Genre: First-Person Shooter
Release Date: November 18, 2008
I'll admit that Left 4 Dead had me at "cooperative zombie survival first-person shooter for up to four players," but if the idea of working together as a team to get from point A to point B via a whole lot of Z doesn't do anything for you, you might be undead. Despite somewhat limited content on the campaign mode, it succeeds in two really important ways: recreating the fun, fear and superb panic induced chaos of fighting for your survival against zombie masses, and setting a new standard for cooperative gaming.
Valve has taken some liberties with zombie lore, and the first thing any self-respecting undead fan will notice is that these zombies aren't your traditional slowly shambling horde of Romero-style brain munchers. Instead, these are the psychotically rabid adrenaline junkies you might have seen in the movie "28 Days Later." In-game, they are known as the infected and much like ice cream, they come in many different flavors. The regular vanilla zombies are your slathering bullet sponges and will simply run at you wailing and attempt to rip off your head. Usually, they aren't a problem, but when they get together en masse, they are known as the horde and are both hideous and terrifying in their hyperactive brutality.
Then there are the super-infected. These undead have special powers that make them especially lethal. The Smoker has a tremendously long tongue that it uses to lasso and pull you toward it. The Boomer is a morbidly obese zombie with chronic indigestion whose primary weapon is putrid green stomach bile that he projectile-vomits on you with alarming accuracy. This has the effect of obscuring your vision and, as an added bonus, alerting the horde, which will inundate you like a dead flesh tidal wave.
The Hunter is a highly mobile killer who will leap long distances through the air to pin you to the ground and mercilessly eviscerate you. Perhaps the most interesting of all is the Witch whose plaintive child-like whimpering you'll hear long before you actually see her. All she does is sit and sob, trying to avoid the action. Leave her alone, and she'll do the same to you, but if you accidentally startle her by shining your flashlight on her or shooting her, it'll often be the last thing you do. Finally, the Tank is, as its name implies, a dead flesh juggernaut who shakes the ground as it approaches and requires all four players and a small weapons depot to take down.
The inclusion of the super-infected may mean a large deviation from traditional zombie standards, but Valve have clearly put gameplay before convention, and the result is a glorious variety of action that keeps you on your toes and stops the action from ever becoming monotonous or repetitive. In addition, it means you have to change up your strategies depending on the creatures with which you're dealing. With the witch, you know she's out there somewhere because you can hear her, but you don't know exactly where, and having to turn off your flashlight and watch where you shoot in the dark is incredibly unnerving.
Teamwork is the key to staying alive, and Left 4 Dead is tuned to make sure you stick together and rely on each other at all times. You'll be glad for teammates when you get hit by the contents of the Boomer's stomach and the horde bears down on you, or when a Hunter pins you to the floor for a lesson in live disembowelment. You can also help your fellow survivors by healing them with first aid packs and painkiller pills. The motivation to help others is often less altruistic than it is selfish because if your friend isn't around when a Tank turns up, you'll soon be an all-you-can-eat buffet. If your health is severely depleted, you'll be incapacitated and have to fight from the floor with only a pistol until you are either rescued or killed. Due to its strong emphasis on cooperative play, the game is best enjoyed with up to three of your friends. Valve has also made it blissfully easy to set up and join online games with random strangers from the Internet. If you choose to go it alone, the competent AI will provide more than adequate support, but a lot of the thrill and real potential of the game are lost.
Left 4 Dead is built on a tuned-up version of Valve's Source engine, which powers the Half Life 2 series and Counter Strike Source games. At nearly five years old now, it looks fine for what it does but doesn't compare that well to some of the newer games on the market. On the plus side, it can run and achieve decent frame rates on a large variety of machines.
In all, there are four campaigns each with five levels, and this is really the game's major shortcoming. You could play through all of the campaign levels in about six to eight hours, and this is considerably short on content for a full-priced game.
The levels are wonderfully diverse, well-designed and take place everywhere from claustrophobically confined urban spaces to wide-open expanses in the suburbs and countryside. All are packed with hungry undead, and you'll fend them off in the desolate remains of churches, hospitals, sewers, airports, construction sites and subways. If you take your time, you'll notice a lot of cool environmental details, like the pervasive graffiti that is well-written and provides a sometimes-humorous, sometimes-bleak insight to the story of the infection.
At certain locations in each level, there are choke points where you'll have to flip a switch, start an engine or use a radio to move forward. These actions are guaranteed to alert the horde, and you'd better be ready when they come. Thankfully, the game gives you time to prepare your defense, and these parts are highlights due to the strong sense of anticipation and intense action they provide. Each level ends with a superbly challenging and climactic finale, where you'll radio for help and attempt to survive waves upon waves of maniacal zombies and super-infected.
The game's AI director makes certain that there's never a dull moment, and you're never allowed to feel complacent or safe. This feature is a dynamic AI scripting system that spawns the undead at random locations and in different quantities, depending on the condition of your party, among other things. If you're struggling and close to dying, the game will throttle back on the difficulty, but if you're hopped up on med packs and ammo, the game will inundate you with zombies like they're going out of fashion. The key is that it is never predictable, and Valve has nailed this adaptive AI difficulty system to make it unobtrusive so that you never feel like you can see behind the curtain to the guy pulling the strings.
Perhaps the best part of the AI director is that each level never feels the same twice. Sometimes zombies will come running straight at you in plain sight. The second time you play, they may come streaming from a vent in the ceiling or jump you as you open a door. It feels like there are an almost unlimited number of ways for the undead to surprise you with each playthrough, and this is a decent solution to the problem of length. If you factor in four different difficulty levels, unlockable Achievements and a hugely addictive quality, Left 4 Dead has strong replay value.
Then there is the fantastically satisfying online multiplayer versus mode, where you can turn the tables and play against your friends as a zombie. The levels take place in the regular campaign levels, except now you spawn as a random super-infected creature and attempt to stop the survivors from making it to the safe room. As a survivor, the tension is even greater because you know there are humans on the other side tracking you down to vomit all over you and summon the horde or bring death unexpectedly from above. The super-infected are considerably vulnerable to bullets, but they respawn regularly throughout the level and maintain a constant threat.
When it comes down to it, it's all about how many ways you can kill a zombie, and although Left 4 Dead isn't hugely adventurous in the weapons department, there is a sufficiently satisfying variety in terms of power and accuracy. Your standard weapons are single- and dual-wield pistols, the classic pump action shotgun and sub machinegun. Later in the levels, you can get more powerful weapons, like the automatic shotgun and fully automatic assault rifle. There's also a hunter's rifle with a scoped sight, but there are too many zombies, and they move too quickly for this weapon to be really useful. Hand-tossed weapons include the Molotov cocktail for barbecued zombies and the pipe bomb, whose bright blinking lights and attractive noises make it the equivalent of an explosive undead magnet.
Sound is used to great effect to enhance gameplay in Left 4 Dead. The basic soundtrack is full of melancholy piano and sinister strings that charge the atmosphere with dread and a sense of impending doom. At other times, the sound is often your first clue to an impending onslaught. When the horde is about to bear down on you, a mournful trumpet peal will be heard, which is your cue to ready a new set of underwear. As you get closer to the witch, the music crescendos with seesawing creepy vocals that will give you goose bumps. You can always tell a Boomer is nearby from the gurgling and churning of his faulty undead digestive system. Finally, the thumping drums and pounding rhythm are the perfect soundtrack when you're knee-deep in rotten zombie carcasses, blasting your shotgun at the next wave of screaming undead.
All in all, Left 4 Dead is a shining example of zombies done right in a video game. It's an action-packed riot with gore galore and is four times as fun with friends. If you have even a minor passing interest in zombies, shooters or horror games in general, you shouldn't pass up the opportunity to play it. If nothing else, think of Left 4 Dead as a virtual zombie plague simulator. When the zombie apocalypse comes, you'll be better prepared than everyone else to deal with the horde.
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