Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Left 4 Dead: Co-operation beats Experience

Needing a pick me up after Far Cry 2's downer I logged into Left 4 Dead for a bit of co-operative zombie killing and quickly got signed up with a random group for the "No Mercy" campaign. It was a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt but raised a few interesting issues none the less.

First off let me raise my hand and admit that I was in no small part responsible for our failures. I couldn't shoot straight. I kept running right into the exploding stomach of boomers. Every time the tank appeared I managed to grab his attention and end up splatted. The only thing I didn't do was disturb the witch but my colleagues generally managed to do themselves without my help.

The first interesting observation is that our failure was not due to lack of experience. The people I grouped with had played before. This was clear from the way that my colleagues knew the routes, knew where ambushes were likely to occur, knew where to lay trails of fire, knew what corners to hide in and so on. Our failure was simply due to lack of co-ordination. Players regularly went off on solo runs and there was no attempt to mount any form of co-ordinated defence. Health packs were used selfishly and there was virtually no communication via chat or voice (the one exception being the time someone threw a Molotov directly in front of where I was running and then asked in chat "WTF How did you die so quickly?"). Our last stands were particularly comical with people clinging to "their favourite spot" regardless of where the rest of the team were positioned. Needless to say the infected had a field day picking us off one by one and generally spoiling our day.

I don't want to make judgements about the people I was playing with. It was late. Perhaps they were tired and having a bad day. I know I was. However I am awed by the way the game punishes lack of co-ordination above all else. I have breezed through the same campaign with less experienced players simply because everybody stuck together and communicated. It is amazing how much difference even the barest attempt at communication makes. A quickly barked "Hunter!" into voice chat or a hurriedly typed "Every body go to the roof" can make the difference between total success and total failure. I am sure that is exactly how the designers intended it to be and it is a master-work of game design.

A less promising indication though is the way that experienced players have developed strategies for getting through various levels. The AI director does a good job of randomising the encounters but by this stage a lot of folks still have a good idea of what to expect and when. They head straight for certain "safe spots" or they lay down trails of fire before any monsters appear. I guess this is inevitable given the fact that there are only four campaigns but for me this type of "formulaic" play kills the atmosphere and destroys the illusion of being stuck in a real zombie holocaust. I guess I am just going to have to overcome my aversion to playing as an infected and get into versus mode. I am sure real human players won't be such easy prey for formulaic traps. Hopefully though Valve will release some new campaigns in future updates.

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