Each year, the selection of games on display at E3 reveals what the hottest current trend in the video game industry is at the time--usually manifesting itself as an overused gameplay mechanic that every developer suddenly feels the need to shoehorn into their games.
This year's big buzzword is cooperative gameplay--meaning gamers play together, but are collaborating, rather than competing, to complete the game's goals. This often happens online, where gamers connect via Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network from remote locations.
We've seen several examples this week of the cooperative gameplay mechanic added to games that don't seem to need it, except as a bullet point on a marketing plan. Resident Evil 5 is adding an online cooperative mode, where players can assist each other in surviving an onslaught of zombie-like creatures. It seems oddly out of place in a game series that has traditionally been a single-player experience designed around building a tense atmosphere through fear and isolation.
We also saw co-op features added to Fable II, the ambitious sword-and-sorcery role-playing game from designer Peter Molyneux. While playing through the game, which is a traditional single-player RPG, players will run across glowing orbs. Those orbs represent gamers on your Xbox Live "friends list," who are also playing Fable II at the same time. You can then invite them to jump into your game, where they can lend a helping hand for as long as they want. At first glance, it seems gimmicky and out-of-place, but Molyneux (Populous, Black & White, The Movies) is known for pushing genre boundaries, if not always successfully.
A much more traditional co-op experience will be found in Gears of War 2, the sequel to the 2006 Xbox 360 hit. From our brief hands-on time with the game, it seems to not stray much from the original's successful formula, with tough-as-nails soldier-types fighting weird insect creatures.
The first Gears of War game had a two-person cooperative mode, where you and a friend could play through the entire plot together, and hopes were high for an expanded four-player co-op mode in the sequel (similar to the four-player co-op mode in Halo 3). Unfortunately, the main game is still restricted to two players, but as a consolation prize, there is a new five-person online cooperative mode that's essentially a simple shooting gallery pitting humans against endless waves of monsters.
Co-operative gameplay will also play a big part in Sony's upcoming Little Big Planet (which we talked about in our show preview). There, four players can link up online and guide their tiny sock-puppet-style avatars through a series of puzzles built out of giant versions of everyday household objects.
You can expect to see a greater emphasis on cooperative gameplay in new games this holiday season and beyond. In some cases, it's a natural fit (Gears of War 2, Little Big Planet), in others, we'll have to take a more wait-and-see attitude.