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).