Developer: Turtle Rock
Release Date: Q1 2008
In a way, this is the zombie game that you've been waiting for. Most horror games that involve zombies use them as cannon fodder; they're slow, shambling corpses that exist to use up ammo or slowly deplete health.
In Left 4 Dead, a cooperative multiplayer FPS using Valve's Source engine (so you know it looks good), the zombies are actually scary again. There are hundreds of them, and they can run, jump, climb, and beat down doors. It's the kind of game that will abruptly convince you that whatever your zombie survival plan happens to be, it's not quite thorough enough. Zombies do not obligingly explode into cinematic showers of blood when shot in this game; they barely manage to fall over, making room for the 12 other zombies that were right behind them.
Left 4 Dead is an online shooter for up to eight players. Up to four players can take the role of Louis, Bill, Francis, or Zoey, a group of survivors who may be the only people left alive following the zombie apocalypse. The characters have identical capabilities and can equip themselves with pistols, pipe bombs or Molotovs, and one larger gun such as a pump shotgun or assault rifle. The game is set up to reward team play and punish anyone who tries to go solo; zombies tend to attack by surrounding and beating down a survivor, and a survivor who runs out of health must be hoisted back to his feet by another player in order to continue. Fortunately, it's easy to keep track of the other survivors, as if they aren't in your direct line of sight, you can see their silhouette through walls.
Any other players who enter the game do so as one of four different kinds of "super zombies," each of which has unique abilities. The Hunter is more agile and durable than an ordinary zombie and can lunge to knock down survivors. Boomers are giant, slow, disgustingly fat zombies that can strike survivors with poisonous vomit and explode into clouds of hazardous gore upon their deaths. The Smoker produces thick black clouds of, well, smoke, and can snare survivors with its long, sticky tongue. Finally, the Tank is a mutant abomination that can take enormous amounts of punishment, knock survivors flying by throwing chunks of debris, and body-check its targets clear across a room.
In short, one team is trying to survive the zombies, and the other team is trying to stop them. In the event that less than eight humans are playing, the remaining slots will be filled by bots.
In the middle of all of this, there are the zombies themselves, which aren't pushovers by any means. If you see one, there are five, and there are probably more coming from whatever direction you're not looking in. One shotgun blast or a short burst of rifle fire will put one down, but their sheer speed and numbers still make them devastating opponents.
At the start of a round of Left 4 Dead, the survivors begin their run on one end of the map. At EA's recent media summit, the map on display was an urban area, meant to recall a relatively generic Midwestern US city. The survivors' path took them through an apartment building and the streets, down into the sewers, and finally up to the roof of a hospital to call for evacuation. Periodically, the survivors' route took them into checkpoints, safe places where they could get new first aid kits, switch out their weapons, and stock up on ammunition. (Left 4 Dead is definitely a survival horror game, but only in that it's about surviving a horrific situation. Ammo is rarely in short supply.)
The entire time, zombies surged in from every direction, and the larger monsters appeared at the worst possible time; Turtle Rock's developers played the monsters and had a knack for striking just when the survivors' guard was down. I was playing as Francis, a heavily tattooed biker, and just as we'd finished off a wave of zombies in the hospital, a Smoker latched onto my neck and dragged me all the way down a hall. The only thing that kept me alive was a lucky shotgun blast in the right direction.
Frankly, I went into the event interested in Left 4 Dead, and now I'm thinking of building a new and better gaming PC so I can play it. (There's going to be a 360 port, but after playing the PC version, I can't imagine going through this game with an analog stick. Then again, there are Achievements to consider….) It's simple, but it's an interesting blend of cooperative and deathmatch gameplay that's also genuinely frightening much of the time.
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