One year to the day since Left 4 Dead was released on November 18, 2008, the sequel to the popular zombie shooter just broke out onto stores. there were plenty of critics for the timing of the sequel, fan backlash was high enough for a Steam community to voice their concerns about the game and vow to never play it. Even in 2021, there are still people who will not play it. Those who were not as extreme as to boycott the game, but still cautious about the value of it and whether or not it would improve on the sequel, waited for it to be finally released. Some of the fan-base though were excited, as Valve stated that they were double the pre-orders for the sequel than the original. And once it did, it caught like wildfire and was insanely popular amongst players for three main reasons. It was insanely replayable, focused on teamwork and communication and the improvements made over the original video game. This blog post will go through each of the three lenses to uncover how the game was so effective and popular, and why is such an interesting game to analyze and study.
The first lens is through the aspect of replayability, through all game modes. In video games, particularly those that have multiplayer modes, creating a high replay value encourages players to play the game again and again, while also enhancing the quality of the game as well. Replayability is often determined by these factors: branching stories and paths (Bioware Games, such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age), fun and engaging gameplay, map design, and dynamic environments among others, are all considered by individuals as to whether or not they decide to play the game again once they fully completed it for the first time. The Left 4 Dead series doesn’t offer up to much variety in gameplay, as the goal is to travel from safe-house to safe-house, killing zombies along the way, with the ultimate goal to make it the final chapter of the campaign, before escaping to safety. What Left 4 Dead offers though is an artificial intelligence named The Director, and another one called the Music Director. The Director controls many aspects of the gameplay, including who many normal infected spawn, where they spawn, the number of supplies and ammunition and where they are, as well special infected, including the ‘boss’ special infected the Tank and the Witch. These decisions are made depending on the difficulty the person is playing on, how quickly they are moving through the level, how healthy the team is, and their location in completion to the campaign. For example, if you were to suddenly stop mid-level and not progress any further after a little bit of time, the Director will spawn a horde and other special infected to punish you for not moving forward in the game. The same can be said for moving too quickly, or even for no reason at all depending on the difficulty.
My own experience with the director is focused on the first campaign in Left 4 Dead 2, Dead Center, the chapter 3-The Mall. The Director in Left 4 Dead 2 is unique from the Director in the original, as it can control the path a player can take. There are two paths, either a security door that will open or a toy store where the windows must be broken. Either one will set off an alarm, which must be shut off on the top level of the mall. The first play-through of the game led me to the alarmed door, pictured below. Note, photos and videos were captured on the Xbox 360 version played on the Xbox One, and were also censored. All of these were captured by myself, and I will specify when anything is not my own work.
The next time I played through, however, I got the toy store alarm windows.
Interestingly enough, if you go through the alarmed doors, you can see where the toy store is, with the photo below showing the store closed.
These changes are not for cosmetics but have an impact on how quickly players are able to turn off the alarm. The toy store is on the floor above where the alarm doors, giving the player an advantage to reach the top level and turn the alarm off quicker.
The second aspect to analyse the game though is the focus on teamwork and how the game forces players to work together. They the game achieves it is through the pinning special infected. There a four of them: the Hunter, the Smoker, the Charger, and the Jockey. The main attacks of each of these special infected affect only one person, but make these people unable to stop their attack. This creates a situation where the player being attacked relies on the bots or other players on their team to kill or shove the special infected. Below is a short video of me being attacked by a jockey, while a bot gets pounced on by a hunter.
First Person Shooters with online modes that can feature players working together on one side, such as Call of Duty, Halo, and Battlefield, are famous for their online multiplayer game modes. One of the main issues for game developers around these modes is how they design the game to encourage survivors to work together to achieve a goal. The aforementioned games are played in teams, but more often than not, they boil down to individual efforts and battles, where players can go alone and still emerge victorious from conflict. Left 4 Dead 2 bucks this trend. Any person who wanders off on their own, away from the other players on their team, will find themselves punished with a special infected, either a bot or player, attacking them. Only the Jockey attacks the player until they become incapacitated, when the player’s health reaches zero the first time, as they lay on the ground, unable to get back up unless another survivor goes over and picks them up. That is one possible solution, however, there may be occasions where the better option for the team is to leave the man behind and plow forward. In the Online Campaign mode, the only goal is to get to the safehouse, so ditching a teammate may be done less frequently, as there is no real rush to the safehouse or finale. However, in Versus Campaign, points are scored based on how far each individual survivor goes in each campaign, meaning the best decision might be to have one player go alone to rack up as many points as they can get to help improve their score. The dynamic of teamwork and constant communication between players, particularly for the survivors.
The third lens is the improvement over the original video game. The original game was by no means a terrible video game, in fact, it sold just less than 3 million copies and the PC version has a Metacritic score of 89, with a 9 user rating as well. When it comes to improving over the sequel, there are many avenues a game developer can go. It can create a similar game experience, either through simulating a story that has the same scope, characters, items, and iconic or beloved moments or dialogue. The visual could be the same, the console it is developed on, even the music. But developers can also change things up, with the idea of not just catering for the fans of the original game, but also to a new audience of gamers who may like whatever new ideas are being presented in the sequel.
The biggest change Left 4 Dead 2 made was the introduction of melee weapons, which would replace the player’s sidearms. Items such as an ax, a pipe, and also a chainsaw were included to strengthen the player’s close-range offense. Melee weapons allow for the player to strike multiple targets, killing common infected in one hit, as well as most special infected. The only ones who need more than one hit to be killed include the Tank, the Witch, and the Charger. The Chainsaw was a big game-changer, as it is the only melee weapon that has fuel and can run out. However, it does loads of damage, can kill Witches and Tanks quickly, and is very effective at clearing through hordes of the infected.
Another change is the new special infected that have been introduced. They are the Charger, the Jockey, and the Spitter. One of the biggest complaints from the original game was how the survivors could camp in a corner of a room and easily kill any infected that came towards them, as they were no special infected that attacked a group of players that huddled close together. This plan was frustrating in the online mode of survival, where players must repel waves and waves of infected on a map aiming for the longest time. The Charger and the Spitter were the special infected that changed how teams operated.
The Charger’s main attack was charging forward, with its large right arm, in a direction, until it stopped or hit an obstacle. The first survivor it hits will be carried for however long it runs, while others it that it’s after it has picked up the first survivor will take some damage but mostly be knocked back some distance. Once the Charger stops running and has a survivor in its grasp, it will smash the survivor into the ground, with options to hit the ceiling and on the side if there are obstacles there. It cannot be shoved off a survivor and will not let go until it has killed a survivor, so it is a hard special infected to kill. Close together groups then are a target for the Charger, as it can knock down an entire team, as well as drag away one survivor from the rest, giving more time to inflict damage. The knockback effect also has a delay when the player gets back up, giving a split-second advantage towards the charger.
Chargers also have the ability to carry survivors off tall places and instantly kill them if the fall is high enough. The video below shows me getting charged to my inevitable death.
The other special infected is the Spitter. The Spitter’s main attack involves spitting projectile acid, which, upon hitting the ground, spreads out, dealing damage to the group. This attack is the most obvious way the game combat’s camping methods, as survivors cannot bunch together once the acid is near them. It also has the ability to hit a wall or ceiling and drop straight down onto the ground, which allows for them to act as a sniper role within the special infected. Small areas like doorways, rooms, and targets for the Spitter to target, as well as a great supporter to other attacks, such as the Charger and the Smoker.
The introduction of both special infected therefore changed how players not only played within a survival mode but also the entire game. No longer were tight-knit groups the answer, instead, a mix of both staying together, but also separating when required, was necessary to success. Splitting up not only allowed for less vulnerability against certain special infected but also gave players the opportunity to gain more ammo, find new weapons, and gain valuable supplies, such as pain pills or pipe bombs. This allows players on the infected sides opportunities to attack the survivors.
Another addition to the online modes of Left 4 Dead were the mutations. The Mutation mode games were modifications that have taken place in a campaign or other modes. For example, there is a mutation called Taaannnkk! where every special infected in the game is Tank, only playable in an online versus campaign mode. There is also the Last Man on Earth mode, where the player is alone, with no other players or bots, and must survive against special infected only. Importantly, some of these mods were made by Valvae themselves, whereas others were created by players modding the game and being chosen by Valve as an official variant. The positive interactions and open source game-making the PC version had can draw in gamers who like to mod games and create new experiences with their own creations.
Through investigating the improvements this game has made to the original, game design that forces players to work with others and constantly communicate to achieve success in any of the online game modes and co-op with a friend, and also artificial intelligence that ensures each play-through is completely unique from the last, adds up to an effective first-person shooter that is still popular to this day, 12 years after it is has been released.
If you want to watch my two playthroughs in their entirety, the YouTube videos are below.