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The Source Engine is the reuse tech at the core of L4D/2, developed internally by Valve. It offers story support through scripted triggers, the physics of the game world, machine-controlled (bot) AI, more that I don’t know and/or I’m forgetting, and a “director” that provides support for all of the above along with extras like dynamically adjusting difficulty in-game.
Features of note include:
- a continuation of the great physics support from HL2-the depth in ability to both interact with objects and the interaction of objects with each other (as seen to some extent in works like Gmod)
- ballistics physics-the ability to shoot through bullet-permeable materials like wood, thin metal, to a limited extent concrete, etc; explosives support that does area damage to both select parts of the environment and to the infected
- the ability to damage/destroy select models in the game world (ex. setting a wooden barricade on fire in order to pass), and interactions between different environmental objects: set a gas can on fire next to a propane tank and you’ve got a grenade-like timed explosive.
- animation support that allows for pluses like ragdoll physics and facial movement/expression
- most oh-my-god-it’s-christmas of all-support for high res gore (even higher in L4D2); you can blow holes through enemies and both expose internal organs and cause projectile splattering of runnels/fountains of blood and chunks of flesh, shear off sections of skull and expose brain, and chop off limbs.
Speaking of dev tools, an overhaul to level formats and completion of content tools shortly after release of L4D supported a surge of user-created content for the PC platform. There are sites now that offer forums and access to the huge, continually growing mass of user-created content. The custom content tools have been updated for L4D2 also, now available as the Authoring Tools and Add-on Support apps available through Steam. This has encouraged a similar growing pool of user-created content for L4D2 as well, including ports of the original L4D levels and other favorite custom L4D levels. If you own either game for PC, you owe it to yourself to check some of this content out. It can easily double replayability.
Left 4 Dead arguably stepped back some in the narrative department in comparison to say the Half-Life series, but if it had been associated with anyone other than Valve I don’t think it would have taken that kind of heat. The Half-Life series could afford the high narrative content since it focused on single player gameplay. Cooperative gameplay-one of L4D’s strengths-has a tendency to limit options in terms of narrative. For one, when people are together playing a game a lot of times it seems like they don’t all want to pause for narrative at the same time-the whole “can’t please all the people all the time” thing, I guess-or maybe it’s just the nerdy game parties I go to, who knows.
In any case, L4D’s own style is intentionally more subtle than Half-Life‘s anyway. A lot of narrative comes from the random discussions between characters that pop up as you progress through chapters. The dialog hits on one of the series’ strengths-humor. While the series offers great co-op, a unique strategic twist to multiplayer, great control mechanics, and the list goes on, humor permeates the series. It’s apparent in everything from character development to the design of The Infected. While the levels in L4D had their own separate narratives, they weren’t linked together strongly at all. You could play the levels in any order and likely not notice the breaks in narrative any more than if you’d played them in order. This fact might account for some of the criticism over story that the first game took. L4D2 filled this gap, however-each level is clearly linked to the next though environmental layout and character dialog at the beginning of each following level. The difference this makes has actually been more than I’d have personally expected. I catch myself selecting specific characters more often in L4D2 than the original since I feel tied to the characters more, and not just from deeper improved dialog-it’s the story that really does this for me.
Honestly, I don’t think you can talk about L4D without acknowledging the fan base. The union of horror fans and game lovers is apparently greater than “no one”. People have fallen for the game to the point of creating a sizeable body of fan art. Illustrated stills, comic strips, videos, cosplay-quality costumes(!), one fan’s crafted dolls of some of the original Special Infected cast inspiring new sale items in the Valve Store-those are just some of the things done to show love for the game. If you like the game much at all, it’s definitely worth searching for this stuff. It’s amazing, hilarious, and even sometimes strangely fetishy (or kinky depending on perspective I guess).