Left 4 Dead Getting Started Guide: Surviving the Apocalypse

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The Left 4 Dead series introduced the games industry to action-packed missions filled with countless hordes of zombies for teams of up to four players to run through. The games, developed by Turtle Rock Studios and Valve, essentially defined the co-op horde shooter genre and were an instant hit with fans.

With the second game’s release, the experience was further expanded, solidifying the two as classics that are still played despite years without a third entry. So, if you’re looking to jump in with some friends and cut through hordes of zombies together, this Left 4 Dead getting started guide will cover all of the essentials you need to know to begin your journey.

Key Info Up Front

  • Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
  • Price: $9.99
  • Genre: Co-op Horde Shooter
  • Modes: Singleplayer, Local Co-op, Online Co-op, Online Multiplayer

Before You Begin

Left 4 Dead

Before you jump into Left 4 Dead, there are some things that you should be aware of first. The first is the differences between the two titles because there are fans that prefer both of them.

However, I’m a bigger fan of the second. The most immediately noticeable change from the first game to the second is a new cast of four playable characters. Each character plays the same as their counterparts, but it does change the personalities that players are exposed to as they go through levels.

The second main difference is the addition of melee weapons in Left 4 Dead 2. These weapons don’t require any ammunition, allowing the player to have a fallback weapon that they couldn’t always rely on. Melee weapons are a divisive element in the Left 4 Dead community, but I personally almost always enjoy having more options for players to choose from.

Left 4 Dead 2 also expanded the number of enemy types players can come across during levels as well as new pieces of equipment that can be found throughout levels to help them make it. One of these additions largely change how the game is played, but instead add more variety and elements to consider on repeat playthroughs.

The next important part of Left 4 Dead to understand is exactly what is all available in the titles. There has been a lot of innovation in the genre since Left 4 Dead 2 was released, so I think it is pivotal that you know exactly what the games entail.

Both of the games is centered around Campaigns, each of which is a procession of more minor levels that share a common theme and locations. Each of the individual levels is played in the same order every time you go through a Campaign, but they have slightly randomized elements to help keep things fresh.

These campaigns can then be played alone with AI companions, local co-op, online co-op, or online multiplayer. The online multiplayer mode pits a team of four players against four other players to see which can perform better as humans. The other team opposes them by controlling the more powerful enemies encountered during the level.

Core Mechanics

Left 4 Dead Mechanics

When you first jump into Left 4 Dead, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer variety of options, levels, and enemies you have to deal with. At least, I know that I was. So, there are some core mechanics that I think can be very helpful to understand before you even get your first starting gun.


When you first load into either title, you won’t be able to start playing until you pick a Campaign. Each Campaign has a handful of levels to play through, but there is no need to play through them in the listed order. Instead, I would recommend just picking whichever one catches your eye first.

The Campaigns in each game, both those included at launch and those added as post-launch DLC and updates, have a unique theme with their set pieces, stories, and mechanics, but they don’t build on top of one another.

This means that if you start with a Campaign in the middle of Left 4 Dead 2 and then jump to a random Campaign in Left 4 Dead, you won’t get confused with jumbled story beats or difficulty spikes. Instead, each Campaign is effectively insular from the other Campaigns, which I think is excellent to allow players to play through the content in any order they want.

The variety throughout the Campaigns also helps keep them fresh for players as they go to replay them, but there are some consistencies for you to get used to.

For one, the final level most often features a horde structure that sees players trying to defend one location from massive waves of enemies while they wait for a boat or helicopter to come and extract them. These levels are one of my favorite parts of a Campaign, but there are plenty of others, from stealth sections to filling cars with gasoline.

Special Infected

While the enemies in Left 4 Dead are most commonly referred to as zombies, inside the logic and lore of the games themselves, they are called Infected. Normal Infected functions similarly to how you would expect most zombies to act from pop culture. They want to eat people, shamble around in large groups, are attracted to loud noises, and are most effectively killed with a bullet to the brain.

However, Left 4 Dead also introduced the concept of Special Infected. These enemies spawn much less frequently than their regular Infected counterparts, but they come with unique abilities and mechanics to attack players and keep them on their toes.

These Special Infected came to become an iconic and trendsetting part of the series, and they can create a seemingly infinite amount of fun moments and memories shared between you and your friends. So, before you jump in, I think it can be helpful to know exactly what kind of Special Infected you can expect to run into.

special infected left 4 dead

Left 4 Dead Special Infected

  • Boomer: Boomers can spell disaster for your entire squad of players, making them one of my personal favorites. They can vomit bile that attracts common infected, causing more enemies to spawn in and blindly charge at any affected players, who also have their vision impacted to make it harder for them to defend themselves. I have gone through so many levels that are quickly ended with an ambushing Boomer, while they can be a blast to control while playing competitive multiplayer.
  • Hunter: Hunters are a Special Infected that focus on targeting one survivor and punishing them for getting too far away from their companions. They do this by jumping on a survivor and clawing at them while they are pinned on the ground. While the survivor is pinned, they cannot do anything but watch as the Hunter tears them apart, requiring a team member to help kill the Hunter to set them free.
  • Smoker: Smokers operate similarly to Hunters but attack with an atrociously long tongue that wraps around a survivor and pulls them toward the Smoker. This also restricts the survivor from doing anything, requiring another survivor to step in and take out the Smoker. The Smoker’s tongue periodically damages the incapacitated survivor while the Smoker claws the survivor for extra damage if pulled in.
  • Tank: Tanks are a boss Special Infected, the zombie equivalent of a wrecking ball. As their name implies, Tanks are hulking masses of muscle capable of wiping out an entire team of survivors, especially with the help of a strategic Smoker or Hunter. They have massive health pools, can throw survivors around with melee attacks, and can tear chunks of concrete out of the ground to use as ranged projectiles. Tanks are frightening in the best of circumstances, but trust me, you’ll come across plenty in close-quarters to teach you just how lethal they can be.
  • Witch: Witches are creepy Special Infected are emaciated women who spawn in parts of the map and sob into their hands. You can hear them crying from a reasonable distance away, but flashlights or moving too quickly will startle them. The player that scares the Witch is then almost guaranteed to lose all of their health as the Witch will charge them and target them with a flurry of attacks using their long claws.

Special Infected Added in Left 4 Dead 2

Special Infected Left 4 Dead 2

  • Spitter: The first Special Infected that you only have to worry about in Left 4 Dead 2 is the Spitter. These enemies are long-necked infected that lob balls of acid that cover a section of ground, damaging any survivors that stand in them. This makes Spitters very useful as area-denial units to control where survivors go or force them to leave a corner or anywhere they’ve been holed up for too long.
  • Jockey: The Jockey is my least favorite of all the Special Infected to deal with. These enemies jump onto a survivor and take control of their movement. the survivor can fight back and try to influence it. However, a good Jockey can still guide a survivor off a fatal ledge or into a horde that keeps their companions from being able to reach them effectively.
  • Charger: Chargers do precisely as their name implies. They charge a survivor in a burst of speed, picking them up with one massive arm and repeatedly slamming them into the ground until one of them is killed. While Chargers don’t seem as intimidating as some of the other Special Infected in the games, they can be a devastating addition to a bad horde or situation.


Weapons in Left 4 Dead

So, there are a lot of enemies and threats to look out for while you’re playing as a survivor. You’ll have to take full advantage of the array of weapons and equipment in the games to do so. Each player in both games can equip a primary weapon, a secondary, an offensive throwable, a utility throwable, and a healing item.

Primary weapons in Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 can be split into two tiers of their general power and usability. In Left 4 Dead Tier 1 weapons include the Pump Shotgun and Submachine Gun, which are usually given to the player as options at the start of a Campaign. Later in the Campaign, players can find Tier 2 weapons, the Auto Shotgun, Assault Rifle, and Hunting Rifle.

Left 4 Dead 2 expands the arsenal considerably. Tier 1 weapons include the Pump Shotgun, Chrome Shotgun, Submachine Gun, and the Silenced Submachine Gun in the sequel. The Tier 2 list has the Tactical Shotgun, Combat Shotgun, Hunting Rifle, Sniper Rifle, M-16 Assault Rifle, Combat Rifle, and AK-47. However, Left 4 Dead 2 also introduced the Magnum Pistol as a secondary with a slower fire rate but more significant damage.

As mentioned previously, Left 4 Dead 2 also introduced melee weapons with their damage values and attack speed. I love using a melee weapon to carve my way through a crowd of infected, and when I do, I can choose from a Fireaxe, Baseball Bat, Cricket Bat, Crowbar, Frying Pan, Golf Club, Guitar, Katana, Machete, or Nightstick.

While playing through levels, players can also get their hands on equipment items like explosive barrels, medkits, pipe bombs, and Molotov Cocktails. All of the above weapons each have their characteristics and stats obscured in the game itself, so the only way to learn which you like is to try them all and find out.

Getting Started

When you first jump into Left 4 Dead, you may not be sure where to start, and that’s okay. There is no main storyline to play through, no actual tutorial, and a lack of any indication of where new players should learn the ropes. So, if you have a friend or two that is into Left 4 Dead, I recommend playing with them the first few times to have a source of information as you go through the game.

Starting Out

Regardless of whether you have a friend, though, I insist that you start by playing through the Campaigns. This can be done on Easy if you’re new to the genre of first-person shooters in general, or if you are a bit more weathered, you should be fine to start playing on normal.

I recommend playing through the Campaigns first to give you a chance to learn the game’s mechanics, controls and give you a way to learn what to expect from the game and levels moving forward.

During this time, I suggest you experiment as much as possible with each of the weapons and equipment options in the game.

You can play as any of the characters that appeal to you or rotate between them to try them out, but finding out what each weapon is capable of and what ones you prefer is paramount to getting better at the game. I enjoy an assault rifle with a melee weapon, but there are dozens of different loadouts to build, so make sure to take the time to know which one suits you the best.

Try Multiplayer

Left 4 Dead Multiplayer

Once you’ve got your bearing in what to expect from levels, Special Infected, and the different weapons you like to use, you should jump into multiplayer and try. The multiplayer mode is a unique experience, but it is also a great way to improve your skills and mix up the gameplay for the levels you’re now familiar with.

The difficulty introduced via other players is also a great way to get more experience and acts as an exciting difficulty between the normal difficulty and the much more punishing higher difficulties. This will help you prepare to move up the difficulty ladder without forcing you to beat your head against the wall as you try to get used to moving past Normal.

Whether you play alone or have a group of friends to team up with, multiplayer is very approachable, so you shouldn’t hesitate to jump in. Playing with random players through matchmaking is still an absolute blast, and I’ve found that playing as a Special Infected is a great way to understand their capabilities more for when you play regular Campaigns as well.

Move Up in Difficulties

After spending some time playing multiplayer, you may want to try tackling some of the more challenging difficulties in Left 4 Dead. The more serious difficulties in the series can be incredibly punishing. Special Infected can take a survivor down all by themselves, hordes can wipe an entire team, and players have to implement strategies they can execute together if they want to have any chance of surviving.

As punishing as these difficulties can be, I promise they can also be an absolute blast. Working together with friends to overcome these hard Campaigns is very rewarding. If you want to survive one, you and your teammates will have to coordinate your loadouts, be efficient with equipment, and prepare ahead of time for any hordes or larger set pieces.

Consider Mods

Whether or not you get into the higher difficulties of Left 4 Dead, there is no shame in preferring to stick to Normal or lower, you’ll eventually see everything there is to see in both Left 4 Dead games. That is when I recommend looking at their extensive libraries of mods. Both of the games are built on Valve’s adaptable Source Engine, and there are huge libraries of mods on the Steam Workshop for players to peruse and pick from.

These mods can serve a variety of functions. Many are jokes, character model changes, or entirely new weapons and Campaigns. There are even mods that introduce new physics simulations for corpses, touch up the visual quality of blood splatters, and just about anything else you can think of.

Mods can support a game for years after its release, and Left 4 Dead is no different. Exploring the possibilities and toying around with what you find there can give you dozens more hours of gameplay, so I can’t recommend seeing what is out there once you get comfortable with the game enough.

Mistakes to Avoid

Left 4 Dead

As a newer player, you’ll have a lot of aspects of the series to figure out as you play, which is entirely normal and expected. However, I have some advice that can help make the process easier for you. So, when you start playing, make sure to avoid these mistakes:

  • Don’t avoid experimenting with different weapons or focus on only using one weapon. This will help you learn the game better and make sure that you can adapt to the randomized gun spawns as you go through levels.
  • Don’t be a lone wolf. Running away on your own for a short period of time can be fine, but only when you communicate with your team ahead of time. If you try to run through a level by yourself or get too far ahead of other players, Special Infected will easily pick you off. Then, either your team will leave you to die as punishment for your transgression, or they will have to run back or forward to save you.
  • Don’t get caught in friendly fire too much. To prevent getting shot in the back of the head, crouch down when you have teammates shooting from behind you.
  • In the same vein, practice good trigger discipline. Shooting your teammates can quickly damage them and set your team in an even worse position than they otherwise would have been.
  • Don’t stay still. If you and your team stay in one place for too long, you’ll start getting swarmed by infected, run out of resources, and quickly get overwhelmed. Instead, keep on the move and only stay still for a while if you can find a defensible position or have to for an objective.

Long-Term Goals

Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 are both barebones when it comes to long-term player progression, especially compared to modern titles. This ultimately boils down to the fact that players have to make their own goals to strive for. There is no account level, unlockable content, or progression system. If you spend hundreds of hours playing Left 4 Dead 2, you will have as much content as when you first started.

This can be a turn-off for many players, but it also allows you to stop playing when you no longer have fun. The long-term goals of playing the game are completely dependent on the player.

You may want to beat all of the campaigns on the hardest difficulty, dominate players in multiplayer for a few hours a week, or look for a game to jump into with friends for a laidback time every once in a while.

All of these are viable options, but if you end up sticking with Left 4 Dead, there won’t be anything in the game to help keep you there.


Question: Why were Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 censored?

Answer: In some countries, the games were heavily censored to remove many of its gore effects and remove references to realistic weaponry.

Question: Is Left 4 Dead free?

Answer: No, both Left 4 Dead games have to be purchased regardless of the platform you wish to play on. However, some of the game’s DLCs are free when playing on Steam, and the games frequently go on sale with significant price cuts.

Question: Is Left 4 Dead on mobile?

Answer: No, there is no officially licensed Left 4 Dead mobile game.


Both Left 4 Dead games are extremely fun and offer a blast whether you’re playing alone or with a friend or two. The games have managed to stay a stalwart of the industry for years after their releases, and it is for a good reason.

So, if you’re looking to jump into some horde-slaying fun, either game will serve you well. They may take so e time to get used to, but the entire experience can be a lot of fun from start to finish.

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