If you're talking to most people about online multiplayer gaming, chances are that's the question that you'll get asked. Which is your particular tipple of fancy? Do you prefer the tight, precise maps of Modern Warfare 3, or the emergent gameplay facilitated by DICE's Frostbite 2 Engine?
Actually, forget that last question. It matters not. We're not here today to talk about the pros and cons of the dominant two. At the end of the day they're of similar quality, despite what one fan may say to another.
What is undeniable is the strength of both brands in the face of outside opposition. At the moment Modern Warfare 3, Black Ops and Battlefield 3 dominate the FPS scene, with no other IP seemingly able to get close to either franchise. Recently (the week of March 26) on Xbox Live, the top five most played FPS action titles were:
1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
2. Call of Duty: Black Ops
3. Battlefield 3
4. Halo: Reach
5. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
The figures are telling. Only Halo, once the jewel in Microsoft's crown, stands tall against the relentless pressure of the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises. It's a similar story on PlayStation 3. The rest of the competition lay by the wayside, wounded or KIA. It's a sorry state of affairs, especially when you consider the amount of games that ship with a fully integrated multiplayer component.
What exactly does a developer have to do to create a multiplayer experience that can compete with the heavyweights? That's the million dollar question, and one that several developers are trying to answer.
The obvious solution is to copy, after all, imitation is the highest form of flattery. But the reality of this popular approach is a landscape populated by cheap clones and recycled ideas, and dammit, we deserve better than that!
Lucky for us all then that there are several studios out there working on solutions to this multiplayer conundrum. Developers are now adopting models made popular by the genre heavyweights, and fusing them with their own ideas, with the aim of creating exciting, accessible environments in which gamers can happily kill each other, virtually speaking of course.
Far Cry 3 is one such game. Ubisoft Massive has been working hard on creating some gametypes that they hope will capture the imagination of the online community. By combining a few FPS staples with some choice cuts of FC3-specific action, they're aiming at creating a multiplayer experience that marries the individuality of their game with the trappings that gamers have come to expect from the mainstream shooters.
There is a heavy emphasis on insanity and perceived reality on the tropical playground that provides the backdrop to Ubisoft's latest adventure, so bringing that to the multiplayer was the obvious path to take. During combat psychotropic gas can be thrown into choke points and over key strategic positions, causing all who inhale it to start hallucinating. Friendly fire is then turned off and madness ensues, and with ALL players appearing as monsters to affected eyes, care must be taken not to fill your teammates full of bullet holes. It's a neat multiplayer twist that fits in nicely with the rest of the game.
Counter-Strike offers a very different experience, but its legacy as one the most popular PC shooters gives it an edge as Valve prepares to unleash the latest version - Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - on consoles and PC later this year.
Counter-Strike is, in many ways, the antithesis of a game like Modern Warfare 3. Whilst many of the ingredients are identical, the final presentations couldn't feel more different. Global Offensive will come loaded with a gritty and brutal realism that will hopefully keep it from disappearing into the crowd of gung-ho shooters already on the market.
Valve had hoped that cross-platform matchmaking would be the missing ingredient that could establish Counter-Strike as a tactical force on consoles. After all, the PC community supporting the original game still thrives, and rubbing some of that love onto the console iteration must've seemed like the perfect plan. Unfortunately the rigidity of Microsoft's update system means that Valve wouldn't have easily been able to tinker with the game post-release, and so they decided to drop the plan. Instead they'll have to rely on that hard-edged realism to make an impact on the console market, though perhaps that might not be enough on its own.
Max Payne 3 takes players from the first person to the third, which straight away makes their challenge all the more daunting. Historically speaking, players have always preferred to see through the eyes of their avatars, rather than watch action unfold over the shoulder. There are exceptions, most notably Gears of War, but on the whole first-person is king.
Rockstar plan on challenging that preconception, and looking at Max Payne 3, you wouldn't want to bet against them convincing a fair few people. You see, Rockstar has got an ace up its sleeve; bullet time. Players caught in the field of vision of anyone entering into bullet time will slow down to a crawl, only returning to normal once they've escaped line of sight.
With up to 16 players drawing weapons at once, it could result in some disorientating changes of pace as players drop in and out of realtime. But what it shows is that Rockstar is working hard on carrying the essence of their unique game into its multiplayer.
As is the way nowadays, Q4 will undoubtedly see the release of a new Call of Duty game. This years it's Black Ops' turn to outsell the competition; competition that includes two sci-fi shooters; Aliens: Colonial Marines and Halo 4. Aliens is due out at roughly the same time, but is aiming at a very different demographic to Activision's yearly update. For a start it will offer a co-operative experience as opposed to a competitive one.
Colonial Marines will take players back to LV-426 and Hadley's Hope, and put them face to face with the Xenomorph threat that we all love to fear. In squads of up to four, gamers will be have to combine team work with nerves of steel to overcome a seemingly never-ending alien onslaught.
The Halo series has always had a strong tradition of competitive and co-operative multiplayer action, and Halo 4 looks to be no different. Like Colonial Marines there is going to be a four player co-op mode, and 343 Industries has recently revealed their intention to release episodic content every week. Might this be the trick that pulls gamers away from Modern Battlefield 3?
If it isn't, it might be 343's decision to implement drop-in play during PvP combat that seals the deal. For too long have Halo games been ruined by unbalanced teams due to players quitting early on; hopefully this will cease to be an issue as players can come and go from matches as they please. These two factors coupled with a whole new set of maps and a refined take on the Reach engine could be enough to push Halo back to the front of the queue.
This year is likely to be a good one for fans of multiplayer action. Release schedules, especially towards the end of the year, are bulging with gun-toting blockbusters. That any of them can compete with the likes of Call of Duty or Battlefield remains to be seen, but the potential is there. With games such as The Darkness II, Syndicate and Gotham City Impostors having already had their chance to impress, it remains down to Far Cry 3, Max Payne 3 and Halo 4 to pick up the baton and try to challenge the status quo. Will one or more of those games have enough to dislodge the heavyweights from their position of ascendancy? One thing's for sure; we can't wait to find out.