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ZA Critique: Left 4 Dead

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Tuesday, Sep 22, 2009
A breakdown of the multiplayer elements of Left 4 Dead.

The mark of a good competitive multiplayer game is one that can be enjoyed by a variety of players. For me, this equates to a game that I can play when I’m unwinding from work or when I come home from the bars on a Friday night. A game like Call of Duty 4 is fun when I’ve got my act together and I can focus, but otherwise, I’m going to get my ass kicked. There’s no secondary way to play the game, it’s just get in the trenches and brawl. One of the reasons I still consider Halo 3 the best multiplayer FPS on a console is because it finds a way to give the inept player some action. Between chucking a plasma grenade at someone or breaking out the shotgun, you can usually get in a few kills against a superior player (assuming we’re not talking about the shotty/sniper elites). The one problem with this is that whenever I log onto Social Slayer after needing a cab to get home, I’m not exactly a good teammate. Finding a way for a group of total strangers to coordinate is difficult enough without factoring in that everyone is at a different skill level. Most of the time everyone on a team will just scatter in a Halo 3 match usually with the result that the organized group always dominates. Valve’s procedural multiplayer game Left 4 Dead manages to create a game whose design promotes team work. It does so by imposing certain moments where a player will need assistance from others and creating a mutual aid dynamic. Where the excitement begins is in seeing how the various skill levels of the players pans out.


The game’s levels are set up a bit like a race track. At the start and at certain key points, you can pick up guns and ammo. Whichever gun you pick at the start is your primary weapon, with the secondary being a weaker pistol with infinite ammo. One health kit at the start and various pills and bombs are scattered randomly on the course. The higher the difficulty, the less time you’ll have to look around because you’ll be running non-stop. A player can be incapacitated from a variety of situations that will require someone’s help. Three types of zombies can knock you to the ground and continually attack, meaning someone has to come shoot them off you. Falling off a ledge or running out of health also means someone has to come help before you die permanently for that round. The way that you keep an expert player from ever dominating this system through memorization and skill is by procedurally generating the monsters. The game uses an AI director to study how the team is playing and match their performance to zombies. Gabe Newell in an interview for EDGE explains, “In terms of the signal that you’re giving the player, a difficulty level is like a flat line response as opposed to a wave. We tend to think of it almost in terms of signal processing. A difficulty level just says ‘go up to this level and remain constant’ in terms of the experience that it’s giving to people. That isn’t really the most entertaining experience that you can give people. They want peaks and valleys and really big reactions to the choices that they make.” Each level has its own unique ebb and flow that’s created based on the people around you rather than any set formula. As Simon Ferrari points out on his post on L4D, the game’s strength is its similarity to rhythm games.


From IGN.com

From IGN.com


What’s interesting about the system is the way that it encourages players of a variety of skill types. Justin Keverne uses Richard Bartlett’s essay on player types in online RPGs and applies it to the game. Each character in L4D represents a personality type, Bill is the grizzled veteran or Achiever. Zoey is the player who likes to organize people and sustain the group. Francis is the more narcissistic type of player who is interested in winning while Louis represents the explorer who wants to just experiment and see what happens in the game. As Keverne explains, the Francis character is liable to abandon you for the safe room so that they survive while the Louis character is liable to accidentally shoot you. Like an MMORPG, you can’t just cut out and go lone wolf in the game, so you begin to categorize players and adjust your style accordingly. Usually it is in the middle of a giant mob of zombies that you realize that you’re playing with a trigger happy nut. The sadly departed PixelVixen707 wrote that, “The game feels like a moshpit, and the kicking and flailing happen capriciously. In fact, I suspect many people will get sick of it almost immediately, and jump back to some metalhead shit like Gears of War 2.” That game, like Call of Duty 4, is just about winning. The only people who are getting much out of the experience are the Bill and Francis types of players.


That’s an idea Graffiti Gamer harps on in his excellent NGJ Post about multiplayer session. After playing the game with both friends and random strangers, he found that the random players generated the more interesting experience. When he played with people he knew, they quickly organized themselves into a solid team. You didn’t abandon someone or hog your medkit because you knew this person, you trusted them. With random strangers, the group dynamic is far more interesting. After playing a series of levels with one group, he explains that they grew to trust each other despite the flaws in the other players. One player quickly showed themselves to be the Achiever while another was decent but tended to jump in front of friendly fire. Louis, true to Keverne’s categories, ended up being a bit unpredictable and hard to work with. By falling behind and forcing everyone to come rescue him or by choosing to shoot wildly, the player was a constant liability. But by the end of the game, they managed to coach him into sticking with the group and working with them. At the end of each group of levels is a final test for the team, a timed last stand where hordes of zombies attack until help arrives. Do you run for the helicopter or boat even if your teammate is trapped? Louis, in this particular session, abandoned everyone to their death. Infuriated along with the rest of the team, Graffiti Gamer writes, “I’ve yet to experience such impassioned feelings, a sensation of knowledge sharing, such an exceptionally interesting narrative when playing with friends as I have with randoms.”


Considering how remarkable the procedural zombies are, it’s still unsurprising that Valve resorted to a massive overhaul of the design by releasing a sequel. Although the overall experience is initially novel, it’s limited by a lack of real variety in weapons or zombies. The zombie horde needs a massive infusion of variety, and since the guns basically boil down to shotgun or assault rifle, some additional options are also needed. This becomes the most apparent when you play the game in Versus Mode, in which you can be a zombie yourself. There isn’t really any means of attacking the survivors except to wait until one or two fall behind the rest of the group or you hit them at a key choke point. Everything else you can do boils down to just distracting them or causing more of the AI zombies to swarm. On the first map of “No Mercy” for example, there’s a pit to the lower floor of the apartment building that you can’t climb back up. If you wait for just the right moment, you can catch a straggling player who is still up top while his teammates are trapped down below. The problem is that over time everyone learns these points and compensates for them. Everyone just ends up striving to play a certain way, and since there are only five kinds of zombies, there is a definitive peak method of doing this. You’re still just using the same tactics over and over again.


A fresh infusion of new weapons, zombies, and maps would help keep things vibrant. More ways to fight, betray, and aid one another would help to heighten the stakes. The ability to procedurally generate maps at random might be a bit difficult one, but Valve might also consider the Far Cry 2 solution. Just include a map editor that’s ridiculously easy to use and have users submit the maps to the network and vote on quality. Since you tend to only play a map once, lack of sophisticated planning is compensated for by the experience of exploring a new space. Left 4 Dead is able to make playing with a group of people of varying skills possible for everyone. Thanks to the internet, it can constantly shuffle the deck of who you have to work with. But like any good card game, you need a variety of cards to keep that interesting.

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