Left 4 Dead: Survival Mode

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Apr 22, 2009

Filed under: Game Reviews 38 comments

Last night I discovered that Valve has released the long-awaited content for L4D, the new “Survival” gameplay mode. The premise is simple. The four of you begin at a lighthouse. For reasons never explained, your characters activate the light and fog horn. The light and sound draw zombies. All of them. Forever. Your goal, as you’ve probably guessed by now, is to survive as long as you can in the face of insurmountable odds and a highly unreliable building. The infected come, and keep coming, and keep coming, and just when you think it’s getting a little ridiculous, it will send a handful of special infected at your group. Your understanding of the game is incomplete until you’ve fought a wave of infected and two tanks. (Tanks are big, musclebound infected that absorb and dish out ridiculous levels of damage. In the other game modes, the group usually fights a single tank all by itself, with plenty of warning beforehand. And it’s still a huge challenge. But to fight one while the common infected keep coming is madness. And two at once is simply griefing on the part of the AI director.) Or perhaps you’ve always wanted to fight common infected, three smokers, two hunters, and a tank all at once? In survival mode this demented and masochistic dream of your can become a reality. (Weirdo.)

Our first attempt lasted just over two and a half minutes.

Is it good? Well, it consumed my evening, destroying precious blocks of time I desperately needed to spend making articles, comics, and posts about procedural cities. So I would have to say that the new mode is not good. It’s obnoxiously fun and infuriatingly addictive. Although, it slightly redeems itself by being a little buggy and eventually forcing me to quit playing for the night.

One amusing but benign bug – the talking cinderblock:


I don’t know what the deal was, but when we entered the game there was this chat icon over a cinderblock in front of the lighthouse. The icon suggests it is voice chatting to us, but we never did hear what wisdom the cinderblock was trying to impart. Alas.

Last weekend I purchased another server for the Twenty Sided group on Steam. I made it an eight person server, thinking we could get a game of Versus going at some point. I upgraded the server to play survival mode last night, but discovered that the updated server no longer honors the group designation. This means it was no longer a private server for our little group, but instead was a general public server, free to all the clawing unwashed masses, the beggars, and the riff-raff. I have played with dozens of you over the last few weeks, and I would say it was fun without qualification. But playing a game which requires communication and teamwork with anonymous hyperactive jerks is more or less impossible. I could find no way of keeping them out short of booting them, only to have them replaced by other people who do not speak or listen, which isn’t really so much a solution as a form of catharsis.

The other game-ending bug was the loss of survival mode itself. In attempting to correct the public-access issue, I rebooted the server and found that survival mode was no longer available. Forcing the server to use the Lighthouse survival level caused the game to start in some sort of inexplicable mode halfway between campaign and survival:


Note that in this screenshot, the playable game area is on the other side of the fence. The game was essentially spawning us backstage, walled off from the content. We could only stare longingly through the fence and the fun that sat just beyond our reach.

There were also some screwy clipping issues and the like, although I didn’t get screenshots of those at the time.

But when the game was good, it was very good. I’m particularly proud of our initial efforts. Early in the evening before the server went to hell I had a great time. Our first few rounds ended in humiliating defeat, but as we played we grew individually and as a team. Each round we saw our performance improve, demolishing our earlier impressions on what we could accomplish. The speed of the game allows for lots of experimentation, and the chaotic pressure has a bonding effect on the team. Our final round:


I really hope it takes them a nice long time to fix these bugs, or else this site is finished.


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38 thoughts on “Left 4 Dead: Survival Mode

  1. Kel'Thuzad says:

    Now you’re convincing me to play L4D…

    Is there a demo?

    1. Ya know, the cinderblock is named Thufir 85. In shamus’ RPG campaing, Eric’s character is named Thu’fir. It’s probably Eric’s character, inside the house.

  2. JMcNeely says:

    I don’t think there’s a demo but it’s down to $40 now… Makes me wish that I had time to play some more. Alas, the only time I have is spent in the company of my 2 year old son who is much to young to be seeing zombies being blown apart. *Sigh* Maybe I’ll get some free time this weekend…

  3. Yar Kramer says:

    Nope, they pulled the demo right before they released the game.

    Which is really stupid. VALVe’s great at making games, but there seem to be many areas in which they seem to have no freaking clue idea what they’re doing, and demos are one of them.

  4. I tried a game yesterday– but my house was 85F with no AC. When my CPU hit 210, I decided to call it an afternoon…

  5. Sydney says:

    I’ve never played this game, but…686 commons killed in eleven minutes? This is a target-rich environment worthy of Tyrian and its ilk.

  6. Visi says:

    Got my Left4Dead from http://g2play.pl/, 16.99euros, around £10, not had any problems with it so far but they look like they’re gonna be out of stock till sunday. (When you buy it they instantly email you the code for you to register and download off Steam, it comes up as a retail-version code)

    Glee survival mode, I am totally one of the weridos you mentioned in your post. *happily waits for Steam to finish updating*

  7. Benjamin O says:

    @Visi: Out of stock? On a game with an electronic download? How does that work? I’m one very confused individual at this point.

  8. CoarseSand says:

    I’ve absolutely got to get in a few games on the Twenty Sided servers now, just as soon as I recover from my all-nighter preparing for my last exam. Sone’s the In-Game Name, and I want to show that lighthouse who’s boss. Right before a tank bats me out into the bloody bay again.

  9. Marmot says:

    I haven’t played L4D (I intend to, after reading all of your posts about it—- sigh…. villain :D), but is a lighthouse really such a bad thing? It sounds like the enemies could only come from one way, unless all of them can climb walls…?

  10. Roy says:

    Haven’t played the Lighthouse level yet, but the zombies are a bit like 28 Days Later zombies, in that they’re not technically undead, but victims of some kind of disease or infection. Also, they can climb and jump on obstacles, climb through windows, smash through doors, etc. And the special zombies can do worse–some can jump very high, pull you through windows, and the tank can literally smash through walls. So, doing something like, you know, turning on a lighthouse and sticking around? Not actually a bright idea, if you’ll pardon the pun.

  11. mikeful says:

    Nice trick I learned testing Survival mode today: you can identify zombie breakable walls by spary painting them. If your logo sticks, zombies can’t break the wall. If it won’t you can expect flood of common infected at worst moment.

  12. Visi says:

    @7 I assume they’re out of codes, since that’s the only thing they give you. You download the game itself off Steam.

  13. Factoid says:

    Hopefully they fix your private server issue. I actually bought the game again for my 360 just so I could play on live and use the online matchmaking and stuff, but it might be fun to join up with the TwentySided group.

    I must say I like playing the game itself better on the console, but it takes a really long time to find a game where people are actually using their headsets. The times it’s worked out it has been a blast. It’s actually helping me build up my friends list. Whenever I find someone who talks and communicates well I send a friend request so we can play together again more easily.

    I hear we’re also supposed to be getting this for FREE on the 360 which is a thing of beauty. I guess they cut a deal with microsoft wherin Valve would release a GOTY edition with the full game + patches + new content at retail and everyone who already had it would get it for free.

  14. kelvingreen says:

    See, I see “lighthouse”, and I think that that’s one of the best places to be in a zombie outbreak. Tall building, one door in, a long spiral staircase that’s easy to defend, and, oh yeah, it’s on a rock in the middle of the sea.

    Since that would suck all the challenge out of a survival scenario, I’d guess it’s not that kind of lighthouse. ;)

  15. I’m having trouble understanding the Steam interface.

    In the past, when I’ve played Left4Dead, I have added Shamus as a friend and then click on his profile picture when he’s online and go directly to whatever game he’s currently in.

    I don’t understand what the ‘lobby’ function is for?

    Is it possible to create a game that is for people in the TwentySided group, only? If so, how do I do that in the interface?


    1. Shamus says:

      Leslee Beldotti: To play on the TS server:

      Start up the game. Then click on “campaign”. Then on “play on group server”. It will bring up a list of “group” servers. Assuming you’ve joined the Twenty Sided group, the server will (eventually) appear in this list. It’s easy to spot because it will have a bright red D20 icon. You click on that server and hit “join game”. (Assuming it’s not full. Or all screwed up, like now.)

      Once you’re in the game you can hit ESC to bring up the menu, and from there select “call vote”. There you can change difficulty or map or whatever. A lot of people have missed this detail, and end up playing the default maps over and over because they don’t know they have the power to change it.

  16. RedClyde says:

    Wow, 11:37, nice going.

    I was expecting a different experience from Survival, sort of like a longer finale event that gradually got tougher. It’s not a bad mode, but it’s just too much, too fast for me. Then again, I used to think the same of Versus, so maybe I’ll get used to it.

    EDIT: By the way, is it just me or has the Left 4 Dead icon and metascore disappeared from the Steam games list?

  17. hevis says:

    I tested the Survival mode, and my personal best time was 4:12. It was on some random server, so I believe that with my friends and after few tries we’ll break that 10 minute border.

    What was your strategy when you got that 11 minutes? Just everyone on the roof or what? We noticed at least one thing: going inside is sure death. We died to the first tank, because we didn’t get out fast enough.

    1. Shamus says:

      hevis: Playing on the roof was death for us. People get smoked off, and any break in the group like that is more deadly than a tank.

      I held out in the room just outside the bathroom. 3 of us had the shotgun, and we could usually focus-fire the tank to death before he got to us, particularly if he came in through the bathroom. He gets hung up a bit trying to wade through the door with so many infected around, and we get a few extra shots in.

      Group cohesion is more important than ever. If one person gets pulled, EVERYONE needs to move together. When you need to make an ammo run, everyone goes. In other groups, I found people would play as if it was just an extended finale event. Bill gets smoked out the door. Francis goes after him and gets pounced ten paces away. Louis runs to help and gets mobbed by commons. Then Zoey moves to help, but by then its too late. There are just too many special infected. Any time you’re more than ten paces from the group you’re placing the whole team at risk. (Unless you’re someplace where you can’t be pounced or pulled, assuming such a place exists.)

      1. Shamus says:

        I actually tried a game later in the evening and became frustrated because nobody would hold still. Bill finds that he’s just not killing many zombies from his position in the formation, so he inches forward to shoot out a window. Then francis – who was using the window – moves to the other side of the room in an effort to shoot out the door. Zoey runs into the next room to get a pipebomb all by herself and takes 30 points of damage in the trip. Pretty soon there is no longer a visible “center” for the group, the whole thing comes apart and everyone starts running around like they’re playing Quake 3 Arena. I tried a few times to gently encourage a little discipline, but too many players have been programmed by the end-game stats, “OMG I MUST GET THE MOSTEST KILLZ!”

        In our 11 minute game, I killed very few infected. I was behind the other members, and would melee them free from specials and step forward to focus-fire the tank, or to take someone’s place while they healed. It doesn’t even record individual kills, so there’s no reason to jockey for position.

  18. TainInfernus says:

    It is EXACTLY like someone flying around the level, spawning the maximum of every type of creature. At one time I remember fighting 3 tanks, 4 smokers, and 2 hunters. Ironically, it was the smokers that got us. The tanks “rescued” us from them in time to get caught by another one. It really is obnoxious as all hell when you see the same person get hit by, and rescued from, 3 different smokers in succession… or when you ARE that person!
    The best one I’ve found is the first level in Blood Harvest, the Warehouse. When you open the door, go through and up to the catwalk, and run to the stairs at the far end. Smokers can’t get beneath you, they can barely hit you. Hunters are obsolete until they get to the bottom of the stairs, and the hordes spawn on the exact OPPOSITE side of the entire level. Tanks are an issue, but it’s a good way to rack up time. However, the staircase next to the alarm door is impervious to tanks, as long as you stay next to the stacked tires. They will try to come up through the vent and get stuck, every time.

  19. Greg aka Shizzlick says:

    Yeah, that run was a hell of a lot of fun, it and the runs before it were the most fun I’ve had in L4D since I got it. It definitely helped that we were all using voice chat and could co-ordinate everything and check each other’s ammo status, etc.

    What really killed us were the ammo runs, it was so easy to get swamped/pounced/pulled away and separated from the group. If there had been ammo in that room, we could probably have lasted much, much longer.

    By the way, the Runway level of Dead Air is MURDEROUSLY HARD on survival. My group couldn’t even make it to 5minutes and we were all pretty good.

    Also, Smokers are Evilâ„¢

  20. Johannes says:

    11:37 on the Last Stand?!? Wow… Today I scored gold on the first level of, ah, Death Toll I think, but the lighthouse level is much harder… Hats off to you guys then! I can see who are the pros here, I’m afraid I’m quite one of the run around types (later in the game, I tend to do that to free about everyone from smokers or hunters, if I’m not the one being killed that is).

  21. MadTinkerer says:

    Shamus: “I tried a few times to gently encourage a little discipline, but too many players have been programmed by the end-game stats, “OMG I MUST GET THE MOSTEST KILLZ!””

    I was playing Campaign mode online a couple of weeks ago (it may have been on the Twenty Sided server), and we were in the first map of No Mercy. We had just gotten to the safe house, but someone had suggested “Hey, let’s rack up some more kills, guys!”. My first instinct was “NO! We must SURVIVE!” but then I noticed that we did have pretty good health and a surplus of health packs, and I joined in the kill-racking until the rest of the team got tired of it and went back into the safe room to continue the campaign.

    I don’t know about others, but L4D taught me the right way to play it pretty quickly.

    One of the nice things about L4D is that it tracks all kinds of different stats, so if you’re busy clearing common infected out of the hallways for the rest of your team instead of being the first to smack the hunter off your teammates each time, the game will acknowlege it. If your accuracy isn’t great, but you did the most damage to the Tanks, the game will acknowlege it. If your butterfingers cause the most friendly fire incidents (or Zoey JUST KEEPS JUMPING IN THE LINE OF FIRE), but you’re the most generous with your health packs, the game will acknowlege it. It’s nice that pretty much everyone can have a MVP stat in a particular area at the end.

  22. Rutskarn says:

    I agree, MadTinkerer. I may not kill the most common infected, but I take down the witches and tanks like nobody’ beez-nass.

  23. Karizma says:

    If I could play computer games at all, I’d love to join you on the Twenty Sided server. I’m defaulted to consoles, and so L4D and other would-be great games are blunted with … those people.

  24. lplimac says:

    Sounds like fun, I’ll look for you this weekend :)

  25. Mart says:

    For reasons never explained, your characters activate the light and fog horn.

    Reminds me of the Jurassic Park scene where the T-rex fence came down, and the boy (forgot his name) took out a spotlight to shine at the T-rex.

    I have still yet to try L4D..

  26. Craig says:

    I’m still stuck playing with the unwashed masses of mal-adjusted 30 year-olds and unsupervised 10 year-olds on xbox live. Sigh…

  27. Sem says:

    I bought L4D some months ago. I liked the offline part very much but the online part didn’t went all that well. Out of 4 games there was only one where the players acted like a team (or at least tried). Unfortunately, I’ve to admit that in that game I was the weakest member of the team -_-. In my defense it was only my second online one.

    In all the other sessions it was a total disaster : zero communication, no planning, everyone trying to take the spotlight,… In the worst one, one player felt the need to rush out way out in front of the team to rack up his kills and then start insulting the rest of the players when we didn’t follow fast enough.

    Ever since Shamus started his L4D group I was thinking of trying it again but real life (or my other hobbies) kept butting in and to top it all off my router (or ISP) went haywire the last 4 weeks but seems to have stabilized (for now at least).

    One thing I want to know before I try it : is it expected that you use ingame voice chat or is ‘normal’ chat also ok (or even feasible ? I can imagine that while being overrun by zombies it’s hard to type up a message) ?

    1. Shamus says:

      I would say a mic is strongly encouraged but not required. I’m always happy to play with anyone as long as they’re interested in team-based fun. I generally play on advanced difficulty, but I’d rather play on a lower level than see a new player struggle. Some people are visitors from console land and their mouse-aim skill are still pretty rough, but I always try to go at their speed. When you’ve played the same campaign 20 or 30 times, it’s no longer about the destination or the stats, but about the journey.

      It’s amazing how different the game can be from one session to the next. An expert game with Caliban, Rutskarn, and RedClyde is going to be a completely different experience than jogging through the game on normal, even if we’re playing on the same maps. Your teamwork changes, your behavior changes, your speed changes.

      It really is a remarkable game.

  28. Fry Guy says:

    If you don’t/can’t use the ingame voice chat, because you don’t have a mic or whatever other reason, you’re really doing your team a disservice.

    Vocal call outs for various special infected and the fact that you’d otherwise have to drop everything else to say something really makes typing out messages to your teammates risky at best.

  29. Jugglerman says:

    I know that most people are playing 5 minutes will realize this, but just for the folks who don’t have left 4 dead, the survival mode includes maps already in the campaign but re-done for survival. In the post it makes it sound like the Lighthouse is the only map available for Survival mode. (Not knocking you Shamus, just thought I’d point it out) ;)

    I love the fact that they included the survival mode, because now I can play for a couple rounds, and have it only take ~30 minutes, instead of 2 hours. Thank you valve!
    I would be playing waaaaaay more on the 20sided server if I didn’t have so much damn homework during the week. :(

  30. RTBones says:

    Finally got to have an evening to spend some time mashing zombies (stupid real life getting in the way of gaming goodness….) The irony is that real life got in the way of me doing anything else ANYWAY (returned home from work travel late. Whats a guy to do? LOL)

    Havent played online yet as I dont have a headset/mic setup. That, I hope to change this weekend (as long as real life doesnt rear up and bite me, well, in the rear) All my experience has been single player.

    Favorite weapon so far has to be the hunting rifle coupled with the pipe bombs. A few areas on the hospital level, I was able to sneak out and mow down zombies to create a hole for the team to work in. Sadly, I have a bad habit of waking witches without realizing it…also tend to take more damage than the AI party…hmmmm….A moment I found funny from playing last night — slogging my way up the hospital. Got to the “under construction” area. Was systematically picking off zombies from my point position (to avoid, naturally, shooting any of the team, which, sadly, I do too often). Ping, ping, around a corner I go — right into the arms of a tank, who knocked me off the building. Where the game took me was out and ABOVE the building…until everybody was dead and we respawned.

  31. grasskit says:

    I only tried survival mode couple of times (4 min, with random strangers), but your time (>11min) seems to me quite high, since i remember valve saying that their inhouse record was ~-9-10min (correct me if i’m worng), but that may have been earlier in developement; also people in the forums consistently posting times even higher than that. what gives?

  32. Zukhramm says:

    Well the server seems to work with survival today (or maybe I was just playing with group members but on another server?), anyway, I just got the game and even though I’m not very good at FPSes we managed to make it to 10 minutes, and the game’s incredibly fun!

  33. Allen says:

    I finally picked up L4D, damn you, Shamus. Unfortunately, the server’s either full or empty, and I’m so terribly impatient that I hate waiting. Sigh! It’s a rare – but lucky – opportunity to get to play on the TS server with other TS guys. =P

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