What defines the best multiplayer games? Sometimes it’s not the game that shines, it’s the players. Deep gameplay and glistening visuals only go so far in making a standout multiplayer game, only humans can provide the unpredictability and scheming that turns the average first-person shooter or puzzle game into a gladiatorial showdown or cooperative crusade. But what are the best multiplayer games?
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Fast and frantic or tense and calculated, multiplayer games come in all shapes and sizes, but they’re all connected by the simple pleasure we derive from interacting with one another. Whether that’s two minds attempting to solve a puzzle or one player’s never ending quest to get one over on their fellow man, these games wouldn’t be the same without a bunch of humans running around killing, maiming or occasionally (very occasionally) helping each other.
Like you didn't already know. Like you haven't been playing it compulsively since it released. Like the world of PC gaming hasn't become awash with Tracer fan art and play of the game GIFs. Overwatch is a phenomenon, and the class-based multiplayer shooter's still in its infancy.
There are people who compare it to Team Fortress 2. There are other people who compare it to League Of Legends. And they're both right: Overwatch owes much to TF2's art style, payload maps and asymmetrical combat. It owes a lot to LoL's diverse roster and essential teamplay, too. The resulting blend of popular multiplayer styles, ripe with possibilities, has captured the imaginations and evenings of the masses. That much is apparent from even a cursory visit to the fantastically busy Overwatch reddit page, where you'll certainly never go hungry for GIFs. Blizzard are also adding to their roster, with Ana and Sombra already out and more on rumoured to join them.
Slaying demons, playing dress-up and obsessing over loot are all activities that become much, much more interesting with with friends by your side. Blizzard’s hack-and-slash action-RPG franchise might currently seem bogged down in a creative malaise, but the series’ third instalment still packs hundreds of hours of grinding, and gear-stat fetishism despite being over four years old. Better still: it's still receiving the occasional update, including the new Necromancer class due out late 2017.
The setup is wonderfully simple: pick a class of hero, set forth into the world to destroy evil, and listen closely for treasure goblins. For the most part you’ll be cycling through the abilities on your hotbar as hordes of baddies explode around you. Adding a second player ups the challenge, but also broadens your horizon where using more specialist abilities is concerned. With four players almost anything goes, also there’s three extra people to admire that new Cage of the Hellborn chest armour you just picked up.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’s is an underwhelming origin story. A refresh of Valve’s previous refresh of a Half-Life 1 mod, it was conceived as nothing more ambitious than a console port; an experiment to see if PlayStation and Xbox gamers would engage with the Counter-Strike name. And if PC players fancied another few rounds of de_dust2 while they were at it, what’s the harm?
As it turns out, we did want those few rounds. Then a few more. Then some rounds on all the other maps we all now know like the back of our hands, having stalked their corridors and doorways in their various forms for over a decade.
Valve and Hidden Path brought a sleeping giant out of its slumber, and in the years since its release in 2012 have positioned it at the very centre of PC gaming. It’s now one of the most played games on Steam day in, day out. Its weapon skins support an entire cottage industry of trading and betting sites. It’s an ultra-competitive, high prize pool eSport. You can’t move on Twitch for CS:GO streams.
Its popularity is self-evident, but its quality requires a deeper understanding of its appeal both as a nostalgia trip and a well-supported, pacey shooter with state-of-the-art spectator tools. Put simply: it’s the multiplayer game we’ve loved for years, dressed up in fashionable new clothes. Ripe with tactical exploitation, bristling with razor-sharp weapon feedback, and comforting like mama's homemade apple pie.
Team Fortress 2
If you weren’t there when Team Fortress 2 launched, it’s difficult to convey what a delirious and unexpected pleasure it was back in 2007. In development longer than Pangaea, TF2 blindsided everyone when it finally arrived dolled up in cheery and lustrous Pixarian sheen. Instead of the anticipated amalgamations of biceps and military garb, its cast were a brigade of slapstick comedians whose interplay provoked frequent, spirited, and genuine lols.
Better than that, they each had a set of skills and abilities that interweaved beautifully with one another. Heavy mows down Soldier. Engineer builds sentry to mow down Heavy. Spy saps sentry. Pyro incinerates Spy. Sniper takes out Pyro. Scout bonks Sniper on his noggin and runs off. Demo obliterates Scout with his sticky bombs, then resumes flashing people. Medic… Medic watches that Uber gauge, and licks his lips.
It’s a very different game today than it was in 2007, of course. It’s endured a rough and bumpy transition to a F2P model, was briefly fixated on hats, pioneered a Steam inventory system, brought in a PvE mode, and is now absolutely baffling to lapsed players from yesteryear. Still, the rich visual design, the sheer strength of its cast, and the interplay between classes, preserve it in the highest echelons of online gaming. An enduring classic.
We’ve no desire to make assumptions about developer Matt Thorson’s testicular region, but it takes some balls to release your game as an Ouya exclusive (perhaps the incentives for N-Gage or Virtual Boy distribution just weren’t high enough). However once that strange period was over, Towerfall received its Ascension subtitle, as well as a release on platforms people actually play. And now we're crowning it one of the best multiplayer games, so the cycle is complete.
And play on platforms they did, leaping around 2D maps and firing oversized, pixelated arrows at one another in vast numbers. Competitive multiplayer for up to four, think Bomberman with the camera moved, and bows instead of explosives. Best played locally, the simplicity of both premise and control scheme - jump, move, shoot - means a high level of accessibility, while the pace of play ensures boredom takes a bolt to the face.
Crucially the game does also reward extended practice, as movement and map familiarity become refined. And then there’s the arrow catch, a move which, complete with suitably triumphant sound effect, is satisfying like finally getting that long-stuck sunflower seed out your teeth. The pointy bastard.
Released in 1999, the same year as id’s Quake III Arena, Unreal Tournament also made a huge contribution to the online first-person shooter as we know it today. Running around for power-ups, armour shards and super-weapons may have fallen out of favour since its release, but the pace, game modes and map designs set an indelible blueprint for the genre.
Not that anyone cared about that at the time, of course. We were all too busy trying to headshot each other, crouching in the opposing towers of CTF_Face, embroiled in the power of the best sniper rifle games had offered up to date. Or, for a change, scurrying over to the Redeemer for a chance to turn the tides on a poor round’s performance.
Speaking honestly, it has lost something of its initial graphical sparkle and impact since 1999, but it’s still incredibly playable all these years on. It doesn’t just rely on good memories either – the layout of its levels and particular feedback from its weaponry makes for happy fun times in 2016 just as it did on release. As if to prove the point, there's a new, free, UT currently in alpha, and it's great.
It’s easy to be cynical about Worms, now entering its third decade with an appetite for platform proliferation. Chop a turn-based party game from Team17 in half, myth has it, and two new iterations will spring from its remains. But the core is still inspired: 30 seconds in which you must steer your pink avatar around a pockmarked landscape with the aim of bazooka-ing, batting, Super Sheep-ing or otherwise obliterating an opponent before their turn comes around.
Worms is typically played with three or four players - and because each spends so much of their time watching the others’ moves, it becomes a slapstick spectator sport ripe for grenade gaffes, jumping misjudgements, and assorted other seconds-left mistakes. There’s scope for high-level play, too, thanks to the nuance offered by trajectory and wind speed, not to mention elusive mastery over the ninja rope.
Some - Team17’s current series custodians included - say that Worms Armageddon was a spiritual high point. But we’d recommend the subsequent Worms World Party for sheer customisability (or Worms WMD for something that's still getting new content updates).
League of Legends/Dota 2
Whatever it is you're looking for in a multiplayer game, the MOBA genre, and these pair of juggernauts in particular, probably covers it. You can go in solo to prove your superiority over others, honing your skills in whatever role you prefer to always try to win. You can play more casually with friends, making it your regular multiplayer home, either in the standard 5v5 modes or playing one of several custom games that are always available. Whether you want to be the best in the world - good luck - or just bash about in well designed systems, there's something there.
It can go far beyond that too, where for the hardcore these games have become lifestyles. There are massive industries around the professional scenes of both, huge tournaments to attend as spectators or players, and millions upon millions of dollars on the line for the very best. Valve, Riot and their communities have built entire ecosystems of player support, team management, spectating and shoutcasting around these games, and if you want to you'll always find something new to discuss, try, or improve at.
Picking between them is all personal preference. League of Legends has more players and better defined roles and rules, while Dota 2 is a Wild West of edge cases, madly powerful abilities and stranger hero concepts. Try them both and, based on their player counts alone, there's a high chance you’ll fall in love with one.
Like all the best survival games, Rust is a beast with many heads catering to various tastes. But each one of those tastes always incorporates multiplayer, whether that's co-operative base building or smashing the skull of another naked player with a big rock. It's a game where community - be that harmonious or toxic - is central to the entire experience.
Rust is at its very best when the whole picture comes into frame. Servers that have naturally split into tribes offer a little of everything. Stay with your friends and you'll be able to head out to harvest wood, pool your resources, and build an incredible fort that'll become the envy of the rest. And when you realise that you've spent so much time chopping wood that no-one has any food to eat, you can band together as a raiding party, storm a rival group's village, and steal all their chicken. That is, of course, provided you don't get mauled by a bear on the way.
Yes, there's a lot of toxicity in the air on many of them, with bullies shooting people on sight for no good reason at all, but find a great Rust server and you can live an exciting life of primitive adventure.
The moment someone at Psyonix said "why don't we play football... with rocket-powered cars?" a true phenomenon was born. Yes, it took them a while to get the formula right - the first game featuring rocket cars failed hard - but when Rocket League finally hit it took the multiplayer world by storm. And that's almost certainly down to how streamlined it's design is: you push a ball across a pitch with a car. There's a purity to that; it's a concept literally everyone can understand.
Simplicity doesn't dictate a lack of need for skill, however, and mastering all the tricks of successfully passing, shooting, and scoring in Rocket League is a learning curve that's thrilling to undertake. It leads to a career of a thousand near-misses and 'almost!' moments, your body inching forward in your seat as the tension builds. Head-shots in shooters are ten-a-penny, but a goal in Rocket League is something to be celebrated.
An exceptionally moreish online game (just ask any of its 19 million players), Rocket League's true home is in split-screen with friends in the same room. Akin to the likes of Towerfall, it will have everyone in the room ooh-ing and aahh-ing as the ball shifts from one end of the pitch to another, punctuated by the odd elbow-to-the-ribs in a cheap attempt to prevent an inevitable goal.
Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes
Probably never destined to become an eSport, this one, although there’s undeniable appeal to be found in watching proceedings unfold. KTANE (which sounds like a bad beat-’em-up character or late-’90s house DJ) is a collaborative multiplayer experience in which one participant has a bomb to dismantle but no idea how to do it, while the other has the diffusal manual but no way to see the device itself.
What results is a constant stream of panicked verbal directions from the latter to the former, while modular puzzles of varying complexity are completed - wires cut, buttons pressed, weird hieroglyphs deciphered. The game’s asymmetrical restrictions are its genius, and often make ‘collaborative’ more like wishful thinking, as clocks tick down, brows bead with sweat, and mouths fill with expletives. But whatever your partner’s nature, it’s a tense and enjoyable ride. (It’s also one of the best VR games thanks to headset compatibility.) For best results, play with Jack Bauer, ideally on the underside of a moving train.
Quake III Arena
In a word: speed. Quake III Arena operates at a pace just within the realms of human capability, and simply demands that you catch up.
In many ways it was what id Software had been building up to throughout the decade, but the fact the game contained no single-player campaign was still a bit of a shock upon release in 1999. Instead, there were only these titular zones where startlingly competent bots awaited, their Railguns primed and ready to zero in on your skull before you had time to appreciate what were actually very handsome graphics for the time.
So you got killed a few times, and then a few more times after that. Then you learned how to spell your name in multi-coloured letters and that made you feel better. Then, as the layouts of each map and the positions of every bounce pad, teleportation door and armour began to etch themselves into your mind, you got braver. You went online.
And so did everyone else. Quake III Arena was a trailblazer for the modern eSports scene, and birthed some of the platform’s first pro gamer celebrities.Just look at them play. It’s nuts. Whether you play it at the highest level or with basic competency, its weapons and pacing create a symphony of manic violence that subsequent games have never really toppled.
Rainbow Six: Siege
The clever thing about Rainbow Six: Siege is that despite surface-level similarities to FPS darling CS:GO, it makes building a wall or laying out some barbed wire as heroic an act as no-scoping an enemy from two rooftops away. Perhaps more than any other multiplayer FPS, Siege is about planning, communication and execution of a team-based strategy. It’s also a lot more fun than that sounds.
Rainbow Six made its name by taking a quieter, more considered approach than the bombastic shooters it debuted against in the late nineties, and in doing so it made you feel like a highly-trained, goggle-wearing, silenced MP5-toting specialist. Siege achieves the same feeling in the modern era, updating your arsenal to include vehicular drones and equipment with a focus on reconnaissance rather than destruction.
Although, of course, there is destruction. Great big chunks of destruction that kick up a fine concrete dust every round. Part of being ‘good’ at Siege is knowing what sort of state of disrepair each map will end up in towards its closing stages, and setting your team up accordingly. The focus on planning and preparation makes for a cat-and-mouse multiplayer game that people enjoy watching – it’s a fast-growing eSport.
You got good at Counter-Strike, had your time with Quake and Unreal long ago, then you got onto the harder stuff. Playtime's over. Arma 3 is here.
It's about as close to finding yourself on a real battlefield, gibbering to yourself as the choppers and tanks go by, as anyone of sound mind would care to get. The large-scale battles and ultra-realism aren't the only intimidating thing about Arma 3, either. It's populated by a diehard community with expertise levels second to no other multiplayer game. They know things you didn't know you didn't know.
And yet Arma 3 finds itself onto this list, brushing shoulders with the best ways you can spend your time with other people on the internet. Where pretend guns are involved, at least. Because every battle is such an engrossing spectacle, peppered with super-complicated team chat and clever tactical manouevres (if you're on a good server), you simply can't get an equivalent experience from any other game. It might still be buggier than the underside of a rotten branch, but Arma 3, we love you. Also it birthed DayZ. Message ends.
It's taken a really, really long time for Battefield 4 to right its launch day wrongs and live up to its promise. But finally - finally - a gazillion patches and DLC packs later, DICE's shooter is the best the series has ever been.
The elevator pitch for Battlefield has always been the stuff of 'best of' lists: dozens of soldiers, boats, tanks, planes and jeeps sharing a theatre of war, each embroiled in their own personal conflict that adds up to a meaningful large-scale battle. However, there was just every kind of glitch, bug and server instability issue imaginable when the game launched. So disastrous was the game's debut that investors in DICE actually filed legal procedings against the company. Er, welcome to our best multiplayer games list, Battlefield 4.
But that's the amazing thing. Gradually, quietly, and while being constantly berated by a furious player base, Battlefield 4's developers managed to turn it all around. You can read more about that in Matt's Battlefield 4 re-review, incidentally.
Now it stands apart from Arma 3 by offering that bit more accessibility and gear-gating, but is also streets ahead of one-time adversary Call Of Duty by virtue of the sheer scale and complexity of its battles.
Disagree? Gank us in the comments section below.