Approaching the launch of Mass Effect Legendary Edition, I had a revealing internal dialogue. As a youngster, I loved Bioware’s space opera RPG series, but there was no way I could bring myself to play through those games again. I just don’t tend to replay old games, unless they come back as proper remakes, like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2.
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The thing is though, I’m a total hypocrite. If you ignore my foolish teenage dalliance with DOTA 2, the most-played game in my Steam library is Left 4 Dead 2, a game that came out in 2009, and one that I’m still playing multiple times a week, eleven years later. I’m not alone either! Beyond the eight or so close friends I play with regularly, it’s averaging around 20 thousand concurrents per day as of late, making it a firm fixture in Steam’s top 100 most-played games.
So! You’re probably wondering why, and I have two words for you: Versus Mode. Left 4 Dead 2’s solo and co-op campaign gameplay is still great, don’t get me wrong, but the game’s true beauty is hiding in this nuanced, communication-heavy, extremely dynamic online multiplayer mode. Even if you played the game years ago you may not be aware of its brilliance, so let me break it down.
It works like this: a team of four Survivors face off against a team of four Infected over the course of a campaign, alternating roles between rounds. The Survivors proceed through the map as normal, fighting off hordes of common zombies and completing objectives to reach the safe room.
Yet instead of the AI Director controlling all of the enemy Intelligence, real players on the Infected team step into the shoes of the Special Infected. That means you can end up playing as the Boomer, Spitter, Hunter, Jockey, Smoker, Charger and yes, even the Tank over the course of a match. Each Special Infected has its own skills and quirks, but it’s their ability to combine and conquer that makes Versus Mode so special.
The ultimate goal as an Infected player is to disorient, pin and kill off all of the Survivors so that you can end their run as early as possible. This is because as they progress through the map, each player is constantly earning points, and the Survivors will get an extra 25 each for making it inside of the safe room and locking the door.
The beauty of this points system is that it gives each campaign an exquisite ebb and flow. If you’re winning you’ll play as Survivors first, but you might get blindsided by a Tank spawn, giving the team up next crucial information about how to get around it and gain on the leaders.
Underdogs can become unlikely heroes after a coordinated upset, so as you can imagine, many matches are decided by stray points. It’s agonising to lose to a group of Survivors on their last legs, crawling forward to secure victory — but it’s equally euphoric to coordinate and kill them off just before that happens. When you’ve been playing as long as we have, you also know the fourteen maps off by heart, and you’re confident enough to perform kill combos or instakills.
Boomers can summon zombies and blind Survivors with their bile, before a Jockey heads in to take advantage and ride on a survivor’s head, dealing damage. At which point, you might want your Spitter to create a zone of deadly sludge on the floor that the Jockey can pull them into. If the Jockey dies, a Hunter can then come in and pin them in the toxic goo, stacking even more damage. That’s a recipe for success, but it’s a perfect storm and betrays the luck and coordination necessary to execute an early wipe or a four-pin win. The randomised spawns and the ability of the Survivors to bash or kill the Special Infected before they pull it off almost always gets in the way.
Ledges and drops that Survivors can be charged, stumbled or pulled out of also appear throughout the maps, creating tense opportunities to down or kill other players in an instant. Say you’re a Smoker — you can pull a Survivor into position with your tongue so that your teammate, a Charger, can barrel into them, sending the player to their doom. It’s a mixture of luck and skill to set it up, but the payoff is so worth it.
Perhaps the best part of the game is how it demands you to talk to your teammates. If you get pinned by a Special Infected, you’re going to need to shout about it, as your teammates may be covered in bile or looking elsewhere, and if you get isolated you can quickly end up on your arse. The domino effect of a down is that there’s one less Survivor to pin for the Special Infected, so this can quickly cut your entire run short. Over the years the group I play with have developed Counter-Strike-style callouts as a result. We’ve also got countless in-jokes, stupid sprays and several known strategies.
We’re that serious about it that we now have a Discord bot coded by one of our own that scrapes our in-game L4D2 stats to balance out the teams ahead of a match. Most recently, we’ve also started putting together Google Sheets Championships (complete with bar charts and graphs) where we play through all of the campaigns in order with different teams, earning points for victories and instakills, rooting out the best plays and players. Call it sad if you want but it has brought us great joy over the course of the pandemic.
We even have our own awards section, with categories like ‘Wobbliest Chin’ for the player who loses their head in the most dramatic fashion when everything starts to fall apart. Cool heads are a must in the face of imminent tragedy if you want any chance of winning a Left 4 Dead 2 Versus campaign.
I feel like I’m just scratching the surface here, but I hope that I have provided a tantalising taste of what Left 4 Dead 2’s Versus Mode can offer you and your friends, dear reader. There are usually a few lobbies going at peak times that you can hop into on your own, but it’s so much more fun if you’ve got a few friends to coordinate with, or better yet, enough to stock a private lobby. At a minimum, you could have one Survivor and one Infected, with bots filling the ranks, yet with eight players it becomes an entirely different beast.
There’s never been a better time to jump into Left 4 Dead 2 either. In 2020, the game received The Last Stand Update, a community-led patch that brought a new map, new modes and a number of quality-of-life fixes to Versus Mode which have made it even more engaging. For one of my earlier columns, I spoke to Valve’s Kerry Davis and the community developers about the making of the update and the future of the game. Head there if you want to read more, and hopefully, I’ll see you on the roof of Mercy Hospital one day!