I’ve always thought the zombie film genre provided a cathartic experience like none other. The viewer gets to vicariously live amongst a complete wiping out of the status quo: coworkers, politicians, and in-laws. All gone. The leading characters get to blow the world and all its inhabitants away and not feel the least bit guilty about it. They’re already dead! If you’re a good samaritan, you’ll put your boss, ex-wife, and all telemarketers out of their misery. It’s just the right thing to do. Valve Software, creator of the stellar Half-Life franchise, offers this experience in the form of its new hybrid survival horror / first-person shooter, Left for Dead. Through clever multiplayer mechanics, advanced and diverse AI, and a delectable setting, Left 4 Dead offers a monumental step forward in multiplayer gaming.
L4D opens with an outstanding cinematic sequence that perfectly captures the frightening and frantic pace of the gameplay to follow. Enjoy it because you won’t get another. L4D offers no other narrative elements apart from in game dialogue and banter amongst the four survivors. Nevertheless, if you’ve seen just one zombie film, you have a decent idea of what’s happened: The world’s gone to pot, and a band of unlikely grouped survivors must find a way to make it to safety. Each of the four campaigns are composed of five chapters divided by instances where players reach a “safe room,” the only area enemies can’t penetrate. Campaigns take about an hour to complete. Total game time of course depends on the difficulty setting and player skill.
Games with zombies as the primary antagonist have come and gone before, but what truly sets L4D apart are the multiplayer mechanics. I’ll say it right up front. Make no mistake, this is definitely a game aimed at online play. With that in mind, it’s clear the developers didn’t devote precious development time throwing in single-player content just for the sake of doing so. DICE, I’m looking at you. The main campaign mode supports only four players: left 4 dead. Get it? Cooperating has never been so crucial in an online experience. If at any point a player decides to lone it, he or she better prepare to only last about twenty seconds. Many enemies are able to incapacitate players, rendering them helpless until another player comes along to free or resuscitate them. Losing just one player puts the entire team at a disadvantage. With that said, players who hog health do so at their own risk; the greedy will get an ear full. If a player is in need of a health pack and another is doing fine, it’s almost etiquette to fork up an extra health pack or bottle of pain pills.
Due to the level of cooperation that L4D demands, you aren’t going to find a better online community. Sure, you’ll get the occasional stereotypical dissenting twelve-year-old jerk wandering off, mouthing off, killing fellow survivors (friendly fire is always on), setting off horde-attracting alarms, and initiating unwarranted vote-kicks right before you hop onto the escape boat on expert mode, but those experiences are few and far between. Having only four votes means that it is easier to get unfairly booted from a good game in L4D, but the tradeoff enables one to more efficiently kick an experience-marring gamer. Though the online experience isn’t perfect, the simple mechanics of forcing players to work together makes a stark difference between L4D and say, every other online shooter currently on the market.
In addition to multiplayer mechanics, the other half of what makes the action so engaging is the new AI Director technology. In many ways this is perhaps the shining star of the game. No enemy is in the same place twice. Each time a chapter is played, enemies are rearranged and rampaging hordes pop out of new locations. They may even come barreling through the wall to your side where you thought was a safe place to hunker down. If you’re camping in a safe corner, the director will almost certainly send a fresh wave your way. Bosses are likewise unpredictable. Sure, sometimes music will be cued, and you’ll have a few seconds to see from where it’s coming. Or you might just turn a corner or open a door and be greeted by an ungodly hulking freak of roaring nature. The AI Director completely redefines possibilities of what a game can accomplish.
The AI Director wouldn’t be much without engaging enemies to direct. In this manner the game still fails to disappoint. The most common enemy is a stereotypical shuffling zombie. They crowd hallways, lumber to their feet as you approach, or just hang out in the corner vomiting partly digested brain matter. However, after you’re spotted they more resemble Danny Boyle’s running, leaping, and screeching 28 Days Later undead. In addition to the standard zombies are the special infected. Their main purposes are to divide, conquer, and create general unrest. Some launch lasso-like tongue attacks with the purpose of dragging you away from the safety of the group. Others can vomit horde attracting sludge. But the big daddy of them all is the giant, boss-like tank zombie, whose single swipe can leave you at the mercy of a brave survivor willing to resuscitate before you’re smashed to a pulp. Rather than the standard zombie, it is the special infected that wreck havoc on a group and force them to stick together.
After playing through the campaigns, players have the option of hashing it out in versus mode, which ups the player cap to eight. In this mode players aren’t shooting other players. Instead, while the customary four survivors make their way through a campaign chapter, four other players take control of the special infected and their unique abilities. Infected players spawn where want, have access to ambush points, and can see and burst through walls just like in the main game. Access to this gameplay easily beats the pants off having a fifth campaign or any additional offline mode.
Weapons used to dispatch the undead are somewhat limited, but each serve distinct purposes. Pistols are always carried and have unlimited ammo but shouldn’t be relied upon as a primary weapon. Players also start with the option of either a machine gun or pump action shotgun. As expected, the machine gun delivers more rounds per second and reloads faster, and the shotgun delivers more powerful blasts but takes longer to reload. During the course of the game, players come across what are essentially upgrades to these guns. With the exception of molotov cocktails, life saving grenades, and an arguably out of place sniper rifle, the game could have benefited from a more fleshed out arsenal.
L4D does offer the option for an offline single player to embark on any of the four campaigns with three AI bots. While this option is obviously inferior to online play, the bots do a pretty decent job. Because the player isn’t hampered with issuing what all too often turns out to be lame-duck commands, gameplay rarely staggers. Once you start playing, you’ll find that the lack of command options doesn’t much hamper the bots. In fact, the only time I felt the bots seriously lacking was during “expert mode.” If you don’t have online capabilities, just wave and kiss that XBOX 360 achievement goodbye. The bots do employ decent tactics, stay together, cover your butt, and always lend a helping hand. But it’s not like you can tell them to hunker down in a specific closet, line up two by two, duck, and shoot over the front line’s heads at the incoming waves of infected. The bots just can’t compete at higher difficulty settings, which is a real shame given the already scarce amount content for offline players. Overall, though the single-player option is available, buyers should be hesitant if they can’t play online.
Similarly to the weapons list in L4D, the game could have benefited from more campaigns. Obviously, it’s a perfectly fair argument to declare a lack of content to be a game-crippling weakness. However, there are two darn good reasons why featuring only four campaigns is forgivable. First of all, there’s just not a game out there like L4D; Valve has pioneered some brave new territory. I’d much rather developers gear towards fresh gaming experience rather than a rehash of a tried, true, and stale gaming template. Second, once you start playing and keep playing (as I’m confident you will), you just won’t care. Multiplying the number of campaigns by an hour and fifteen minutes is a woefully inaccurate way to gauge how long you’ll play L4D. While it would be correct to say a lack of content is definitely the games biggest weakness, a lack of content will certainly not keep any online gamers from playing long into the night.
Times are a changing. Much like the Battlefield franchise, if you don’t have a high speed connection, this game is probably not for you, but I’d certainly recommend a rental just to experience it. For the millions of others out there ready to don a headset and let the zombie brains fall where they may, pick up this fine example of multiplayer action and innovation.