It was a happy accident for Valve that Left 4 Dead became a pioneering "hangout game"—the kind of game you could play with friends night after night, taking it as seriously as you wanted to, chatting about work or whatever in the downtime between horde attacks. That's one of the keys to Left 4 Dead 2's longevity (it's still among the 50 or so most-played games on Steam 12 years in). The other is its immense mod scene, which lets you turn your survivors into velociraptors or explore a shockingly detailed remake of the Resident Evil mansion.
Both are pillars of spiritual successor The Anacrusis from former Valve developers, which trades zombies for aliens in a retro sci-fi setting.
"When my co-founder Dr. Kimberly Voll and I started talking about this, we were talking about gaming as a social space. And thinking, if you stood back and thought of games that way versus games as an activity, what would you do and how would you approach it?" says Chet Faliszek, who worked at Valve for more than a decade. "I really loved the co-op on Left 4 Dead and how people acted together, and we really wanted to capture that and bring that into the modern setting and update a lot of what we learned there and take it to the next place."
So what does that mean? Not just zombies are passe now, though The Anacrusis does ditch them in favor of piles of vaguely xenomorphy aliens, but it's the AI behind them Faliszek says is significant. "That's one of the reasons why, for this game in particular, that Kim is the perfect partner," he says. Voll has a PhD in AI, and "the very first code" written for The Anacrusis was how its version of the Left 4 Dead AI director will work.
Faliszek says that the way enemies behave is significantly different here, guided by what they learned from watching how players play co-op games together. That also informed the new "special infected" equivalents, like an alien called The Spawner that will continue creating small turret enemies that attack you until The Spawner's killed. The Flasher mucks with your vision and senses. The Brute is, much like L4D's Tank, a big bruiser.
Nothing revolutionary here, but the promise is that the AI driver will know when to bring all these baddies to bear to split up a group.
What I'm most interested in is the weapons of The Anacrusis's sci-fi setting. In the trailer above you can see one player throw a stasis grenade and another some sort of black hole grenade that sucks a bunch of aliens into a gravity well. The gun featured in most of the video looks like a bland pea shooter, but there's also an arc rifle that sends tendrils of electricity through multiple aliens, so I'm hopeful there's more fun design like that lurking beyond the scant minute we've seen so far. Faliszek says to expect more added to the game over time—one of the benefits of sci-fi is that it opens up the "craziness" of what you can do with weapons.
One other big change from Left 4 Dead is the addition of a perks system, which will work quite differently than the class-based leveling of, say, Vermintide 2.
"One of the things I've seen with a lot of modern games is they make you pick your class ahead of time, and then you get in this rut," Faliszek says. "What happens if you make it more dynamic? When we were doing Left 4 Dead, Valve had just had the Alien Swarm team join as well. Alien Swarm was all about the choices you made in the beginning. And I remember some argument internally about why didn't Left 4 Dead do some of that. My argument was, it was way more interesting on the fly to have these strategies where you have to decide based on what you have on-hand."
Earning the Anacrusis's perks will give you some modern meta progression, but they won't lock you into a particular character or class. And because the social angle is core to the design, friends who join your game will have access to the perks you've unlocked, so there's no annoying discrepancy between your 40-hour account and their brand new one.
The way you find perk rewards within levels is also aimed at making for a better co-op experience: you'll find machines called "matter compilers" scattered through levels, and the whole team gets to use it, not just the player who found it first.
As with Left 4 Dead, The Anacrusis will have its stages divided up into episodes, and the levels themselves won't change, though the placement of items and enemies will. Dr. Voll designed tools to make it especially easy to populate levels and to automatically determine the AI's pathing around geometry, something that Faliszek says will be available to modders as well. The game is being designed to be moddable day one, when it releases later this fall on Xbox as well as Steam and the Epic Games Store.
I asked Faliszek if this was going to be Early Access, because what's in the trailer above does look unpolished, particularly the animations on enemies and the weak weapon impacts. Are these aliens going to be fun to shoot without Left 4 Dead's dismemberment? I hope so, because The Anacrusis is staying light on gore to fit a more playful aesthetic. And it's not launching in Early Access, but Faliszek wants to do years of updates with new episodes that continue The Anacrusis's story.
"When you do that kind of thing you have to be communicating with players and have a clear roadmap. I think players are smart these days and understand that desire for teams to want to [collect information]. You can do a beta that's just 'hey we're going to see how our servers go.' Or you can do a beta that's 'hey I want to see how players behave and I want to start tuning.' And you can do one, like we're proposing, which is: Want to make sure the servers are good, the weapons are tuned, and if you have a magic wand, what would you want to add? … We can do that in a small scale, but what happens when you get everybody in, and get their feedback, and start growing it from there?"