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Friday, June 14, 2024

The Anacrusis illustrates just how ingenious Left 4 Dead really was

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The Anacrusis lacks many of the things I usually point to when describing what makes a shooter fun. A recent patch made its plasma rifle less of a pew pew pew gun and more of a thump thump gun, and a bit of bass does go a long way toward making the weapon feel less toy-like, but its behaviors remain stiff and simple, as if it’s a UI element rather than an object. And despite some recent animation improvements, the alien enemies can come across like holograms that don’t truly inhabit the space or feel the impacts of sizzling plasma bolts. I do like that sometimes they’re inexplicably launched vertically on death, but the frequency of spontaneous ragdoll lift-offs was sadly reduced by a recent patch.

The Anacrusis is fun anyway, which speaks to the strength of its Left 4 Dead bones: When four players are desperately trying to mop up floods of sprinting aliens without being swallowed up, the sophistication of the weapons and enemies doesn’t seem as important. The Anacrusis is early in Early Access, though, so I don’t recommend it right now, unless you have PC Game Pass. Empty slots in its Left 4 Dead-style co-op missions can be filled with bots, but it won’t start for me unless I matchmake with at least one other player, which can take time. Private matches aren’t supported yet.

I respect that The Anacrusis has chosen to be a co-op game above all else. Even in this early state, it has good built-in voice chat and crossplay. In one session a couple weeks ago, I had fun chatting with a rare player who was using their mic, although we were competing with the hilariously incessant character barks. Here’s an actual transcription of 23 seconds in the game: Got the canister! I’m gonna have to drop this thing! I’m dropping it! Grabbed it! Brute! Brute! Gooper! Spawner! Goo! Dropping the canister! 

You can drop the character dialogue volume slider to zero if you like, but the chatter is a useful illustration of just how much The Anacrusis comes across like a long lost sci-fi prototype for Left 4 Dead. Each player controls one of four characters (although there isn’t much to them right now except for different voices and different blank stares on their faces) as they escape deadly hordes of regular and special aliens. Makes sense: Former Valve writer Chet Faliszek is one of the studio founders, and the other is former Riot Games technical designer Dr Kimberly Voll, whose AI expertise contributes to The Anacrusis’s greatest strength. 

Like Left 4 Dead, The Anacrusis features an AI “director” who controls the pressure of the hoses that pump enemies into the levels, adjusting the challenge as the squad races toward a safe room at one end of the map. My squad and I have been brought to the brink of a full wipe several times, enough that it doesn’t feel like a coincidence—the AI is working, seemingly. The aliens may lack character, but it’s still fun to crawl back from the edge of failure by methodically hosing down hordes of them with a laser beam, or crouching in front of a chokepoint blasting them with an energy shotgun.

The beginnings of some other cool things are present in The Anacrusis. I like that everyone can trigger blasts of kinetic energy centered on themselves, shoving away regular aliens. It’s a satisfying move, especially when a bunch of aliens are flung into the air like a pile of Agent Smiths in the second Matrix movie, and I don’t feel let down by the absence of a Counter-Strike style melee attack, which wouldn’t help much. Alongside the very familiar brutes, goo-shooting guys, and tongue grabbers, there is also one novel special alien type. Flashers engulf the level in ultrabright light, which is convincing enough to trigger my squint reflex. It feels charmingly like the result of a 2009 graphics modder discovering bloom for the first time, and it’s fun to home in on the mini-sun’s white hot center to kill them.

Speaking of graphics modding, support for mods is a stated part of the plan for The Anacrusis, which contributes in a good way to the impression that it really is a decade-old Source engine game. Right now, though, I don’t find The Anacrusis more appealing than the actual decade-old Source engine games it emulates. It demonstrates that Left 4 Dead is still fun even if you strip away the entertaining characters, guns, atmosphere, and scares, but it’s certainly not more fun.

When I think of Left 4 Dead, I think of a hospital and a church and a forest, of being in the dark, scared, and running away from slobbery creatures who want to tear my flesh from my bones. In contrast, The Anacrusis’s giant spaceship is a procession of bright, smooth ’70s sci-fi chambers that are more like arena shooter levels than human habitats. There’s a cool bit where you run through a flower-filled field in the ship’s ‘outdoors’ area (I was reminded a little of Serious Sam), but overall, the architectural consistency produces the same effect as a themed Las Vegas hotel. One space has a different function from another, but they’re all made of the same materials, with the same bright lighting. Perhaps The Anacrusis captures what life on a giant futuristic spaceship would actually be like, in which case I’m glad I was not born on one.

Whether I like the setting or not, though, lying on my back desperately shooting at aliens to protect the stranger who’s trying to pick me up, or vice versa, produces warm feelings and gives our adventure meaning all on its own. We may not know or care what’s at the end of the level, but damned if we’re going to let each other down. Co-op creates instant stakes. Left 4 Dead was a brilliant game.

Will that be enough to make The Anacrusis successful, though? There was a while there where it felt like Left 4 Dead 2 was going to stand forever as the definitive four-player horde shooter experience, but there’s a lot of competition these days. Original Left 4 Dead studio Turtle Rock (which separated from Valve in 2011) recently released its own successor to L4D, Back 4 Blood. There’s also Deep Rock Galactic, GTFO, and the new Rainbow Six Extraction. In the near future, Dishonored and Prey studio Arkane is entering the genre with Redfall. Given the talent behind it, The Anacrusis will be worth another look when it hits its 1.0 release, which is supposed to happen near the end of this year, and I hope that by then it has set itself apart more convincingly.  

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