Under the (Zombie Infested) Radar

Posted by Tiluvar at at 11:44am on Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

Every once in a while a game comes around that manages to not only perfect a genre, but add something new to the recipe without giving the feeling that it's trying too hard to be "different".

Killer Instinct was one of these games. It took influences from many different fighting games and included just enough of what we were familiar with, and loved, that we all felt comfortable with it. Then Nintendo/Rare took the standard formula and eased us into a more coherent system of attack combos. Killer Instinct made combos a more notable part of the game, without going so far as to change it into something else entirely. Starting with the standard Ryu/Ken Jumpkick -> Footsweep, fighting games have always had combos to some degree, but this was different.

It was this relatively small change that helped shape the genre into what it is today. Without ever claiming credit as being (incoming buzzword) "revolutionary", Killer Instinct changed the fighting game genre forever. While some didn't take it as far, and some took it even further, and whether you personally like it or not, tangible combo systems are now a permanent part of the fighting game landscape.

In some ways the concept of the "Ultra Combo" which can only be performed when the opponent is low on health can be followed back to Mortal Kombat's creation of "Fatalities" only toned down so that it feels more like an added feature to an existing game, rather than a mini-game that takes place outside of the traditional combat.

At any rate, this isn't supposed to be about Killer Instinct, I am only using it to make a point; that while it may seem that popularity is what determines how influential something is to a genre, it is not influential because it is popular, but because it was one of those rare games that got the mix of ingredients from previous games of the same genre exactly right, and added features that build on top of the established recipe rather than trying to start from scratch. Features that once implimented make us seem to wonder - why didn't someone think of this before?

Popularity may spawn many copycat games, but true genre changing influence comes from giving us just the right amount of what we already know we love, and adding something just a little bit different to the recipe to make us love it even more - something that can come from blockbusters and bargain bin games alike.

One such title that I've been enjoying lately is Left 4 Dead..

Left 4 Dead may seem to new players, or casual observers like a relatively simple, mostly mindless, team based co-operative shooter, but that's largely because it so subtly includes elements from many different shooters that at first glance you don't even draw the comparison.

The overall gameplay borrows from Counterstrike as it is two small squads of people, playing against eachother. One trying to prevent the others from completing an objective. I can practically hear the Counterstrike announcer saying "Survivor's win.." whenever the survivor's reach the saferoom. It is integrated into the game so well though, that you never really feel as though you failed. Unless you get utterly destroyed, you generally feel as if you accomplished something whether your team wins or loses in any specific round. The core combat of the game helps amplify this feeling as well, as it's rare that you can get taken out in only one or two attacks.

The infected side seem to have taken an influence from class based shooters like team fortress, where each specific type of infected has abilities that while damaging on their own, are greater when combined with those of their teammates. Where L4D improves upon this though is by making your "class" of infected random. One large downside to class based games is that you often get too comfortable with one specific class, and feel that you are unable to play the others effectively. As such your abilities start to feel somewhat limited due to only having a couple of attacks.

L4D really nailed this incognito class system by almost creating a meta-game out of the infected class. Each type of infected truly only has one active, and one passive ability and can be mastered rather quickly. While this seems somewhat boring on paper, it is your timing, your placement, and your co-operation with your teammates that allows you to be more effective, and that is something that you get better at while playing any of the 5 classes of infected without even really realizing it. The Infected become a Voltron of zombie parts, where you cannot simply throw Thresh the controls to a hunter and expect to win, it is more important to be an experienced teammate.

Hop over to the Survivor side of things and the meta-game gets a little more complex. Again, akin to Counter Strike you are forced to make a choice on the type of weapon you want at the start of each round. There are points at which you can change it but it's not the typical wide array of weapons to switch between from more traditional first person shooters. Other than weapon choices, the Survivor characters themselves are all exactly the same in terms of abilities. On the Survivor side more traditional first person shooter skills can definately play a larger role in your success, but teamwork and communication are still paramount to your team's victory. Even more important than that, however is your knowledge of the Infected, their abilities, their strategies and weaknesses. It is these "external" skills that truly improve your gameplay, so that even though you only have two weapons and a melee attack the combat never seems boring, slow or repetative because most of the game takes place between you and your teammates, rather than your characters and the infected characters.

One of the least noticed, but most influential features of Left 4 Dead is the audio. It is definately not the first game to use audio cues to alert the player to in game hazards, but it is done so extremely well that you could practically play without being able to see the enemies at all.

More importantly, and the feature that spurred me to write all of this in the first place is the character dialogue. I don't simply mean their banter back and forth, but the mouse driven system in which you can make your character say anything you may normally be inclined to say over voicechat.

Voicechat is still borderline required for more in depth planning, but when your character sees a Boomer, or extra ammo for example, they will just say "Boomer!" or "There's some ammo over here!" without requiring any input from you. If however you want to force your character to look at something, simply hit "Z" and whatever is under their crosshairs will be announced to the team "There's a pipebomb over here!".

Not only can they see things, but hear and, for lack of a better word feel things as well. They will whisper when they (and therefore you) hear a Hunter or Smoker nearby, they will cough when running through smoke, or distinctively yell when ambushed.

Such a feature could have been a disaster. It could have been at best, useless or at worst extremely annoying, but Valve got it exactly right. The frequency of alerts is perfect, your team members rarely speak over one another and the information is almost always very useful. I often find my character announcing something to my teammates just before I got the chance to over voicechat.

I would be very surpised if this feature wasn't picked up and used in all other co-operative online games going forward. As I said, this is the feature that was the inspiration for all this rambling. It is the type of feature that is overlooked in many more formal reviews, and so unobtrusive that no one gives it much thought - yet so utterly useful, and fun, that it will influence most games made after L4D was released, and mature the genre just a little bit more.

Left 4 Dead has managed to take a pretty simple formula, gently sprinkle in some of what made many of the games before it so memorable while still mangaging to mix in it's own unique features and flavour and got the recipe perfectly on the first try. It is a great example of a game that is "revolutionary" without ever trying to be, and one that never would have been possible earlier on in the evolution of the genre.

Many games can copy the recipe line by line from the book of genres, and make a delicious cake. But games like Killer Instinct, God of War and Left 4 Dead are the ones that force us to go back and add new ingredients to the book. The cake wasn't a lie, we just never guessed that zombies would be the perfect ingredient.

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