This past month, I was fortunate enough to be invited by Reviews Editor Dan Stapleton to “assist” in his review of Left 4 Dead, joining him in an exhausting marathon session of zombie-slaying while he evaluated the game. I agreed with him on his verdict—namely that the game is crazy awesome—but after 15 hours of nearly continuous undead brain-bashing, a troubling thought wandered into my head: will this game fall victim to repetitiveness?
As a cooperative shooter, Left 4 Dead essentially retains the structure of a single-player game. The game’s four “story” acts are designed in a linear fashion so that players feel like they’re gunning through a zombie movie, with certain game events carefully scripted to heighten the tension (i.e., the mini-finale standoffs spaced out through each act). The campaign experience is riveting and nerve-wracking the first couple times through, as the sense of unfamiliarity and the need to explore the ominous environments make for great horror-movie moments where you’re genuinely frightened. But what happens after you’ve memorized the layout of every map and the optimal routes and tactics for survival? Even with the game’s intelligent “AI Director” dynamically unleashing the zombie horde, I was worried that the action would eventually become too predictable.
That led me to wonder what first-person shooter games could do to stave off staleness, especially in games the developers intend gamers to play for months or years. My immediate thought: randomly generated maps. This solution works well for plenty of role-playing and real-time strategy games, in both single- and multiplayer modes. Diablo’s single-player dungeons were almost completely dynamically created by the game engine, and random maps in strategy games like Rise of Nations put multiplayer competitors on equal footing so that no player knows what to expect out of the gate.
In Left 4 Dead you might learn the map, but you'll never know where the zombies are
Unfortunately, random levels aren’t a practical solution for FPSes, where environments are painstakingly crafted 3D worlds as opposed to gridded 2D planes. Sure, map designers could work in multiple map routes and a few dynamic obstacles like random walls or bridges, but even the best programmers have not achieved the kind of algorithmic coding finesse required to procedurally generate a 3D environment that’s both fun to play in and aesthetically sensible (Hellgate, I’m looking at you). And with a game like Left 4 Dead, which is set in a familiar world, realistic level design plays a large factor in what makes the game fun.
So, what other attributes, aside from the actual level architecture, could be randomized to increase replayability? Spawn locations, weapon and health placement, and maybe even weather are all variables that can reasonably be adjusted for each gameplay session. Borderlands, Gearbox’s upcoming sci-fi shooter, takes the idea of randomized items and runs with it, touting over a million different variations of weapon and item types. Left 4 Dead also does a bit of this, changing up the availability of explosives canisters and high-powered rifles so that you can’t execute the exact same tactics for every playthrough.
But then I considered this: maybe gamers don’t necessarily want randomization in their multiplayer games. In a competitive multiplayer game (which L4D aims to be with its Versus mode), having discrete and fixed variables might actually be more of a boon than a disadvantage. Because even though uncertainty can contribute to tension, consistency and reliability are foundations of the balance that multiplayer matches demand. Just imagine if Counter-Strike was patched with randomized weapon kits and spawn locations—hardcore players would revolt.
So maybe there’s no point in worrying about the longevity of Left 4 Dead, and I’ll still be enjoying it just as much a year from now. After all, it’s hard to imagine zombie-killing ever getting old.
November 19, 2008