Dear Valve. You appear to have spilled AWESOME on my gaming. Thank you.
L4D is one of those landmark video games that will change the way gaming on the PC operates in the long term. From the ground up, this game is different to the usual PC FPS genre. At the top of the list is the realisation that L4D was probably ready to ship about 2 years ago if Valve was running a classic publishing company.
What changes with L4D?
1. Development and Refinement Timelines: The extra levels of development in the game, plus the extended refinement period and a “When it’s ready, we’ll talk about release dates” can lead to a Duke Nukem infinite push back loop. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case at Valve. I’ve seen gameplay footage from mid 2008, and the final release looks a world better than the mid year game play footage.
2. Voice acting: Valve’s been pretty good with the voice work for a while now – particularly with the Team Fortress 2 characters having character…. except that a Red Scout and a Blue scout sound the freaking same…BONK!. L4D has 8000 lines of dialogue, including a classic moment of Zoey calling bullshit (zombie bullshit) on fast moving zombies. Plus, the voice acting when the player is hurt, or a fellow survivor is downed by the horde lifts the performance of the game.
3. Collaborative Team Play: Left 4 Dead makes a major step forward for the networked games of the future by designing a game that you will lose if you try to run through it on solo – I tried the demo on easy on my own, and I was wiped out by the limited set of special enemies (Smoker and Hunter) who have a specialist role in pinning or constricting you until rescued. Plus, seriously, you need all the eyes and brains you can get when there’s a zerg zombie rush happening. Team Fortress 2 is a non-story driven sports gaming event. It’s awesome, but it’s soccer to Left 4 Dead’s theatre production. Different values drive both games and gameplay design. L4D has opened the door to a whole new world of squad based gaming with mixed AI and human players.
4. Useful AI: The fact that the game was built around a four person squad where the computer controls three of the four during the solo game could have been a nightmare. There are so many squad games with mindnumbingly dumb AI that exist to either soak bullets without taking damage (Ahem, Halflife2) or who get stuck in doors, walls, or small bumps in the texture map (Unreal Tournament). These squad mates do lay down cover fire, give you health, heal each other, and help each other. In fact, I’d love to see a four AI team play a map… but there’s two weaknesses in the AI code. First, you still have to go first as the player for the squad to move. Which makes for a couple of problems with the solo map not being quite so tactical (ie, in the large open field where the smart move is a sniper covering two runners, you can’t order for a sniper or send the runners). Second, for some reason, the AI ignore the projectiles so they’ll never pick up the molotovs or pipe boms.
5. The Director: The secret sauce in Left 4 Dead is the AI underpinning the enemy. Known as the Director, it controls the film effects as well as the waves of enemy attacks, placement of health, ammo and explosives.
6. Hostile Character Design: Valve built a tank which is mostly destruction but can be killed, a Boomer which is revolting and extremely easy to kill but with consequences if you’re too close, the Hunter which does surprise attacks that pin you down, the Smoker which is a sniper mode zombie, and… The Witch. The Witch is awesome in concept – a wailing, broken helpless sounding creature that’s going to kill whoever disturbs it. (Note: It’s usually me). When you play these characters (except the witch) in versus mode, you get a real sense for how hard it is to do them well (except for the Tank for me. I’m a natural match for its style). Yet the AI Director spots these harder challenges into the game to keep the group together (good for hunter stopping, vulnerable to Boomers), split us up (Smokers, Hunters) or up the pace a megawatt or two (Boomer) or provide the combo pack (A Smoker drags you from the pack and a hunter jumps on you for a double painful end).
I’ve played most of the canonical FPS games, and Left 4 Dead lights up a whole new style of play – cinematic cooperative group based gaming with a thematic consistency and quasirandomized gameplay. It’s amazing. It’s going to be a landmark point as the developer community, fueled by the ease of which conversions and new maps can be included, start making amazing things with the L4D engine.