The Helpful Dead: Why Left 4 Dead’s Co-op Works
As any good gamer PC Enthusiast should, I’ve been playing Left 4 Dead in every spare moment I’ve had since Tuesday morning. Of course much of this time has been entirely occupied with removing decaying limbs from decaying torsos, all the while giggling with glee when I catch a hospital gown wearing zombie mid-run and it goes flying through the air. However, it’d be a betrayal to the side of me that is pure fledgling journalist if I wasn’t, the whole time, playing while observing.
Left 4 Dead L4D is lots and lots of fun. Everyone knows it. It’s been hammered home to us for the last year in every preview of it. The Director, while a malevolent bastard with a wicked sense of humour, is revolutionary in a way I’ve not seen in a game for ages. Versus mode is set to deprive my social life of any attention in a way Team Fortress 2 only alluded to. However, it is the Co-op that’s really impressed me. And that’s mainly because I’ve not noticed it much. It’s so well implemented it’s become second nature.
There have been many attempts at the ‘genre’ of Co-op, with varying success. The mere fact that a game even contains Co-op improves the game significantly. Half the work is done for the developers before they even start thinking about how to implement two people blowing stuff up. It’s simple; killing things with someone else is more fun than killing stuff alone. I’m sure there’s a proverb about an experience shared, but I can’t remember how the rest of it goes. So all developers have to do is make the Co-op work well and they’re guaranteed a bunch of sales that weren’t there before.
I remember the Bond game Everything or Nothing. The single player was alright, taking Bond down the third person route, but I must’ve played through the first two levels of the Co-op side missions at least twenty times each with my brother. The game didn’t have a great core mechanic, and the rinse and repeat nature of the fights got boring fast. But when you’ve got someone else there to shout at to flank the terrorist bastards so you can charge in with a shotgun, it elevates it beyond it’s mediocre foundations.
I’m not saying this was the first successful Co-op game, obv., but it was the taste that has since driven me to buy a medley of games I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. Gears of War, Army of Two, Mercenaries 2, Saints Row 2, hell, even Halo and all its spawn. Five (well, 7 if you count all the Halo sequels) in the past few years I wouldn’t have deigned with a second glance were it not for the fact they let me play them through with a friend. Of course, Mercenaries 2 and Saints Row 2 both merely had Co-op as an after thought or at best a fan service. They merely added another play to the mix, nothing more. And that’s fine.
However, both Gears of War and Army of Two were built from the start with Co-op in mind. The problem was that, upon playing, it was as if Co-op was too fundamental, or perhaps too omnipresent. Don’t misunderstand me; I thoroughly enjoyed both games, but each held the Co-op torch so high aloft that it got obscured. They seemed to forget the whole point halfway through. So you were left with Co-op giving it half a great game, and the actual game giving another half on top of that. 75%, if you will.
They had the things that have become ‘essential’ to Co-op games. Puzzles that require two people. A dependence on each other that ends up feeling forced. You ended up coming across a room and knowing exactly how the developer intended you to utilise two people to attack it. It becomes a constant breach in the Fourth Wall. A reminder that all this is designed. The creationists would be ecstatic.
Which, quite nicely, brings me to L4D. Maybe it’s the fact that there are four players here rather than the traditional two, but the way Co-op functions in L4D is startlingly effective. There are no quadruple buttons to open doors, no clever weapons or vehicles that require four people to man. Valve seem to have realised that they need to make people work together not out of circumstance but instead out of necessity. You work together because if you didn’t you’d be dead. It’s a simple concept, but the urge is to throw even more co-opy goodness on top of that.
Yes, L4D does contain problems that you can’t surmount on your own. Most of the Boss Infected incapacitate you near instantly unless you’re very very alert, or very, very lucky. They require someone else to save you. But they don’t feel forced. More a well considered way to make the survivors work together. A Boomer’s vomit is a world away from a double button. Perhaps it’s the fluid and unpredictable nature of the game, but when you have such a desperately concerted effort to merely survive, every time you get taken out and require saving you feel as though you let the team down. In every other Co-op game I’ve played, needing the other players to help me it was an annoyance, because it stopped me playing the game. In Left 4 Dead it feels more like a burden, a responsibility. That’s why the Co-op in Left 4 Dead works.
Oh, and I call shotgun on Bill.
One thought on “The Helpful Dead: Why Left 4 Dead’s Co-op Works”
Good post. I agree that L4D’s co-op flows very organically. The other Co-op titles you mentioned definitely feel like they were engineered for co-op. Nothing in the actual play-mechanics of L4D scream co-op. You work together as team because like you said, if you don’t, you die.