Left 4 Dead: Cooperative Gameplay on the Xbox

Posted on February 5, 2009, 4:24 pm, by Morgan, under Games.

It takes me an unusually long time to finish games. While I frequently hear industry folks talk about their “pile of shame” (i.e. the stack of unplayed, often unopened, triple-A releases that they have yet to play,) unlike them, I don’t have the (valid) excuse that I work 50-70 hours a week making games for a living, which prevents me from digging deep into them in my spare time. It is another factor that keep me from completing most titles within the year of their release. Partly it is due to the unusually large number of high-quality games that have come out in the last few years, but mostly it is due to the fact that I’m constantly looking for new gaming interesting experiences and, as a result, frequently spend far more time scanning headlines on blogs and researching games than actually playing games that are already released (which I find myself mostly doing just so I can talk about them competently in public.) However, there have been a couple of exceptions recently and one of them is Valve and Turtle Rock Studio’s horror-themed shooter, Left 4 Dead.

I’m currently in the midst of working through Left 4 Dead on expert with a colleague at Concordia. While this is proving to be more difficult than we had thought – and the last few sessions have ended with us giving up at around the 60% mark on a couple of different chapters – the thing that has kept me coming back is the real sense of threat that the zombies (called “infected” in the game) have at this level. It’s rare in game these days to come across enemies that feel truly feel dangerous (without being cheap) and developers are frequently more concerned with making sure that players get to experience as much of the game’s story as possible than providing any real sense of challenge. On the highest difficult setting each of the infected’s blows taking away around a quarter of the player’s life bar and there are hundreds of them per level, making it much more important to shoot accurately and protect your teammate’s flanks during these peak moments of combat. The exquisite feeling of dread felt when facing off against a couple of them rises to the level of fear as they swarm towards the player during in the “fight the horde” sequences and is quickly replaced by outright panic as one or more of the brilliantly designed “Boss” infected is encountered amidst the rabble in each of the game’s four chapters.

A couple of other things continue to impress me while playing the game. One is how successful the developers have been at building a nearly seamless cooperative online shooter. From the enemy boss design to the HUD, which displays your teammates current location and health status, every part of the game is designed to make you aware of how much you are depending on the condition of your teammates for your survival, especially at the higher difficulty settings. This has interesting effects online. In the first game I played on Xbox Live I found myself completely shocked when another player came up and healed me after I was wounded without being asked or saying a word. This was the first time I’ve ever had that happen when playing online with the general public outside of an massively multiplayer online game. If nothing else Turtle Rock and Valve deserve credit for making the internet a (slightly) nicer place, which is somewhat of an accomplishment in itself. Conversely, the feeling of elation I get after shooting my way through a crowd of zombies in order to rescue another player who’s been “incapped.” (incapacitated) by the horde is something else I’ve never really experienced on Live – sure there were moments in Halo or Call of Duty 4 when I felt a sense of accomplishment when taking out an enemy that was attacking a teammate, but the experience of shooting through a crowd of zombies that are surrounding your prone coworker and then helping them back to their feet and healing their wounds is extremely rewarding. The fact the it has been on the top ten list of most played titles on Xbox Live since it’s release shows that players like this sense of accomplishment and cooperative play as much as the traditional competitive modes of play. In fact currently 4 out of the top 5 most-played games on Live have a significant cooperative element, if not a dedicated co-op mode (the exception being Infinity Ward’s excellent Call of Duty 4.) It seems clear at this point that that cooperative games like Left 4 Dead will have a significant impact on the future of online gaming on the Xbox.

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  • Myron wishes he had Xbox Live access out here so that he could play Left 4 Dead online with you. We've played through only one of the co-op campaigns, but I'm really impressed with this game. As far as story goes (and yes, I have to be aware of that as a game writer), I'm fascinated with how the game skips over the "why" of the zombie presence and jumps straight into the survival stage.

    Both Myron and I have shrieked at different points when playing together--the zombies seem a lot more intelligent (or animalistic as it were, given they can sense where you are based on smell or the attraction from the Boomers). It's not like other shooters where you know where the zombies are going to pop up at since they're all generated in a level in the same location every time. It's more procedural, which makes it a lot more fun and unpredictable (and thus scary). Myron won't play when it's dark, ha ha ha.

    I've always been one for cooperative play and I'm looking forward to seeing what else comes out of Valve. They've really nailed it lately with some creative and simple mods from the Half Life engine that focus on perfecting a core game mechanic (Portal, for example, which is a completely different experience from Left 4 Dead).

    Here's to being in the city with fast internet in a few months when we can try out the online version.

    - Beth

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