With all our time waiting for any follow-up from Valve for most of their series, it’s hard to believe there was a moment where we collectively complained about them making a sequel too soon. Released exactly one year after the first game, Left 4 Dead 2 seemed unnecessary. A few new special zombies and weapons were nice, but did that really justify a full-priced sequel? Years later, L4D2 has now absorbed nearly every piece of content from the original. Between the first game being virtually reduced to a trap for the uninformed (why are these two games the same price on Steam?) and the sequel going from questionable to the definitive experience, there are few series with a more bizarre history.
Of course, people were willing to jump into the sequel anyway because the first game was that good; all these minor improvements only made things better. For whatever reason, video games built around cooperative gameplay are few and far between. There are plenty of team-based shooters if you want to play with friends, but the experience of fighting against AI feels a bit more focused. Where losing in something like Team Fortress 2 can be blamed on a skill gap between teams, failure in Left 4 Dead is almost always due to poor strategy and communication.
Left 4 Dead is built around an old horror trope. Well, there’s zombies, obviously. But what I really mean is this obnoxious tendency for otherwise well-equipped characters to suddenly split up. There’s always some player who gets distracted while their teammates are charging ahead who then fails to say anything until a hunter has them pinned. In many ways, Left 4 Dead operates as a babysitting simulator. You must keep your eyes on your teammates at all times and hopefully convince them to do the same. While the logic could be to wait up for the straggler, the game is also designed to punish lollygagging. Large swaths of this game are best handled pushing forward as a cluster. Special infected simply don’t have the numbers to stop all four players simultaneously. But getting people to understand the need for constant progression is the real challenge.
The game also wants to prevent that optimum strategy whenever possible, which is where the special infected come in. Despite having the least direct damage output, the boomer and spitter might be the most dangerous due to their ability to divide the party. Without quick reactions, the smoker, jockey, and charger will drag someone away. The tank simply knocks everyone about, and his ability to hit multiple targets forces the team to distance. But these are never insurmountable hurdles; enough attention to one another can mitigate their presence entirely. What can a hunter really do if everyone is in melee range of each other? This is a rare game where friendly fire is essential to the design, to put at least some risk in the dominant strategy.
The inclusion of various modes helps Left 4 Dead hold up as one of those infinitely replayable games. The basic campaigns are the central experience, with several levels of difficulty and each consisting of multiple levels to navigate. Valve clearly had a lot of fun designing these individual levels. From stealing a race car from a mall exhibit to a journey through a tunnel of love to a swampy shantytown, there’s always some set which stands out. Additionally, several sections are perfectly designed to amplify risks. There are places where you must jump down with no way to return; someone lagging behind becomes easy pickings for the infected.
Just as essential is versus mode, where two teams switch between playing the survivors and special infected. Simply being able to learn how the special infected operate is a nice feature. It still offers largely the same experience as the campaign mode (as the goal is to get as far as you can on each level of a campaign; whichever team gets further wins) but hopefully with more logical infected. Strangely enough, playing as the infected can feel even more desperate. Despite their dangerous presence, they really can’t do much alone. The game tends to cycle between a single Boomer or Spitter and three with pinning abilities – a skilled team could separate the pack and take down most of the team at once, but that requires perfect communication and timing.
Left 4 Dead excels at cooperative mechanics. Many cooperative games can devolve into each player playing their own part, but Left 4 Dead forces so many dire situations that constant communication is an absolute necessity. While this may be frustrating, playing with enough inexperienced people offers one distinct benefit. The next time you see a horror movie where the characters inevitably split up, you’ll realize that’s somehow one of the more realistic plot points.