I played my first co-op shooter while I was in college. A year or so after the Xbox came out, a friend of mine introduced me to a little game called Halo, and we spent the afternoon hanging out and slowly working our way through the campaign. She had even setup a separate TV so that we wouldn't have to play splitscreen.
I found myself thinking back to those days recently while playing Destiny, and it made me remember that Bungie has a long history with co-op shooters that extends past Halo and back to Marathon. Jeremy even refers to Marathon 2: Durandal as the "grandfather of Destiny" in a Comfort Food Games piece he wrote back in July.
"Happily, the spirit of Durandal lives on in Destiny, Bungie's latest shooter. If Destiny feels like a newer, more ambitious take on Halo, Halo in turn was on many levels an attempt to modernize Marathon," he wrote at the time. "Many elements that the new game seems to borrow from the Halo series in turn have their roots in Marathon. Game design and technology weren't ready for everything Bungie tried to accomplish in the Marathon series, including cooperative play, and while it's definitely not just the same thing reprised for a new audience, the Destiny beta nevertheless works for me on the same level that Marathon did."
In many ways, I agree with Jeremy's assessment. Destiny may look like an MMORPG at first blush, but it has much more in common with Halo and Marathon than it does most games of its ilk. The persistent online elements are not really an end in themselves, but really more of a vehicle for Bungie to seamlessly integrate Destiny's single-player and multiplayer components. In that way, it's one more milestone on the road that began with Durandal.
When Durandal first arrived back in 1995, online multiplayer was still very much in its formative stages. Competitors like DOOM had co-op modes, but co-op was dramatically overshadowed by the emergence of Deathmatch. Later shooters such as Duke Nukem 3D and Quake II retained it as an option, but more as an afterthought than anything. It wasn't until Halo: Combat Evolved arrived in 2001 that a shooter really put co-op at the forefront.
Halo's focus on strategy helped make it a marvelous co-op game. The intelligent enemies often required planning and communication to defeat, particularly at higher difficulty levels. I still remember turning a corner in Halo: Combat Evolved and being told, "Stop right now or you'll die." My friend had seen an Elite lurking down the way, and she had stopped me just in time. Such experiences are typical of the Halo co-op experience, and they frequently turn up in Destiny as well.
Interestingly, despite the large strides made by Halo, co-op remained a relative non-starter for most shooter developers until Gears of War 2 and Left 4 Dead launched in the same year, bringing with them Horde Mode and full-featured four-player co-op. When Borderlands dropped a year later, it became fair to say that co-op shooters had truly emerged from the long shadow cast by online deathmatch.
Those innovations didn't really extend to massively multiplayer online shooters, however. Hybrid MMO first-person shooters over the past decade have typically followed in the footsteps of Planetside, which pitted numerous factions against one another in large-scale battles for territory. An exception was Neocron in 2002, which along with its sequel in 2004 attempted to create a true MMORPG FPS. Created as a reaction to the proliferation of fantasy MMOs, the development team's mantra was reportedly "No More Elves!" Instead, it had a cyberpunk aesthetic more in keeping with Deus Ex than with WarCraft. Though deeper than most first-person shooters, however, most reviewers called it out for its relatively limited character creation and somewhat tedious gameplay.
"The tedium (and emotional exhaustion - sigh) of scouring the city's underground sewage system for roaches, rodents and mutants to axe is softened by standard, first-person, point and click combat. Nothing special here, just select your weapon, put the cursor over your intended target, and press the hell out of the mouse button," IGN reviewer Michael Perlo wrote at the time. "Don't get too excited though, Neocron's action shares more in common with the slow-paced tempo of Deus Ex (sans the whole open-ended, free form gameplay that made it so brilliant) than other popular button mashing titles such as Unreal Tournament or Quake III. Just imagine Anarchy Online, but rather than targeting an opponent and pressing attack, you get to manually shoot on command. Revolutionary? Hardly. But a welcomed change from the whole 'A' key MMORPG trend."
Neocron was able to build a small but devoted following, even earning itself a "community edition" years later, but comparatively few developers followed in its footsteps. Instead, most publishers spent their time and money chasing the proverbial dragon that was World of WarCraft, which grew into a monster in the years following Neocron. A handful of true MMORPG shooters have followed since then, but they've been relatively few and far between. Defiance arrived in 2013 alongside the television show of the same name, and Firefall arrived in July. Otherwise, most free MMO shooters have followed in the footsteps of Planetside 2 in offering a more traditional competitive environment.
Which brings me back to Destiny. Bungie hasn't released a game since 2010's Halo Reach, but they've clearly been thinking about how they can tie the disparate single-player and multiplayer modes that have long defined shooters into a cohesive whole. To do so, they've co-opted MMORPG elements like raids, but Destiny doesn't stray too far from its roots. It's more of a traditional, linear shooter than it first appears. It's just easier to group with stranges now, with gear carrying over into the various competitive modes.
It's not a stretch to say that Destiny might be the vanguard of a new run of games that use persistent online worlds to blur the lines between MMORPGs and more traditional single-player games. We've already seen it to some extent with Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, where the online elements tend to hang in the background, but are definitely a part of the overall experience. The jury is still out on Destiny's long-term prospects, but the blueprint for a true hybrid MMORPG FPS is now set. Whether or not they have RPG elements, I fully expect more first-person shooters in the future to break the wall between single-player and multiplayer.
Bungie, at least, has been building up to this for a very long time. Now we'll see whether the journey was worth it.