Of all the many, unexciting boxes ticked by unexciting games publishers, there's no box quite so unexciting, so brain-drainingly routine, so depressingly square as multiplayer. Me-too online components are the bane of otherwise worthwhile mid-tier projects like Spec Ops: The Line and Binary Domain, dragging precious resources away from single player for the sake of a Quixotic, "commercially necessary" tilt at Call of Duty's windmill.
But contemporary multiplayer modes aren't all Horde Mode 2.01 and Conquest With Zombies. I spent this weekend gone playing Anarchy Reigns, a madcap if somewhat broken brawler which smashes a vanilla FPS mode selection against a wildly spinning roster of combos, power-ups and map fixtures. In honour of Platinum's crazed concoction, here's a list of relatively under-sung, relatively experimental multiplayer hits.
1. Red Dead Redemption
You don't even have to start Red Dead Redemption's multiplayer mode to have fun, strictly speaking. The lobby is the world itself, where you're free to wreak all the usual Wild Western mayhem in the company of Xbox Live drop-ins wearing sombreros and ill-advised ponchos. Once you get an actual match going, there's an introductory Mexican stand-off to whet the old carnal appetites - survivors get a headstart on the map while the others respawn.
2. Armoured Core 5
Rattling around inside the ponderous interfacial carapace of From Software's not-quite-scintillating mech sim, there's a really interesting, ambitious online effort. On firing the game up, you're asked to join a clan or form your own. The deeds, misdeeds and messages of other clan members then populate the world map, letting you jump into co-op matches, swap tips or trade parts as you push through the "offline" campaign. Which clan you join also determines which sets of customisable map fixtures you'll get to attack or defend in the over-arching strategy game, along with a host of factors like how much cash you'll earn when you assist other players.
It's a smart, almost elegant way of both bridging the single and multiplayer gulf, and offsetting the modest size of the English-speaking Armored Core community by concentrating players into tight-knit groups. Shame the presentation makes everything so hard to enjoy, and that the missions themselves aren't as elaborate as their context. There's also an intriguing Operator mode which casts one team member as the tactical support, directing the others around a 2D battlemap via waypoints and voice chat.
3. Driver: San Francisco
Driver: San Francisco sounds like a terrible idea for a multiplayer racing game. You're not really driving the car, see - you're driving a comatose man who thinks he's driving the car - which means that such sportsmanship-enabling dictums of reality as "human beings can't teleport" no longer apply. Yet somehow, being able to warp to the seat of the car in front results in balanced competitive fun. Each course is filled with milling civilian roadsters, and knowing when to seize possession is generally key to victory. You might, for instance, throw an oncoming lorry across both lanes to inconvenience a speeding front-runner, only for him to hot-swap effortlessly to a car at the far end of the ensuing pile-up.