It’s Time To Give Up On Left 4 Dead-Likes
A little more than a year after launch, Turtle Rock Studios is ending development on Back 4 Blood and moving on to other projects. The original Left 4 Dead creators made an attempt to recapture the magic of the world’s most successful horde shooter, and while Back 4 Blood was not without its merits, the game did not live up to fans’ expectations. Back 4 Blood’s premature end isn’t unexpected given the lukewarm reception and stagnant playerbase, but it does beg a question: if the Left 4 Dead creators can’t recreate Left 4 Dead, can anyone?
Many have tried to replicate Left 4 Dead’s formula over the years, and not a single one has succeeded. Some L4D clones were DOA, like Earthfall, Strange Brigade, and Aliens: Fireteam Elite. Others, like World War Z and Killing Floor, managed to carve out a small audience, but never found success anywhere close to the kind of numbers Left 4 Dead pulls on any random day of the week. The only Left 4 Dead-like that ever became a hit is Warhammer: Vermintide 2, and it had to carve out a niche by being almost entirely melee-focused. When the same team tried to replicate L4D’s run-and-gun style with Darktide, it completely missed the mark.
The end of Back 4 Blood isn’t being framed as any kind of failure, but it’s not hard to read between the lines. Turtle Rock Studios published a statement on its website explaining that as a small team making triple-A games, it doesn’t have the manpower to continue supporting B4B while it begins development on another game. Back 4 Blood did get three expansions over the last year, but had it been more successful, I have to imagine Turtle Rock would have expanded to keep supporting it long term. On Steam, Back 4 Blood’s all-time peak isn’t that much higher than Left 4 Dead’s daily average, even all these years later. It might not be fair to compare everything to L4D – one of gaming's biggest and most successful games ever – but the people that play these L4D-likes do.
The problem is that Left 4 Dead does what it does so perfectly, that there’s really no reason to do it again. All of these successors have tried to modernize L4D’s structure by adding RPG elements, progression systems, timed incentives, and seasonal events, but none of them actually improved the formula. Time and time again we’ve seen that attempts to update Left 4 Dead have only served to fracture the player base and create unnecessary and unwanted complications. Left 4 Dead 2 persists because a group of friends can jump in and play without any need to manage loadout, unlock abilities, or catch up to their friend’s power level. Back 4 Blood’s card system was supposed to add an element of variety and player chase, but all it did was make things needlessly complicated. It’s time to give up on linear, story-based co-op horde shooters. Left 4 Dead did it best, and anyone trying to replicate or update its recipe is setting themselves up for failures.
That doesn’t mean Left 4 Dead is a dead end though. There’s plenty that can be learned from its success, and lots of good ideas that other games have successfully borrowed. Like Vermintide 2, we’ve seen a few successful games that are Left 4 Dead-esque in design, but are different enough that you wouldn’t consider them clones. Games like Deep Rock Galactic, GTFO, and Hunt: Showdown have co-op, horde shooter qualities, but they each take things in very different directions. Mixing Left 4 Dead with stealth, resource management, and tactical shooter gameplay has been proven to work, and there’s still lots of opportunities for games that take the best parts of Left 4 Dead and do something totally original with them.
There’s a new generation of non-linear, open world or ‘big map’ horde shooters on the way, which seem to have a lot of potential. Instead of following a single critical path to reach an objective, these games offer more freedom to explore and more goals to pursue. Four games coming this year, Redfall, Exoprimal, Second Extinction, and Starship Troopers: Extermination all fit the bill, and each of them represents a distinctly unique approach to the yet-unexplored genre. I’m not saying all, or any of those games will be good – and I certainly don’t expect they will live up to Left 4 Dead – but this seems like the kind of Left 4 Dead-inspired new genre that has potential. It’s time to admit that living in the shadow of L4D isn’t going to work, and focus on doing something different instead.
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