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Best of the Decade: Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead

Platforms: Xbox 360, Windows, Mac OS X

Release Date: November 18, 2008 (360 and Windows)

Developer: Valve Corporation

Publisher: Valve Corporation

Few competitive games manage to grab my attention. While I may like the idea of hardcore competition on paper, it kind of falls apart in the long run if you don’t practice. I don’t tend to stick with single games that long, so my dalliances with competitive play tend to be either fleeting or relegated to more accessible multiplayer setups (read: Nintendo). 

In the early part of the decade, this meant I was out of luck for multiplayer. The gaming scene was competitive or nothing. So I had the occasional fling with Halo and mostly stuck to playing by myself.

What I yearned for was more opportunites to work with friends rather than against them. Beating your friends into the ground can be immensely satisfying, even I know that. I’ve played my share of Smash Bros. and Soulcalibur matches. Playing a game along with a friend can be just as gratifying however, and the Playstation 2 era seemed to forget this. I was thrown a bone every once in a while, such as with the surprisingly fun Mortal Kombat Shaolin Monks, but was mostly left wanting.

Luckily this problem has been thoroughly rectified with the most recent console generation. Developers are finally creating more and more fantastic ways to play along with your friends, instead of against them, and co-op is finally an expected feature rather than a rare bonus. 

I can now happily join friends in Halo matches, beat up Yoshi with them in Smash Bros., rock out with them in Rock Band, and, of course, shoot zombies with them in Left 4 Dead.

Even now, there isn’t any other shooter quite like Left 4 Dead. I’ve always thought that certain games could benefit from more focus. Not every game needs a multiplayer mode and plenty of great single player experiences have been saddled with forgettable multiplayer that did nothing but make me wonder how much better the single player could have been if more resources were focused on that instead.

Left 4 Dead was one of the first games to make me realize that there are games that don’t need a single player mode. You can play Left 4 Dead by yourself, but you don’t want to. There isn’t any story mode or set progression through a set of linear levels that tell a story. This is a game built from the ground up to be played with other people and it’s better for it. It’s still relatively unique in this respect. 

Valve, in a characteristically brilliant design move, created a game that was different every single time you played it. Going through the same levels over and over again simply never got old because of the number of factors that could change. The enemies, weapons, and items were in different places every time. Things changed dynamically to keep your party on their feet, creating a perfect difficulty balance that maintained a constant sense of tension, vital to any zombie experience, without ever going overboard into frustration.

The story was also handled in a manner befitting of the creators of Half-Life 2. The only story that mattered for most was the story of your survival in your current game. If you wanted more, there was graffiti to read and clues to pick up from the environment and dialog. Speech, importantly, was also different in each playthrough, keeping things feeling more natural. The fact that the player characters and zombies alike were both terrifically entertaining and memorable certainly helped. 

Making my way through the cornfields of Blood Harvest, yelling “Tank!” into my microphone every time that signature music started, and feeling kind of sorry for the crying witch placed right in the middle of the damn narrow hallway provided countless hours of fun for me and my friends. It is one of the best cooperative games ever produced and it easily makes my Best of the Decade.

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