Our second day playing Valve's zombie shooter was based around the main multiplayer mode in the game. "Versus" pits two teams of four against each other, alternately playing through the sections of the campaign maps. One side tries to reach the end of the stage as survivors, whilst the other, playing as the boss infected, try to stop them. Then they swap. Our initial hands-on impressions follow.
John: As I may have mentioned, my inclination for gaming is toward single-player games. Competitive multiplayer doesn't immediately appeal to me. So I think of Left 4 Dead's four-player Campaign mode as a single player game that just happens to have three other single players working together. Versus mode introduces that competitive angle, with four other players working directly against you, trying to stop you from succeeding in the game. Danger! Danger!
Except somehow not. I'm trying to figure out why. Perhaps its the balancing: Rather than one team being red and the other blue, and then duking it out, here the opposing side are very much engaging with the point of the game - they're making the angry zombies even smarter, and even tougher to kill. But they're not making progress utterly impossible.
Perhaps it's the alternating nature of Versus mode, where you take it in turns to be the squad of four just trying to survive, or the special Infected making that difficult. After playing through a level as the four survivors, you then see the world through the murderous eyes of the enemy, and try and prevent them from doing as well as you.
Perhaps it's because my mind has been driven insane by so many hours of shooting so many tens of thousands of zombies in the last two days. (Although last night zombie dreams were supplanted by Faith from Mirror's Edge pick-pocketing me in town - that must mean something).
Whatever, Versus mode is a ludicrous amount of fun. If it has any significant flaw, it's that this is where experience and competence could spoil the game for newer players. A team that knows what they're doing when playing as the Boomer, Smoker, Hunter or Tank can obliterate four stumbling idiots who can't remember which way to go to find the Safe Room at he end of a level. Ahem. But perhaps going up against a team of developers isn't the most sensible way to experience things for the first time. When we split into fours, two RPS types and two Valve experts on each, suddenly the Versus experience became a thing of complete joy.
With evenly matched teams, the point scoring becomes important. Obviously successfully getting Survivors to each level's Safe House is the most important point scoring opportunity, but having a lot of health when you get there matters too. (The game also does smart maths to take into account level difficulty and other bits and bobs). So the real goal of the Infected is to bring down at least one of the Survivors on their journey. And that's no easy task - the game gives Survivors a lot of breaks, with healing medpacks, as well as a series of 'last chance' moments.
I definitely found myself preferring the moments of being the Infected. Each time you spawn (there's generally around 20 seconds down time between each spawn) you are given a blue-and-white vision of the world, and the freedom to find yourself an appropriate place to appear, far enough from the Survivors to prevent camping. Then you get to mess things up. It's like griefing! It's a game that gives you full permission to screw up a team's experience.
The Hunter and the Smoker are the more athletic beasties. But I was surprised to find myself loving the Boomer best. One shot kills him, but if you can get yourself close enough to the Survivors, that one shot can be ruinous for them, as you explode covering them in Horde-attracting bile. Or you can even make the lumbering sack of vomit be sneaky, vomiting on the team from an upstairs window, backing off, and watching dozens of Horde pour in on top of them. So marvellously satisfying.
Spotting when a player has broken off from his team is the other big highlight. As a Hunter, I had a great moment when one of Valve's experts who'd been giving me a mighty kicking, had run ahead. The other three in his squad were busy dealing with the other three Infect players, and my Hunter pinned him to the ground and began tearing away most of his insides, while the others were helpless to rescue. Mmmm, gory revenge. Yum yum yum.
This is how multiplayer should be, people! One side deliberately over-powerful, the other side constantly respawning and aiming to grief as much as they can. And even when being trounced, that experience was a lot of fun. It might feel like running with a bungee cord tied around your waist, but it's still entertaining when you fall flat on your face and get flung backward.
Kieron: One of the fun things about this trip has been the knowledge gradient across the four of us. Walker, having seen it repeatedly and written extensively, knows almost everything. Jim's played it, followed it closely and interviewed guys. I played it two year back and have only been following the edge of the hype. And Alec cheerfully has only been following it on the surface level. So there's a natural conversation when we play when Alec and I ask a question about something we don't really understand, and Jim and John chipping in with the explanation.
Point being, I really didn't know anything about Versus mode. I was thinking of something similar to Perfect Dark's character skipping mode – which I'd also only heard of rather than playing, so the details are almost certainly wrong – with the control going instantly from goon to goon. I was imagining playing the full-on runners most of the time, choosing your moment to hurtle in a mob or whatever.
Totally not like that. And probably for the best. You only control the powerful specialist infected – the leaping hunter, the dragging smoker, the exploding Boomer and the impossic*nty Tank. And the pace is slower – rather than instant skips, we're looking at a 20-second respawn time. This leaves you with plenty of time to sit back and curse your failure or enjoy the after-effects of your successes. Or, if you're smarter, to consider what the hell you're going to do next. As I said last time, the pace for the survivors is mostly akin to Doom. For the infected, it's more like Counter-strike.
But Counter-strike with a suicide mindset. Clearly, you want to stay alive as much as you can... but that's not always going to be easy. Due to your relative low health and the vulnerability your attacks put you in, you're going to die all the bloody time. That means than when you're playing badly or against overmatched opponents - like any slowly-spawning game – it's easy to get frustrated. It's probably worst for the Hunters, I think – their leaping attack is brutal and spectacular, but success at pinning someone leaves you as an obvious and vulnerable target. Smokers survive more often, assuming they climb somewhere clever and strike well. Boomers generally get off best – your death, rather than being something to curse is just as often a cause of celebration. Go off and cover everyone with goo and you spend those twenty seconds looking at the fresh mob of infected charging at the survivors, with you scoring points any time they connect.
But the art is intelligent sacrifice. And even more so, co-ordinated intelligent sacrifice. The real joy is when your well chosen strike manages to completely disrupt the survivors. And, in another sense, you become primary actors in the Director's armoury. The game has a sense of irony and playfulness anyway – but when you've got humans acting, it's more so. One of my favourite moments was everyone crammed into an elevator, with the doors closing – at which moment a Boomer steps around the corner and sprays everyone inside with his vile fluids. It's entirely a comedy moment, as they're now safe inside the elevator – but it causes the whole room to stop and laugh themselves... well, sick.
But when they choose to be actively evil, it's even more so. For example, take one moment right at the end of a stage. One survivor is in the safehouse, not leaving. Another, thirty feet distant, incapacitated, needing someone to come back and rescue them. Caught between the other two, the other survivor, looking back and forth. The one in the safehouse is saying FOR GOD'S SAKE DON'T GO BACK IT'S A TRAP. You can see he's ignoring the advice – just back and forth and back and forth and then... a run to try and get his friend back on his feet. At which point, at the furthest away from the base, he's grabbed by a smoker lithe tongue and starts to be dragged away.
Pure cinema. Very funny. Very brutal.
Alec: What didn’t occur to me until after I’d finished the day’s zombie massacring and survivor-hounding was how much like Team Fortress 2 L4D is. Clearly, the teamplay of Versus mode meant there was always going to be a certain co-operative commonality, and equally clearly these are two FPSes that play completely differently. There’s something, though, about the way everyone falls into a role (with the better/more experience players thinking as much about how those roles can help their fellow players rather than simply kill enemies), and how multi-stage maps flip between each side, offering chances for revenge and comeback right up until the bitter end.
There’s also that Easy To Learn, Difficult To Master thing. While it’s generally a harder game than TF2 right from the off, forcing particularly co-operative play out of the Survivors and pitching the Infected as incredibly vulnerable, you can get in there and cause some real trouble without any planning whatsoever. The mere presence of a Boomer, the Fat Blokes whose sick and blood summons an AI-controlled zombie horde, strikes fear into the heart of the humans in the way the sight of a Heavy can really put the willies up a couple of opposing TF2 players. Catching a glimpse of a skulking Smoker, meanwhile, has a certain element of the Spy to it - you know there’s a threat hidden somewhere nearby, and that being caught alone or leaving your back exposed can spell doom. The panic rises, the paranoia rises, and your ability to cooperate with the rest of your team diminishes because you're governed by selfish fear.
The mastering, though - that’s going to be beyond me for a while, I suspect. Inevitably, the Valve folk we played against very much handed us our arses, but that was much more about knowing the game inside out than about being better mouse-jockeys. Kim Swift mentioned that she thinks about the way the Infected can drop combo attacks on the Survivors - for instance, a Smoker dragging one human away from the pack, at which point a Boomer lurches over and sicks on them. Not only is the poor soul then some distance away from his fellows, but he’s also swiftly surrounded by a horde of standard zombies, both unable to fend them off because he’s essentially paralysed by the rope-tongue, and incredibly tricky for his chums to reach through the wall of rotting flesh around him. I was stunned by this - I hadn’t even considered that kind of thing, my tactical thinking not yet having gone beyond “everyone pile on at once”.
Recently, I played poker for the first ever time (my man points = low) and I was horribly conscious throughout that my slim knowledge of the game meant all I could think about was what was in my own hand. The key to sucess,, I could tell, really lay in thinking about what everyone else had or might have. It was the same here - as an Infected, I thought only about what I could do, how much damage I could dish about before the Survivors mowed me down. Once I’m familiar enough with the various Zomb classes to be able to think about where my team is as well as my making the best of my own short unlife, conscious of what roles the game’s currently assigned them and where the waiting packs of AI undead are - well, then I shall be a fearsome zombie. Until then, I’m so much decaying cannon fodder.
My point (if I actually have one) being that all fears about Left 4 Dead being a slim affair are completely banished. This is like Team Fortress 2: a game you’ll continually get more out of, your tactics continually evolving, the first couple of months of play regularly surprising you with combos and pair-ups you hadn’t even considered. The four-player Campaign is really just the training ground. The more I played of Versus, the more I thought that Left 4 Dead was a misnomer. This is a game about two teams of four, both equally co-operative in entirely different ways. Unfortunately ‘Left 8 Dead’ sounds rubbish.
Jim: Our tireless slaughter of the infected in the campaign mode of Left 4 Dead had been a pleasing videogame excursion. We had slain and won, and felt happy in the knowledge that this was a good piece of gunplay, unlike anything we've played before. If the L4D had been this alone then I would have come away satisfied with a fine co-op romp, with much to commend its replayability. Nevertheless it pales next to Versus mode, which is where the real meat lies. The campaign was simply prologue.
Versus – with two teams of four swapping places at each stages – is initially less engaging than the simple survivor campaign. There's less of the “us vs computer” sense of playing through maps as simple shooter protagonists, not least because things are broken up, section by section across the map. The co-op campaign lets you get a feeling of holding up against the zombies and feeling submerged in the B-Movie melodrama. Instead with Versus things become more “gamey”, you're suddenly competing with someone else, Someone is keeping score. You're seeing your mistakes begin to matter, rather than being moments of pure drama.
There's also a sense that as you play through as Infected you're getting to see the workings of the world from behind the scenes a little more. As a boss infected you spawn randomly and must choose your place of appearance out of sight of the survivors. Suddenly you're seeing how the computer was working against you in the campaign game. It's a peculiar shift of context, and of understanding the game.
More importantly, perhaps, it's a wide open field of possibilities for developing clever tactics as the Infected. You learn the basic beat of stalking the survivors pretty quickly – zombies are soft and weak, and you need to be smart to cause harm. But soon you realise there's masses more to master in the intricacies of how the battles play out. From clever positioning and timing, through to working with the other zombie types, you've got loads to learn. Knowing how a boomer and a smoker can be effective in doing massive damage to a single character is a very particular science, and I fully expect this game to be one that becomes intensely competitive online as people adapt to this strange new game of hunter and hunted, and learn its tricks. People will become masterful infected, knowing the levels intimately, and having a primal sense of how to hunt their human prey, and when to strike.
Making life hard for the opposing team was immediate compelling, even if we did get utterly trounced by the experienced Valve players. I'm genuinely looking forward to getting this game into the hands of my own circle of gaming chums. This is the most entertaining new multiplayer experience this year, and I suspect this is a game that will grow rapidly once it is unleashed on the world at large.