Top Five Left 4 Dead 1/2 Custom Campaigns

In August 2010, Chet Faliszek announced Valve would begin to rotate biweekly custom-made campaigns on the official servers of Left 4 Dead 2:

Every two weeks we are going to feature a new community campaign on our servers. We will feature one campaign at a time to make it is easier to find games. We’ll be keeping it featured for two weeks so people can familiarize themselves with the maps for competitive play.1

Though we wholeheartedly agreed with Valve on their choice to start their campaign off with 2 Evil Eyes, their subsequent picks have not been as bold as we had hoped, as the team has since gone on to pick Detour Ahead, City 17, Haunted Forest, Dead Before Dawn, One 4 Nine and I Hate Mountains. Now that the slow trickle of maps seems to have dried up – sans Cold Stream, of course, which is still a river running wild – we wanted to introduce to old and new players alike a list of five great Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 custom campaigns – that is, the best maps Valve is yet to highlight.

We applied a loose criteria to this list of Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 maps. First and foremost, each level was to be available for both games. Second, we expected proper playability on the “expert” difficulty setting. Third, all these levels enjoy a degree of popularity in the community, so as to make finding servers and players easier.  Fourth, we did somewhat consider artistic merits like overall look and feel, setpieces, setting and brushwork.

Fifth, we also sought out campaigns that would adhere to the gameplay standards and Left 4 Dead fiction as defined in practice by Valve. This meant no nasty surprises, traps, or major changes to campaign flow. The reason all the campaigns below have been tested and completed on the “expert” difficulty level is because we found that this particular setting best reveals the extent of balancing (or lack thereof) in terms of campaign length, pacing and structure.

In order to play the campaigns below, all you need to do is download Left 4 Dead Add-on support in the tools tab of the Steam library. Installing a custom campaign should be as simple as double-clicking the .vpk file that is extracted after uncompressing the downloaded archive. Off we go – feel free to recommend other campaigns in the comments, too!

Dam It 2 (for Left 4 Dead 1)

Dam It 2 (for Left 4 Dead 1) may only have one really strong suit, but the map sure does wear it to work: The entire three-level campaign is built around one of the best set pieces in recent gaming memory, as the levels stretch around and about a magnificent hoover dam. Highly polished level design and cool architecture allow you to experience this massive construction from a wide variety of positions and angles as you progress through the campaign’s levels – a great artistic achievement that is overshadowed only by the expert flow of the campaign layout.

It’s very rare to see a campaign stick to one core idea in both its setting and narrative; even Valve’s official campaigns are sometimes guilty of meandering about. Dam It, though, is all about the dam, all the way. While the ending does have its own share of balancing issues and is quite flawed from a technical standpoint, and although the map only comes packaged with three levels, some of them are vastly longer than is the standard for Left 4 Dead 2.

Of final note is the clever and functional reapproppriation of the game’s existing voice recordings, something that not nearly enough campaigns take proper advantage of, especially given that the game’s voice actors recorded unused banter meant solely to be used by modders anyway!

Dead Echo 2 (for Left 4 Dead 1)

Dead Echo 2,” (for Left 4 Dead 1) another gem of a campaign ported over from the first game to the second, is best characterized by its solid five-level length. In fact, compared to Valve’s own levels, Dead Echo 2 is actually longer than the standard. The campaign, which very much sticks to what is a proven formula, proceeds via a scenic route through urban and rural areas, finally topping off the adventure at the titular “Echo” military outpost in a finale with several simultaneous tanks. Nuts.

Unfortunately for first-time players, like Dam It, Dead Echo’s campaign finale can appear slightly confusing in addition to being rather long and challenging. Though not superlative in any one aspect, Dead Echo nevertheless comes close to reaching Valve-level quality simply by being polished, challenging and enjoyable at the same time. This is quite the achievement in and of itself.

Death Aboard 2 (for Left 4 Dead 1)

Death Aboard” (for Left 4 Dead 1) seems like a standard-fare campaign on the outset, only to break out of the mould with its momentous fourth level, transforming the map from kinda decent to a unique experience. The campaign is set around the surroundings of a half-sunken tanker ship, which is a rollercoaster ride with excellent use of angles combined with functionally sound level design and balancing. Although its beginning, a prison facility – a surprisingly common location for Left 4 Dead maps – is more of a chore than it need be, once your team makes it closer to the actual tanker, which offers some simply fantastic geometric implications – things will be on the upswing.

While the Left 4 Dead 2 version has suffered a little in conversion, with the level’s barebones brushwork shining through more in the new dusk lighting than it did before, the campaign does nevertheless fit the Left 4 Dead 2 aesthetic just as well as it does the first. In fact, the campaign’s final level is actually improved by the bathing of the gentle, radiant beams of the sunset.

A highly recommended, creative campaign defined especially by its fourth level.

Fort Noesis (for Left 4 Dead 1)

Next up, “Fort Noesis” (for Left 4 Dead 1) from Noesis Interactive, peddlers of tutorials. This medium-length three-level campaign, though often hampered by artificial roadblocks and labyrinthine floor plans that have nothing to do with real-world buildings, nevertheless remains very playable and sometimes actually reaches its lofty goals.

A curious lack of polish – including possibly the longest, most agonizing camera run ever at the very beginning of the campaign – nevertheless befuddles, especially when taking into account the company behind the campaign. Even with its flaws fully apparent, the campaign remains surprisingly enjoyable, especially for skilled teams – as with the other campaigns on this list, Fort Noesis’ finale has too been designed to push players, with nary a camping spot on offer. Players of the finale are truly left to their own devices – and skills – to work through.

Heaven Can Wait 2 (for Left 4 Dead 1)

Heaven Can Wait (for Left 4 Dead 1) is an ultra-long campaign that has a longer first level than most custom maps are in their entirety. I kid, I kid, but I swear you’ll feel that way after you’re done with it. The campaign begins with an aircrash (as always) and quickly sequences into a labyrinthine Blood Harvest -like forest, ultimately culminating in a challenging, large-scale finale that is further enhanced in the Left 4 Dead 2 upgrade, which comes with all-new weather effects.

The campaign is jam-packed with scripted sequences and sports some impressive brushwork and a realistic flow from beginning to end. In fact, its foundation in reality might very well be the campaign’s greatest strength and weakness: Especially on your very first try, finding the correct route can be a difficult task.

On the one hand, this can make for a frustrating experience. On the other hand, the campaign allows for exploration and rewards players for looking around its various nooks and crannies – quite the rarity in Left 4 Dead on the whole. Whether you consider this a positive or a negative is up for debate.

Be it as it may, Heaven Can Wait is best enjoyed especially with a group of familiars and friends.

TL;DR Downloads:

  1. Dam It 2 (for Left 4 Dead 1)
  2. Dead Echo 2 (for Left 4 Dead 1)
  3. Death Aboard 2 (for Left 4 Dead 1)
  4. Fort Noesis (for Left 4 Dead 1)
  5. Heaven Can Wait 2 (for Left 4 Dead 1)

All in all, the one common factor that very much ties all these levels together is how they all utilize a single core set piece to produce an exhilarating finale in addition to providing eye candy; we’ve already seen this occur with Left 4 Dead 1’s I Hate Mountains, Dead Before Dawn and the utterly fantastic Suicide Blitz. Hopefully you’ll enjoy playing these custom creations as much as we did.

Special thanks to the go-to Left 4 Dead 1 and 2 campaign hub, l4dmaps.com.

  1. http://www.l4d.com/blog/post.php?id=4194 []