Everything Is Left 4 Dead Now

Everything Is Left 4 Dead Now
Image: Bethesda

It wasn’t too long ago that it seemed like Left 4 Dead was six feet under. Sure, there were Warhammer games that followed in its footsteps, but there’s a Warhammer game for every existing genre — and several genres that haven’t been invented yet. Now, though, everybody’s doing first-person co-op against overwhelming odds and boss enemies. Like, to a weird extent.

In the same way that bows and boats have defined previous E3s, 2021 is pretty definitively the year of the Left 4 Dead alike. Back 4 Blood, a clear spiritual sequel to Left 4 Dead in development at Left 4 Dead studio Turtle Rock, made an appearance during Microsoft’s showcase on Sunday, but it’s far from alone.

Ubisoft is bringing us Rainbow Six Extraction, a co-op shooter featuring operatives with unique skillsets and nasty, goopy aliens who seem to adhere to conspicuously Left 4 Dead-like enemy archetypes. Stray Bombay, an indie studio founded by former Valve writer Chet Faliszek, showed off The Anacrusis, a Left 4 Dead homage with oodles of funky flavour and its own, more sophisticated evolution of L4D’s AI director, which keeps tabs on players and alters level elements like enemy and item spawns.

While we’ve yet to see gameplay footage, Prey developer Arkane Austin’s new game, Redfall, seems to be cut from a similarly bloody cloth, featuring four-player co-op and colourful, banter-loving characters, but with vampires instead of zombies. It also seems like it will set itself apart with some of Arkane’s trademark immersive sim flavour. Then there’s Evil Dead: The Game, which has a bit of a Dead By Daylight vibe to it, but is nonetheless a game in which — you guessed it — four survivors team up against hordes of undead. Also like in Left 4 Dead (and Dead By Daylight), players can take control of big bads, as well.

And those are just the clearly Left 4 Dead-inspired games that have shown up during this year’s E3. There are many more lurking just outside E3’s field of view, waiting to drag us into the shadows with their long, weird tongues. For example, Warhammer 40K: Darktide, which takes the unabashedly L4D-inspired shenanigans of Warhammer: Vermintide to space, is hopefully coming out sometime this year. Darktide is not alone in recognising that space is full of bad things that will gang up on you, either. Aliens: Fireteam will also pit you and a squad of a few friends against numerous capital-A Aliens, making it essentially the opposite of Alien: Isolation. That also more or less describes GTFO, a Steam game that’s been in early access since 2019 — except it lacks the Aliens licence.

I’m sure I’m missing other indie Left 4 Dead revivals that are in the works, but you get the point: Where once the Left 4 Dead formula had been relegated to the annals of history (and middling copycats like World War Z and Earthfall, with the occasional gem like Deep Rock Galactic sprinkled in), it’s suddenly all the rage among Boomer-sized big boys again. For the most part, that’s great news! Left 4 Dead never stopped being good. It’s a multiplayer experience that somehow perfectly balances unnerving tenseness and all-out chaos. Whether quiet or loud, it achieves a pitch perfect pace. There’s nothing else quite like it. In addition, games like Phasmophobia and Valheim have recently shown that there’s a greater hunger for co-op focused games than ever. A new generation of L4D-style co-op shooters is likely to be received with open arms.

That said, as people on Twitter have pointed out, the games industry is essentially doing an underserved market to saturated market speedrun. If all these games — or even just some of them — wind up feeling too similar, players could start feeling burnt out in a hurry. On top of that, there’s a reason Valve’s Left 4 Dead games are still considered the peak of the form. Small-scale co-op against a bunch of baddies might seem like an easy concept to nail on paper, but getting it right takes Work. Not everybody is capable of pulling off the sublime mix of AI-powered pacing and level design that characterised Turtle Rock and Valve’s first stabs at co-op horror. We’ve already seen a handful of smaller developers try and fail. And bigger does not always mean better.

Broadly, though, we’re still in “good problem to have” territory. Valve might never make Left 4 Dead 3 (or Left 7 Dead, as it should be called), but now everybody else is doing it. Unless literally all 400 Left 4 Dead wannabes end up being bad, we’ll be able to count ourselves as winners in the end.

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