clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

10 years later, Left 4 Dead lives on as its own genre

The game has become an archetype of its own

The Left 4 Dead survivors on a campaign poster Valve

The first Left 4 Dead was released 10 years ago, with a simple concept and a ton of replay value. You and three buddies take the roles of four survivors, who are pitted against endless waves of the dead with dynamic pacing.

Left 4 Dead and its sequel are pretty stripped down — there’s no real narrative, a relatively small selection of levels, and the characters are pretty simple archetypes. It’s the level of polish and care that makes everything work. Dealing with a wave of zombies is legitimately terrifying, and the special encounters manage to be scary and threatening while still being fair, thanks to the power of teamwork. I still wince when I think about being snagged by a Smoker and dragged into the dark woods while my party selfishly forges onward toward the bright lights of a safe room. I also know I’ve left a friend or two behind beneath a thrashing Hunter if it would make the difference between success or death. The roar of a Tank or the sobbing of a Witch is enough to completely change the mood of a game, making survivors tense up and creep forward, or scramble into position for a desperate last stand.

Even something as small as the graffiti scrawled on safe room walls in the limited space between battle zones was a simple concept done to perfection. Text switched between pleas to loved ones to accusations of cowardice, all written through social media style petty back and forths.

Left 4 Dead - The original survivors make their way through an office
The survivors in Left 4 Dead.

Unfortunately, there is no more Left 4 Dead. The last piece of Left 4 Dead canon content was The Sacrifice in October 2010; a non-canon add-on was released in 2011. Even in the world of Left 4 Dead, it seems like there’s no organic way forward with the release of the official comics, where we learn that the survivors are all immune, but carriers of this zombie plague. They are the ones infecting the friendly folk you meet along the way. Driving the knife in even further, we learn that the immunity is passed on through the father — and Zoey, the zombie movie fan, killed her father after he was bitten, assuming he would turn. He would have been fine, and now she — and we, the reader — have to live with that.

When we left the universe of Left 4 Dead, it was with constantly mutating infected who were rapidly outnumbering a totally unprepared humanity. Even the core four of the game lost one of their own in The Sacrifice, and gave up on the fight to retire on a peaceful Florida island. The series’ narrative seems to have run out of road. There’s certainly enough gameplay meat for another Left 4 Dead, but Valve seems to have largely moved on from creating games and is more in the business of selling them, or streaming them, or holding tournaments based around them. And so, it seems Left 4 Dead as a franchise has come to an end.

In a fate fitting for a zombie franchise, it’s not quite dead yet. Instead, Left 4 Dead has nearly become a genre in and of itself. If you crave a more fantasy spin on the classic formula, there are the Warhammer: Vermintide games, which replace infected with the Skaven rat creatures and the Chaos army. The Vermintide games are a fantastic successor to the Left 4 Dead series, although there’s a layer of complexity added via powerful player abilities and a gear system.

Nick and Ellis fight off waves of infected clowns in Left 4 Dead 2
A scene from Left 4 Dead 2.

What’s particularly interesting is how games will occasionally roll out a Left 4 Dead-style campaign as a bonus for players, even if the base game has little in common with the concept. Rainbow Six Siege introduced Outbreak, a “what if?” scenario where the operators are sent to New Mexico to stop an infected uprising. When the mode was introduced at the Six Invitational in Montreal, Ubisoft made it clear that Outbreak was a thank you to fans in light of the game’s recent post-launch success.

In Overwatch, Blizzard pulled something similar off with its yearly Archives event. Most of Overwatch’s events are light, fluffy distractions centered around real-world holidays. Winter Wonderland gives heroes festive skins and the opportunity to throw snowballs at each other, and Halloween Terror has characters dress up in costumes and indulge in the fantasy alternate universe where a village is haunted by a wicked witch and her minions.

Archives goes in a completely different direction, taking players back in time to specific events in Overwatch’s history. Blizzard is able to tell concise little slices of story through this format, much to the delight of its lore-loving fans. The first event took place in King’s Row, and players had to fight against waves of omnics in order to save London from a terrorist attack. The second event, Retribution, leaned even further into the Left 4 Dead inspiration, with players escaping the scene of an assassination, battling their way through the streets of Rialto against Talon, and making it to the extraction point.

It says a lot about the basic play of Left 4 Dead that it’s become a little genre in and of itself, and developers keep reaching for it as a way to create events and scenarios. The game still holds up a decade later, and its aged quite well, but if you don’t want to return to it (or pick it up for the first time), just be patient. Soon enough, a similar campaign may just crop up with a different set of heroes and villains in the game of your choice.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon