Till Death Do Us Rend Apart: On L4D Survival Mode

By Alec Meer on April 24th, 2009 at 3:50 pm.

It’s a little alarming that the game I most want to play during Britain’s sunniest month since 1209AD involves skulking in the dark in the company of several hundred super-pale people: curse you, Valve, for releasing Left 4 Dead’s new, Alamo-tastic Survival mode now. It’s been my staple gaming diet for the last couple of evenings – and it’s very much renewed my interest in a game I’d otherwise grown a leeeeeeetle tired of. Here’s why.

Primarily, it’s because it restores purpose to Left 4 Dead – despite, paraxodically, being a mode you cannot ever win. If you’re not already aware of how it’s played, it goes a little something like this: stay alive as long as you can. Endless waves of zombies, with the ever-fearsome Hunters, Smokers, Boomers and Tanks becoming more regular as the clock ticks on. You’re awarded medals for staying alive for certain times, with the top-tier Gold awards currently seeming the stuff of insane fantasies to me at the moment.

In other words, I haven’t yet made it past bronze, but hey, don’t look at me like that – I’ve only played a few times thus far. More importantly, I now have a sense of real objective to what I’m doing – I want that bally silver, and I want to beat my own best time. Prior to this, I’d conquered all the campaigns so many times that I just plum couldn’t be bothered anymore – only versus mode held an occasional thrall. Releasing Survival’s a far smarter choice than simply banging out a new campaign or two, as far as I’m concerned. Thematically, it works well too – no-one ever really survives a zombie outbreak, right? You know going in you’re going to die – so let’s just see how many of the shambling bastards you can take with you.

As well as lending that renewed purpose to the game, it changes the dynamics slightly. There’s no finding a replacement survivor a few metres down the road – once you’re dead you’re dead, and if you’re dead then the rest of your team will be too in short order. Lulls in the action are rare – maybe a brief breather here and there, but as the clock ticks on it grows ever-more frenetic. Even applying a health pack becomes an insane gamble, as it’s a few precious seconds in which you aren’t firing wildly at the oncoming horde. Molotovs and pipe bombs are about the only way to give yourself the time and space necessary to gather your thoughts, armaments and hit points – and as such become Survival’s most precious commodity.

Such intense freneticism is going to encourage new, or at least altered, strategies from teams if they want to take home the gold. A certain degree of brute force/flailing will get you the bronze without too much trauma, but managing three hunters, a smoker and two tanks at once pretty much rewrites the rulebook. I suspect we’ll see some jaw-dropping Youtube videos in due course.

(Oh, and on a whinging personal note – I’d really like the Tank’s ability to knock you clean out of the map, and thus inflict tragic, unavoidable insta-death, to be patched out, or at least be a toggleable option. To fight so hard then be unceremoniously booted out of the match from just one lucky punch seems miserably cruel. I’m sure the entire L4D community disagrees with me, of course).

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67 Comments »

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  1. Jim Rossignol says:

    Survival = 3 minute punk record. Campaign = concept album.

  2. roBurky says:

    A couple of games of L4D Survival mode is the perfect sized chunk of zombie apocalypse for me. I enjoyed playing versus campaigns, but they were just a bit too long for my game stamina. Typically by the fourth map, I just wanted to take a break.

    So I like Survival mode.

  3. ChaosSmurf says:

    Is it more fun outside the Last Stand map? I just found the pointlessness of it all a little … well, different from what made the campaign so much fun – the fact you got out in the end. Some friends of mine and I played a couple of rounds and then ended up just killing each other because it was more fun <.<

    I should probably give it another shot though.

  4. Doctor Doc says:

    Try playing the street level in one of those campains that just got ported to versus. M4s, backs against the fence at the end of the street and runs back to the ammo and away from the tanks, much more simple than that lighthouse, it that place really is a nightmare. It was the first one I got gold on and it’s a ton of fun!

  5. TariqOne says:

    I’ve only played the lighthouse map a couple times and I can’t say as I’m a big fan overall. The most fun I’ve had in Survival, which to my mind is a terrific little mode, has been the only other map I’ve played, and that’s been the Airport terminal.

    In related news, it does get kind of funny when you kill what seems like your 1000th airline pilot zombie. How many of those guys are there in the world anyway?

  6. Duncan says:

    BTW – healing someone else is faster than when healing yourself, so get altruistic people! If 2 people need to heal, it’s faster for them to stand next to each other and heal each other.

  7. Ging says:

    I’m hoping that the valve minions are busy working on a couple of new campaigns to drop out in a couple of months – while survival has done a bit to boost my l4d enjoyment, what I really need is a couple of new play grounds to learn. Even with death toll and dead air playable (properly) in versus now, they’re still pretty stale (and horror of horrors, even less accessible for hunter climbing than the other 2).

    I still need to land a pounce from the top of Mercy Hospital in NM3 – I’ve missed by inches a couple of times now, but that sort of fall makes it really hard to gauge distance properly.

  8. JustinMullin says:

    I genuinely enjoyed campaign mode during the demo. It was fun, interesting, and I came back to it over and over again. Then I played versus once. I really don’t see how I could ever EVER go back, even for survival mode.

  9. Jockie says:

    My record so far is 8 mins 55 on the No Mercy hospital level, we were doing great and found ourselves an easily defensible spot, but we ran out of molotovs and tried to make a quick dash for supplies and got promptly eaten/punched/slashed/tongued due to poor timing.

    It’s good for quick little blasts, but i can see it being more of an amusing diversion with little longevity, than breathing entirely new life into the game. However the new VS maps give me ample reason to return to l4d (not that I ever really went away).

  10. Real Horrorshow says:

    Survival mode is fun but I wish there were defined breaks once in a while. Maybe like Stonewall in Tales of Valor. Couple onslaughts for wave 1, then it warns you that wave 2 will begin in 30 seconds, so you have time to regroupe.. Right now it’s just a non-stop rape.

  11. Juror #9 says:

    I do agree with Meer on the Tank catapolting you off to your death in this mode. How about getting knocked TO the edge of the map instead of all the way out of play. It would still be hell to get back to the other survivors and you may die trying but you’ll be able to help take out a few more baddies prior to you disembowelment.
    I still love the mode though. Keep up the stellar performance Valve.

  12. Pani says:

    Usually I listen to every single word any of you four say with rapt attention and abide by every word, although, I must disagree this once. I actually like the fact that the tank can insta kill you. It keeps you on your toes and helps you remember that you’re in the zombie apocalypse and you could die with each second that passes. Not that we need any reminding but still, to remove one of the tanks core abilities seems silly.

    If you stand on top of the lighthouse, it’s a gamble and you have to remember that you’re just one hit away from insta-death.

  13. Rei Onryou says:

    I’ve played a couple of Last Stand and I found the tank would smack me into a corner of no escape more than flinging me off the cliff. It’s a more painful death as its strung out and there’s nothing you can do.

    I want to try the other maps, but I really want the SDK to come out and see some community attempts.

    @Alec: Would the AvP Stranded map work in Survival mode?

  14. unique_identifier says:

    @justinmullin – yeah, my friends & i played a bunch of campaigns during the demo and about 1 day post release – then we played our first game of versus, which pretty much killed any motivation to ever touch campaign again. it’ll be good to pick us versus again with the two new old maps, after burning out from playing those two initial versus maps over and over and over again…

    edit: regarding tank instagibs – in versus, most of the battle when fighting tanks is careful positioning, ensuring no one stands in a spot where the tank might knock them into the void, or hit them with a well thrown log/car/forklift… maybe it gets a bit more irritating if you have to fight multiple tanks at once, but hey, it’s not meant to be fair, right?

  15. Rinox says:

    @ pani: agree completely. I even think that’s pretty much the point of the map, having to choose between the oh-what-the-fuck-is-this madness of infected breaking through one wall after the other on the ground and the looming danger of smokers and tanks on the otherwise easily defendable top of the lighthouse.

    It’s the same paradox applied to small rooms with one entrance only that balance the game. You could do it non-stop with regular infected and boomers & hunters, but a tank will tear you apart in there….

    Survival mode is fun fun fun, but I still like expert campaigns with friends best. In fact, I almost feel like I’m indestructable in Survival because the zombies do so little damage compared to expert. Needless to say, that delusion got me prematurely owned on several occasions.

  16. Premium User Badge

    Vandelay says:

    Perhaps it is just the people I play with, but this mode seems to breed seeking the perfect way of surviving to an even greater extent then the other modes, perhaps because you aren’t going to get too far unless you do. Getting silver and, particularly, gold seems to encourage camping, which is fine when all you are interested in is getting the best time, but if you are looking for fun it really isn’t that entertaining. Grabbing ammo adds a bit of spice, but the auto-shotgun (which is the best weapon to take down the tanks and if you are camping is the only option for the whole team) holds far too much ammo that you only need to get ammo once or twice. Once you do have to go, the lulls are long enough that it isn’t too hard to get back to your camping spot.

    I love Left 4 Dead, but sometimes it annoys me the way people play it. I think with a few tweaks they could really improve this mode. For example, making a horde appear a second or two after getting ammo, no matter how long you are into a lull, or lowering the number of shots an auto-shotgun can carry so that taking down a tank isn’t instant when every one on the team has it.

  17. A Delicate Balance says:

    We managed to get 12:09 on the 3rd stage of Blood Harvest. Well, three of us did :( Survival seems to be excellent for people who don’t want to play though a whole campaign, because you can have several attempts in the space of a normal campaign. On the other hand expert campaigns are still awesome fun and with the two extra vs maps, that should be fresh for a while again as well. All in all, for a free update, I’d say Valve once again hit the zombie nail on the zombie head. Woo!

    -edit: and I’m happy with tanks being able to knock you off the map. It’s one of those things tanks do. Not quite making it because of something like that is like having your team taken down by specials with 2 seconds until a medal. It’s survival mode’s way of saying “close, but no cigar… please come again!”

  18. army of none says:

    In one night of play, we gold starr’d 7 of the 16 chapters, with our highest being 18:02. Good god, the adrenaline! So fun, and in relatively short bursts. It seems that tank spawns stop after the 14 minute mark, though, which means that it becomes considerably easier after you clear the double-tank spawns. We would have made it past 18:02 if I hadn’t been a moron and forgot to grab ammo on a run to the ammo pile. Ah well.

  19. ArtyArt says:

    I’m with Pani, concerning the Tank-instakills. First time this happened to me was on top of the lighthouse (of course). I died at 3:59. And I died laughing.

    For me, survival mode is just what was missing in this game. Short rounds of stupid, arcadey fun compared to the campaigns or versus mode. Yay!

  20. Max says:

    My only problem is the preparation phase where everyone’s waiting to start. It’s a boring lull in the action and there’s always so many gas and propane tanks that I don’t know what to do with them.
    I think it would be better if the round started by a timer so that there would be less idle piddling around at the beginning of each round.

  21. VelvetFistIronGlove says:

    It seems that tank spawns stop after the 14 minute mark

    There was an update released today to fix that bug.

  22. Xerxes says:

    I recommend The Warehouse level, as I managed to reach 13 minutes on that level, compared to most where I’ve struggled beyond bronze.

    Honestly, I’m just having fun with mates playing through the various scenarios, my only hope is to see more complete levels for Campaign and Versus mode in future.

  23. Paul Moloney says:

    I’ve only played a few times, but got bronze on my first go – I think that’s because it was in the airport terminal map, which seems to be a bit easier than the Lighthouse map that I end up on on most times.

    Even though you think that, with the height, you have the advance, the zombies and even tank have no problem scaling up to you, and perched up there, you have a limited supplie of molotovs and grenades.

    And yes, after being knocked out of the map _three_ times, I’m a bit fed up of it.

    P.

  24. clive dunn says:

    played this a bit last night. on one server the randoms i was playing with took so long meticulously setting up the gas canisters and what not, i swear they took 15 minutes just shuffling things around. Yawn-tastic. C’mon, lets just shoot the fucking zombies!
    Should be a time limit on the set up methinks

  25. Heliocentric says:

    That first paragraph reads like a trip to a goth night club. Alec, i didn’t know you cared.

  26. elle says:

    Warehouse is full of glitchtastic ways to avoid death. I ended up there by chance on my 3rd survival game and got silver + 1:30 before the tank finally wedged its way behind the pile of cable spools we were camping.

  27. cyrenic says:

    I found the initial running about setting up/exploring to be pretty amusing, playing with friends. I think we were mostly trying to find ways to injure ourselves before the round even started.

    Favorite moment of last night: One of my friends says “I like explosives” immediately followed by the sound of a propane tank exploding, and one of the team health bars suddenly has only a sliver of red health left. “Oops, I hit ‘Fire” instead of ‘Pick up'”.

  28. EBass says:

    Me and a few mates played this, got gold first time, confirming it was exactly as we feared (simply camp near the ammo with autoshotguns) and left it well alone.

    For me at least, the lifeblood of this game will be new versus maps, the games dynamics simply make it too easy vs AI.

    Valve has done a decent job trying to balance the game vis a vis versus, particularly the melee nerf, the infected still need a few more tools though. Matches between high skilled teams will often finish with the survivors making it all to the saferoom every time.

  29. Johnnymac says:

    @roBurky: If you prefer quicker matches, and you know someone with a decent internet connection, just have them host a local server on impossible. (It isn’t actually impossible, that is just what the console command is…) It is basically expert difficulty on versus mode, so rather than a competition to see who can find the most med kits and pills so they get bigger health bonus at the end of each map, it actually involves the distance you cover in the map. (And you can get through Blood Harvest in less than 15 minutes with both teams.)

  30. Ixtab says:

    I find the greatest threat in survival to be not the tanks but the smokers. Those sneaky bastards grab you and pull you way from your team. Your team frees you and then immediately the smoker’s friend grabs you to pull you further away.

    Two of the best scores I have both came from botched starts, one on Warehouse where a teammate accidentally pressed use when facing the door and we all just ran through trying to see what was available on the other side (it was our first play of that map). And the other was on whatever they’re calling BH3 in survival where we had climbed up on one of the bridge supports only to have it collapse out from underneath us at the start which resulted in a panicked retreat to the little house. We got 12 and 13 minutes on them respectively, the warehouse one only coming to an end because my three teammates who foolishly got m16s instead of autoshotguns ran out of ammo.

    I love the adrenaline when you kill the tank and then hear someone screaming about the tank “But I just killed… Oh…”

  31. army of none says:

    “There was an update released today to fix that bug.”

    Oh, awesome, thanks for the heads up :)

  32. Jahkaivah says:

    It really bugs me that Valve have let to introduce the inevitable “press E to just let go when dangeling for your life 3 feet above the ground”, and have instead gone on to introduce a map which really exemplifies this irritation (assuming of course you choose to defend at the top of the lighthouse, actually the worst location).

    Agree with the general consensus, this does breathe much needed life back into the game, but it isn’t going to be the new face of Left 4 Dead, and damnit what it really needs is the SDK and custom map support.

    And it would be nice to be able to search for specific survival maps and not specific campaigns.

    *Looks at his post*

    Damn im negative, *gives Valve a reassuring hug*

    Oh and Dead Air Versus is awesome, makes you really appreciate how good a campaign it is.

  33. CG says:

    I got 10:33 on the Dead Air terminal, which is gold. We hid in the bathroom, used pistols for the first minute and a half to save ammo, fought three tanks with shotguns, and then ran, tightly organized, out of the bathroom to fill back up. We made it back (that’s the hard part) and repeated the process. After another three or four tanks we went back out for ammo runs again… miraculously each resupply mission went flawlessly. We got killed when a tank popped out of nowhere and knocked me to a far corner of the map… and at the very same time another one of us was pulled by a smoker. Our team became scattered and didn’t last much longer.

    Also: I don’t think Last Stand is ready for prime time, because of the dangling mechanic. More times than once my team has been incapacitated for tripping on the railings at the wrong time.

  34. BallisticsFood says:

    “(Oh, and on a whinging personal note – I’d really like the Tank’s ability to knock you clean out of the map, and thus inflict tragic, unavoidable insta-death, to be patched out, or at least be a toggleable option. To fight so hard then be unceremoniously booted out of the match from just one lucky punch seems miserably cruel. I’m sure the entire L4D community disagrees with me, of course).”

    I certainly don’t. It’s really quite annoying when a tank comes at you the wrong way and you just have time to think: “Oh, Shi-” before you get flung to your doom. It has resulted in a singular moment involving my team huddled in one corner on a roof and a tank instakilling all of us though, which we found quite hilarious.

  35. Serondal says:

    I dunno there is just something about being 5 seconds from being the last one in the helicopter when a giant tank comes out of no where to block your path that just makes you say “Oh f@#” If you make it past him then that is great, if he field goal kicks you off the top of the hospital, well that’s just great too in my book.

    L4D isn’t just about winning, it is also about losing and getting eatting alive by zombies. After all in all the zombie movies generally speaking only 1 or 2 people suvive if any ; )

  36. Premium User Badge

    Vandelay says:

    @Serondal – I completely agree that the game should be about losing. Unfortunately, after the initial difficulties of Expert mode and Versus, it all seems a bit easy now. I’ve completed a couple of the campaigns now in less then 45 minutes (with the only difficulties emerging on the finales – and I have only played Campaign mode a handful of times) and Versus really is a cake walk for Survivor team. It isn’t about who can get the furthest, as it should have been, as if you lose even one team mate you have done badly. Of course, playing with randoms is often different, but this is a game to play with mates.

    Hopefully when the matchmaker 2.0 comes out and we can play against another team of 4 rather than randoms/the same people I always play with, it will be much more interesting.

  37. Serondal says:

    yah once you become so good there is no longer a fear of being devoured the game kind of loses its touch. Of course I’m not that good and I always do stupid things like they do in the movies (run out into the front yard by myself shooting the zombies and screaming at my wife to make me sammich for example) that end up getting me killed.

    Also I don’t play online, only with the AI, which actually does pretty well other then when they get stuck on the same ledge 5 times in a row and the other team mates are constantly trying to save him instead of defending our position.

    I’d like to see a mod where you can play L4D with TF2 characters ^_^

  38. Griffinheart says:

    I like Survival mode and will play more of it, but I’d rather play Versus for the most part. With versus, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. With survival, I feel like I made a few minutes of mistakes and then died…hard.

  39. Core Xii says:

    I got silver on my first try with random people on a random map. Thought there was gonna be these “lulls” I hear talk about, but as far as I could tell it was an endless stream of zombies. New tanks spawned almost as soon as we finished the last ones.

    I hate the melee cool-down. Some people camp in a closet spamming melee. So Valve nerfs melee. Fixed the wrong problem if you ask me… fix closet camping, not melee. Now it’s downright impossible to keep the buggers off you unless you ARE camping in a corner. If anything the “fix” only made it worse by encouraging that behavior.

  40. Jhoosier says:

    I love the Tank knocking people off ledges and things. That’s one of the best way to take people down in No Mercy. And it’s a ton of fun when you’re the Tank doing the flinging!

  41. Timofee says:

    I am really enjoying Survivor mode, although I would argue they need to either have more ammo placements or have numerous ones that can be used up, as at the moment the only viable tactic for gold seems to be a combo of auto shotties and M16s camping with your backs to the walls as near to the ammo as possible. Whereas I would have hoped there would be multiple viable spots on each level which really doesnt seem to be the case.

    Also the hunting rifle is made completely redundant in this mode (indeed in the campaign it’s by far the weakest choice but I still use it for poops and giggles and the great sound now and then)

    Agree with the previous comment that reducing the ammo on the shottie may help but ultimately it makes no odds when you can camp near infinite ammo spots.

    Note sure it would have an effect in Survivor but I hope that they add in a beefier pistol alt that would kill in one shot in expert but have a much smaller clip size.

    Additionally some OTT level 3 weapons would make for some entertaining fun, such as a grenade launcher, a massive calibre sniper rifle (like the barrett) and the trusty ole flame thrower.

    In terms of Versus a new special to prevent closet camping would be good, lets say a ‘banshee’ that could phase in there and disorient the survivors so smoker could drag out/hunter pounce

    Also completely agree that versus should be how far you manage to get rather than the survivors reaching it everytime and how much health they had. A mode to completely remove health packs would work fine in this regard

  42. Cabbs says:

    Aye, survivor mode is fun. Makes you actually think about things like can placement, canister placement, so on. And to think, I usualy consider one tank bad enough.

    Dead Air and Death Toll are damn near perfect vs maps, except for a simple tactic in the final part of Dead Air, for reasons that very frustrated infected players would not want me to blab out on the internet.

  43. Chis says:

    So Jim… Survival = London Calling, Campaign = Sandinista?

    Or perhaps, Freak Out! / Joe’s Garage? :D (More of a Sheik Yerbouti fan, meself)

    Any excuse to get a music reference or two in… personally, I enjoy survival, but I’d like more maps!

  44. Aftershock says:

    Survival is great, although it’s far too easy on any map other than Last Stand. The finale of Death Toll has some great places to hold out, like the barn, and those are a ball, but the real challenge is where to stay on the lighthouse. That’s a real tough choice.

  45. Aftershock says:

    Oh yeah, and global leaderboards please.
    They’d have to be monthly to catch exploiters. I know people with more than 30minutes on last stand, through exploits.

  46. Name (required) says:

    Wow, i’ve made it over 30 mins on drains…

  47. Fumarole says:

    Bored waiting for the round to begin while teammates fiddle with things…

    Uh, hit the button?

  48. Don says:

    @Rei Onryous: ‘the tank would smack me into a corner of no escape more than flinging me off the cliff. It’s a more painful death as its strung out and there’s nothing you can do.’

    Valve should update it so that a rifle butt to the tank’s presumably oversize crown jewels will get him distracted long enough for an escape. With perhaps the downside that from that point on he’ll ignore the other survivors until he’s pounded you to pulp. Worth doing just for the amusing animation alone and the new achievement ‘Monster’s Ball Breaker’.

    Also, while thinking on these lines, why no lady tanks? Or other specials? This is sexist discrimination of the worst kind, women make perfectly good monsters. Let the picketing of Valve HQ begin!

  49. Neut says:

    @Don: Witch

  50. Don says:

    @Neut: Hardly counts, she just sits there and weeps until someone puts a shotgun to her head.