The 12 Games of Christmas: Left 4 Dead

By RPS on December 24th, 2008 at 5:58 pm.

Ah, look to the streets. Hordes shambling the streets, looking for last minute bargains. Why, it’s almost enough to make you want to write some kind of satire where the consumers become monsters of some kind. But what kind of monsters?

For the eleventh game of Christmas, my true blog gave to me…


Eleven Zombies eating your braiiiiiiiiinnnnnn!

John: Here’s a problem with all the games coming out at the end of the year. When it’s time for the end-of-year round-ups, it hasn’t been nearly long enough since you last wrote thousands of words about the game. But there is so very much to celebrate about L4D.

There’s the pacing. We’re all intimate friends with the Director now, and are aware quite how significant a step forward in game design he is. Apply the concept to single player games, and imagine the stories you could swap, and imagine how much more tempted you’d be to play the game again. Apply the concept to an MMO, and imagine how it could relieve the tedium. It’s rather brilliant that an idea developed to try and recreate the ebb and flow that could be scripted into a single player game might end up giving back more than it ever reflected.

There’s the storytelling. Obviously anyone who’s played is familiar with the way you find your own story as you play, because it’s four people working together against changing odds. Retelling that afterward is the cosily modern equivalent of the frightening posh group returning from the hunt. Except where the fox killed three of them, and the last one nearly fell out a helicopter. But there’s also a lot more storytelling going on within the game that many are giving it credit for. I think people take writing on the wall for granted. It’s hard to remember that most games have utter gibberish spammed on their walls, the same miserable comments repeated with the texture brush. Here unique and cunningly placed insight into a barely enunciated background story hint at horrors others have faced, and the potential of safety somewhere further along. They give you both hope and ill-portent. And of course there’s hundreds of lines of dialogue. Often it’s drowned out by voice chat, but ludicrously specific lines are written for ludicrously specific situations, that you’ll likely only hear once in all the time you play. It all contributes to giving you enough pieces of the history to imagine your own informed version of events.

There’s the speed. People like to argue about the speed zombies are supposed to move at, and I’m sure it would have been an interesting game (interesting mod?) for a much larger number of zombies who shuffle, but L4D’s terror comes from the fluctuating speed. The downtime offered by the Director is only interesting because of the uptime between it. The terrifying speed of everything within means you are rarely able to catch your breath, and are so relieved on the odd occasion when you can.

There’s the gore. This is an incredibly violent game. Like nothing Valve have made. The blood splatters in HL2 were always gross, but were somehow displayed with decorum. You wouldn’t be afraid of your gran seeing you play HL2. Then the pharmaceutical cleanliness of Portal, and the Pixary-cuteness of TF2 (again, diluting the gore within), betray nothing of the all-out schlockfest Valve had planned for L4D. Heads and arms flying off, blood filling the floors and walls, bits exploding, screaming, bleeding corpses on fire… Marvellous stuff.

Oh, and there’s the Witch.
VIOLENCE

Jim: What a fine game this turned out to be. Both a solid shooter, and an innovative one: it makes me wonder who will go on to copy and improve on this model, and how they will do it. I still don’t think the lobby system works, but hey, Left 4 Dead provided me with more guffaws and giggles than any other game this year. It’s a game that has a solid sense of crisis, not just in the setting, but in the mechanics: when things go to the wall, you really know it. The cascading panic of a collapsing survivor team is one of the finest things in gaming, and clawing it back from the brink feels better than almost any other gaming happenstance I can think of. Few games leave you feeling genuinely so beleaguered. And that feeds into the awesome zombie experience. I get a huge kick out of giving the survivors a really hard time. Focused griefing, if you will.

A few years ago I was absolutely wrapped up in Quake 3 Arena, and at the time I felt like multiplayer gaming in small teams like that would be around forever. Ultimately though I found myself growing bored and the scene growing stale. Perhaps it was because there simply weren’t enough inventive games, or perhaps it because everyone seemed to gravitate towards Battlefield and Counter-Strike, two games I never really got on with. In the past year though, my unhappiness with the state of shooty multiplayer has been exploded, first with Team Fortress and then with Left 4 Dead. It’s all down to a single company. Thanks, Valve. (We’ll have a chat about Steam pricing malarkies in the New Year, eh?)

Valve's screenshot, not mine.

Kieron: It’s odd to feel this one settle down into a space in my head. As in, I’ve got my one-line description – Gauntlet Meets Doom – which is both a fairly accurate description of the game and as strong a compliment as Splendid Orgasms meets Awesome Orgasms. But I don’t feel the need to think about it more than that. Probably because I haven’t played for a few weeks.

For me the key thing about Left 4 Dead is surprise. Not the shock of being pounced by some creature of the night and finding a couple of hundred pounds of flesh and claws tearing at your face, or the jerk as you’re pulled back, wondering what’s going on before realising that a coiled muscle tongue has wrapped around your extremities and is dragging away, or even that moment where you realise the woman in rags who’s howling her heart out is starting to turn around… but actually the surprise that it was as compelling as it was. Co-op game with zombies? Yeah, the sort of thing you may get excited about. If you were 15. What price the future of games, yaddadyaddayadda.

But no. It’s awesome, and not just because the spray of brains from a skull is one of the most beautiful things in the world. Valve’s persistence that the linear first-person shooter can lead to fundamentally enormously divulging experiences is increasingly inspiring. Where others are pushing the genre towards what others have been doing elsewhere – Stalker and Far Cry 2, for example – Valve rather ask what else you can do within what may appear a limiting remit. And with every game, they’ve managed to show a new way to make corridors and pointing a weapon at people sing. TF2. Portal. Left 4 Dead. Some people get excited about the next Half-life – and that’s understandable and great. What most excites me about Valve is the next thing I don’t know about yet.

And the Witch. Yes.

Behind you.

Alec: Multiplayer games are still teetering on the brink of voice communication being necessary. Anyone who’s even slightly hardcore will have considered it absolutely mandatory for a good decade or so of course, but I mean the average player who stumbles onto a random server. Left 4 Dead is the point it became necessary. Part of that is the planning – by the time you’ve typed OMG SMOKR you’ve been choked to death – but part of it is the mood.

L4D’s greatest achievement is that it truly does realise the sort of dynamics we’d like to think we’d have in the event of a zombie invasion. Clearly, the reaction we would have is hiding in a corner, painting our pants brown and crying, but we like to think the absolute panic would reach such a crescendo that it clicked into some sort of adrenalised survival instinct. The Dawn of the Dead effect, essentially – we’re all suddenly expert gunsmiths, but we’re bickering like children and twitching in fear as we gun ‘em down. That’s where the voice comms really come in – half the messages that come through from your fellow survivors barely make any sense. “Oh god it’s a oh there he get him where get hunter yeah thanksshit. Okay, who needs health?” The incoherency and the panic, but the simultaneous need to make everyone aware of what’s happening to you is absolutely crucial to the atmosphere. It’s nominally a co-op game, but in reality it’s a survival game – and those gabbled half-sentences reveal that it’s an incredibly successful one. The hands do the shooting, the mouth does the talking – and it’s the two together that put us in a zombie apocalypse, rather than simply a shooting gallery.

In contrast to Team Fortress 2, which works because of the mechanics and the characterfulness of the class designs, L4D is in many ways a blank slate – a game that works so well thanks to the people in it. In what other multiplayer game, for instance, would a total dick joining your group add to the experience? He’s not just an idiot or a griefer – he’s some asshat that happens to have survived the end of the world, and you’re forced to find a way to work with him. You might hate him to the pit of your soul – but isn’t that pure zombie movie stuff?

, .

90 Comments »

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  1. markcocjin says:

    What’s most interesting is that despite the game’s seemingly “okay” ratings versus the AAA titles it came out with, this game will historically be the pioneer of it’s own. Games after this will take inspiration after Left 4 Dead’s procedural experience simulator.

  2. Anonononomous says:

    Your posting on this game would be a lot more credible if you gave credit for making the game to the correct developer.

  3. markcocjin says:

    Oh and Merry Christmas to one and all.

  4. Calabi says:

    It really is that good plus a little bit more.

    edit:oh no I brokes the internet.

  5. Pags says:

    “Oh god it’s a oh there he get him where get hunter yeah thanksshit. Okay, who needs health?”

    A spookily accurate portrayal of what everyone sounds like on L4D voicechat.

    L4D turned me into a multiplayer gamer; I’ve never had any interest in playing games with other people before. Then L4D came out and all of a sudden I was on Skype or the RPS group chat every few hours bugging people for a game. There must surely be something special about a game that makes me interested in a genre I was otherwise apathetic about.

    Admittedly though, I started out playing it as a glorified single-player corridoor shooter, which actually served to highlight what a well-written game it is. The writing on the wall and the incidental lines are all fantastic little details that manage the difficult task of great characterisation while leaving the avatar’s backstories pleasingly vague. Too often games make the mistake of thinking that epic backstories/lore = characterisation, a preconception Valve have blown out of the water time and time again (Gordon Freeman being the earliest and most obvious example).

    Also, Bill occassionally sounds like Captain Murphy (R.I.P) from Sealab 2021. Which is an instant-win.

  6. SwiftRanger says:

    Best shooter in a long time, it’s incredibly tense. People labelling this as just “Serious Sam with zombies” aren’t playing on Expert or in Versus. This is zombie survival as it should be done.

    Too bad about the lobby/the whole matchmaking idd, it’s terribly slow and unresponsive, almost brings back those BF2 server browser nightmares…

  7. Pags says:

    @Anonononomous: Turtle Rock were absorbed by Valve so technically they were correct – and that’s ignoring the fact that Valve gave the intial team all the resources/staff they needed. GG.

  8. alset says:

    Yeah this game is the No.1 shooter of 2008 for me. I still can’t grasp why it hasn’t hooked any my friends during the free demo week.

  9. Jim Rossignol says:

    Turtle Rock are now “Valve South” or something. So they’re still Valve. And actually the main studio in Seattle was working on the game full-time too, so Valve proper is as much responsible for the final game as Mr Booth’s team was.

    Merry Christmas to you, Internet Pedants!

  10. pkt-zer0 says:

    I’ve found the demo pretty bland, actually. On lower difficulties, the poor zombies don’t even stand a chance, you’re just blasting them away in waves. On higher ones, you’re walking around one moment and OH SHIT YOU’RE DEAD the next. Teamwork is limited to “shoot the zombie that’s ripping out the brains of your buddies”. So yeah, the sort of thing you might get excited about, if you were 15.

    …Maybe not, but for the time being I’m content with SWAT4 and the freshly and cheaply acquired TF2 for my co-op needs (and Painkiller if I feel like blasting zombies).

  11. Anonononomous says:

    I wouldn’t say that Bioshock was made by 2K, either.

    I just dislike Valve getting credit for so many things they didn’t create, like Portal, TF, CS and L4D. The core of Valve only has one property. They just buy up teams that make cool games. since their own games aren’t very good.

  12. Pags says:

    You’re confusing the creation of IPs with the actual development of games Anonononomous.

  13. Anonononomous says:

    Perhaps; I don’t know how much of the actual work was done by Valve vs Turtle Rock/Valve South. I’m annoyed, though, that if I want to look for games made by the L4D team I might not be able to since all of Valve is called Valve. It’s not like with EA where if I only want to play games made by, say Redwood Shores or Criterion, or, even more easily, BioWare, I can do that.

    I’m also disappointed by nobody ever giving credit to EA for putting the game out. People on the internet spend too much time complaining about EA and ignoring all the good stuff they do, I find.

  14. Larington says:

    On the subject of co-op and Valve products, just spotted this:
    http://planethalflife.gamespy.com/fullstory.php?id=155840
    Sven Co-Op 4.0 (Beta) Released!

    Also, on the subject of Valve buying up good IPs – Does it really fricking matter? As long as the game is good and not hindered by excessive Digital Restrictions Management I don’t care which company paid the people who made it, just as long as these people have been most deservedly paid and credited for their hard work.

  15. SightseeMC says:

    Jim, you bring up an interesting point…griefing.

    I’ve been thinking about what L4D does so well that hasn’t been talked to death and I think griefing is it. Versus mode allows hardcore griefers to do so not only without community shame, but actually as the whole point of the game. Which makes a truly epic win (i.e. survival) by the human team even more satisfying: there’s little better than taking the worst the zombie players can throw at you, closing the safe room door, and hearing Louis say, “Oh HELL YEAH!”

    It also lets us not-normally-griefers fulfill our fantasies of turning the tables and ripping the cocky Survivors to shreds with a pretty good Infected team. And now I know the joy of demoralizing a team so bad they quit halfway through because we just tore them up. Maybe we all have a bit of a griefer inside of us.

    So cheers to the dialogue (Zoey’s “It’s not fair they’re so fast, you know? I mean, I call Zombie B***S*** on that!” might be my favorite game flourish ever). And kudos for funneling the survivors right into a witch with a tank, or pulling Bill off of the warehouse roof as a smoker, or autoshotting a jumping hunter as he comes for your face. But for me, L4D’s greatest achievement is giving griefing a legitimate purpose, for better or worse.

  16. hello_josh says:

    How evil. Valve hires talented staff (even whole companies), dumps loads of money on them, and turns out kick-ass games.

  17. PsyW says:

    EA aren’t exactly doing Valve a big friendly favour by publishing their games at retail… Valve’s a big, well-known super-developer, I very much doubt they’d have trouble finding someone else to publish their retail boxed games should they be so inclined.

    I see not particular reason why I should feel grateful to EA when they are taking no part in development and are making big wads of cash from pressing DVDs, putting them in boxes and telling retailers to sell them. it’s not as if they’re doing it for free or anything…

  18. Jim Rossignol says:

    Valve aren’t that big. And the entire company has input on to all their projects. This isn’t one studio doing X and one studio doing Y, they are *all* making these games together.

    They’re not acquiring studios and rebranding them a la 2K Boston, they’re integrating into the whole. So to say Valve made Portal, or Left 4 Dead, is accurate.

    I am so going to the pub now.

  19. Psychopomp says:

    Don’t feed the hair-splitting trolls, people.

  20. Pags says:

    Zoey’s “It’s not fair they’re so fast, you know? I mean, I call Zombie B***S*** on that!” might be my favorite game flourish ever

    It is for lines like this that make Zoey my biggest game-character crush since April Ryan.

  21. Mogs says:

    As good as L4D and as much as I enjoy playing it, it remains a disappointment for me. It feels like a skeleton of the game I was expecting; there’s so many obvious things they haven’t done with it.

    Hopefully with time, they will.

  22. pkt-zer0 says:

    So to say Valve made Portal, or Left 4 Dead, is accurate.

    Didn’t Portal’s developers themselves say they received no external help from Valve, besides “here’s the engine, now get to it, chop chop”? Dunno about L4D, though.

  23. aoanla says:

    A couple of comments:

    Firstly, I hate voice comms with a deep passion. Or, at least, I strongly dislike being made to participate in them actively (I’m fine with other people shouting at me…). One of the things about the internet that makes me more confident on it than in real life is the lack of real-time, voice-based interaction – the barrier imposed by text makes me more comfortable and confident. So, I am Not Happy if we’re now considering Voice Comms to be Essential.
    Secondly, I’ve still not played L4D because it doesn’t play well with Wine, apparently. Would it have killed people to provide a DirectX 8.1 render path? (Okay, so this point is only semi-serious, but still, I’d have paid money for L4D if only it worked outside of Windows…)

  24. Pattom says:

    @pkt-zer0: Except for the fact that Valve’s writing staff were writing GLaDOS’s dialogue, and I’m pretty sure that at least a few artists were on-board as well. And Valve put at least the TF2 team onto L4D during development. Even if they didn’t do the majority of the work, the finished products would be markedly different without their help.

  25. psyk says:

    Im confused why is the word griefer getting thrown around so much for versus mode, Its versus mode your supposed to kill and stop the other team completing there objective if you were to say be on the survivor team shooting your teammates that would be griefing.

  26. SightseeMC says:

    @Psyk:

    What I’m getting at is this: the Infected are overpowered compared to the Survivors; it’s called an “asymmetrical” fight on a lot of sites. Using over-powered characters to start a gankfest is generally griefing in other games. In L4D, it *IS* the game. :)

  27. feffrey@feffrey.com says:

    I played L4d for about 5 min then quit. It has just way too much blood and gore.
    I know I am in a minority, but please can we just get a turn off blood and gore setting?
    It looks like a good game, but I get physicaly sick seeing all that stuff.

  28. SwiftRanger says:

    Get the German version then.

  29. MetalCircus says:

    The Director AI is something i’d also like to see in normal, single player games.

  30. Monkfish says:

    I want to know who Chicago Ted is.

    No zombie is safe from him, apparently.

  31. Pags says:

    Chicago Ted inhabits rest stop bathrooms on Indiana turnpikes. This we know to be true.

  32. hydra9 says:

    Good ol’ Chicago Ted.

    My favourite line comes from Louis and I find myself laughing and typing it in CAPS during games:

    THIS SHIT, WAS NOT IN MY PLANS!!!

    Game of the year.

  33. Anonononomous says:

    “They’re not acquiring studios and rebranding them a la 2K Boston, they’re integrating into the whole. So to say Valve made Portal, or Left 4 Dead, is accurate.”

    I would actually prefer a rebranding. The only “Valve” games I really like are Portal and L4D. Both made by outside teams/teams new to Valve. The HL2 episodes aren’t bad, but I don’t like any games made by longtime Valve employees. If Valve South gets to stay mostly independent, that would make me much happier than if they get assimilated.

    “What I’m getting at is this: the Infected are overpowered compared to the Survivors; it’s called an “asymmetrical” fight on a lot of sites. Using over-powered characters to start a gankfest is generally griefing in other games. In L4D, it *IS* the game. :)”

    Seriously? The infecteed are far weaker than the humans if they’re at least doing a passable job. The infected have to cooperate a lot more to get things done. Especially considering the game tells the survivors so much and the infected don’t get all that extra info.

  34. Hypocee says:

    …Both made by outside teams/teams new to Valve when they were hired and then developed their games inside Valve with Valve salaries, manpower and capital resources for two or three years.

    FTFY.

    Especially considering the game tells the survivors so much and the infected don’t get all that extra info.

    Are you talking about how the Infected can see their team and the Survivors while the Survivors can only see each other? What are you talking about?

  35. Larington says:

    Hope you’ve all played through the commentary in this, some interesting stuff goes into this game.

  36. Anonononomous says:

    The survivors have the hud to tell then about each other, they have lots of musical cues and other sound cues to tell them when anything is happening, etc. A lone infected against a team of survivors has absolutely no chance at success but a lone survivor against a team of infected could survive if he were a quick shot/melee. Also, the infected have no equivalent, or decent counter, for turtling/hiding in closets.

    Also, the infected don’t get to see the survivors if they’re playing stealthily.

  37. Tei says:

    The wich is cryiing because chicago ted is in the city

  38. Pags says:

    Also, the infected don’t get to see the survivors if they’re playing stealthily.

    Apart from the bright green outlines, right?

    Honestly, I don’t think the balance is skewed in any sides’ favour. The survivors get musical cues, text alerts and audio cues from other characters; the infected get 50ft prehensile tongues, vomit bait, leaping legs of fury and the tank. Seems pretty evenly-matched to me.

  39. Lobster says:

    The history of Turtle Rock is more complicated than simply a company that Valve purchased, Valve wanted Mike Booth to work for them but he didnt want to make the move up to seattle, so he put together an off site team to work on content for valve games starting with the CS bot and moving on to CSCZ CSS etc, L4D came after that, but Turtle Rock were always working with Valve from the very start.

    As for Portal, the game only existed as a gameplay concept before they were taken in by Valve, the majority of the company is made up of modders and former community members, working alone these games would never get the budget or attention that they do within valve, so the collaberation is nothing but good for them.

  40. hydra9 says:

    Lobster speaks the truth.

  41. Larington says:

    Cheers Lobster, was hoping someone with more info could help fill in the gaps of understanding regarding Turtle Rock.

  42. SightseeMC says:

    Anonononono: a single survivor can beat a whole team of infected?

    LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL

    I would address your points, but now you’ve showed your hand as the troll you are, since your last comment was ludicrous on its face, and is now a completely new whine compared to your earlier nitpicking. Good luck baiting others.

  43. lilgamefreek says:

    It’s not meant to be evenly matched though. Vs. is a test to see who is better at playing SURVIVOR. Infected scoring isn’t factored into the en result at all. The winner is the team that got the most survivors through safely and with the most health. Nothing else. The infected are merely a stumbling block used to get in the other team’s way. In other words, griefing.

  44. qrter says:

    Hope you’ve all played through the commentary in this, some interesting stuff goes into this game.

    Valve’s commentary nodes are always interesting, although it would be nice if they could find a more ‘loose’ form, still talking about what they’re supposed to be talking about but not reading it from a bit of paper (which makes a lot of the participants sound as if Gabe Newell is holding a loaded gun to their heads).

  45. shon says:

    My favorite line from the game is when I shot Louis by accident. He yelled “Do I look like one of them?” It was far more humbling than any player could have said.

  46. subedii says:

    By way of shifting the debate away from griping, the Steam end-of-year sale is now on.

    The servers are currently getting hammered so you’re unlikely to be able to access it at the moment, but there’s some pretty big discounts going down.

    Last year there was a minimum of 10% off on all games, and a lot of really good games had anywhere between 25% and 75% off.

    So if you were looking to buy Left 4 Dead, I’m guessing it’s discounted too. This’ll probably be the best time to get it for a while.

  47. IvanHoeHo says:

    Rage quitters are the new grievers. Man, I hate them so much!

    Also, the director is sometimes incredibly unfair, cutting some slack on the higher score team (no tanks, no witches, health packs and explosives stocked to the brim everywhere, etc.), while screwing the worse team. (tank right out the safe room door, no advanced guns, etc.) The worst thing is that it happens fairly often, too. (est. 1 in 4 games?)

  48. CakeAddict says:

    Going to lan soon, I’m sure we’ll be playing a LOT of versus.

  49. subedii says:

    Aaaaaand it looks like the sites back up, but only because they’ve removed all the deals for the moment. Gah!

  50. spam oktoberfest spam says:

    very, very good article there. it really gets the point of what’s fun about this game.