I still don’t understand Left 4 Dead group dynamics. Why is one group of four people an unstoppable killing machine, cutting through each level like a surgeon’s knife, and another is so inept that they’re all dead within one hundred yards of the starting area? I can explain the tactical miscues and individual failings that crop up during a failed campaign, but the source of success and failure remains a mystery to me. When I play the game now, I’m spending most of my time watching the group, trying to catch a glimpse of the variable that drives the game: how well four people can come together for a common purpose.
The Left 4 Dead 2 demo put me in the mood to revisit the original game, and I find myself enjoying it as much as I did when it was new. The community is a bit thinned-out, and it takes a little more patience to start a good game, but I’m still fascinated by the strange chemistry between players.
Friday night I decided to try some Expert campaigns. The “What Are You Trying to Prove?” achievement (awarded for surviving every campaign on the highest difficulty) has been taunting me for a year, and while I have completed every campaign on expert, the game has ignored some of my victories and, in others, my character has perished while the rest of the team made its way to safety.
Much to my surprise, the random group that assembled to play through Blood Harvest turned out to be cheerful, laid-back, and unbelievably proficient. We spoke little, but soon slipped into a groove where we seemed to be sharing one brain. I wouldn’t say any of us were remarkably skilled players, but somehow we were beating the AI Director at his own game. We rallied just before each horde arrived, fought them off with a minimum of fuss and no panic, then sprinted through the levels, stopping just before the Director’s next wave could catch us off-guard.
Friendly fire incidents were minimal and nobody seemed resentful of any mistakes we made. Just four guys, hanging out on a Friday night, kicking zombie ass.
We were working so well that after beating Blood Harvest, we went after Dead Air. I noticed that, as a group, we were growing deadlier as the evening wore on. No sooner would a Smoker latch onto one survivor than another would coolly blow him apart with a rifle burst to the head. The last stand at the end of the campaign was so perfectly managed that it was almost sedate. Each one of us covered a quarter of the field of fire, and every one of us knew the others wouldn’t let any infected through. I saw one coming at me out of the corner of my eye, but didn’t stop shooting the zombies coming from behind some wreckage. The zombie coming after me was not, after all, my responsibility. I knew that the guy to my right would stop him.
It was a perfect playthrough from four strangers who barely talked and only made plans a couple times each campaign. We just knew our roles.
The next night, Saturday, I played with another random group and understood, instantly, that we were doomed.
There was nothing I could really put my finger on to explain why we were a terrible team. Individually we all seemed competent. We mostly tried to stay together and provide cover. The guy playing as Zoey was, I’ll admit, problematic. He racked up three times as many kills as anyone else on the team in the first section, but he did it by constantly racing ahead of the group so that the group became 3 and 1 instead of 4.
But the biggest problem was that nobody seemed comfortable playing a role. Guys were shifting around in firefights when they shouldn’t have been, so now you had to worry more about giving and receiving friendly fire. Trust never formed between us, and I can’t explain why. We were all nice guys and didn’t mind our occasional screw-ups. In most of the identifiable ways, it was the same kind of group as I’d played with on Friday. But there was something in the way we moved across the may that made me certain that we didn’t have the chemistry.
That single, intangible factor was the source of a disastrous evening. After a few failures, desperation creeps in and new problems compound the old ones. The Saturday group had one guy (who sounded a bit like Bill Murray voicing Garfield) who decided that he had to take charge. Except his only idea was to go hide at the top of a tower at the start of the level, so we left him behind. He called after us, “Dudes, where are you going? What’s wrong with you guys? Jeez.” Then, as we were wiped out by the tank he refused to come down and fight, he said, “See. Toldja.”
We never made it to the fourth stage. Mistakes got more bone-headed. The guy playing Bill fell off a ladder on the wrong side of a fence and made us wait for a long minute while he trekked back to our position. He never made it: we got to him just in time to see the Smoker finish him off.
Another time, about two minutes into our journey, I realized I had never grabbed ammunition for my assault rife. I was down to my last clip halfway through the level.
The best failure, however, came when the guy playing Francis said, “Hoo, we’re off to a pretty bad start, huh? Wonder what’s gonna happen next?”
He got his answer as the tank exploded out of the shed three feet behind him. He was laughing as his body went flying into the woods.