2013 may be a disappointing year for multiplayer games. That's partly, perhaps, because it promises to be a banner year for single player - next to the giddy opulence of Bioshock Infinite and the crammed, dripping tunnels of Metro: Last Light, the likes of Tomb Raider's by-the-numbers versus suite and Aliens: Colonial Marines' dodgy Left 4 Dead impersonation can't help but seem unexciting.
Traditional multiplayer is also losing ground to more cost-effective asynchronous online and the corrosive concept of games as services in general. One senses that for many publishers, knocking out a "digital ecosystem" of leaderboards, notifications, in-world messaging, downloadable ghosts and the like is a lot more appealing, nowadays, than trying to take on Call of Duty at what has arguably become its own game.
Nonetheless, there are multiplayer titles out there that are worth keeping an eye on, and I've rounded up a few of them below for you to stare at. Not listed here, but probably worth including once we know more about their online offerings, are: Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Watch Dogs and GTA 5. Oh, and Modern Warfare 4, Battlefield 4 and a billion unannounced shooters.
On the face of it, Insomniac's first multiplatform game is a depressing dilution of the studio's trademark wit that owes its best moves to Gears of War, its best lines to something The Expendables threw up on their lunchbreak. Look closer, however, and you'll discover a smart, creative and startlingly hard co-op shooter which prominently features, but doesn't depend on, the use of four signature xenotech weapons.
The best of these is the Warp Rifle, which turns enemies into latent singularities, waiting to be triggered; splash a whole group with it, and you can detonate everybody in one go by downing just one of their number. Fold in a fire rate that increases the longer the trigger is held till the gun overheats, and you've got a playful, testing, enormously satisfying offensive tool.
In the end, though, the multiplayer's charm derives from less obvious achievements. In Horde Mode variant Echelon, clever arrays of unit types mix with complex, segmented map design and exploitable fixtures like grenade canisters to produce some worthwhile chaos. You'll snipe through gaps in the scenery while a friend does her best to block a pincer action, then find yourself grabbed from behind by an invisible assassin and hauled in front of a rampaging robot.
2. Terraria Xbox 360 Edition
The video below hopefully makes the game's case without further elaboration, but here's a paragraph or two of unscientific gushing to hammer the point home: given the full complement of eight players (that's two Xbox 360s running four-way splitscreen), Terraria promises to exceed even Minecraft for frenziedly imaginative shenanigans. (The game's hardly alone in that, admittedly - there are a fair few unconventional XBLA titles on the way.)
The procedurally generated worlds are vast and hazardous, the weapons are many and outlandish, and the ability to summon screen-filling bosses at will (once you know the "recipe") means you're never short of a reason to call a party together. There are no limits on where players go in the world once they've joined the party, and hosts can toggle friendly fire at will for impromptu bouts of PvP.