Zombie Jamboree: Left 4 Dead's Winning Formula

Zombie Jamboree: Left 4 Dead’s Winning Formula

For the last six weeks, I have been trying to write something about Valve’s Left 4 Dead, unsuccessfully. This is because our site is about Overthinking stuff, and a post called “OMG ME PWN ZOMBIES!!” would not be appropriate.


For the last six weeks, I have been trying to write something about Valve’s Left 4 Dead, unsuccessfully. This is because our site is about Overthinking stuff, and a post called “OMG ME PWN ZOMBIES!!” would not be appropriate. (Besides, everybody already wrote that review when the game was released, including the New York Times.) This game unleashing a feeling in me I can only describe as “Wheeeeeeeee,” which makes overthinking hard. But I’ll try.

There have been plenty of videogames where you fight the undead. But this game doesn’t have the sci-fi veneer of Doom or Resident Evil, or the disembodied rampaging head of Zombie Nation. You play as a regular person stuck in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. You and three companions have to blast your way to safety, picking through a smashed and burning city. The whole game is set at night, and at some points the only illumination is the flashlight strapped to your shotgun and the muzzle flashes. If you stop to take in the scenery, there’s a ton to admire: a hospital with insane graffiti on blood-splattered walls, countless makeshift barricades that didn’t hold, sewers where corpses float in the muck, etc. But I don’t suggest you stop to take in the scenery. Because, well, the zombies.

The first question one has to ask when approaching a piece of zombie media is: are they slow, or fast? (For a discussion of the history of these two breeds, see here.) And that’s where Valve has done a great job of squaring the circle. See, these zombies are classic Romero at first glance. They stumble around aimlessly and lean against the walls. Sometimes they even lie down on their own, or spontaneously vomit. And they’re not even good at spotting you. A lot of the time, you can walk into a room, see a few zombies, and leisurely kill them all with perfect headshots before they look in your direction.

l4d_chargeBut when they do notice you, they sprint right at you, legs pumping, leaning into their turns, snarling, reaching out with bloody hands. It’s straight out of 28 Days Later, and it can be pretty unnerving. But that’s not the half of it. Valve designed the game to handle truly massive numbers of zombies at once (go ahead and watch that link). More than once, I’ve seen a horde of zombies charging at me, and I forgot to shoot. It was so goddamn majestic, like a herd of buffalo thundering across Montana. I’m serious – if you’re a horror fan, the L4D zombie horde will bring a tear to your eye.

And I think it’s this gulf between how easy it is to kill one zombie, and how overwhelming 100 of them can be, that makes Left 4 Dead work.

See, in the first-person shooter genre, the basic quantum of enjoyment in the Kill. The game presents you with cleverly designed levels and powerful weapons, and sets you loose to kill things. Your fun is derived from these kills. Over the years, game designers have generally worked to make the enemies smarter. (After all, a game where the enemy soldiers bumped into walls all the time wouldn’t be much fun.) Smarter baddies are harder to kill, but the kills become more satisfying.

For instance, I recently played Gears of War 2, and some of the AI was very impressive (I’m referring specifically to the training mode). Those bad guys will fan out and approach you from all sides. They’ll find cover when under fire. If you find cover, they’ll start tossing grenades to smoke you out. When you finally kill these guys, you feel like a badass. But there were also times when they lit me on fire and drove a chainsaw through my torso. (Disclaimer: I am not that good at video games.)

l4d_zombieThe Left 4 Dead people took the opposite approach. Each zombie has the AI of a fruit fly – not to mention they don’t have guns, so they have to run right up to you to hurt you at all. This may make them less satisfying to kill than the smarter enemies in other shooters. However, what the kills lack in quality, they make up for in quantity. Actual example: after completing a mission recently, the game told me that my group had killed 463 zombies in just 14 minutes of gameplay.

In a way, the game reminds me of the old NFL Blitz games. The guys who made that thought, “What’s the best part of football? Touchdowns! So let’s make passers and catchers do impossible things! And to compensate, we’ll make them get 30 yards for a first down.” The problem with this is, everyone knows that a first down is only 10 yards, so the rule changes of Blitz seemed silly. On the other hand, making the enemies in Left 4 Dead stupid seems perfectly natural. They’re zombies!

Basically, the game works exactly like the movies that inspired it. One zombie isn’t a threat. A handful of zombies aren’t a threat. But when you’re dealing with hundreds upon hundreds of zombies, pushing each other out of the way to get at you, there’s no room for error – one mistake and a dozen of them are on top of you. So the game achieves a high level of difficulty through sheer numbers. At the same time, even a noob is going to kill a lot of zombies, and each one of those kills will bring a smile to his noob lips. By making sure that whatever happens, you take a ton of those bastards with you, Left 4 Dead has its cake and eats it too (and that cake tastes just like braaaaaains).

Oh, and did I mention that in the Versus mode, you get to play as a zombie? Man, I love this game.

By the way, if anyone has Left 4 Dead for XBox, email me at belinkie at overthinkingit dot com. We should play sometime.

21 Comments on “Zombie Jamboree: Left 4 Dead’s Winning Formula”

  1. Professor Coldheart #

    Oh, and did I mention that in the Versus mode, you get to play as a zombie? Man, I love this game.

    Actually, a cool feature would be the ability to play as a horde of zombies.

    You have a somewhat elevated view of the map and a massive blob of zombies. When one of the peripheral zombies spots a human, the controller vibrates slightly in your hands and the blob starts to tug in that direction.

    Slam the analog stick in that direction and the horde charges. Charging gets you there fast, but you’ll lose zombies to debris – zombies running into dumpsters, getting lost around corners, etc. The horde thins itself out as the stragglers get separated, meaning it’ll be easier for the humans to pick off.

    Push the stick the way you want to go, and the zombies advance more slowly – Romero-style, if you will. This gives your victims plenty of time to get away and reload, but keeps the horde massive and intact.

    Clever players will, obviously, use some combination of charging and shuffling to reach their targets.


  2. Pianodan #

    Oh Matt… you’re playing an FPS on a *console*?

    That’s not right.


  3. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Pianodan – I’m a Mac guy, so I’ve never really done a whole lot of gaming on my computer. Besides, my laptop screen is 13 inches. My TV is ginormous.


  4. Jonathan #

    Hmm, I disagree with the statement that playing an FPS on a console is “not right.”

    I’ve played all sorts of first person shooters on both PC and console:

    PC — Dark Forces, Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight, Half-Life, Half-Life: Opposing Forces, Quake Arena, Medal of Honor, Call of Duty and Red Faction, among others.

    Xbox, Xbox 360 and PS2 — Halo/2/3, Gears of War, Call of Duty 2 & 3, Doom 3, Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, Republic Commando, among others.

    Aside from shoddy games, FPS’ are just as fun and immersive (to me) regardless of the system. It all depends on how well you adapt to control schemes.


  5. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    So on a PC, you look and shoot with the mouse, move with the keyboard? But what if you want to move diagonally? I almost feel like you need TWO mouses (mice).


  6. Jonathan #

    Matt, moving diagonally is basically holding left and forward or right and forward at the same time.

    The thing PC’s really do well with FPS games is you can amp the speed up and really fly through a level, while console games are largely unhackable.

    Two computers mousies would be interestingly, though….;)

    In 20 years they’ll be laughing at this conversation as they run in place waving around a virtual shotgun and “feeling” rain pelting their face in game lol


  7. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    I know Microsoft was trying out some games where you could play across platforms – somebody on the console could play against somebody on the PC. But as far as I know, Shadowrun was the only game they actually tried it on. That was two years ago.


  8. lee OTI Staff #

    By the way, I should point out that none of the still images really do justice to the feeling of absolute dread you get when a horde of several dozen zombies rushes you at full speed. That was a first for me, as was the feeling of absolute desperation and panic when you’re surrounded by zombies and are helpess save for the teammates who could come to your rescue…if they too weren’t surrounded by zombies.

    I do wish these zombies said “braaaaains” rather than just moan and scream. Or would that make this game too campy?


  9. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Lee – I’ve played this game with a lot of people. And every single person, without exception, completely panics the first time the horde charges them. I’ve seen people spin around wildly. One guy actually dropped the controller.

    And if they said “Brains,” it wouldn’t be as scary. Maybe that should be a cheat – enabling Brains vocalization.


  10. Pianodan #

    The big improvement in PC FPSes is NOT the hackability. (I don’t do that) It’s the precision of a mouse for aiming. If you watch videos of people playing my game-of-choice, Team Fortress 2, on both the console and PC versions, the difference in quality of play is laughable.

    Incidentally, I recognize this as an utterly pointless fanboy argument. I’ll stop now.


  11. Francis Hwang #

    Yay, more people talking about Left 4 Dead!

    Another of the many great things about this game: It’s different every time, because the “AI Director” places zombies differently every time you run through the same map. As a result, it’s the first game I’ve ever played where you’re playing against the computer and your team’s tactical cohesion routinely falls to shit. One second, all four of you are a tight unit, walking closely and covering all angles, and then the next you’re swarmed by a horde, blinded by Boomer vomit, firing frantically in all directions. Maybe you’ll accidentally shoot your friend down, maybe he’ll accidentally burn you to death with a molotov.

    I suppose this is the difference between a typical action movie and a typical horror movie: In action movies, the protagonists are well-trained and usually in control of most situations. In horror movies, the protagonists are normal people, and when confronted with the need for violence, they often find a way to mess it up. For some reason, that’s fun. Who knew?


  12. Gab #

    Francis, I think you’re onto something when it comes to the difference between action and horror- typically, the characters and their abilities are broken up as you say. Interestingly enough, it seems like whenever characters WITH skillz in horror flicks appear, they die- or at least, that’s what I feel like is more common. In action movies, when people without skillz live, it’s usually because they were rescued by someone with. Of course, in a lot of either, the non-skilled eventually learns by the end how to be badass and gains lots of skillz.

    So, question: in Left 4 Dead, since you start out as a regular person, does the game let you do things like reload faster or aim better as you play more? Do you have to know how to use one kind of gun before being able to use another properly? That sort of thing- does your character *learn* and thus, I guess you could say, level up?


  13. stokes OTI Staff #

    All “leveling up” is done by the player her/himself. If you’re a natural, you’ll pwn buckets from the start. But if you are incorrigably sucky, there’s no hope for you… although you do tend to come across more and more awesome guns as you move through a mission.

    @Francis, you’re totally right. What’s more, when they try to *act* professional, it’s a sure sign that someone is about to get it in the neck.

    @Coldheart – that would be awesome. There could also be a question of when to pull the trigger and start the swarm… do you wait for more zombies to accumulate, or rush them now before the old guy picks up the AK47 in the next room?


  14. Irish Steve #

    I agree to some degree, its a good game but its not a great game. they could have made more of a storyline that links the levels together and maybe a wider range of baddie zombies, but they def check the box of crazy-hord-skinloving-zombies charging at your reply is a shotgun! oh sniper rifle? wtf! theres no timmeee for that!


  15. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Irish – Yeah, they don’t even try to tell a real story. But I understand why – it’s really a multiplayer game above all else. I’ve even heard that it’s basically impossible to beat the game on Difficult mode playing by yourself – the computer-controlled players just aren’t good enough to pull their weight.

    I think I’ll agree with you that there could have been more zombie variation. Actually, my biggest criticism is that they could have done more to make the zombies LOOK different. All the Boomers are identical carbon copies. Compare to Grand Theft Auto, in which each pedestrian has a randomly assigned mix of clothes. You never kill the same person twice.

    And I agree with you that L4D seems way too frenetic for a sniper rifle. I never use it. HOWEVER, I’ve heard that those bullets are the most powerful shots in the game. It’s the quickest way to take out a Tank… but you have to be talented enough to aim on the fly. So it’s really a weapon for the shooter junkies.


  16. Gab #

    To be fair, I bet sniper rifles are just generally “for the shooter junkies.” I think in every game I’ve ever played involving a potential sniper rifle, it is always simultaneously the most powerful and slowest gun. This, of course, excludes things like grenades, rocket launchers, etc.- I’m talking bullets, here. Of course, each game has its own mechanics, gameplay, and method of portraying each weapon onscreen. Tactics vary from game to game: a gun that may work best in one situation in game A may not be so hot in the same situation in game B. So a player (i.e. shooter junkie) develops tactics and skills to get them through more efficiently in each game: “Oh, ok, I should get the shotgun and shoot at their feet so they all fall down, then pop them off individually with the magnum,” or, “Hey, they’re far off and only one shot in the face with the handgun can make them explode if I wait for the right moment here, so why waste my machine gun?” But I’ve never experienced a quick and/or weak sniper rifle good for anything but, well, sniping carefully (or willingly exposing yourself to a minimal amount of damage to reduce combat time with some big fatty baddy/ minimize overall amount of ammo lost).

    But I could be wrong- I haven’t played every gun game evar, after all…


  17. Gab #

    Q: What does a vegetarian zombie eat?



  18. Francis Hwang #

    Yeah, some people have said they want more of a story, personally I’m fine without it. “Zombie apocalypse” is pretty self-explanatory. It’s funny to think about how different people want different things out of games. Personally, I am really into stories, but that’s likely to be in the form of experimental fiction or independent film. When I play video games, on the other hand, it’s all about tapping into my lizard brain. Screw a storyline: I want to run around and tweak out with an auto-shotgun while dozens of zombies run at me down a dark alley. I figure that’s the sort of experience I can’t really get from any other media.

    And anyway, it has the best emergent stories of any game I’ve ever played–by which I mean, not scripted in by the programmers, but stories that arise naturally out of the combination of anxiety and teamwork. Like the time my friend and I were playing with two brothers. The older one was good but the younger one was sort of annoying: He’d always run off by himself and then get into trouble, etc. So at some point during the final scene, my friend and the younger brother got caught outside of the house surrounded by a massive infected swarm, and the kid went inside and shut the door, leaving my friend outside to fend for himself. Later my friend was a little pissed, and he was saying “what the hell? why’d you leave me outside?” That sort of stuff actually happens in horror movies, and it’s a sign of great design that those stories happen by themselves, with subtle prodding by how Valve designed it.


  19. Jesse #

    @Sniper Rifle comments

    The only situation in which a hunting rifle is viable (at least in competitive play) is when the rest of your team knows what they are doing very well and, most importantly, do not ALSO have hunting rifles, they need to have m16s or auto shotty’s.

    It only works if there is one person with it who is very good, and they are only really useful in save players who are trapped by the boss infected (or shooting down hallways/through walls, as the hunting rifle shot will penetrate through multiple zombies)

    Also, although this seems rather counter-intuitive, the hunting rifle is the slowest weapon in taking down a tank, both in time-to-kill and ammo clips-to-kill. It takes roughly 3 clips of hunting rifle ammo to kill a tank, where as an assault rifle takes about 2 and a shotgun takes 14-16 shots.

    The fastest way to take down a tank is 4 people with auto shotguns in close quarters (an elevator, vent, closet), but the most efficient way is to light them on fire with a molotov or a cannister and then run away, as once they are on fire they will die after a 30 second timer runs out, regardless of their life total.


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