Left 4 Dead: A co-op experimentJanuary 8th, 2009 by Ben
One thing my gamer friends (ok, that’s all of them) and I always talk about is coordinating our purchase of a game so we can play together. Things rarely work out that way, mainly since everyone but me is still playing World of Warcraft. But last week three of us arranged to pick up Left 4 Dead at the same time. We even carpooled to the store.
The co-op basket
Left 4 Dead is similar to Portal in one very important way. No, not that it’s made by Valve. At it’s core, Left 4 Dead is an experiment in one gameplay mechanic. Just like Portal took the concept of the portal gun and explored it to its utmost potential, Left 4 Dead attempts the same feat with multiplayer co-op. Zombie games are nothing new. Co-op isn’t either. But Left 4 Dead is designed to force teamwork in co-op, which, strangely, hasn’t been done too often.
From this angle, Left 4 Dead is a smashing success. Co-op play is great fun. It’s intense, fast-paced, requires communication, and presents a decent challenge even on the normal difficulty setting.
The problem is that the game puts all its undead eggs in this one basket. The amout of fun this game offers is directly proportional to the number of people playing. It’s fantastic with four, pretty good with three, just ok with two, and borderline boring with one. Not being one to play online with strangers, I anticipate that we’ll frequently run into scheduling problems. And that’s too much like work.
Embrace the random
The other primary feature of Left 4 Dead is it’s sophisticated AI system. Every time you play a level, it’s different. The game AI decides where to place boss zombies and where zombie rushes will come from. It definitely keeps you on your toes. I imagine higher difficulty levels (which I haven’t yet graduated to) are quite intense. Even music and sound effects are controlled by this system, which creates a wonderful mood just at the right times and gives perfect queues to build suspense about which monster might be around the next corner.
In fact, I think Left 4 Dead’s AI system presents a big step forward in gaming. There’s no more memorizing enemy locations and finding just the right way to take them out. The randomness of gameplay forces you to play the game with urgency each time through.
However (you knew it was coming), all this glorious randomness comes with a price: there’s not much content. The game includes four campaigns, each of which takes about an hour to play from start to finish. They’re brilliantly designed, but they’re short. Actually, they’re about the right length. One hour of zombie slaying is about right. There just aren’t enough campaigns to choose from. It may be impossible to know where the zombies are coming from, but you can certainly learn the best locations to fight them. The first time through a campaign is exhilarating; you don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t know from which door death might emerge.
Overall, Left 4 Dead is quite well executed. There aren’t enough games these days that focus on quality over quantity. Valve has produced the last few. Nevertheless, I find myself wishing for just a little more quantity on this one. I don’t know how many more coordinated play sessions we’ll pull off before somebody loses interest. Once that happens, the chances of anyone else sticking around drop considerably. Just like in the zombie apocalypse, if you don’t all stick together, the fun won’t last long.