Joe: Hi everyone. Thanks for checking out the TGR Left 4 Dead Textcast. I am here talking with Andy for now, and Brittany will be joining us soon. So…Left 4 Dead….about what you expected or was it more of a surprise?
Andrew: I got into the beta a couple weeks ago, and I still didn’t know what was going to hit me. Those first two levels available in the demo do absolutely nothing to showcase that game in its full glory.
Joe: For me, I was completely unprepared the first time I picked up the controller…I didn’t expect it to be as frantic as it is. Whereas most coop games are normally single player titles with another person dumped in, like the Halo series, Left 4 Dead feels almost like the evolution of that kind of experience
Andrew: I think what surprised me most was exactly that. I wasn’t prepared for a game that was actually designed from the ground up to be played with four players. It’s actually really surprising when you’ve played the game for a while and you start to see all the little tweaks that reveal themselves and show what a sublimely well designed game that L4D really is.
Joe: Exactly! Normally, you don’t see a lot of teamwork on Xbox Live. People tend to think they are all invincible and that their way is the best, yet I have noticed that, in Left 4 Dead, a lot of people are really sticking together and helping each other out. It is almost as if the players are evolving with the genre…adapting to this new style of co-op play that requires actual cooperation.
Andrew: Well I think the player base of this game vs. the player base of Halo 3 are two different beasts. Nobody bought L4D who wasn’t already craving co-op action
Joe: Of course, but even in a game like Gears or Army of Two, people tend to be lone gunman by default, which is why I am usually forced to playing them with people I can know and trust. Yet, so far, people have been more than helpful in Left 4 Dead, and have stuck together/watched each other’s backs.
Andrew: I think that actually goes along with the design of the game though. I think it’s less about player base and more about the designers creating an environment in which the player, alone, feels helpless, but empowered in a group. I think that’s sort of the genius behind the inclusion of the Hunter and the Smoker special zombies that pick off lone wolf players.
Joe: Precisely. You absolutely can not try and be your own army, as you will be zombie food within seconds.
Andrew: I think the other part of the game that lends itself well to weeding out the lone wolves is the pacing. It’s obvious that a lot of work went into the pacing of this game. If the group sits still, zombies will slowly trickle in and wear them down so you have to keep moving. But if you move too fast you might accidentally wake up a Witch or get hit by a Boomer.
Joe: Along those lines, what do you think about the AI Director, the virtual overseer of your game experience that alters enemy and weapon placement on the fly depending on how you play? While it is brilliant for replay value, it doesn’t allow for that ’developer-crafted’ experience that most games are…where you are carefully guided the way that the creators intended.
Andrew: I was a bit ambivalent about it. It’s hard to deny the power of a really well-scripted game like Gears 2, but at the same time it definitely keeps the game fresh. The only problem I had with it is that at times it can feel cheap. After years of gaming there’s something that doesn’t quite sit right with me about being punished for doing well.
Joe: See, whereas most people are bothered by a linear experience, I prefer it in most cases. I would much rather play something like Mirror’s Edge, where every second of gameplay has been planned out extensively, over a game like Oblivion, where I am dropped into a world and am tasked with creating my own path.
Andrew: We definitely differ there.
Joe: But in Left 4 Dead, I think they managed to strike a balance…the levels feel linear enough so that you are guaranteed a certain amount of "big moments," but can feel totally different from one match to the next. I don’t know if this is the "next step" for the single player or co-op game or not, but it certainly guarantees a different experience every time. I will be interested to see if any other developers try anything similar in their single-player or co-op games.
Andrew: I was trying to figure whether or not I felt that way the entire time I was playing. On the one hand, the final endings were awesome…really amazing, climactic final stands. Epic. But on the other hand, once you get to those stages it’s hard to remember why you had just spent an hour and a half trudging through the rest of the game, which seems simplistic, easy, and boring by comparison.
Joe: That I do agree with…that the ending areas were far more dramatic than most of what came before it. Let’s pause on that thought and get Brittany in…
Joe: So we were talking about the level progression in Left 4 Dead…how the level endings would always be epic, and how the preceding moments paled in comparison a bit. Thoughts on the level design/progression?
Brittany: Since I first started playing the demo, I found that each level leading up to the final stage in each campaign (i.e. No Mercy, etc.) felt like "practice." True, there were hordes of zombies to defeat and that felt like you were truly accomplishing something, but it all felt relatively unimportant to me until the finale stage. There was a lot more tension in reaching the rescue vehicle or getting away to ensure an escape. Also, I didn’t feel that each "level" could be considered a level and felt more to me like excuses for loading in between areas. I think each part could have been a bit longer.
Andrew: Yeah that’s exactly what I felt like too. Once you go through each thing one time there’s no reason to play it again, personally I would just skip to the ending sequence.
Brittany: Yeah, I didn’t feel compelled to go back and play No Mercy again when I first finished it, even though I had played its demo levels a few hundred times.
Andrew: Exactly, me too.
Joe: Yeah, I can definitely see that. I think that the pacing was a bit off at times, yet I also think that they did that on purpose to build you up to those "big" moments. I just think there should have been a few more "big" moments spread out among the chapters.
Andrew: I think the thing that exacerbates my hate for those parts of the levels is also the fact that they’re all exactly the same.
Brittany: They really are. Fight a bit. Flip a switch. Fight an enormous horde. Lather, rinse, and repeat.
Andrew: There’s no difference between Blood Harvest or No Mercy except for the end sequence. That’s where I fell they could have done a whole lot more with the vignette-style story structure. If they added more events and plot-specific quests or actions it might have been more unique and fun besides, "Pull this lever to lower device X…prepare to fight the horde."
Joe: True, the areas do feel a bit generic at times, but do you think that was done on purpose to mimic the feel of a real zombie flick? What more do you think could have been done to spruce up the variety a bit?
Brittany: I would have liked to have seen an actual narrative rather than "you’re fighting zombies, live."
Joe: Well I think that they omitted direct narrative because of the impatient nature of many online players, who would be inclined to skip cut scenes, and who would be replaying them over and over, as you wouldn’t want to watch them more than once. One of Valve’s signature elements, telling a story indirectly, plays into that a bit here, as you can pick up bits and pieces by reading the inscriptions on the walls.
Brittany: That’s true, but then I would have liked to have seen Valve take its price point into consideration because of that fact.
Joe: That’s true…it is not often that a $60 game comes along with no real story to speak of…
Brittany: Honestly, I probably wouldn’t play it again after I’m finished with it unless I have friends who are willing to fight with me. I feel no real reason to experience mindless running and gunning again, though it is fun with friends.
Andrew: I will definitely play it again, but there’s no way in hell that I’m going to be doing anything but the climactic final sequences.
Brittany: I feel that if you can buy The Orange Box for less than $30, as well as all of Valve’s library for $99 (including L4D), there’s no reason to charge as much as they did, mainly for the 360 version.
Joe: Well, I am sure that EA is at least partially responsible for that price…The way I see it, as far as the repetition and lack of certain content goes, the game doesn’t have much going for it in the way of story, and the levels might be barebones, but there’s a lot going on under the hood to make sure those things aren’t as big of an issue. If you look at the multiplayer mode in most games, you get approximately 10 levels, 3-5 modes, and that’s about it. From that point, no matter how long you play that multiplayer mode, you are basically playing the same thing over and over again. So what Left 4 Dead does, basically, is recreate this experience, except with AI. You are doing the same things over and over, but mostly fighting the computer instead of other people, which is an interesting change of pace.
Brittany: It really is a game you wouldn’t enjoy as much if you don’t have a lot of fun (hopefully level-headed) friends around to game with.
Joe: Agreed, but most multiplayer games are like that. I personally won’t play any online multiplayer titles unless I am doing so with a friend. I just don’t enjoy them otherwise.
Brittany: But since this game is built around the multiplayer premise, it’s really something to avoid if you’re more solitary or enjoy a game with more emphasis on story.
Andrew: I actually still disagree. I’ve had a really good time playing single-player. The AI of your teammates is spectacular, and it’s not that different from playing with friends.
Brittany: I’ve mostly played single-player as well, and I have enjoyed it, but I would have more fun on subsequent play-throughs with people who are talking to me, you know? I don’t mind going through alone the first time.
Andrew : Ah, understandable. Joe…
Joe: True, but you do lose that random element that real people provide…the AI Teammates will do what is best in most situations, whereas your friends, who may or may not be idiots, won’t always make the best choices, which adds a bit of danger to the action.
Andrew: What annoyed you about L4D, Joe? You’ve been kind of tasked with defending it a bit against Brittany and I at times. So what didn’t you like?
Joe: I definitely agree with both of you, that the earlier levels in the campaigns are a bit leisurely compared to the later sections, but I didn’t mind those as much because I knew that they would lead to something good. There are also the higher difficulty levels, which makes those earlier sections into frantic races for the Safety Room. To me, aside from wishing that there was a bit more variety in the gameplay, I didn’t really have an issue with Left 4 Dead. I think it’s so refreshing and unique, especially compared to the flood of barely-changed sequels we have gotten this season.
Brittany: On Expert, I had such a hard time even walking down the street without being mauled to death. It was ridiculous, but that’s what made it fun. However, if your skills aren’t up to snuff and you have friends who don’t exactly know what they’re doing, it can be a bit of a downer. Gets frustrating and all that.
Joe: Right, that is what I am looking forward to most in subsequent replays…playing the harder difficulties and being terrified of every little threat
Andrew: Or not so little. Once me and my roommate were chased, limping, into the safe room by a tank. Just barely closing the door in time. It was so close his animations clipped through the door…
Brittany: Well, I don’t think L4D was terribly original, but you’re right that it’s different out of this year’s crop. I did feel that it borrowed heavily from the early Garry’s Mod zombie mods for Half-Life 2.
Joe: True…the gameplay itself may not be anything more than "shoot, run, shoot," but the co-op experience is basically unmatched. What are your thoughts on the Versus mode…playing as the zombies. I thought that it was a terrific change of pace.
Andrew: I think that the Versus mode would be EPIC at a LAN party or with 8 friends, but as it is, online I didn’t find that much enjoyment in it.
Brittany: Playing as an Infected was actually pretty cool. Still though, when you get right down to it you’re doing almost the same thing. But since you do need to do a bit of planning and lurching around, following the Survivors, it does add a little of variety, but nothing too radical, as you’re essentially going through the same levels still.
Joe: True…I like that the Infected are so weak. It forces you to come up with a strategy or plan an attack with your teammates. I think that if you can get a team of 4 people that you know into Versus, you will have one hell of a time. Well, that about wraps it up here for the Left 4 Dead Textcast. Any final words?
Brittany: STAY TOGETHER and don’t be a hero.
Joe: Truer words have never been spoken…Thanks guys! RELOADING!