A Return to Left 4 Dead 2 Reveals the Timelessness of Valve's Shooter

A Return to Left 4 Dead 2 Reveals the Timelessness of Valve's Shooter

With the clock ticking down on Overwatch's release, Bob returns to an old multiplayer favorite and finds that it hasn't aged a day.

Like most of the world, I am currently being driven insane by the lack of Overwatch in my life. But you don't have to take my word for it: A simple Twitter search for Blizzard's soon-to-be-released competitive FPS should reveal thousands of others suffering from my very first-world problem.

Of course, our modern age of technology has only made The Waiting Game more painful. Overwatch literally exists on my hard drive, and in especially devious move, Battle.net even lets me click "play." But will it ever connect to a server? No—at least, not yet, anyway. Living in a state of extreme outrage over the weekend, I somehow found solace in returning to somewhat similar multiplayer experiences—and it seems like I wasn't the only one.

Truth be told, when the Left 4 Dead series launched in 2008, competitive shooters ranked pretty low on the list of genres I'd ever be interested in. But L4D fell smack-dab in the middle of a particularly fruitful period for Valve—from 2007's The Orange Box to 2011's Portal 2—when the developer could seemingly do no wrong. As someone formerly committed to a hermit gaming lifestyle, I likely would have overlooked Left 4 Dead if not for the Valve connection. But Left 4 Dead's elegant simplicity gently eased me into this brave new world, as I expect Overwatch will do for another generation of players buying it simply for the sake of being Blizzard's next thing. (The cast of babes and hunks certainly helps, too.)

Even though Overwatch does its best to be approachable, motivational, and fun, staring at the character select screen can be intimidating at first. Blizzard smartly limits their abilities to a very small amount, but still, each character cuts such a unique profile it can take more than a few matches to wrap your brain around a new selection. Outside of how they look, each member of Left 4 Dead's human cast plays identically, meaning the basic way you interact with the levels never really changes. In terms of ability, Left 4 Dead keeps its survivors at the same level of competency, then tasks them with using their concrete set of actions to cope with the many changing variables the devious AI throws in your path.

Things get a little more complicated when Versus mode gives you the chance to play as the special infected, but Valve still keeps these unique classes extremely approachable. Each special zombie comes equipped with one titular ability, and a melee attack that's best saved for desperate situations (unless you're the Tank). So, the real question isn't how to use these abilities—it's when. Since these special infected don't have much health to speak of, playing effectively as the antagonists means knowing the exact time to launch your special move—especially since you're likely to be killed if you miss and have to wait for the cooldown timer to expire. It's the same sense of simplicity that helped Overwatch click with me immediately: You may only last a few seconds in the middle of a firefight, but every death brings you closer to understanding the exact moment to use your two to three verbs available.

And there's a certain kind of "purity" to Left 4 Dead that's helped it age extremely well. I also recently dipped back into Team Fortress 2—a game I don't have nearly as much experience with—and found things to be more than a little... messy. Valve should be commended for providing 500-plus updates over the past near-decade to keep this great shooter relevant, but, even if you have to opt in to most of this (hat-based) optional content, much of it feels like a layer of unnecessary clutter. Left 4 Dead feels almost toy-like in its simplicity, so there's a certain comfort in returning to the same sets of levels and characters, knowing they're just as you left them. Then, of course, the real fun comes from seeing how the AI (and other players) disrupt this sense of complacency by generating new encounters in areas you've explored front-to-back a dozen times.

For the sake of simplicity, I've been using the title "Left 4 Dead" throughout, but I really mean "Left 4 Dead 2:" Over time, Valve gradually integrated the campaigns and characters of the debut into the sequel, meaning there's a staggering 13 sets of maps available right from the start. To be honest, even though it's seemingly on sale every other week, the fact that Valve hasn't gone the Team Fortress 2 route and made LFD2 free comes as kind of a shock—it still goes for $19.99. But, all these years later, it still carries an impressive audience: After playing with my regular game group, I jumped in during a night on a whim and got matched up with ongoing games within seconds. And while Left 4 Dead essentially serves as the metaphorical methadone for my burgeoning Overwatch addiction, it's heartening to know that eight years hasn't dulled its magic. With any luck, Overwatch will carry that same sort of staying power.

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