Zombies are hot. One glance at any message board specializing in nerd sub-culture and it’s easy to see that Zombies are the Prada of the geek world. Suffice it to say, ninjas are out. Equally as popular in today’s gaming climate is cooperative play, more specifically, the online variety. Left 4 Dead, from Half-Life publisher Valve, serves to combine cooperative play and zombies into one fantastic yet frantic experience that’s completely unique at the same time.
Left 4 Dead does away with most staples of modern first-person shooters: there isn’t a story in any definitive sense, there isn’t a chronological order to the levels, and there isn’t a dedicate single player mode. All the backstory you’re going to receive in Left 4 Dead can be found in the manual, other than that, all you need to know is that you’re a survivor in a zombie apocalypse, and you need to get as far away from the undead menace as possible. Left 4 Dead has you running through 4 different “movies” which serve as the game’s levels. Players will run through a variety of backdrops, from an abandoned hospital, to a decrepit old farm. The scenery really sets the tone of the game, every dark and ominous city block looks as if it could be a lively, sprawling section of town if the lighting was altered a bit. Left 4 Dead looks surprisingly sharp considering it’s running on a four year old engine. This is most noticeable in the player controlled characters. Each of the four survivors has their own tone, both in their personality and aesthetic which is distinctive from both the zombies and each other. Getting to know and admire these characters throughout the course of play, helps the player empathize with their plight, and motivate them to play in a way that gets everybody out safely.
The majority of gameplay in Left 4 Dead requires the team to get from Point A to Point B in order to get to some sort of escape vehicle. The way to safety is guarded by zombies, a lot of zombies. Your undead foes come in two varieties: the normal everyday type of undead you see in the movies, and special versions each with their own specific powers. The Smoker has a long tongue used to grab and suffocate any survivors who happen to fall behind, the Boomer is a gluttonous fiend who’s bile attracts any and all zombies in the immediate vicinity. The real foe, and where the game receives its infinite replay value, is in the A.I. “Director”. The director is in control of every possible variable in the game: where and how many regular and special zombies spawn, ammo spawns, health spawns, and weapon spawns. The actions the director takes is relative to what difficulty level was chosen and how the team is performing. In short, the better you’re doing, the harder it gets, more zombies will be thrown at you, and you’ll be seeing the boss zombies a lot more often. Further difficulty can be found in certain catalysts for zombie assaults such as setting off car alarms, and the sheer challenge in maintaining a team that works well together.
Real cooperation is put to the test in the game’s versus mode, which plays almost identically to the campaign mode, save for the fact that a team of four human players takes control of the infected special zombies. On the survivor side, this just serves to make the game much more difficult. Humans are many times more cunning than the computer could ever be, and an organized team of zombies can wipe out a sloppy band of survivors in seconds. On the infected side, the gameplay is drastically different. The zombies simply are nowhere near as tough as the survivors, sometimes going down in one shot. In addition, the zombies require a certain finesse in addition to intense cooperation in order to be truly effective.
Left 4 Dead ships with 4 campaign maps, two of which can be played in versus mode. On paper, that is a tiny amount of content. and I feel that this does deserve mention. However in practice, this is enough to hold over any gamer with an XBL account until Valve pumps out some DLC. I’ll also reiterate that Left 4 Dead is a multiplayer heavy game, so heavy in fact, that if one doesn’t have access to a Live Gold Account, the game really isn’t worth a rental.
Left 4 Dead is an amazing multiplayer experience. One that should be had by anyone with the slightest passing interest in either zombies, or first person shooters. And depending on how Valve treats the aftermarket content, Left 4 Dead will go down in the annals of epic zombie fiction: alongside George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Max Brooke’s World War Z and Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead.
Left 4 Dead looks surprisingly good for a game running on a 4 year old engine.
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The game shines brightly when 4 players are being truly cooperative.
The sound is utilized wonderfully. Each zombie sounds allow the player to anticipate future threats.
Despite the lack of maps, the A.I. director provides near endless gameplay scenarios.
A wonderful co-op, zombie, fps, and survival horror game all wrapped in one package.