Left 4 Dead is a FPS/survival horror game released in late 2008 and developed by Turtle Rock Studios, which was acquired by Valve during development. Thus, the game was released under Valve. In the game, the player takes control of one of four survivors of a zombie outbreak. The survivors happen to be immune to the virus, so the object of the game is simply to hold off the zombie horde and find a way to survive and escape. While the sequel boasts more maps, more guns, more zombies, and so forth, I don’t necessarily see it as being significantly better than the original…I see it as more of an expansion pack. For the purposes of this article, I’ll only be looking at the first game.
Upon release, Left 4 Dead was received very well, and I have to admit I played it pretty regularly for several months. I had a lot of fun playing it with close friends. However, this is definitely the strongest point of the game, in that it is an excellent team based competitive game.
The game is played with 1-4 players taking control of the survivors, and trying to make their way through a set of levels based on an area with a distinct theme. Throughout the level the survivors are attacked by zombies. Some of the zombies are more powerful versions of the regular zombies, and have a special ability. The survivors will occasionally come across stockpiles of weapons to upgrade their default guns, pipe bombs, health kits, and Molotov cocktails. They can also occasionally encounter a “witch,” a zombie with slightly higher health and the ability to incapacitate a player in one hit and quickly kill them. Usually, though, a witch is easily bypassed by simply walking around it. Finally, in the worst case scenario, the survivors can encounter a “tank.” The tank is a super beefed up zombie with extremely high health, multiple forms of attacks, and the ability to knock certain pieces of the level (cars, pillars, etc) into players to instantly incapacitate them. In the VS mode of the game, a good tank player is generally capable of taking out an entire team, with a bit of luck and a lot of skill. In the co-op version of the game, the tank is generally just a nuisance. At the end of each level there’s a safe room. The level ends when either all the survivors are wiped out, or all the survivors that lived through the level are in the safe room.
The game can be played primarily in three different ways: Single player, cooperative mode, or vs mode (a team “survive as long as you can” mode was later introduced some months after the launch of the game). Single player and cooperative mode are fairly self-explanatory. Vs mode, on the other hand, is a bit different from the other game modes. Teams of four take turns on each level playing as the survivors and as the zombies. A score is calculated at the end of each survivor run, with teams awarded points depending on how many people survived and their levels of health.
The vs. mode is, hands down, the most entertaining mode the game has to offer. I tend to find the other modes tedious and overall a bit boring…
Let me explain:
First off, I think the single player campaign mode of Left 4 Dead is incredibly limiting and really only fun if one has never played the game/maps before. I can understand going through the maps on an easy difficulty for the purposes of exploration, but cranking up the difficult just does not work through this mode. I guess one could make the argument that I’m simply bad at the game, or I don’t know how to play it, but given my history of competing in various FPS games, I doubt this to be the case. The basic scenario for playing the game single player is that the player takes control of one of the four survivors, and the rest are controlled by AI. The up side to this is that the AI seems to have many bouts of ridiculously perfect accuracy. I’ve experienced this playing against some of the AI humans as a zombie. However, in a game like this, it comes down to a lot more than just gun accuracy; decision making plays a larger role. The AI is not capable of making the same thought out and strategic decisions that a group of human players is able to make. This often results in high frustration. Since one can’t really communicate with the AI and tell them what they should be doing as if they were human, they often end up doing something wrong. Becoming incapacitated by a zombie (in other words, take too much damage from zombies and you’re left stranded on the ground with a health counter that continuously goes down) in the higher difficulty levels of single player often results in the doom of your entire time. There are times when the AI could come and help you back onto your feet, but instead they let you die. Other times they should be focusing on fighting zombies and leaving you down until they’re all dead, but they vainly and continuously try to get you up…and fail. The AI also has a tendency to heal you when you don’t want to be healed, or don’t necessarily need it. This is frustrating on multiple levels, since it makes going for some of the games achievements fairly impossible without playing with a full set of human players. The single player mode is a bit of a throw away.
Next, we have the…
Playing on co-op mode is a significant improvement over single player mode. It even works alright with pickup (random) groups. With everyone focused on the same goal of winning the game and working together, a general camaraderie can be established, even among people you haven’t really played with before. Playing in this mode allows a group of people to take full advantage of the higher difficulty levels in the game. This can be pretty fun for some time, but after completing all of the levels the game has to offer on the highest difficulty, I feel that it loses a lot of its value. Surprisingly, accomplishing this task is not as hard as one might think, assuming one is playing with three other competent players. If this were the total content of the game, good players could blow through it in a week of regular playing. Finally, there is the…
This is where the true meat of the game lies, as well as practically endless fun. There are simply so many varied setups for the zombie team in vs mode that each spawn sort of becomes a bit of a mini game; the idea being to properly coordinate an attack to tie up as many human players at the same time as possible. In vs mode, zombie players are able to spawn themselves in accordance to the current location of the human players. Dying as a zombie is expected; one simply becomes another zombie after a set amount of time, and are able to spawn again. Finding out different ways to pick off a straggling survivor while utilizing the varied environment to one’s advantage becomes a bit of an addiction, and there are oh-so-many ways to do this. On the other side of the coin, playing the humans can be just as enjoyable…assuming the other team is proficient at the game. If they aren’t, the game becomes fairly easy and playing the human side becomes far less meaningful and enjoyable (really, with poorly controlled zombies, one can just blow through the levels as a human). Thus, pitting two great teams against each other creates a great competitive environment and a game that has a very high skill cap.
As I mentioned, the game is at its best when your team is made up of people you know well. This ensures that they’ll stay throughout the length of the game. In playing a pickup game, one always runs the risk of running into shit-talkers and rage quitters. While I don’t mind it much when someone is running their mouth to me in a competitive game (since the easiest way to shut people up is simply win), it isn’t very fun when someone on your own team is talking a ton instead of focusing on the game. It’s not uncommon for these types to lose the game for you, despite their inordinate amount of bravado. Running into a rage quitter is equally annoying, since playing a man down is an incredible handicap, and often gives either an easy win or hopeless loss. Neither of these is really preferable.
Summing It Up
While L4D’s vs. mode fun can be damaged by poor sportsmanship, it’s undoubtedly where the true competition, difficulty, and variety for which the game is so lauded reside. After playing a reasonable amount of the vs. mode, I personally found it impossible to go back to the other game modes, unless I was simply showing someone how to play. It was just that much better.
Do you have any experiences with a game where the multiplayer, specifically in a competitive mode, was just that much better than the single player? Several FPS games have been like this for me; yet, in rare instances I have enjoyed the single player campaign more than anything else (immediately coming to mind is the Gears of War series, as well as Call of Duty 4).