Game Description: Set in a modern day survival-horror universe, the co-operative gameplay of Left 4 Dead casts four "Survivors" in an epic struggle against hordes of swarming zombies and terrifying "Boss Infected" mutants. Developed by Turtle Rock Studios and Valve, creators of the Counter-Strike and Half-Life games, the latest AI technology allows for multiplayer games of one to eight players. A new and highly virulent strain of the rabies virus emerges and spreads through the human population with frightening speed. The pandemic's victims become grotesquely disfigured widely violent psychopaths, attacking the uninfected on sight. As one of the "lucky" few apparently immune to the sickness, you, unfortunately, are also trapped in a city crawling with thousands of the bloodthirsty Infected. Alone, you're dead. But together with a handful of fellow survivors, you might just fight your way to safety.
HIGH It might have taken fifteen years for someone to figure out that a zombie-killing FPS was a good idea, but at least the wait is finally over.
LOW Other than the fact that you actually get to kill zombies in it, there is nothing to recommend this game.
WTF Bombs that make loud beeping sounds make zombies attack the bombs. Car alarms that make loud beeping sounds make zombies attack me. What?
The premise is simple and clean—there's been a zombpocalypse, and only four people are left alive in a city full of the "infected". For those uninitiated, "infected" is code for "fast zombies who are easy to kill because they're still technically alive". This means that during the heroes' arduous trek from the starting point to their ultimate rescue, headshots are neither a necessity, nor a particularly smart tactical choice. Actually, there's just one smart tactical choice, and it's both game's strongest and weakest point. The contentious tactic? Teamwork.
Left 4 Dead is a co-op only game. It's essentially unplayable in solo player mode—the team AI is incredibly timid, always hanging back and letting the player get attacked and battle all of the enemies first. The non-player characters also neglect to throw grenades or use the environment or emplaced weapons to battle enemies. This renders the game all but impossible on anything but the easiest difficulty levels. While two-player split-screen is possible, in that eventuality there are still two computer-controlled characters, and the underlying problems still persist.
The only way to get the full experience out of the game is to go online and round up a full crew of players, which, as with all online games, puts players at the mercy of strangers. The quality of experience that Left 4 Dead has to offer is entirely dependent on the quality of player they encounter, more so than any other game I've encountered. This is because the game requires a total commitment to teamwork at all times. In addition to the normal hordes of zombies that surround the players at all times, there are five types of "special infected", each of whom has the ability to incapacitate the player with a single attack, and go on to kill them quickly if the other players don't swoop in and rescue them. Practically, this means that players can't separate at all for more than a few seconds at a time without being killed in an extremely unpleasant manner.
There are four distinct stories, or "movies" that the players can enjoy, each one telling the same basic story: The survivors start at one end of an area, and have to fight their way across it order to make their escape. These levels can be played in any order, and effectively break down into difficulty levels (in addition to the damage-based difficulty levels that the player has access to). The two urban-themed levels are a little easier. By virtue of the fact that they're set almost entirely in narrow hallways, there are usually only two directions zombies can attack from, so it's very difficult to be taken by surprise. The two rural levels are much harder, as the players spend much of the time surrounded by dense, impenetrable forest that zombies can come rushing out of at any moment.
While shooting the hordes of zombies is certainly entertaining enough when played in a group, the repetitive structure of the of the game ensures that things will get old quickly. There's next to no exploration required, and precious few alternate routes through each area. This means that every level plays almost exactly the same every time. Yes, the concentrations of enemies change from level to level, but essentially every room in every level is full of zombies, so it's only changes of minor degree. All the major events of the game, sieges where the players have to defend themselves from a horde of zombies while a pathway opens slowly, are exactly the same every time.
The so-called "AI director" is supposed to randomize things to keep the game moving, but in practice that just boils down to sending an additional charging horde of zombies after the player if they stay in one place for more than a minute. The game is bare to the point of absurdity—play through one of the chapters, and the game has shown every enemy, weapon, and situation it has to offer. While the specific geography of the maps may differ, the encounters they offer are mind-numbingly similar.
This repetitiveness is what bothered me most about Left 4 Dead (other than the obnoxious use of a number in place of a word). There's always going to be a little been-there-done-that to a game that expects players to run through the same levels over and over again, but most games of this type give players something to keep them interested. Whether it's learning the advantages and disadvantages of various classes, upgrading weaponry, or just earning new costumes, developers find ways to encourage replay. This was apparently not a concern for the Left 4 Dead team, because the game doesn't offer anything to encourage replay. The multiplayer component of this multiplayer-only game is so basic and threadbare that players can't even design their own character's appearance! Despite the fact that there's no plot to speak of, players are forced to control the same four utterly generic characters, none of whom play any differently.
Left 4 Dead's one saving grace is its Versus multiplayer mode, which pits two teams of players against each other over the course of an entire story, taking turns playing each chapter as either the survivors or the special zombies determined to murder them. It's an ingenious mode that I wish we'd see a little more often, where the survivors are playing the level normally, but all special zombies are controlled by the other team. Scoring is based on how much health each survivor has when they get to the end of each chapter, multiplied by the number of survivors left, and after each chapter is played once, the teams switch roles and the level resets, giving each team a chance to try out the other's role. Due to the role swapping games of this type take twice as long to play, but that inconvenience is more than made up for by the intriguing challenge that human opposition adds to the game. The spawning and behaviour of the special infected is so predictable that they don't provide much of a challenge. Going up against intelligent zombies who can communicate, plan, and co-ordinate their efforts adds a level of randomness and excitement that the rest of the game is sorely lacking.
People love killing zombies. That defining truth underwrites something like 20 percent of the video games industry. The fact that until the release of Left 4 Dead there wasn't a first person shooter about killing hordes of zombies is bizarre oversight, and the fact that the game rectifies that error makes it a worthwhile exercise. Unfortunately, the multiplayer-only focus limits the amount of people who will be able to play the game, though, and the limited length and variety of that multiplayer experience ensures that the game is unsatisfying as anything other than a basic, visceral endeavor. Yes, shooting hordes of zombies is fun, even more so with three other friends. But the game doesn't have anything to offer beyond that simple activity, and it most likely stop being relevant the moment someone makes a zombie FPS with a little more depth.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via rental and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 6 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 3 times) and 10 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, language. It's a game solely about constantly shooting zombies to death. Maybe the kids shouldn't be playing it. Although, to be fair, by the standards of zombie games the gore is relatively tame. You won't find a great deal of decapitations and limb severings or anything like that, and when zombies are blown up they dissipate into a fine red mist.The goriest thing here are the blood decals that splatter everything when zombies get shot.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The music in the game is specifically tuned to warn the player about different kinds of danger, and without that, you'll have a little more trouble knowing when the zombies are coming. That being said, this is a Valve game, which means it contains their famously thorough and helpful subtitles.
HIGH The frenzy of a tank battle.
LOW When my teammates quit in the middle of a match and I'm forced to deal with the CPU players.
WTF Since when is it healthy to chug an entire bottle of pills?
Team-based multiplayer gaming is a difficult beast to tame. The game must reward individual skill while simultaneously encouraging teamwork, and players who don't work well with others must be made to fail, at least to some degree. With Left 4 Dead, Valve has created an experience that forces players to rely on their team even more so than their other recent offering of multiplayer goodness, Team Fortress 2. The result is immensely gratifying....if you've got the right people to play with.
Left 4 Dead's concept is simple; there are four humans who must make it through the level without being killed by the hordes of zombies that stand between them and freedom. The survivors must move quickly and watch each others' backs in order to make it out alive. If one player gets knocked down, he/she needs a teammate's help to get back up. In addition to the normal stock zombies (similar to the 28 Days Later variety for you zombie enthusiasts), there are special zombies that are capable of killing a player outright...if they can catch one separated from the others. Staying together is vital for the survivors, as one player that runs off on their own can ruin things for everyone. Dysfunctional teams are an especially annoying problem when playing random matches, since they are often full of (insert your own preferred slang for incompetent/inexperienced players here).
It was abundantly clear from my first playthrough that there have to be four players (eight if you're playing versus) to experience Left 4 Dead at its fullest, as having to babysit the CPU player(s) is an exercise in frustration to say the least. The NPCs never seem to understand the need to help me up when I was knocked down and they also have a nasty tendency to stay behind until the entire group has moved forward, making them prime targets for the boss zombies. Having a full team of human players is crucial to smooth and balanced gameplay. However, once the player slots fill up, things come together extremely well.
The notion of teamwork is absolutely essential and is what sets Left 4 Dead apart from other multiplayer first-person shooters—the player's teammates aren't just along for the ride, they are the ride. Players must move as one and watch out for each other at all times. This interdependence is the game's most distinguishing feature, and a player's opinion will be defined by how willing he is to place his virtual well-being in the hands of his teammates. Indeed, Left 4 Dead demonstrates a better fundamental understanding of co-op play than every other title I've seen that promotes itself as a co-op game. In many similar games the co-op mode essentially amounts to the player and a friend or two running through a level together, not having to depend on each other all that much. Often times there is even competition among teammates as to who gets the most kills or who can move the fastest, rather than the focus being on completing the game—this is not so in Left 4 Dead. While individual stats and numbers are calculated, they are far overshadowed by the main objective of getting to that safe room before everyone becomes zombie dessert. The sense of "we have to keep moving or they'll get us" grabbed me from the beginning and never let go.
There are two game modes—campaign and versus. In campaign mode four humans are pitted against the CPU controlled zombie horde. This is fun enough by itself, but it isn't much of a challenge unless you're playing on expert difficulty. The AI director feature mixes things up to somewhat by randomizing instances like horde spawns, special zombie locations and weapon availability. The director also tailors the music and audio cues that each player hears to what they are experiencing at any given time, making some nice additions to moments of tension and relief such as an impending horde attack or the moments after said horde has been defeated. However, even the director can't alleviate a general sense of stagnation after playing campaign mode several times. What really pushes Left 4 Dead over the top and into my favorites collection is versus mode, which is by far the game's most fascinating feature. The basic setup is the same, but the special zombies (minus the über-powerful witch) are controlled by an opposing team. Versus mode is a blast to play, and it satisfied one of my long-standing gaming curiosities to boot.
In all of the single-player games I've ever played through, one thing I've always wondered about is what it would be like to be among the ubiquitous enemies that the game keeps sending my way. Would it be fun to direct the enemies against the hero and try to take him/her down? What would it be like to take control of a boss and try to crush the puny little hero in front of me? In Left 4 Dead I was given the opportunity to do just that, and it was at this point that the game jumped from good to great. Taking control of the special zombies is loads of fun, and in the scattered encounters with the monolithic tank Left 4 Dead has even managed to create the rush of a boss battle, something I've never seen before in this type of game. This feeling is extremely impressive, and I find myself looking forward to hearing the tank cue music every time I play.
A major drawback is the small number of maps and gameplay modes the game was released with. This too-little variety leads to a sense of repetitiveness, especially when playing campaign mode. There are only four levels, only two of which are playable in versus mode, severely limiting the game's best experience. However, if Team Fortress 2 is any indication Valve will likely be addressing this through all sorts of downloadable goodies in the future. Ultimately a player's satisfaction with Left 4 Dead is wholly dependent on how much he enjoys true team-based gameplay. Those who like to go solo and run off on their own will die quickly and likely will not enjoy the game, and the player's extreme dependence on his team can be a real problem in random matches. For me however, getting a group of friends together and zombieing it up (yes, I have made a new word) is an immensely fun experience, and upcoming DLC and patch releases should only make things better.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via Steam download and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 40 hours of play was dedicated to multiplayer modes, and 1 hour of play was dedicated to the single-player mode.
Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of game previews or watching pre-release footage online. I guess, as a reviewer, I've always felt it was better to come into a game cold and experience it fresh on my first playthrough. Even when I'd attend E3 in years past, I was hesitant to spend too much time playing pre-release builds of games because I didn't want anything to spoil my experience with the full version.
That being said, I've broken my rule (albeit slightly) with Valve's Left 4 Dead. I don't think I've been this excited for a zombie game since Resident Evil 2—so when the intro movie appeared online on Halloween, I fought the urge to watch it. I made it through the weekend before finally caving. So, here it is—a few days late, but still very cool—the opening cinematic for Left 4 Dead.
Start practicing your headshots—the game hits retailers on November 18th.