Left 4 Dead
At first glance, Left 4 Dead seems a simple enough concept; after all, both first person shooters and zombies are rather prolific in the industry. Valve being Valve, though, they weren’t content with simply slapping the two together and calling it a day. The easy route would have been to whip up a schlocky B-movie plot, make the action scenes playable, and call it a day. Instead, they cast aside standard zombie tropes with almost reckless abandon, to the point that the game mutated into something that may have looked like a zombie game but neither parodied B-movies for laughs nor tried to produce legitimate scares. Instead, Valve focused with precision on a very specific aspect of zombie movies, a fundamental concept that shaped and informed the overarching game mechanics: Cooperation.
From the beginning, Left 4 Dead was designed to emphasize the scenario of four survivors of a zombie outbreak working together, and it was built from the ground-up to make the players dependent on one other. The final product isn’t like other shooters, where “cooperation” is a shallow term that simply means you have more than one guy shooting at any given time; nor is it like a cooperative platformer where two people are simply required to be present in the same space to progress. Quite the contrary; losing partners is a likely occurrence throughout the game. Rather, it’s a game featuring scenarios that can quite literally incapacitate you until a teammate comes to the rescue. Falling over a ledge, for example, will make the player automatically grab the side -- but unlike many other games, you’re only able to hang on for dear life until a teammate physically comes over and helps you up. Similarly, should a player’s health reach zero -- and it can, quickly -- they become “Incapacitated” on the ground, unable to do anything except to fire their pistol until either a teammate comes to help them up or they bleed out. It’s fantastic design that gracefully recalls the game’s inspiration; after all, how countless many zombie movies have shots of survivors helping others up as they stumble, fall, and generally fail to properly land a jump? Yet it simultaneously reinforces its underlying philosophy at every turn: There’s no such thing as a self-sufficient player.
Smaller design choices are also a means to this end, albeit more subtly. For starters, each survivor is only able to carry one small weapon -- i.e. a pistol or, in the sequel, a melee weapon -- and one large weapon. Shotguns, automatics, and hunting rifles make up the selection of large weapons, and while any choice is perfectly viable, players are smart to diversify, lest a team full of automatics and rifles find itself swarmed, or a team wielding nothing but shotguns find itself unable to hit anything at a distance. They may also carry one of each type of item: A throwable “exploding” weapon, suspiciously nondescript bottles of pills, and a first-aid kit. The usefulness of the latter two is definitely the most rote: You can either patch yourself up permanently with a first-aid kit, temporarily give yourself a health boost that degrades over time with pills, or generously heal needy teammates with either. That last part is key, as some players are bound to get more hurt than others over the course of a campaign, and nothing builds up that warm, fuzzy feeling of camaraderie quite like bringing someone else back from the brink of death. The throwable weapons serve more unique purposes: The molotov cocktail creates a sea of fire that keeps zombies at bay, while the pipe bomb attracts zombies and then explodes, making it a perfect distraction when your group is surrounded. As with the main weapons, the group isn’t obligated to mix things up if they don’t want to... but if nature has taught us anything, it’s that homogeneous groups are far more likely to be wiped out because they all stocked up on molotov cocktails and had no pipe bombs to throw.
Left 4 Dead’s cooperative gameplay really come to a head when dealing with the Special Infected, however. The aforementioned mechanics -- such as reviving an incapacitated player -- are really meant as a warm-up for these guys. The Special Infected are, in no uncertain terms, the meat and potatoes of the L4D scenario, powerful mutations of the zombie virus with unique abilities, almost all of which are designed to instantly immobilize a survivor until a teammates can rescue them. The most common, the Hunter, leaps on a survivor and starts tearing into them with its claws; unless another survivor pushes or shoots them off, the player has no choice but to watch their health drain away. Likewise, the Smoker spits out its tongue like a horrific Yoshi and pulls a survivor away until they’re rescued, an especially effective way to teach new players never to wander too far from their group. Staying too close together, however, makes the group an easy target for the Boomer, a repulsive, bloated zombie that projectile vomits and explodes when shot, spraying the gooey substance within a certain radius that blinds nearby survivors and attracts a wave of common Infected to swarm them. (Incidentally, the Boomer is the Special Infected type that most faithfully represents what most zombie flick fans can agree makes a good zombie flick: Disgusting, over-the-top gore).
The last two Special Infected are a bit more rare: The Witch (a weeping female zombie who ignores the survivors until startled by gunfire or flashlights, at which point she’ll attack whoever startled her until one of them is dead) and the Tank (a huge zombie hopped up on steroids and PCP, with a beefed-up health bar to match). Generally speaking, things tend to go very badly if all four survivors don’t watch one another’s backs when either of these types are around. While the Witch is an obstacle that can usually be avoided (or eliminated) if the survivors are careful, the only option for getting past a Tank is for all four players to open fire and hope he doesn’t catch one of them first.
Scarcely a year -- actually, exactly a year -- after Left 4 Dead was released, Valve followed up with a sequel. Left 4 Dead 2, as sequels are want to do, added plenty of content: New campaigns and characters, new modes and objectives, new items and weapons, and new enemies. The most succinct way to describe the game’s improvements is to say it offers more choice, with multiple weapons choices within each tier along with several melee selections. No single best weapon stands out as the best of its category, and even weapons of the same variety might provide different benefits and drawbacks for different players. You may choose to select adrenaline shots in place of pills, which allow you to move, reload, and (most importantly) assist incapacitated teammates more quickly for a limited amount of time. Even the first-aid kit isn’t a functionally mandatory standby anymore, as they can be replaced by defibrillator units that revive dead teammates. The implications for cooperative play are obvious: Do you take a first-aid kit to heal up anyone that’s injured, or do you trade it for a defibrillator in case a teammate bites the dust? Do you hold on to adrenaline in case everything goes to hell and you need to help your team pronto, or do you play it safe and hold onto pills in case someone needs a pick-me-up? Should everyone be clubbing and slashing away with melee weapons, or would it be best to have a gun at the ready?
The main draw of the sequel, of course, is the trio of new Special Infected types. Each was crafted to eliminate common (and often not particularly fun) strategies that players of the previous game tended to fall into. For example, the Spitter -- which spits pools of acid from a distance -- was designed to force the survivors to move and spread out, rather than, say, lamely bunching into a closet and killing anything that approached. The other two, the Charger and the Jockey, also serve the same general “split up the survivors” role yet require a teammate for rescue, the same way a Hunter or Smoker do. The Charger, a big fella whose arms resemble those of a fiddler crab, has more health than other Special Infected (excluding the Tank), and the ability to charge into a group of survivors, scattering them about and slamming one poor soul into the ground until freed. The Jockey, too, does its part to put more distance between the survivors, this time by leaping onto an unfortunate target’s back and steering them away against their will, grunting and squealing the whole way.
Where Left 4 Dead and its sequel shine most is in the way each and every Special Infected provides unique considerations on how best to cooperate. It’s never simply a matter of freeing someone who’s been caught; there are more subtle factors for a successful team to keep in mind. For instance, the Jockey is different from a Hunter because you must give chase, which leaves your other teammates (or yourself) increasingly vulnerable as you move further away. The Boomer in particular embodies the game’s emergent need for teamwork. For starters, communication is an absolute necessity to make sure no one shoots the Boomer before everyone is a safe distance apart. If he does hit someone, they’re temporarily blinded, forcing teammates to protect them while requiring the afflicted to have sufficient faith in his team to refrain from shooting wildly. The Tank, too, is an equally fantastic example: At first glance, it seems to be simply an enemy that soaks up extra damage. However, the combination of being tough to kill and presenting such an immediate threat running directly at you instantly draws everyone’s attention and fosters team work to pull together and take him down -- often without the group even realizing it.
In fact, the only Special Infected that doesn’t do much to specifically enhance the Survivors’ reliance on each other is the Spitter. It’s a bit perplexing... at least, until you consider the game’s versus mode. Versus mode is exactly what it sounds like: While four players play as survivors, four others are playing as the Special Infected and doing everything in their power to stop them. As the Special Infected are easy to kill, it also requires a good deal of cooperation on the zombie players’ behalf as well. After all, a Hunter may die in a few shots, but if a Smoker has dragged away one Survivors while a Boomer has blinded the others, the Hunter can potentially be incredibly deadly. The Spitter, then, is the vanguard for zombie coordination in versus mode. His acid spit drains health quickly, meaning one Spitter can manipulate survivors into moving into ambushes, can make incapacitated humans temporarily unreachable -- which has an added benefit of draining the downed comrade’s health faster -- and can provide incredibly damaging areas for Jockeys to escort their victims to.
Left 4 Dead’s Achievements are also notable. Regardless of your outlook on the whole Achievement-whoring thing, Valve has very smartly used this facet of Microsoft’s platforms to enhance the game. Sure, there are the standard “beat such-and-such campaign” Achievements, but the majority are designed to impart specific skills. The Clean Kill achievement, for example, is awarded for shoving a Boomer away and then killing it without the burst splashing onto any survivors. In other words, this will either a) produce a Pavlovian reflex that subtly communicates an ideal way to play, or b) make someone read up on the Achievements and accidentally learn a technique for the game without realizing it. Other Achievements exist simply to teach players to perform better as Special Infected in versus mode. Among these are Chain Smoker (grab two different survivors in one life as a Smoker) and Rode Hard, Put Away Wet (as a Jockey, ride a survivor into a Spitter’s acid patch). Unsurprisingly, many Achievements are designed to promote cooperation. Pharm-Assist forces even the stingiest players to share pills at least 10 times (again, with the hope this will create learned behavior in the long run), while The Quick and the Dead (revive 10 incapacitated survivors with adrenaline) highlights adrenaline’s usefulness to the team at large.
The Achievements, admittedly, weren’t always perfect. The first game’s Cr0wned Achievement exists to let players know that it’s technically possible to kill the Witch with a perfect head shot, but its aftermath was to diminish the danger posed by Witches. Thankfully, Left 4 Dead 2 introduced “realism mode” to address such concerns. Among other things, survivors could no longer see teammates’ silhouettes through walls, dead comrades wouldn’t spawn elsewhere in the level (thus making the defibrillator item an attractive option over the med pack), and the Witch would kill -- not incapacitate! -- a player in a single hit, once again making them something to be truly feared. More importantly, though, the culmination of these tweaks to the normal gameplay means realism mode is essentially cooperation mode, even moreso than normal. Cutting off certain video gamey concessions -- such as displaying each teammate’s location or highlighting items -- means constant, informative communication is suddenly a requisite for survival, and the only way to stay in the fight once put down is to convince teammates to revive you. As such, the survivors must play smarter and be more mindful of their partners’ backs, as even previously safe actions -- like checking an empty shack for supplies -- is fraught with danger. The end result is that realism mode serves as sort of a half-step up between difficulties, and is quite clearly designed for those drawn to camaraderie. While there’s an argument to be made for the (slightly) more relaxed nature of the normal mode of play, realism mode is a real kick in the pants for any players that somehow missed the memo and still try to be John J. Rambo.
However realistic you choose to play it, most of Left 4 Dead’s design choices in general revolve around forcing players to work together. The biggest challenge in designing a game to be played cooperatively online is to find a way to circumvent John Gabriel’s Greater Internet F*ckwad Theory as much as possible. Even online Checkers is bound to have its fair share of bad eggs, but whether players wanted to actively pursue a cooperative experience or needed to be dragged kicking and screaming to it, Left 4 Dead was largely a success. Sure, it also offered more reasons than ever for teammates to scream at you over the mic, but there’s something satisfying about knowing a veteran player is just as vulnerable as someone trying the game for the first time if they don’t learn to work together. There’s plenty more to praise about the Left 4 Dead series -- any article about it that fails to mention the characters, the sound design, or Burger Tank feels incomplete -- and it has its faults too -- the zombies do run, after all -- but at its core Left 4 Dead is the most ambitious, original, and outright fun cooperative experience in video games to date.