in some pretty balanced matchmaking. The game modes are quite straightforward - Breakout, Strongholds, Capture the Flag, Slayer, Free-for-All and SWAT – and offer classic action that's a little slower and steadier than most of the other PvP games I'm talking about today. It's not by much, but I do find I have more time to think during combat compared to, say, Call of Duty: Black Ops III's blink-and-you're-dead action.

The main centerpiece of Halo 5: Guardians is its Warzones. These 12 vs 12 battles offer a combination of PvP and light PvE where each team fights for control over different objectives. The action is concentrated nicely, and there always seems to be something to do, whether you're attacking or defending a node, fighting the PvE forces that get dropped into the battle at regular intervals, or wandering around solo picking off stragglers.

A novel aspect of Warzone is its REQ system – collectible cards that are bought using points garnered in PvP. These enable players to access weapons and vehicles, amongst other things, during battle. It’s a neat idea that works quite well, and helps add interest and variety to the proceedings.

One of the current criticisms I have of Halo 5: Guardians' PvP is that Arena matchmaking queues can sometimes be quite protracted. Perhaps that's something to do with my ranking, but I do find I usually have to wait a while before I can kick off in earnest. Conversely, Warzones are usually instant-access – although I must admit that I prefer the more balanced competition of Arena to the more hectic Warzones.

Gears of War: Ultimate Edition brought back the nine-year-old game this year, and it felt freshly overhauled and quite contemporary thanks to an extensive ground-up remaster from The Coalition. I missed the game the first time around, and had a lot of fun playing through its campaign. But what really surprised me was its PvP. A steadier, cover-based game, it really has its own identity and feel compared to most run-and-gun shooters.

I spend a lot of my time playing Call of Duty, and it took me a while to settle into Gears of War's more strategic shooting – but once I adjusted to the slower cadence of its action, I really enjoyed what it has to offer. Most competitive PvP shooters are more about running around looking for other players and being quickest on the trigger when you find them. While there is an element of that to GoW, I found that a lot of the time, I knew where the enemy was and it was more about trying to outmaneuver them so I could get in my shots before they could nail me – often using cover to my advantage. That resulted in some really intense cat-and-mouse firefights where I needed to use a combination of patience and strategy to get the better of my opponents.

It's definitely a different kind of experience to most of the shooters here, and one that felt quite novel and new to me – which is ironic considering how old the game is. Sure, GoW's age does show if you play it back-to-back with a contemporary shooter, since characters are much slower and more limited in their movement than the ones in the current crop of games, but nevertheless, GoW's unique aspects help it hold up quite well, all things considered.

Another 2015 game that offered something a little different in terms of its PvP action is Rainbow Six: Siege. It's an asymmetrical tactical shooter in which two teams of five face off, alternately defending and attacking a location with one of four mission objectives in mind. When a game starts, you have a short period of time to prepare: Attackers scout the target locale with drones, while defenders barricade and reinforce their position. Once the timer is up, the action commences.

What makes the game work well is that it's really tense and gripping – largely because it plays out very realistically. Players only have one life and there are no respawns, which means you have to be mindful about not rushing into combat with guns blazing. Do that, and you're likely to find yourself dead in short order. Instead, the game is more about playing conservatively, methodically sweeping rooms and checking corners so that the enemy doesn't ambush you.

The standout feature of Rainbow Six: Siege is its destructible environments. Walls, doors, window barricades and even parts of the floor can be destroyed, which means the enemy can attack from almost anywhere – and therefore you have to be very careful about where you position yourself. Not knowing where the next assault might come from really helps ratchet up the tension, and makes the game very exciting to play.

On the down-side, like Star Wars: Battlefront, Rainbow Six: Siege's content felt a little slim at launch. Free maps will be made available throughout next year, and this will help expand the game and add more variety – something that the game definitely needs, as it currently only has ten maps. That said, Rainbow Six: Siege is still a great shooter, and one that offers its own unique brand of action.

Although it packs very few surprises, I really, really enjoyed Call of Duty: Black Ops III. Indeed, I think Treyarch's title is currently the benchmark PvP shooter. It's just so incredibly slick and well designed.

At its core, it continues to build on Advanced Warfare's movement system. In last year's game you had thrust jumps, auto-mantling and chained-moves that delivered a quite comprehensively fluid movement system. This time out, Treyarch has dialed that up so that moves are now even smoother and more easily connected together, and the result is fantastic. From running along walls, through power sliding and thrust jumping to mantling onto pieces of scenery, you can chain together moves in a way that feels silky smooth. And all the while, your gun is almost always useable.

The end result is a game that feels free-flowing, and incredibly precise. It's intuitive, and ultimately lowers the barrier between your intentions and the results to deliver a brilliant control scheme that just feels completely natural. Combine that with superlative gun feel and spot-on aiming, and you have a game that stands tall against the competition.

While I believe Call of Duty: Black Ops III represents the cutting edge of PvP gaming right now, I can't finish off this piece without talking about Splatoon. Some might question whether Nintendo's cute four versus four arena shooter really belongs in this piece, but I think it does. Sure, it's a third-person game, and it doesn't reward you for taking out enemy players, but nevertheless, I think that the game is a really well-designed multiplayer shooter – even if it is very different from the rest of the games here.

If you're not familiar with it, players are armed with ink guns, and the objective is to spray the environment in your color. The team that has the most area covered when the timer expires wins. It's very simple, and typically Nintendo, but despite being accessible, non-violent, brightly colored and very cute, Splatoon is a mean tactical shooter. The thing is, while you aren’t rewarded for shooting enemies with your ink gun, doing so is key to being able to lay down your ink, and this is where individual skills and team play come to the fore. There are a variety of different weapons, from paint rollers to a sniper-style railgun, and all deliver their own unique benefits. Rollers can cover the environment quickly, but can only double as a melee weapon if someone comes after you. Railguns don't offer much coverage, but can blast someone from a distance. There are plenty of other weapons between these two extremes, and they all facilitate slightly different playstyles.

What transpires is fast and exciting gameplay with a focus that's totally different to the usual PvP shooter fare. It's essentially a territorial battle where you're trying to keep the other team at bay so that you can spray down the environment in your colors. It's Nintendo's take on a PvP shooter, and it's great.

Like I said, Splatoon might well be the odd one out here, but I think it's one of the most enjoyable and fun tactical shooters of the year. Sure, it doesn't match up to the sheer slickness of Call of Duty: Black Ops III, but I think beneath its bright and colorful exterior beats an original shooter that can more than hold its own in this group – and that’s why I'm nominating it as my runner-up favorite multiplayer shooter of the year.

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