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Left 4 Dead doesn’t need spiritual successors, it needs updates

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Left 4 Dead 2 might still be the best game in the genre, even after all the new imitators

The whole gang is there in this Left 4 Dead screenshot, shooting zombies. Except the dude in the sport coat. No one likes him. Image: Valve Software

Nearly 12 years after the release of Left 4 Dead 2, the genre it popularized has crossed back into the spotlight. At E3 2021, and in the weeks after, studios and publishers have announced nearly half a dozen games inspired by Valve’s co-op shooter. But even after a decade of innovations that other developers could bring to the genre, its best version might still be Left 4 Dead 2 with a few minor upgrades.

When Left 4 Dead 2 was first released, many fans bristled at the fact that it was coming just a year after the original game. Sure, it had new levels, the addition of melee weapons, better enemy AI, and more enemy types, but at a glance, it didn’t look much different from the original Left 4 Dead.

And in truth, some of those complaints weren’t exactly wrong. In many ways, Left 4 Dead 2 is just an incremental upgrade of its predecessor, but maybe that’s because the original game only needed a few additions to become something really special. With its semi-random levels, great arcade-style shooting, excellent writing, and the improvements to the AI in the form of Director 2.0, Left 4 Dead 2’s in-game loop is nearly perfect in a way that the original didn’t quite manage. The balance between more relaxed moments of swatting away stray zombies and chatting with your friends, punctuated by chaotic high-tension shootouts against an encroaching horde, is about as fun and satisfying a loop as any game can manage.

The other games in the genre know it, too. Almost every game in the recent crop of Left 4 Dead-likes — both those that are already out, like Warhammer: Vermintide 2 and Deep Rock Galactic, and those that are on the way, like The Anacrusis, Redfall, and even Back 4 Blood, which is developed by Turtle Rock Studios, the studio behind the original Left 4 Dead — is full of RPG mechanics that add spice to the gameplay loop but don’t really change it. Random loot, customizable weapon loadouts, characters with unique abilities, and upgrade systems don’t exist in Left 4 Dead 2, but they’ve become genre staples in the games that followed.

Those features would have been right at home in a hypothetical Left 4 Dead 2.0. The game already has a cast of characters that fans love who could be perfect fits for inherent strengths or meaningful upgrades. Meanwhile, the entire genre is a natural fit for the modern service game landscape. Balance updates, map tweaks, and even entirely new levels could come as part of seasons, similar to other modern multiplayer games.

Of course, the fact that Left 4 Dead 2 was released without any of these ideas in mind isn’t surprising. It came out in December 2009, a few months after League of Legends was released, and years before the gaming industry would accept that a game with consistent, free content updates could be profitable, let alone wildly successful.

a many-armed vampire looks toward a black sun in Redfall Image: Xbox/Twitch

Even after that model became a clear focus for many companies in the industry, Valve’s games have not committed to it. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2, and Team Fortress 2 are natural fits to become service games with persistent updates, but Valve still keeps their patches few and far between.

Even without massive or consistent updates, Left 4 Dead 2 is still thriving. The game has a massive mod community on Steam and, according to the platform’s own tracking, it still has over 30,000 daily players, far more than most other games in its genre. And Valve is well aware of the game’s steady success. In 2020, the studio offered its blessing to a fan-made map called “The Last Stand” that included quite a bit of new content. The map appeared in an official game update without any fundamental changes, since Valve had only offered the team some technical guidance.

Players aim at a Retch in a screenshot from Back 4 Blood.
Back 4 Blood
Image: Turtle Rock Studios/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

With so many Left 4 Dead 2 players still hungry for more content, and with the game’s clear place at the top already established, why wouldn’t Valve revamp Left 4 Dead 2? With new Valve-created maps, a few out-of-game upgrades, a seasonal content plan that promises timely updates in the future, and a current-gen console upgrade, Valve’s zombie game could easily reclaim the throne of the genre it inspired. But, since Valve hasn’t released a major first-party update to Left 4 Dead 2 since 2012, we’ll probably just have to play one of the many spiritual successors that are on the way in the coming years.