Through Valve’s SourceU program that the class I’m teaching tells I’m lucky enough to have gotten Left 4 Dead for free and I’ve been playing the heck out of it. It is a really fun game. The AI Director (or is it Director AI? I’ve seen both) might be a sign of things to come if it can be adapted to other games. Basically it means that the era of enemies being in the same place every time you play the game is over. The AI Director decides when, where, and how many enemies appear in the game so that “It’s never the same game twice.” If they put this into Half-Life 2 Ep 3 then it could be really awesome.
That isn’t to say that the game is perfect, however. From a design point of view tey made some interesting choices. I’m tempted to say that it suffers from “console-itis” but I’m not entirely sure that is the case. The first and most noticeable thing is the matchmaking system. It is braindead. They don’t let you pick your own server unless you use a console command. Is it some attempt to make people friend each other so that the Steam friends system has tons of people using it? Is it some plot that Valve can build up their friends database as a selling feature to get other game developers to use Steam features?
There’s also the fact that even if you get together with your friends you still can’t pick your own server. There’s not even any way that I’ve seen to pick a local server only. They also don’t represent your ping as a number but rather as cell-phone reception-like bars.
Once you get into the game there are also some interesting design choices. They worked really hard to make people play cooperatively and engineered in ways to encourage that. When you reload your character shouts out “I’m reloading.” When you heal your characters yells out “Cover me. I’m healing.” Valve started this with TF2 where players would automatically thank the medic for healing them and this brought it to a new level by these kinds of things as well as having your character say things like they are hurting or that they hear a zombie near and goes so far as to having characters say things that are purely character-related such as having Francis the banker comment on how he hates things such as tunnels, vans, and airports. This is quite a difference from the silent Gordon Freeman.
I’ve talked about the meaning of “cinematic” before and this game is one of the first that I think really does make things explicitly cinematice. Each of the four chapters has a movie-style poster that appears on the screen as the level loads and even have witty tag lines. Then the actual beginning of the level has an overhead shot that zooms back that is not only cinematic but serves to give a short overview of what the player is in for. The final level at the airplane is especially film-life in that it shows a smoking plane going overhead and eventually crashing in the distance as a start of the level. This film metaphor is carried through to when you finish the mission by having the scrolling film credits serve as a way of showing player stats. If a player doesn’t make it to the end of the mission the credits begin with “In memory” of that player. The credits end with a nod to credits for films featuring animals by stating “X number of zombies were killed in the making of this film” which cleverly serves as a way of telling you how many zombies you killed in the game.
One final thing which Valve did in both this game as well as Team Fortress 2 was to nail down everything. On of the aspects of Half-Life 2 that got a lot of attention and hype was the physics and that you could pick things up and do things with them. Half-Life 2 DM was all about throwing toilets and cast iron radiators. In both Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2 everything is nailed down. You can move very few objects. On some TF2 levels there are barrels you can break but they seem to have no impact on gameplay. In L4D there are very few things you can move. While I can understand why they did that – it opens up potentials for griefing and exploits – I wish they hadn’t done it. It places restrictions on gameplay and it disrupts the believability of the world when kitchen chairs are immovable objects.
There are more interesting game design choices in the game but these are some of the ones that I didn’t see mentioned elsewhere and that really jumped out at me. As time passes it will, as I alluded to earlier, be interesting to see how this game influences subsequent Valve games.