Deadly Neighbors 2 is multiplayer without the multiplayer

At heart, I don’t like multiplayer.

Well, not quite. I love board games, which, for the most part, require other people. And I love playing games at the same time as other people, like with Kerbal Space Program. Demon’s Souls multiplayer spoke to me because I could leave inaccurate messages and imagine myself killing someone, the way other people’s messages did me. But I dislike the traditional multiplayer paradigm, where my team of random strangers and your team of random strangers shoot each other across a yawning abyss of earth, or when my civilization has to fight yours over a patch of stone.

This doesn’t appeal to me: I’d rather build something with you than shoot you in the face. The trend in first person shooters has been to try to reach people like me (they call us, “RPG players”) by adding leveling mechanics, but these are more MMO treadmill than serious decisions: when you unlock a better gun, you’re going to use a better gun. There’s no building, merely grinding.

Maybe that’s why I’m so enamored with Deadly Neighbors 2, a free (lame) flash (what) game by Nerdook (who?)

Summing the game up takes about fifteen seconds. You control a team of three neighbors, each of whom has a class varying from shooter (who shoots) to pyro (who lights people on fire) to dog (who is a dog). These three characters fight in a turn-based, top down strategy map against three other neighbors. You will do this fifteen times, against random enemies, and each time you win you’ll unlock an upgrade point, which you’ll use to select abilities to customize your team. These abilities vary and really do change how you play: you can make your dog fully heal everyone on his death, or your tinkerer to explode in electricity every other second, or your bruiser to bruise more. If you build a suicide dog, you’ll want to drive him into the brunt of the enemy attack; the enemy might realize he’s more valuable dead than alive, though, and ignore him.

When you’ve completed all fifteen levels, you’re given two additional modes. The first is survival, where enemy neighbors respawn as stronger versions once you’ve killed them.

And the other lets you fight other players’ families. How it works is this: you’re given a choice of families to fight, all made by other players. Beat them, and then you can upload your own family, who can be taken down by strangers or friends on the internet. In short, it’s an extrapolation of the multiplayer modes shoehorned into portable remakes like Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre, but made unique by copying your statistics and throwing them out to the world.

It’s a beautiful idea. My buzzword recently has been building: we who play games love to build things. Minecraft awoke this interest in us, and this love has spilled over to tabletop games, nearly all of which involve building, usually cities of medieval/renaissance Europe. As much as I’ve enjoyed “board game like” titles like Frozen Synapse, I missed the fundamental building aspect; I couldn’t help but think how much more excited I’d be tricking my rocket soldier out with rockets that attracted themselves to solid surfaces, or shotgunners who could fire through walls.

Deadly Neighbors 2 offers the building aspect, despite its slight name and obscure birth. It’s not just an RPG, it’s one where your choices mean something outside of the vacuum of the single player. Building an incredibly overpowered pyro-bruiser combination sounds like a good idea, and it can get you through the game, but how does it stack up against Ralph, a dude from Omaha, Nebraska who’s plumbed the depths of the game? How does it compare to the developers themselves?

Much of my enjoyment of the game has come from trying to best the most-played combinations, the most difficult, best built teams in the game. My first team—a bruiser, a shooter, and a dog—was functional but relatively generic: they could last through long bouts of survival due to the dog’s healing abilities, the shooter’s excellent damage potential, and the bruiser’s tankiness, but they got mopped up the cream of the crop.

Of course, then I assembled a team that pasted the developer’s teams. This process emulates the experience of the modern multiplayer game, the shooter: you begin terrible, and the more you learn, the better you do. The difference is that instead of other players quitting in a rage when they realize you have an incredibly annoying pyro, the computer gamely tries to figure you out. Instead of having to find someone still playing an obscure game, you can just fire it up and find miscellaneous challenges.

It’s a challenge that is occasionally quite unfair. Deadly Neighbors 2 shirks the notions of fairness in multiplayer: someone else will have a better built team than you, get luckier, and absolutely crush you. But this is okay! The lack of fairness is intellectual rather than mechanical: it’s your team’s composition that let you down, rather than your reflexes. And you’re just a quick rebuild away from being competitive again.

For a flash game, Deadly Neighbors 2 is thrilling, providing exactly the type of experience I, the strategy RPG mad player, demand by slamming my fist against the hypothetical table of the blogosphere. In its asynchronous multiplayer it does even more, giving me the essence and challenge of multiplayer without the people, without having to organize my friends for “gaming dates”. Most importantly, it’s the kind of game that offers an old-school experience in a bite-sized fragment, something that’s grown more important to me as I’ve started to have less time to do everything.