Due to some friends recently picking up the original Left 4 Dead (L4D) because of Steam sales and whatnot over the holiday, I’ve had the unique experience of “down-grading” (you will see this term is not exactly accurate) a gaming experience, having recently spent time with Left 4 Dead 2 (L4D2). In response I compiled a simple bullet-point list about what I enjoyed in each game, what I disliked, and included some of the unique Meta controversies surrounding the series. What surprised me was that my initially more negative attitude toward Left 4 Dead 2 has been lessened significantly since having actually compared and contrasted the original game against the new, improved version.
First, let me break down my general experience with both Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2. Generally, my girlfriend and I played co-op on Normal difficulty exclusively, forsaking the other modes for the most part. We did try a round or two of survival mode, but the bots just couldn’t hack it and the game-play in regard to that was more a chore than anything else. Recently I’ve had the full-human party campaign experience, which is definitely much more fun than playing with bots, but doesn’t seem to impact the actual gameplay too much, if at all.
With that out of the way, Left 4 Dead is a great game. L4D changed up the survival-horror genre in the one way I would willingly play such a game. Going down a dark alley with a fully loaded, automatic shotgun feels much safer than going down one with something like a radio, a flashlight, and some running shoes. Unlike the newer Resident Evil games which have also adopted this more action-packed strategy however, L4D retains a relatively scary tone despite the decent arsenal available thanks to the sheer number of obstacles that the game can throw at the player at any given time.
L4D is effectively the new standard for co-op; it completely redefined the concept of teamwork in a videogame and made that concept an integral part of the core game in a way that has never really been done before. Some of the Splinter Cell games may have come in some distant proximity to what L4D has achieved, but for the most part co-op in games is an excuse to grab some friends and steam-roll through the single-player campaign with each other, and maybe you get split up for a little bit and your friend has to push a button for you or something similarly mundane. In L4D if you try and go lone wolf you will be dead because there is no way a single player can counter every enemy that is stalking them or laying in wait. This is one aspect of the sheer genius that is L4D.
Another aspect of genius is that of the inclusion of another character to L4D in the form of the AI Director, or the Director for short. In any other game, the AI is limited to a feature, nothing but scripts and If/And/Or statements for the enemies that get killed by the player. The closest preexisting example I can think of is the counter-op mode of Perfect Dark where the second player would actually control the enemies as the first player went through the levels, but I’m not sure the same freedom was there. The thing is that if one spends enough time with L4D, the Director becomes just as real as your player counterparts and will inspire laughter, fear and everything in between. I think the L4D Director is probably a pretty cool guy generally, and I wish I could buy him a cold beer and reminisce about some of the situations he put me in. My girlfriend is convinced he spawns more hunters when people wander off alone. Everyone develops their own opinions of the Director and that the players do speaks loudly to quality of programming the Director was given and the sandbox he can play in.
The last thing in general I’d like to touch upon is the narrative of L4D, which is both masterfully done and confusing as hell. In general, the story of L4D is told through scrawling on the walls of the safe rooms and short bits of random dialog between the player-characters. This is fantastic because these mechanics are simplistic, optional, believable, and effective; I will never look at a sharpie pen in the same way ever again, and that will be the first commodity I seek in the post-zombie apocalypse. The player isn’t bogged down by endless cinematic cut-scenes, walls of text, or equally lengthy speeches, but the details are there if they want to invest the time in finding them.
Where the narrative falls apart in L4D is that the campaigns had no continuity or relationship to each other, with the possible exception of the DLC campaign Crash-Course that was released later. On the one hand, this style makes sense in that each campaign is a stand-alone experience, designed to be played through multiple times with a slightly different experience for each instance. On the other hand, players get attached to these quirky characters that exist in each campaign and want to see them “make it” through these horrible situations; the natural assumption on the player’s part is that the campaigns are linear with an overarching end-goal to be achieved. There would have been more clarity if each campaign had its own unique cast of characters, but this oddly was not the case. Similarly, if Crash Course was conceived as a literal follow-up to No Mercy this contradiction in design is downright baffling in that it came up so late and offers so little to the overall story.
For as great an experience as L4D was, there were some real issues in how it was presented. First, there were only the four campaigns and half as many versus maps at launch with more promised in the future. L4D had an incredibly small weapon selection for a first-person shooter. The impression I, and I presume many others got as well, was that L4D would be supported to the same extent that Team Fortress 2 (TF2) has. If one looks at how TF2 was at launch and how it is now they would see that it is a completely different game, and has undergone the changes at no expense to the players. Historically though, TF2 really is the exception for Valve in that new content is released for free and relatively frequently. When holding up L4D to L4D2, with the exception of the short release window of a year and the full-game price-point, these two games do seem to be on par with everything else Valve has put out. A $20 credit for L4D owners toward L4D2 could have gone far toward canceling out much of the negativity that began surrounding the latter game when it was announced so soon after L4D and met with healthy doses of skepticism and cynicism. That stigma will probably haunt L4D2 until the game sees similar deals as L4D has been experiencing lately.
Left 4 Dead 2 is also a great game, but it ultimately boils down to being a stunning departure from its predecessor. The changes made in such a short amount of time (especially for Valve) are so drastic that near the end of its development Valve must have anticipated L4D would fail in the market and took action accordingly to try and save the franchise. If I remember correctly, L4D was almost 50% for a weekend right after its release (and I felt pretty burned except that the gameplay was so good). From a perspective that the apparent flaws in L4D would be much more aggravating than they ended up being, the quick release of L4D2 makes sense, especially if those flaws were identified close to the end of the game’s production and could not have been rectified short of a full, new release.
The new cast of characters are still badasses in L4D2, and they have an expanded, balanced arsenal including new guns and a new class of melee weapons. Gunplay in L4D2 feels tighter and more refined than in L4D. L4D2’s co-op is a deeper experience than it was in L4D because of new balance tweaks made to the survivors and twists to the normal conventions of L4D’s campaign design. Complaints from versus mode play are essentially rectified in that the survivors now have a cool-down for their push-away move that knocks zombies back, whereas it was a viable tactic to have one survivor abusing the ability and keep zombies at a safe distance while the others freely attack. The new additions to the cast of the special infected also make the popular strategy of holing up in one location a bad idea with devastating area-of-effect attacks and player-movement manipulation. New “uncommon infected,” less threatening than the special variety, pose interesting problems that spice up the normal gameplay encounters. Everything from L4D has received some degree of attention, but not always for the best.
Take the AI Director from L4D, and find his sociopathic, psychotic, sexually abused cousin and you have the Director for L4D2. This character completely eclipses the original Director in his downright evil and unforgiving nature. It’s possible to laugh at the worst the L4D director can throw at you, like with one person constricted and everyone else covered in boomer bile: that is a fun and manageable worst-case-scenario challenge on the normal difficulty. Conversely, the last time my girlfriend and I tried to complete the final campaign of L4D2, I got so frustrated I wanted to quit and play Borderlands instead. We were playing with two bots, which were up with me on the high ground at a crescendo event that would summon a horde of zombies. My girlfriend was below to start the event, with the idea being that she would run up and join us. Things went fine until she pressed the button, when I got charged by one of the new special infected from behind, which then knocked me down three stories to the ground, and then proceeded to fertilize the lawn with me. A smoker was on one of the nearby roofs, and a swarm of zombies joined by a tank were hopping the fence we were trying to get over. The two bots died pretty quick, and somehow my girlfriend was able to save me and we got up, only to be attacked again by another group of special infected with no time to breathe. In other words, the new Director will kick the shit out of players relentlessly while they are on the ground. We managed to survive, but that experience felt really unfair.
Almost like an admission of guilt for L4D’s unclear story, L4D2’s narrative structure changed drastically. Each campaign, instead of being a self-contained, stand-alone story, is an integral chapter in the short novel that is L4D2. Instances in previous campaigns are even referenced at times, usually to humorous effect. Unlike L4D, the player essentially spends five hours with the characters as they progress, which makes their interactions with each other have more meaning thanks to historical, albeit brief, weight. Why the survivors are where they are is explained satisfactorily, as are the motivations behind their new objectives that change the conditions of rescue beyond just holding out for a given time against waves of zombies and tanks. New technological improvements to the environments compliment these new goals nicely. The one thing that suffered was probably the wall-scrawls, which seem more infrequent but can be found outside the safe-houses.
By the end of L4D2, the player can have enough story detail to be contemplating the implications of what all is happening around them. While L4D had various tidbits and raised some interesting questions about the nature of the infection and the survivors, L4D2 basically underlines these and further emphasizes them with a couple of exclamation points. It is incredibly rewarding to go back into the L4D campaigns and find some more of these references in the margins of the game with the knowledge from the L4D2 campaigns in mind. Ultimately, the presentation of the story seems to be a vast improvement in L4D2 over L4D.
Even more drastic a difference between the two games than how the stories are treated is the difficulty of each. L4D can be challenging but stays fun. It’s really difficult to say the same thing about L4D2, in large part thanks to the Director, but it could also be related to too many changes at once that weren’t cumulatively accounted for. The weapons changes, the new special and uncommon infected, and the more complex objectives added to L4D2 equal a mutation of a fun challenge resulting in a different monster called frustration. As a result, finishing a campaign in L4D2 is definitely a rewarding experience, probably more-so than what L4D offers, but I can’t claim that it’s as fun. Admittedly, I haven’t played a full-player co-op round of L4D2 (yet), but that just wasn’t an issue with L4D. I even did some achievement whoring on my own in the first with no bad incidents, and when a campaign is finished I’m ready and eager for the next. After a campaign of L4D2 I’m so stressed out and exhausted that I just want to quit. Maybe the new “realism mode” in L4D2 has bled through into the normal gameplay?
With that griping aside, L4D2 seems like a logical and defensible evolution of L4D, although the timing is still incredibly suspicious in just how quickly so many of the problems of the first game were so thoroughly corrected in the release span of one year. The rift between the fun and the difficulty is disconcerting; it makes me wonder if L4D3 isn’t already in the works to address this new conundrum. The reward of being able to complete L4D2 is still there though, and it feels like a real accomplishment to make it through some of those campaigns, and that last campaign is still lingering in the air around me like the cries of a witch that needs to be silenced with cocktails and bullets. I will not go so far as to say that L4D2 is the better game, but it is certainly a welcome one.