The 15 best co-op games of all time

Ian Birnbaum

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Games are meant to be played with friends. From the earliest days of pen and paper RPGs to sidescrolling beat-em-ups in arcades everywhere, the highs of a great game are so much sweeter when you share them with a friend or three. Even better, keeping close to friends and family through co-op gaming has never been easier thanks to the rise of local multiplayer on PC, and drop-in, drop-out online co-op.

This is our newly updated list of the best co-op games on PC, as of September 2014. If you're out for a new co-op adventure, grab your wingman and dive into one of the games below: these are our 15 favorite co-op games we'd tell anyone to play right now.

Our Criteria

Keep in mind that these are the games we recommend for friends to play together right now. There are great co-op experiences that have come and gone or aged into clunkiness. The original Halo: Combat Evolved, for one, was the best co-op experience when it hit PC in 2002. Twelve years later? Not so much.

We value shared fun more than nostalgia and historical significance, and that value has shaped this list. We also disregarded games that are primarily competitive or team-based multiplayer experiences. Team Fortress 2's excellent Mann vs. Machine mode, for example, is a great co-op mode inside of what we consider a multiplayer game. That's not a criticism: this list is simply focused on games more dedicated to co-op.

With that said, these are our favorite games for you to grab a friend and explore together.

15. Orcs Must Die 2 (2 players online)

Release Date: 2012
Developer: Robot Entertainment

The brilliant sequel to 2011's Orcs Must Die added more traps, more enemies, more levels, and, most importantly, a second player to help out. Orcs Must Die 2 added so many new balls to juggle that its single-player mode became crowded and confused, while co-op became the star of the show. Played alone, this tower defense-alike can be a punishing slog against hoards of enemies swarming in from all directions. With a friend, though, you've got backup and a second set of hands to fight back the darkness. Placing traps and settling in to fight a stream of bad guys is so much more rewarding (and tactically sound) when you know that your friend has got the other door covered.

14. Dead Island (4 players online)

Release Date: 2011
Developer: Techland

Dead Island has a bit of a mixed reputation. The tropical island of Banoi is besieged by zombies, but the limp story is the thing that really wants to harm your brain. Gun combat is also a bit weak, and having all of your weapons break in the middle of a pack of zombies is a real pain.

With a friend (or three), though, this noggin-bashing playground becomes a hilarious adventure. Bonking a zombie on the head with an oar is tense and lonely, but bring in a friend and it suddenly becomes closer to the jukebox scene from Shaun of the Dead than anything Romero ever put to film.

13. Payday 2 (4 players online)

Release Date: 2011
Developer: Overkill, Starbreeze

Moving a step beyond the fun-but-not-essential co-op play of Orcs Must Die 2, Payday 2 is a game that is completely useless in single player. Well, not completely. But it's pretty grim. Trying to pull of a complicated, multipart heist with bumbling AI companions is not only futile, it's a bit boring. Bring a friend, though, and this shooter turns into Ocean's 11 by way of The Expendables. The only thing more fun that pulling off the perfect stealth heist is failing, having the alarms go off, and shooting your way out. Don't forget to scream obscenities at your friends when they screw up by walking into view of a security camera.

12. Torchlight 2 (6 players online)

Release Date: 2012
Developer: Runic Games

Runic's excellent action RPG, Torchlight 2 hit me right in the feels. I wanted to love Diablo 3—on many levels, I felt like I was supposed to love it—but Torchlight 2 came and stole me away. It was more Diablo than Diablo was, and its insane dungeon diving gets harder and more chaotic when you're not facing it alone. Diablo 3 maxes out at four players, but up to six of you can get your Torchlight on. Too many? In a game where monsters explode into fountains of gold, “too many” really doesn't enter into the equation.

11. Monaco: What's Yours Is Mine (4 players online)

Release Date: 2013
Developer: Pocketwatch Games

If Payday 2 is Ocean's Eleven by way of The Expendables, then Monaco is the raw, distilled Ocean's Eleven experience. Monaco emphasizes setting up and pulling off the perfect caper, so all that excitement and tension is the perfect mix for getting friends together for a good time. This game's a deep, deep pool of details and blueprints, and there's something so delightfully devious about cutting the power at the exact moment a friend puts a guard out of contention.

At this time, can we have a moment of silence for security guards everywhere? They get such a raw deal in these games.

OK, moving on.

10. Trine 2 (3 players local, online)

Release Date: 2012
Developer: Frozenbyte

The trinity-based puzzle game Trine came out of nowhere when it released in 2009, the heyday of unexpected indie games. Its sequel, Trine 2 , takes everything from the original and smooths it, refines it, and makes it better. With the addition of online co-op, you can pass control of the other two characters over to friends. Instead of switching back and forth to play all three perspectives yourself, there's something so much more gratifying about levitating a box to literally give a friend a hand-up. The colorful environments and soft, almost relaxing puzzles are just a bonus.

9. Far Cry 3 (4 players online)

Release Date: 2012
Developer: Ubisoft

I've got beef with Far Cry 3 . There are moments, singular, shining moments, when the game sings like a choir of angels at dawn. Assaulting an encampment is everything open-world gaming should be: take a bow, kill some guards, booby trap one of their bodies. Wait for the explosion, shoot open a leopard cage, and open up with a heavy machine gun when the chaos breaks free. It's just perfect .

But then there's the stupid, stupid story. Magic tattoos? Your girlfriend calling to nag you during a scripted ambush? Rich, self-centered white dude angst on an island nation plunging into civil war? A pox on all of it.

The co-op campaign, blessedly, has nothing to do with the main story arc. Instead it's just you and a friend causing all the chaos and mayhem you can in the lush, tropical sandbox. And that? That's circling back around to perfect.

8. Magicka (4 players local, online)

Release Date: 2011
Developer: Paradox Interactive

First: a story. After surviving 19 levels of a brutal arena mode in Magicka , two of us were dead and one of us was running for his life. As my friend desperately tried to cast the revival spell, an ogre knocked him across the screen. Thinking fast, he cast a self-healing spell powerful enough to keep him alive on impact. Another ogre was waiting though, and it booted him straight into a black hole, ending our near-victorious round.

I laughed so hard I started choking.

Magicka caused some hurt feelings with its buggy release, but it has since mellowed and refined itself with age. As a wizard with full command of the elements, you mix and combine them to cast fireballs, rockslides, blizzards, and summon Death itself. The mixing of spell effects leads perfectly to bringing on backup: you cast the water, I'll cast the lightning. You cast the ice, I'll shatter him with a boulder. It's a game that absolutely demands to be played with friends—and it's better now than it's ever been before.

7. Total War: Shogun 2 (2 players online)

Release Date: 2011
Developer: Creative Assembly

The Total War series has always been most impressive as a singleplayer experience—forays into competitive multiplayer are frequently confusing or ride high on unstable connections—but the team at Creative Assembly really nailed the co-op balance with Shogun 2 . Rome 2 has had its share of problems, and perhaps it's simply too big to be the same kind of focused team experience.

Whatever the reason, Shogun 2's narrowed scope on the Japanese mainland allows you to indulge in a depth most cooperative games lack. Over the course of a long, long summer, a friend and I spent almost 100 hours securing the southern end of the island and blazing trails to the north and east. There's also the distinctly Total War-flavored pleasure of having your back against a wall, only to see your friend's cavalry come charging over a hill to your rescue. If you can make it through the Shogun 2 campaign with a friend, you've got a friend for life.

6. Borderlands 2 (4 players online)

Release Date: 2012
Developer: Gearbox

Endlessly entertaining, the guns-and-mayhem formula of Borderlands 2 is one of few games on this list that is great for solo players. There's a ton of joy to be had in exploring the planet of Pandora, blasting fools, and taking their endless supply of firearms like you're trying to stock up for a gun show. It's just that all of that stuff is so much better when you've got friends with you. Each character class fulfills a unique spot in the team, and having a tank, an assassin, and a healer, for example, is essential on harder difficulties.

It's also a hilarious game. Showing off some of the slickest character writing this side of Mass Effect, Borderlands 2 is the endlessly quotable stoner comedy of the FPS genre. It's also worth noting that creatures and their rewards scale up in difficulty and value the more players you have, so if you really want that teeth-gritted, seat-of-your-pants good time, you're going to have to make some friends.

5. Portal 2 (2 players online)

Release Date: 2011
Developer: Valve

I know, I know: shocker. Portal 2 , one of the most critically acclaimed games of the last five years, is on a best-of list? Surprise! There's no denying the raw quality of Portal 2's distinct co-op campaign, though. As the two testing robots Atlas and P-Body, you and a friend get to explore the darker, more dangerous side of GlaDOS's testing routines—the stuff that's too dangerous for (non-protagonist) human testers. The three-dimensional spatial thinking that makes the Portal series so addictive is only magnified when there's another friend getting stumped at the puzzles with you.

Portal 2's co-op is strongest when neither of you know the answer: if your partner waits patiently for you, you feel like a moron; if they don't, they'll be rushing you through all the discovery that makes the game great. Three years after release, though, finding two fresh players would be a rare trick indeed. Luckily, Valve's excellent map editor community has created a full array of excellent new maps to explore, and get stumped in, together.

4. Divinity: Original Sin (2 players online)

Release Date: 2014
Developer: Larian Studios

By far the newest game on this list (side note: what's with all the great co-op games coming out in 2011?), Divinity: Original Sin is notable for many things. It's a return to form for the classic party-based RPGs of yore, so much so that it already landed itself a spot on our list of best RPGs . For another thing, exploring this game's deep world and absurdly funny writing can be done with a friend in your party—a feature that we've never seen before, but makes perfect sense once you've already got it.

Exploring a massive, hundred-hour RPG can be done with friends on a drop-in/drop-out basis, but the most dedicated among you should think about making a, well, a monogamous commitment to your Divinity partner. It's a huge commitment best suited to BFFs and spouses, but if you stick with it, you'll experience a story together on a scale that can't be found anywhere else.

3. Artemis (6 players local, online)

Release Date: 2011, hit Steam in 2013
Developer: Thomas Robertson

Let's get this one thing perfectly clear from the beginning: Artemis is not a Star Trek game. That needs to be understood for legal reasons, OK? OK. Definitely not a Star Trek game.

Artemis is the greatest Star Trek game ever made. It's billed as a “spaceship bridge simulator,” and its secret, devious genius is that every player has a different control scheme and information readout. The players (captain, weapons, helm, engineering, communications, science) can only see what's in front of them or what's on the main viewscreen, so there's no way for, say, engineering to help out with aiming weapons or piloting the ship. If you want power redirected to subsystems, though, engineering can do that.

The center of this storm is the captain, who, bizarrely, plays the game without any controls: the captain just yells at the crew to get things done. Artemis recently release version 2.0, which saw a huge overhaul to its art and control schemes. If you haven't played Artemis since it first hit big, you need to organize a LAN to get another look.

It's incredible how quickly you fall into a perfect naval-style call and response pattern (“Helm, set course for Deep Space 1, half impulse.” “Half impulse to DS1, aye captain.”). Not because you're LARPing, but because you've got to make sure you heard the command correctly or you'll all die.

Well, maybe a little because you're LARPing.

2. Arma 3 (64 players online)

Release Date: 2013
Developer: Bohemia Interactive

Arma takes second place on this list almost entirely due to its massive scale. It's one thing to have an adventure with two or three friends, sure, but the Arma engine supports dozens of players at once. There's really something to be said for having a human pilot fly you and ten humans to a war zone, drop you off, and leave you to link up with twenty other humans for an assault. Arma 3 doesn't have to be strictly cooperative, of course, but it's included on this list because it shines the brightest when everyone's on the same side against an overwhelming AI foe.

While you're diving into Arma 3, be sure to check out the Zeus multiplayer mode . One player, as Zeus, runs the game as a D&D-style dungeon master, spawning equipment and enemies. Anger your vengeful god, and Zeus will strike you down with a bolt of lightning. It's a fantastic, flexible take on co-op mission scripting that should not be missed.

1. Left 4 Dead 2 (4 players online)

Release Date: 2009
Developer: Valve

It's really saying something about the strength of Valve's terrific zombie shooter that it's still clawing its way to the top of lists like this one after five years. A fanatically balanced, cleverly written shooter, this game is built on the strength of four survivors working as a team, making it the iconic cooperative experience.

Valve must also get some credit for continuing to update this five-year-old game, adding level editors, Steam workshop support , porting in the maps and characters from Left 4 Dead 1, and continuing to offer “mutations,” always-changing game modes that offer something new for experienced players.

Left 4 Dead 2's active modding community is a huge part of why this game is at the top of this list. From replacement character models for Deadpool or velociraptors or campaigns exploring Lord of the Rings' Helms Deep castle , the amount of top-quality content for this game is vast.

There are a lot of different kinds of ways to play with friends represented on this list, but the carefully constructed rules that force players to help each other up or free one another from an attacking zombie create dramatic, action-movie set pieces seemingly from thin air. On top of all of it, the B-movie stylings and character voiceovers make Left 4 Dead 2 a real pleasure to play and, more importantly, to enjoy with friends.

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