It’s a little difficult to picture, but please try. Ten years ago, Valve used to make videogames! Crazy, I know. With all the Back 4 Blood talk on outlets, and how I’ve been into self-torture heavily as of late, I went back to a classic. Left 4 Dead. A couple achievements I never really tried to clear stood in my way and I wanted them a little bit. So I grabbed some randos, and set on my way to beating the game on Expert.
This very quickly proved to be an almost deadly mistake. Left 4 Dead 2 has the very strange power of making you hate everyone. Friends turn to enemies quicky, as they blow your limbs off with unchecked shotgun fire. As you lay down there, zombies looking down on your poor mangled ass, wondering why you keep taking naps, you have a lot of time to think. And you think about how a man with no gaming friends probably has no business in coop games.
Random players usually try and some of them are quite competent, but the truth is immediately clear. Working as a team is very difficult. People happily walking into a line of fire when weapons are hot, panic fits that end in somebody running into a killzone, simple differing opinions on what is a good spot to take on a horde frequently end in total party wipes. Even if you did your part and helped your party clear the whole campaign, survive the finale or you get no achievement, Bucko. This is far easier said than done, and there’s always the inherent risk of some funny guy shooting your ass dead with a shotgun as they ride a helicopter to victory.
The game is basically a griefer’s paradise. Praise be to Valve’s matchmaking, however, for it will literally match you with people in your area. Provided you don’t live somewhere extremely secluded, and even then, it will still try. Some day I might tell the tale of how I made real life friends and lasting relationships over L4D2’s campaign. This time it just wasn’t my path. I gritted my teeth and prepared for a run with bots.
As far as L4D2 goes, it has aged alright, but not great. The map design feels very, very old. And that might actually be a compliment; Map design is less “Let’s cram all the cool things we can think of in this very tiny space” and more “We need a map that will work with and for the game we’ve made.” Long hallways, tight corners, small rooms with doors to hold off incoming hordes. A very clever use of lighting makes maps easily understood even for the uninitiated, and most teams can figure out two guys in front with melee weapons and two guys in the back firing is basically to zombies what the nuke is to a naughty mice litter.
Difficulty can be easily classified between “Gruelling” and “Oh God in Heaven”, with ocassional fits of anger becoming more like an unyelding sense of rage and dread. Expert zombies hit hard, crowd you fast and take way more shots than is reasonable. L4D2 did away with infinite shoving in favor of deadlier, but not as versatile melee weapons, and much of your ability to clear expert depends on how good you are with them.
With friends, clearing is difficult. Bots zigzag this statement. On the one hand, predictable walking patterns minimize friendly fire risk. On the other, they take their sweet time with Special Infected. No feelings will be hurt if you kill them so they may respawn with 50 HP either. And there will be no awkward car ride to work on Monday. If you think about it, taking all the human interaction out of Left 4 Dead might just enrich the experience for you. Even if it’s meant to be coop.
Bots are also impervious to making mistakes, never hitting alarm cars or falling off ledges. Spectacularly bad around instakill Witches, however. But with respawns, it’s hardly a factor. Because more torture is always good, L4D2 included a “Realism” setting that you can combine with Expert difficulty for one of the hardest games to ever grace the industry. No respawns there, so every bot that dies is dead for good, taking a loaded gun out of your team. And your chances will get a lot slimmer.
I will use my vast powers of game journalist intuition to call it right now: Back 4 Blood will not bring coop back. A game as difficult and brimming with content as L4D2 is sadly a thing of the past for Western developers. Capcom has taken that small niche over with Monster Hunter, and a possible remake of highly underrated Resident Evil Outbreak. Back 4 Blood, in turn, has already announced it is very likely to have everyone’s favorite, microtransactions.
It might be a little cynical to say this, but the time when developers were allowed to port all of L4D1 into 2, free of cost for players, including not just the maps, but the rules, weapons and even some game modes has passed. Turtle Rock has proved they can make an industry changing game. One has to wonder if Warner Brothers will give them a fair shot at it, however.
As game development marches forward in that gold-plated, shiny random lootbox cosmetic direction, looking back feels odd. Squad shooters like L4D2 really brought forward the idea that gaming could be social and friendly. Even though Expert players will rarely get that luxury. Are Turtle Rock to blame for skinner box economies? Did they give the megacorps the idea that when you have 20 people in one room, some insufferable element is gonna want to have the loudest gold plated pants for some unfathomable reason? We shall never know.
I hope Turtle Rock can find success with Back 4 Blood and sincerely wish them the best. For now, we can all grab Left 4 Dead 2 on a deal or free weekend. Even without friends, it is beatable. And really, 3 friends is just a very awkward number of friends to have. But for those lucky enough, the experience will be even better. And ten years later, finding players is still possible.