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Game On: ‘Left 4 Dead 2’ receives its first update in eight years

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 21, 2020

Released in 2009, “Left 4 Dead 2” tasks four players with surviving onslaughts of zombies. It’s held up surprisingly well over the years.  (Valve Corp.)
Released in 2009, “Left 4 Dead 2” tasks four players with surviving onslaughts of zombies. It’s held up surprisingly well over the years. (Valve Corp.)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

On Sept. 24, my favorite game received its first major update in nearly eight years. That game is “Left 4 Dead 2,” a cooperative first-person shooter that tasks players with overcoming hordes of zombies. Sounds original, right?

It’s difficult to overstate my lack of enthusiasm for zombies, which seemed to infect every facet of pop culture in the late 2000s and early ‘10s. Regardless, I gave “Left 4 Dead” a spin shortly after its release in 2008, and it subverted all my expectations. It was not the mindless bloodbath I was anticipating, nor did it present the trope-riddled “the real monsters are the humans” narrative we’ve all come to expect from other zombie-related media.

Instead, “Left 4 Dead” told a simple story: What if four survivors, immune to a super-spreader virus akin to rabies that rendered 99% of humanity mindlessly violent, had to escape from civilization? But unlike other games in its genre, “Left 4 Dead” presents an interesting wrinkle – you can’t go it alone.

OK, technically you can try – you just won’t make it out alive. Valve Corp., the Bellevue-based developer responsible for “Left 4 Dead,” has often touted its focus on player agency. You’re free to do what you want; they simply design game environments to be so oppressive, you will probably end up doing what’s expected. Valve also is responsible for “Half-Life,” “Portal,” “Team Fortress” and “Counter-Strike,” among others.

No matter how skillful a gamer is in “Left 4 Dead,” you’re bound to end up pinned down, incapacitated by hordes of zombies and the mutated “special infected.” When this happens, you need help from another survivor, or you’ll perish.

“Left 4 Dead” hooked me instantly because it doesn’t technically force players to work together, but you’d be insane not to. The gameplay itself necessitates cooperation with and even reliance on your teammates, be they across the globe or on the couch next to you. Add in the derelict scenery and methodical level design, and the game becomes more immersive than even a good film.

Unlike most other shooters, you can’t unlock overclocked weapons and armor to make subsequent playthroughs a walk in the park. “Left 4 Dead” has no “looting” mechanic like “Borderlands,” “Destiny” and countless others – you load up an hourlong campaign, arm yourself with whatever is handy and struggle your way through. Cutting through hordes of zombies remains just as difficult today as it was when I first played at age 14.

Both “Left 4 Dead” and its direct sequel hold an 89/100 score on Metacritic and sold a combined 11 million copies in three years. Despite the series’ near-universal acclaim and excellent sales, it went dormant like so many other Valve titles. A few updates were released until 2012 before going dark.

Last month’s update came as a surprise to most, myself included. It added a new campaign, survival maps, weapons and a swath of new achievements to chase. But Valve doesn’t doll up the situation, with promotional materials stating players can “face the zombie horde one last time” and frequently citing that all of the new content is actually community-created. “The Last Stand Update” is essentially just a canonization of select game mods.

So will Valve ever make another “Left 4 Dead” game? A sequel was in the works in 2013, but technical issues related to the studio’s new physics engine led to its cancellation. In the interim, many developers have sought to replicate the series’ trademark cooperative experience – namely “Payday: The Heist” in 2013, the “Warhammer: Vermintide” series started in 2016 and “Deep Rock Galactic” in May, which I gave a glowing review.

As good as these games are, they don’t feel like a true passing of the torch. Turtle Rock Studios announced “Back 4 Blood” last year, but details are scant, and I have little faith in the development team behind the atrocious “Evolve.”

Valve works agonizingly slowly, taking the world by surprise when it released “Half-Life: Alyx” this year after that series came to an abrupt halt all the way back in 2007.

The studio seems to epitomize the phrase good things come to those who wait, so I’ll keep waiting in hopes of playing “Left 4 Dead 3” some day – some day this decade, I hope.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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