Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Turtle Rock
Release Date: November 20, 2008
As the Left 4 Dead versus multiplayer press event wound to an end, PR set out a parting gift for those of us who'd traveled out to the The Mighty to eat finger foods and kill each other. It was, at first glance, a box of baseball caps emblazoned with neatly stitched Left 4 Dead logos. Once you picked one up, though, it was hard not to grin at the gimmick of the gift. The hat was "damaged," with the stitching and fabric unraveling at key points. The idea was to make the hat look as if it had come through a zombie apocalypse, ha ha.
Left 4 Dead's versus multiplayer gameplay is a lot like my souvenir hat. The basic idea is to simulate the feeling of playing through a "zombie apocalypse" scenario. One team of four plays "survivors," heavily armed versions of the four main characters from the single-player and co-op campaigns. Their opponents are a team of four players controlling "zombie bosses," super-powerful zombie monsters who appear as boss battles in the core campaign. While the survivors have access to the traditional tools of the multiplayer shooter, guns and health packs, the zombie bosses are assisted by tons of NPC zombies. Both sides fight only to amass points based on killing enemies and avoiding death at the enemy's hands. A game is always going to end with a time-out, the survivors reaching a safehouse, or all of the survivors being murdered by zombies. When you begin the next game, the two sets of players switch sides.
This should be fairly revolutionary stuff. Yet, just as my souvenir zombie-chewed Left 4 Dead cap is really just an ordinary baseball cap, Left 4 Dead's versus multiplayer is really just an ordinary Counter-Strike-derived team deathmatch mode. This shouldn't surprise fans who've tracked Left 4 Dead for any length of time, as the developer's only previously released title is Counterstrike: Condition Zero for the PC. The dev also ported Counter-Strike to the Xbox and designed a variety of Counter-Strike: Source maps. The game even runs on Valve's Source engine. Sure, it's dressed up in a zombie skin, but even that is probably going to remind you more of other zombie video games — Resident Evil in particular — more than any sort of traditional zombie apocalypse tale.
The cynical gamer would probably make the argument here that Left 4 Dead's multiplayer, much like my souvenir cap, is really nothing special. Perhaps that's true. Yet, just as I find my Left 4 Dead zombie-chewed souvenir cap fairly amusing, I have to say that the actual experience of Left 4 Dead's versus multiplayer is really quite fun. Counter-Strike has endured as one of the most consistently played Half-Life mods on the Internet because it's an incredibly good framework for having two groups of gamers go at it. Left 4 Dead's multiplayer changes the standard rules of team deathmatch just enough that, while you couldn't confuse it for a legitimate survival horror experience, it certainly evokes enough scares and chills to keep you from thinking about it in any rational way as you play.
No, Left 4 Dead's multiplayer is an exercise in immediate tension. The survivors spawn in a "safe room," and no zombie bosses can spawn until the survivors choose to open the door, but before zombie bosses spawn, they get to travel the map freely and pick exactly where they want to appear. A zombie boss who finds a room full of enemies or a darkened alleyway just behind the survivors can do tremendous damage, regardless of the weapons or ammo that the good guys are carrying. The longer the survivor team takes to agree upon exactly who will carry which weapon and pick up the health packs, the longer the opposing team has to coordinate and plan its assault.
The zombie bosses each have a particular power that, naturally, complements the abilities of the other bosses. At the event, EA had both the 360 and PC SKU available for play, and oddly enough, the way zombie teams fared was totally different at each station. Zombies generally had a harder time making headway against survivors on the PC iteration than they did on the 360 version, where zombie bosses were "punished" by longer respawn times. As hard as it might be to believe, the zombie bosses do play more comfortably with the Xbox 360 controller, likely due to their trigger-controlled attacks feeling a bit more intuitive there. The zombies don't get to use any guns or tools, and don't even get to shoot projectiles; they play a totally different game than the gun-toting survivors.
The four bosses are the Boomer, the Hunter, the Smoker and the Tank. As the name suggestions, the Tank is very tough, huge and super-strong. Used aggressively, his massive punches can deal gobs of damage to a cornered survivor. It's hard to take him down without the entire survivor team ganging up on him, so ideally, the other three bosses are off distracting or splitting up the survivors while the Tank goes about his violent work. The Smoker is ideal for this job, as he can use his long tongue to constrict a survivor and then drag him or her away from the main group. If you can do this while the other survivors are pinned down fighting zombie hordes, a Smoker can easily kill any survivor at his leisure.
When you don't have the tactical advantage required to use the Smoker, the Hunter is going to be your most potent offense. The Hunter has the ability to leap quickly and tackle a survivor to the ground. In this position, the survivor can't use his or her guns to force you off, and you can do damage pretty much until another survivor manages to shoot you to death. Left 4 Dead's jumping controls are more than a little awkward, though, so very few players at the demo event got proficient at using the Hunter's leaping tackle. Even those who could master it were far more easily killed by a survivor's teammates than if they'd been playing as the Smoker.
Rounding out the set of zombies is the Boomer, a class apparently created purely for the purpose of giving people who die a lot something to do. The Boomer is big, slow and easily killed, but has two special notable abilities. He can vomit on a survivor, turning his or her HUD green for a period of time. Until it clears, the survivor is going to have a very hard time accurately shooting at any enemies in the area. Canny zombie teams at the event began pairing up Boomers with the Hunter, whose awkward jump attack was more likely to succeed against a blinded player. When a Boomer is finally killed, he explodes in a cloud of bile that coats any nearby survivors. The bile doesn't obstruct vision much, but it makes that character a magnet for the ire of any NPC zombies in the area. More than once during the event, a survivor with a shotgun would take out a close-range Boomer, only to be swarmed and killed by zombies moments later.
Your abilities as a survivor are nothing out of the ordinary. As in most squad-based shooters, you have the ability to heal allies. There's a nod to the genre with a mechanic that calls for you to help any knocked-down ally back to his or her feet. The types of grenades you can carry are very limited and aren't very powerful compared to the average FPS, which makes clearing out clumps of zombies more an act of desperation. The guns you can carry are fairly basic, with a shotgun and a carbine best for taking out baddies and a machine gun and dual pistols often working best to quickly chew through zombie hordes. Bosses could take advantage of this by using the Boomer, Hunter and Smoker to pick off carbine- and shotgun-carriers before sending in the Tank to decimate the rest. As the PC version's controls were more accurate thanks to a keyboard-and-mouse setup, survivor players actually did quite well at that station and even made it to the checkpoint sometimes. The survivors on the 360 station struggled, rarely managing to make it far from the start point.
The impression of Left 4 Dead I was left with — aside from a complex ball cap metaphor — was a game that was just far enough out of the norm to feel unusual, while the gameplay was solid and familiar, save for the weird jumping. Time spent on the 360 version as a zombie boss was by far the most fun I had with the evening, and I imagine that when the game streets, most players in multiplayer are going to prefer using the bosses. Survival horror fans are likely to argue that this isn't really horror at all, and maybe they have half a point. With that said, if you don't experience terror when you're a helpless survivor at the center of a zombie gang beatdown, with new ones appearing faster than you can pick them off, then you've got ice water running in your veins.
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