What’s this? An entirely new genre, you say? Well, arguably that’s exactly what Valve presented to the public in 2008 with the original Left 4 Dead, and its superlative sequel the following year. But was it really a new genre?
IYL will be a short series of articles delving into various genres and looking at the best examples in each. I’ll follow a standard layout. I’ll start with a bit of history about the most famous game representing the genre. Next, I’ll cover a game that’s very similar to the original, then (hopefully!) any games that have surpassed it since, and finally any games that do things in a unique way, but still tipping their hat to the original. Then it’s over to you to tell me how wrong I am, in the comments!
Well, that gets a little tricky, but I’m going to say yes. For example, the original Killing Floor, which has a similar basis, was originally a mod for Unreal Tournament 2004 and debuted in 2005. But true to the base game, Killing Floor didn’t feature a story, and the entire “mission” was a single area with random trader spawns after each “wave”. I’m not sure that formula justifies being called genre-defining.
Meanwhile, Left 4 Dead launched with so many unique features, it’s hard to keep track of it all! Player characters had… character. They had multiple situational voicelines, prompts and interactions during play that went beyond the usual “RELOADING” scream. They had back stories which, while not relevant to gameplay, gave the whole world a sense of realism.
A realism which was echoed by zombie animations which even today remain sensational. This was Havoc physics… but without the jank. In fact, it turns out that the Source’s physics engine that powers that animation, called VPhysics, is actually based on early Havoc builds, back before it was owned by Intel or Microsoft and was actually open-source. The good old days. Seeing the zombies lean into turns, stumbling out of fires, or tripping over objects is something you rarely see, even in modern games.
And that physics engine is used everywhere - you can break windows, blow up barriers, see chairs or TVs flying around from the power of your gunfire. The zombie “tank” has a melee attack that sends cars flying - an instant KO if one hits your character!
Then there’s the dynamic lighting and shadows, the scene setting and sound design, the idle animations, the themed zombie types (military, hospital, etc) and the complete lack of a loading screen from the start of a mission to the end and an AI “Director” that changes the difficulty depending on how well you do, encouraging replay. Combined, it delivered an atmosphere that inspired a believable sense of dread and panic.
And the multiplayer didn’t just stop at the survivors. No, Valve also let you play PvP, putting you in the shoes of multiple types of “special” infected, from Hunters that leap huge distances, or Chokers who throw their tongues out from afar to reel in the player, to the slow moving but devastating bloater that will summon a horde of zombies to the player, even in death. This all makes for a fascinating blend of tense strategy, forced cooperation and genuine jump scares.
And as usual for these articles, I haven’t covered mods… but they’re there. Oh, they’re so, so there, all 120 thousand or so!
A direct clone - Back 4 Blood [Steam]
And then there was Left 4 Dead 3! At least, that’s the reputation Turtle Rock Studios were flattered with when the mainstream gaming media proclaimed them the “creators of Left 4 Dead” and hyped Back 4 Blood, an attempt at modernising the Left 4 Dead experience.
It didn’t quite work out that way, however, when it launched in October 2021. Turtle Rock Studios are still asking £49.99 for Back 4 Blood, despite its “mixed” review status on Steam. Throw in a touch of Denuvo DRM, a silver rating on ProtonDB (including a lack of EAC support that kills the multiplayer), janky AI, and a complete lack of mod support and frankly, it’s amazing that quite a few media outlets rated it as high as 8/10. User reviews on metacritic were harsher, scoring it 5.4 overall.
I won’t spend any more time on this one, except to quote this comment from “Neon357” from this daming Youtube video which compares the two games.
The best thing that Back for Blood accomplished was making people realize how good Left 4 Dead really was
Games that do it better - Deep Rock Galactic [Steam]
I nearly didn’t buy Deep Rock Galactic. As a man born in the 70’s, I grew up learning first hand what a hive of scum and villainy the internet actually is. It started with Doom, then Quake, Quake 2, Unreal Tournament and ultimately Call of Duty. It was probably CoD that finally killed any interest I had to play with “randos” (random people on the internet). And here was Deep Rock Galactic, a game that forces four randos together and the only hope of their survival is cooperation. That… just can’t happen these days, right?
Rock and Stone, brother! I can’t explain it. I really can’t. But when you land in a hosted session in this game and burst out of your delivery pod, you press V to shout “Rock and Stone” and wave your axe in greeting, and instantly all other players will do the same. It’s uncanny. Yet so wholesome and heart warming. You’re a team, after all.
There’s rarely any voice chat in DRG either. Cooperation is instead enabled and encouraged through the use of your laser pointer with which you can tag resources or enemies, calling them out for all the other players. That cooperation is absolutely necessary too, as most hosts will enforce a balanced team, ensuring one player of each class - driller, scout, engineer, and gunner. The driller can tunnel through the environment, the scout can grapple and light the area up, the engineer can place pancake-like platforms and turrets, and the gunner… does what you'd expect, but also features a nice line grapple that can help navigate the depths, and a short-lived shield to protect his brother dwarves when the fighting gets thick.
You need all four to be successful, and somehow, it works. There’s no light in the dank caverns on the planet Hoxxes, so your dwarf throws a series of regenerating flares which slowly fade over time. The scout is crucial here, as they have a massive light flare that lasts much longer and lights up a huge area, but the tension created by frequently needing more light is superb. It encourages you all to stick together, and play together.
DRG’s replayabilty is next level too, with a variety of mission types, an often-complex mission structure for each, and random events, all coupled with an organic, random map generation system which can only be described as evil incarnate. I’ve lost count of how often I’ve made my way to the bottom of a mission only to realise that I don’t have any good way to get back out! Follow that digger, who will often drill as close to “straight up” as they can manage, while desperately trying not to overheat their drill bits, letting the rest of the team fight off multiple hordes before the timer runs out.
Meta progression is also superb. The perk system allows for gameplay choices to be made (run faster, carry more, sense enemies, etc) and each class will advance in levels allowing for gear unlocks and upgrades. Cash can also be spent on customising your dwarves with new hairstyles, beards, side burns, hair colour, caps, armour and more.
Even the simple hub area is a chance to bond with your squad before setting out on another mission, with games to play, beer to drink (for mission-based perks) and music to “dance” to.
And there’s so much more I haven’t really covered. The end-game “deep dive” missions, the weapon customisation, the hilarious voice acting, the boss fights, the single-player mode (if you simply can’t abide randos, even friendly ones), or Molly the “minecart”. If you haven’t tried DRG yet, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot. You owe it to Karl.
Something a little different: Aliens: Fireteam Elite [Steam]
Game over, man! How can I recommend Aliens Fireteam Elite when it barely scores higher than Back 4 Blood? Well, the simple fact is that I really, really bought into the Aliens atmosphere this game delivers in spades. Whether that’s the film-like military comms between you and Sergeant Herrerra in Tactical, the nicely recreated Aliens-style sci-fi bunkers and hangars, or the strong sound design recreating the sweet sweet rapid-fire of your M56 Smartgun, the whole thing feels like the films. There’s also the now-iconic echoing blip of your gun’s movement scanner to raise the tension. And the aliens’ elephant-like death scream just never gets old.
Similarly, if you’ve played Alien: Isolation, you’ll appreciate the Weyland Yutani synth units and their creepy, lifeless voices. Indeed, play single player and you’ll get two such combat synths to join you on your mission. And yep, I said two units - oddly enough, this is a three-player game, not a four-player game.
That incredibly authentic in-mission atmosphere does suffer a little when you get back to the main hub, a space craft in orbit around LV-895, an Engineer planet and the setting for the game. Despite Cold Iron Studios being a 60+ person outfit, and despite the excellent voice-acting, none of the character’s faces are animated, which is actually weirdly unsettling in a 2021 game. But many of the in-game dramatic reveals and set pieces are genuinely jaw-dropping, such as when Lieutenant Ko’s dropship clears a bridge of aliens as you run across it in a rocket barrage that can only be described as spectacular overkill.
There are only 3 missions plus a DLC mission, which each consist of 3 story sections, amounting to around 20-30 minutes per section of gameplay. Honestly, that’s pretty short and you’ll clear the bulk of the content in around 6 to 10 hours at the lowest difficulty. Sure, it’s reasonably priced at £25.99 (without DLC), and personally, I managed 65 hours in this beautiful shooter… but I can’t lie when I say I wanted more, which is actually an endorsement of how fun the shooting actually is! Sadly, the lack of mod support definitely hurts here, especially when there’s so little variety in playthroughs (minor randomisation only).
But there’s a lot to like here. Superb and meaningful progression for up to 7 classes (which play very differently), lots of mods for your weapons, heaps of perks that can be upgraded in a satisfying jigsaw puzzle as you level up. A large variety of weapons, from pistols to SMGs, shotguns to smart-guns, rifles to flamethrowers, there’s something for everyone. The clever “Battle Card” system is great too, introducing a massive variety of special buffs and debuffs for enhanced rewards. Some of these are incredibly inventive too, like the one that makes the whole mission look like the helmet-cams from the film, or one where if you move into a team mate, it stumbles them. Difficulty can be set too, introducing varying levels of friendly fire and intensity of the hordes.
If you can find two friends to play with, it’s an engrossing experience.
And the rest
World War Z [Steam]
I haven’t played this one, but it gets decent reviews on Steam and certainly captures the sheer size of the hordes you see in the film of the same name. Some complaints about the grind, but definitely one to look into further.
Killing Floor 2 [Steam]
Slicker follow up to the original game and features more classes and more progression along with a little more enemy variety coupled with new maps and bosses. Ultimately very, very similar and that’s going to be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your opinion on the first game!
I’d love to describe this as a sleeper hit - it’s made by the same team that produced Painkiller Black Edition and Bulletstorm, it’s published by Square Enix, and yet no-one has heard of it. Truth is though, despite being excellent, it’s stupidly overpriced. I enjoyed it, it’s good, but it’s typically around £50… on sale for the full game (with DLC)! Worth checking out, but I only played for around 30 hours in the end, so I have serious reservations over the value for money I got.
Warhammer Vermintide 2 [Steam]
While the game itself plays fine to a platinum level, sadly Fatshark couldn’t wrap their head around how to enable the anti-cheat properly. So while you can host a game on Linux, you can’t actually join games. Fatshark swear it’s either Epic, or Valve’s fault, and with their new (largely panned) sequel now out, it’s unlikely this will ever be fixed. Which is a shame, because there’s some nice progression and pretty graphics on show here. If you have 3 Windows-using friends and you’re prepared to host every session, this might be fun. For the rest of us though, it’s a pass.
The Anacrusis [Steam]
Made by Stray Dog, a studio created by an ex-Valve staffer who worked on Left 4 Dead (sound familiar?) this is the true indie version of Left 4 Dead, complete with jank. It gets generally good reviews despite some lobby issues, and it looks like it captures the spirit of the game, if not the polish.
A little bit different, this one! Yes, it’s 4 player-coop, yes, you fight off hordes of alien-like creatures and yes, it’s dark and full of horror. However, a lot of GTFO is actually based on stealth, and requires absolute coordination between players. Absolute. If you end up shooting for any length of time, your run is likely over! Steep learning curve but it has a cult following and still garners more players per day than Back 4 Blood. Also recommended by streamer, GTFO expert and GOL supporter, Corben!
No More Room in Hell [Steam]
This was originally a Half Life 2 mod, launched in 2011, but made it to a full release via Steam’s Greenlight scheme in 2013. It’s free to play and still supported today, with bug fixes and feature releases every few months. If this 8-player, native co-op shooter takes your fancy, keep your eyes peeled for the upcoming sequel.
Phew, we’re done. I feel like I need a lie down after all that tension. As usual, feel free to educate me on what I’ve missed or gotten wrong in the comments. I still lean towards single-player games, but writing this article has reminded me of all the fun to be had when you team up with some friends (or dwarves) for the greater good. Hopefully this gives you some ideas yourself!