In 2008, the masters of the first person shooter at Valve gave us a definitive zombie apocalypse game that redefined the concept of cooperative multiplayer. Lacking any cohesive story, meaningful character development, and other storytelling elements that have defined modern gaming, Left 4 Dead was a rare current AAA title that got by entirely on pure gameplay execution and creativity.
A year after the game released, I was still playing it fairly regularly. That is very unusual for any game in this day and age. Left 4 Dead 2 came out at that time and the community responded largely with a collective “WTF”. We were still playing the first game! Why do we need another? Have you not heard of DLC expansions, Valve?
Apparently, the great and powerful Valve took this to heart because now we’re closing in on five years since the sequel came out and four since the last DLC came out and no word on more Left 4 Dead beyond the usual fan rumors. So what is up with this franchise? Why are some of us jonesing so hard for more of it?
What I love about the game is that it’s designed as the kind of thing you can play through a hundred times and have a different experience every time. It doesn’t need a story because you create the story. I’m a guy who loves stories in any medium and I play video games primarily for that reason. RPG’s are totally my thing, and in any other case the idea of buying a multiplayer-only game is a nonstarter.
Left 4 Dead worked for me completely although it isn’t scripted and is pretty much crappy as a single-player experience. In fact, it combined those two things and twisted them to its advantage. It makes every game an adventure, even after you’ve played through each campaign over and over through the trials of online play paired with an innovative in-game AI. Like the characters in a story, an online player is thrown together with three strangers in a zombie-filled wasteland and must find a way to survive. How it turns out is up to you and your partners.
Yeah, a lot of gamers won’t play with randoms, but those are probably the people who got the least out of the game. Perfect, rehearsed strategies are one way to deal with the unpredictable AI that strategically arranges the enemies in different ways every game depending on your skill level (or luck), but the real joy in the game is in coming together or falling apart as a team of strangers in this often harrowing challenge and the trials, tribulations, triumphs, and betrayals that make up a game. And when you are pitted against another set of players playing as the infected trying to take you out? That is the stuff of multiplayer legend.
Everyone who has put time into Left 4 Dead has stories. Everyone. Just like in any zombie apocalypse story, a campaign has its cast of unique characters and archetypes. There’s that one asshole who charges ahead of everyone else and either gets the rest of the group killed and curses them for sucking when they rush to save him or dies alone and curses the rest of the group for not keeping up with him. There’s the pro who communicates in shorthand and issues orders with military precision that can either bring your team together as a unit or rip it apart depending on whether anyone listens to him. And then there’s the consummate teammate who quietly covers their teammates , heals their wounds with their own items, and selflessly risks themselves to assure that no one is left behind. It’s a new mix and match of personality types every time.
This element of cooperating to survive brings about memorable moments that often mirror the sorts of situations you see in The Walking Dead and Romero films. Like those times where three players make it to the safehouse fleeing a horde and the last one gets grabbed by a Smoker at the last instant and dragged away. Do you leave them to their fate, close the door, and save yourselves to settle for a lower score or do you strike back out to face the infected masses and pray you can get them back on their feet and risk dying yourselves? When these things happen spontaneously, they seem so much more urgent than when you are simply playing a scripted sequence of events designed for you to overcome.
Left 4 Dead doesn’t care about being fair or balanced. It’ll drop the axe on you at any time. You may have a fairly standard and uneventful trek to the safehouse full of casual conversation one game, and the next may have everyone shouting at other and screaming for help when two hulking Tanks come down on you just as a hidden Boomer blasts you with bile, attracting a swarm of infected and sending your party skittering in all directions in a half-blind panic shooting everywhere and startling the Witch, effectively wiping your party.
Left 4 Dead 2 added new characters, more objective-based in-game challenges like finding gas to fuel generators or vehicles, melee weapons, and some more infected types to give you fits and nightmares. If it had come out a few years later instead of a matter of months, it would have been gobbled up and treasured, but releasing only months after the first game put it in a weird place where a lot of gamers weren’t ready for another and didn’t end up buying it.
But it’s been more than long enough now. One might argue that the second game pretty much just added to what was already a nearly perfect co-op game and served as the cherry on top of an amazing gaming experience and since it is still available to purchase, we don’t need another. But it’s a new console gen now and a lot of players justifiably don’t want to jump into such an established multiplayer game as newbies among pros. I know I’m rusty and I wouldn’t pay to get back in at this point and probably endure being booted and berated by my peers for not pulling my weight.
One of the great things about a new title in an existing franchise is that it works as a reset button for the community. Noobs, intermediates, and veterans are all thrown together in those first few months and that’s when the magic happens. After a few months to a year, a multiplayer game levels out a little and becomes more predictable and populated mostly by hardcore players who often chase out the more pleasant and less skilled players. Left 4 Dead’s focus on cooperation instead of competition made its community a much more interesting place and gave it longer legs to boot, but there are limits.
It may be possible that Valve will choose to make Left 4 Dead 3 (along with third chapters of Half Life, Portal, and Team Fortress) Steam exclusive to try and sell their upcoming Steam Machine, which would explain why they’ve been so coy about information regarding these anticipated titles, but that would be a pretty devastating blow for existing console gamers so let’s hope not.
Whenever and however it comes, I’m really looking forward to diving back into Valve’ undead apocalypse where your fellow players can be your best friend or as much a menace as any infected, depending on the luck of the online draw. I’m looking forward to more pulse-pounding action, nerve-wracking journeys, dual pistol headshots, full-auto spray-and-prays, and Molotov cocktail firestorms. And god DAMN am I looking forward to taking control of some special infected and ruining someone else’s day in whole new ways.
Whatever you’ve got planned, Valve, inquiring minds want to know. Your next batch of games could very well determine which console I buy, and the next Left 4 Dead is going to factor pretty heavily into my choice. The PlayStation faithful have yet to experience the series and although at this point I’m leaning heavily towards that camp I’d hate to jump the gun and buy a PS4 only to have L4D3 announced as another Microsoft exclusive. And if the next round of Valve creations is going to be Steam exclusive, I could even go that way. Whatever happens, I’m dying to see what’s next. Toss us a bone, guys.