Gaming

A Customisable Zombie-Killing Experience Is Behind the Lasting Popularity of ‘Left 4 Dead 2’

Ten years after its release, complex fan-made storylines are keeping it alive.
left 4 dead 2
Screenshot from 'Left 4 Dead 2'

This article originally appeared on VICE Asia

Let's take it back to simpler times. It's a Friday afternoon in Manila, where I’m from, in the year 2009. The school day is finally over. Internet cafes are filled with patrons charged by the minute to use computers connected via LAN cables for the experience of playing alongside their friends. They're shouting out orders, warnings, and strategies with their equally-engrossed teammates also sitting in the dimly-lit room. They occasionally let out expressions of both panic and excitement.

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In the aughts, this meant only one thing: Left 4 Dead 2. The sequel to the zombie shooter game that changed gaming was released that year, and now, 10 years and countless technological advancements later, people are still crazy over it. Internet cafes have inevitably gone out of style, connecting with other players is no longer novel, and the standard for graphics have improved by leaps and bounds. Despite these developments, Left 4 Dead 2 still holds a place in the hearts of gamers who have stopped filling up computer shops but are still all over the game’s online servers, which still manage to attract an average of 10,000 players daily.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world infested with zombies, Left 4 Dead 2 puts players in the shoes of a group of survivors who have to fight their way through a series of campaigns. These campaigns take players through different situations and settings — from fighting through a city filled with zombies to escaping a sugar mill. The goal is to stay alive.

Players can also opt to experience Left 4 Dead 2 through other game modes, such as “Versus” or “Survival,” for a gameplay experience that is not driven by a storyline, or for the chance to play a zombie.

With games like The Walking Dead and Call of Duty, Left 4 Dead 2 is far from the only zombie-shooting game out there. It is, however, still the most-played game of its kind on Steam, a game distribution service owned by Left 4 Dead’s developer Valve. According to the Steam charts, it even beats newer entries like DayZ and Dying Light.

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But why is it still so popular? The answer lies in its fully-customisable gaming experience and an active community ready to let its imagination run wild.

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The best part about Left 4 Dead 2 is its user-generated content, which usually comes in the form of either custom campaigns or mods (modifications).

A custom campaign takes one of the game's existing modes and adds new levels to play it in, often complete with an entirely different storyline, a new map, revamped enemy behaviour, and repurposed voice recordings of the characters — all made voluntarily by community members.

With the game developers providing only a total of ten campaigns in the base game, the availability of custom campaigns is a vital feature for players who just can’t get enough and want to explore new adventures within the game’s post-apocalyptic world.

The wealth of options for custom campaigns to play in is astounding. For example, one of the more popular ones is Bloody Moors, which takes the players from the canonical setting in the United States, to the castles and moors of North Yorkshire, England. Want to become a character in the world of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, or play in the world of Resident Evil but in a co-op set-up? There are custom campaigns that can make those happen, too.

Don’t let the fact that these are community-made turn you off. Most of them are so polished and blend with the game’s engine so smoothly that it would be forgivable to think that they were made by the game’s creators.

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When I played through Overkill, a custom campaign made and uploaded by users Boing and Soup Toaster in 2011, the added layer of running away from poison gas and having the ability to call on military airstrikes did not seem out of place at all. In fact, they actually made the gameplay all the more fun.

In this campaign, I had to make quick, important decisions on where to go and not go, and tried to clear out zombies in an area in the shortest amount of time possible. For all that extra trouble, I was rewarded with the satisfaction of seeing missiles blow up hordes of zombies on my cue. These felt like features and elements the base game missed, but fellow gamers came through.

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Mods are smaller in scale, but just as loved by players. They only alter one to two elements of the game at a time — such as graphics, character skins, or the game's interface — although multiple mods can be stacked and used at the same time, too. Mods can be useful, as they can improve the game’s decade-old graphics, or downright entertaining, like when people re-skin a zombie to look like Shrek. Yes, the cartoon ogre. The Shrek mod even plays Smash Mouth’s “All Star” whenever it is in your character’s vicinity. It’s the perfect mod for those who are playing just for kicks.

Valve knows that customisation is Left 4 Dead’s best asset. One month after its initial release in 2009, the company released the Left 4 Dead 2 Authoring Tools, an add-on for the PC version of the game that enables users to easily create, organise, and install custom content they develop.

In 2011, Valve also gave the entire custom content community Steam Workshop, where they can upload and share content they’ve created, and browse through and install the work of others — all in one place.

Today, there are entire Steam communities, Facebook groups, and Reddit forums dedicated to these custom campaigns. These amplify the camaraderie between players from different cultures all over the world, who go on a fictional fight together to survive a pretend zombie apocalypse. They shoot, slash, and run together like old friends. They plug in a few mods, download additional custom campaigns, and play like it’s 2009.

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