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 »

  1. arqueturus says:

    I’m not a fan of Survival mode as it’s ultimately pointless. Instead I’d have like a new campaign that implemented the multiple specials into it.

    At the moment the most fun is a balanced Versus map followed by Campaign on expert with some mates for me.

  2. TerrenceJohan says:

    I hadn’t read much about this patch before its release so I was kind of hoping it would turn out to be like the Zombie level in Call Of Duty World At War. If im honest that mode is just great.

    I don’t own L4D yet, I know I know, I will purchase it soon don’t worry. But i think I was looking for an excuse to buy it, and I was hoping this would be it. But this just seems too messy. Of course without playing it I can’t say for sure.

    Maybe I just like building up and defending certain areas to keep the Hourde at bay, like in CoD.

  3. Nimic says:

    For once, I disagree with RPS. My excitement for the new patch has almost entirely come from the new campaigns. There’s something about the idea of fighting to your inevitable death that makes it a bit less fun.

  4. jalf says:

    Yeah, I’m mostly hyped up about the new campaigns too. Survival is surprisingly fun, but ultimately, I feel it’s more repetitive than a good VS match. And yeah, I think inevitable death is a bit sad too. They’ve made the characters too likable for that, imo… :D

  5. Demikaze says:

    I think Versus is balanced now in the way it was initially intended. It’s now a lot harder for the survivors to actually live up to their namesake. Getting to the safe room is a very infrequent reward – a huge pat of the back for doing something marvelous. The onus should be on the distance travelled. The team’s scores should differ by the tens/hundreds – only rarely thousands. And this is the case now – especially on the new maps where teams just don’t know the layout as well. The new changes have made it a truly terrifying game and my voice is now hoarse.

  6. Blubston Epicream says:

    Yes, let’s complain about everything that can get us killed in SURVIVAL MODE. It’s totally the game’s fault and not a flaw in our strategy/playing style.

    Don’t melee constantly. If you’re doing that, you deserve to die. You can mow down a mob by rapid-firing your pistols into their heads, melee of the remaining few zombies and reload and the same time, and rinse and repeat. It’s really that simple.

    Oh, and if you don’t like getting blasted into space by tanks: Don’t let them do it. Don’t let them chase you that way. If all 4 survivors blast him, he dies pretty quickly.

  7. sbs says:

    I tried it one evening and it didn’t manage to appeal to me. I guess I’m more of a campaign-guy, which is too bad – once you played through one it’s never quite the same.

  8. paddytehpyro says:

    I currently love the new game mode. As a whole L4D held about 4 hours of my time (One run through each campaign) and then some vs games. The rage in vs just put me off a bit.

    Survival is just superb though. Run through a dozen times in the time it takes for a campaign so cocking up doesnt matter too much and just adds to the fun. The lighthouse map isnt that great imo though. Mainly because you’re bound to get hit off the map by one of the tanks which ruins it for me personally.

  9. Ginger Yellow says:

    Survival mode is fun but I wish there were defined breaks once in a while. Maybe like Stonewall in Tales of Valor.

    Stonewall with zombies. That would have made ToV worth the money.

  10. Erlam 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”

    My initial foray into Survival is best described with a story of my first game.

    My friends had just been offed by a smoker, and two hunters when a tank climbed up next to me and swung at me (3:40).

    My first reaction, oddly, was to jump, on the theory it would simply send me away from the tank. And away from tank, obviously, means good. So I sail up onto a tiny roof, surrounded by zombies (3:45). My gun was out of ammo, so I pistoled the grounp around me, then melee’d the wave jumping up (3:50). I reload the pistols, as I had forgotten to change to my primary, and took down another wave (3:55, 10 health.) Then it was just a huge mass of them swarming me, and me alternately firing/meleeing them off. 3:56, 8 health. 3:57, 4 health. 3:59, 2 health… 4:00:02, I died.

    This MASSIVE cheer breaks out over my headset and my friends are just screaming in joy.

    So yes, I enjoy survival.

  11. Tei says:

    Obscure geek/film reference:

    Survival, the only way to win, is not to play.

  12. Juror #9 says:

    @Don and @Neut: I think that would be a great Achievment for the Tank “Monster Ball Breaker” or “Nut Buster” one of those would be fun to have. and to Neut, im not a coder but the ablilty to chage the code of the witches behavior upon her spawning is quite possible. It would take some code work to change her beavior a bit, from sitting and weaping to standing and running at you quicker than what happens already. I bet you’ll see some modification of character behavior when that SDK comes out. Many possibilities with HAMMER.

  13. Moonracer says:

    Finally gave Survival mode a shot and am quite into it. A great experiment in making players enjoy failure IMO. Sadly no SDK yet though? That was the number one thing I was hoping to see with this update.

    Also, as for game settings I think there should be an option to turn off the ‘see your team mates through walls feature”. That alone would drastically change campaign play and add to the scary factor when folks get separated.

  14. Crispy says:

    “Thematically, it works well too” – This is about the only remark I agree with in Alec’s commentary.

    I have yet to try it out on the PC, but on the 360 Survival mode is just a waste of time. Bronze is doable, Silver maybe, but Gold seems out of the question. The bigger problem is that the difficulty curve is too steep and the sense of achievement miniscule at best when compared to beating an entire campaign gloriously culminating in a finale.

    Survival has none of the pacing of Campaign mode and it also removes a lot of the surprise element. The fact is you know you’re going to be swarmed with zombies and special infected constantly, with as many as 3 Smokers snatching away team members at the same time. There’s no surprise for when you get a Tank or get snatched by a Smoker, it’s to be expected, you can almost set your watch by it. Survival removes the AI Director, the best feature of the entire game, and the biggest reason why the Campaign and Versus can enjoy such longevity.

    Another issue is that the game world is reduced to something small and static. Inevitably ‘sweet spots’ in those arenas will be found, and from there on it’s simply a case of committing to a regimented plan by sticking in the same spot and repeating the same actions with the aim of increasing your successfulness. That is stale, repetitive and predictable gameplay, and that’s why I don’t rate Survival mode at all.

    I can see why Survival was conceived. You can’t always commit to an hour or more playing through a campaign, so it’s supposed to fill a hole in the L4D experience by providing a quick, dip-in, dip-out game mode. While on paper it does this, I don’t think it works to the game’s strengths, and is almost wayward in comparison to the monumental design of the rest of the game.

    I also don’t think Dead Air or Death Toll are geared up for the Special Infected in Versus, but it’s nice to have something different to play even if they haven’t been re-optimised with this in mind.

    Note:
    My experiences are solely from the 360 version at this point, and from the other comments in this thread and from having mostly played the PC version prior to this patch, I know that mouse aiming would make Survival a lot more survivable. But I don’t think this undermines my main point that the game lacks gameplay in the longterm. The further you want to push your score, the more monotonous you have to be. Monotony is the diametric opposite of what the AI Director so joyfully and uniquely provides, and the AI Director is what makes L4D so damn good in the first place.

  15. crabs says:

    I got 70 minutes on Last Stand. But… that was before they fixed the “after ~15mins, no more tanks come” thing.

    http://i228.photobucket.com/albums/ee135/emdeehay/l4d_sv_lighthouse0026.jpg

    But we had a really good spot and plenty of ammo at the ~15 minute mark, so I think we still could have lasted ~30mins total even with tanks. Will have to try it again sometime.

    Also, yeah, totally altered tactics, like using corners and shooting the zombies! The YouTube videos will no doubt be amazing. But seriously, the strategies we used to get 70 mins were none other than expected. From the other levels I’ve got >10 mins on so far it’s been pretty similar, too.

    The major differences I’ve noticed are that tanks have less HP and hunters have a longer knock-back of 2 seconds on survivors surrounding their pounced target.

    So you don’t have to move when tanks come (they’re dead before they reach you) and you have to either spread out a bit so that you’re not all in range of hunter knock-back, or make sure all hunters are also dead before they reach you, which can get tough after 7 mins depending on the map and where you’re holding up in it.

  16. Rinox says:

    @ Crispy: totally agree. I’m back to playing campaigns (and versus) after some initial survival rumbles. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it but it’s just rather one-dimensional compared to the campaigns.

    As for the new(ish) versus maps, I think they’re ok. At least it’s no No Mercy 4, where you can’t do jack shit as a hunter or smoker for 90% of the map. :-( Playing the finale of dead air as the tank is actually pretty sweet with all those luggage carts lying around. Tank smash!

  17. Aneurism says:

    I really like survival mode. I am married, commute (3 hours a day) for a living, and I am a parent. I do not have the free time I used to have, so the 5-10 minute rounds of survival are perfect. I love campaign mode, and I love VS. mode, but it is difficult to a) find the time, and b) coordinate a good team that also has the same limited free time window you have. I played two rounds of survival this morning before going to work it was great. Also when you only have a 2 hour max session, it is more satisfying to play many rounds of survival than only have time for 1 campaign or 1 vs. This is why Counter-Strike is the most popular game on the internet. Survival haters I think you will find yourselves in the minority in short order. :)