Left 4 Dead is the ultimate zombie experience. Cooperative and versus gameplay tie together to create the perfect experience when played with others online. Left 4 Dead is set just two weeks after the beginning of a dreadful zombie apocalypse. You and three others are moving from point A to point B trying to reach safe rooms, and ultimately escape.
Besides this initial information, not much is told about the back story of the game. However, within each safe room are messages scrawled upon the walls. They range from tips on how to survive or notes to family members that have passed through. This storytelling technique is a trick previously employed in Portal, and is once again used to great effect.
There are four separate campaigns that span many different and unique environments. In one case you are making your way through an airport terminal and the next through an eerie forest. The zombie horde is a blast to fight, emerging from every possible location. Each campaign will take about one to two hours depending on the difficulty. My only complaint is that there aren’t more of them.
Each campaign is split into five chapters, with the “finale” being a latch ditch stand off before rescue. If a teammate dies early on in a campaign you can later rescue them farther down the line. However, when you die in the finale, you are gone forever. In fact, if you finish the game dead, the credits will dedicate the production to your life.
Campaigns are a linear trek from one side to the other in most cases. However, players are rewarded for exploring side rooms and locations with health and better weapons. On a number of occasions players will need to initiate a time-consuming event such as open a garage door. During this time players will need to stand their ground and fight off the zombies.
Zombies are of course a center part of the mechanics, and luckily they are both frightening and awe inspiring. The horde will run at a full sprint towards you and the number that will appear on screen once is immense.
The AI director is a new concept that adapts dynamically based on how well a team of survivors is doing. If a team is doing particularly well, the AI director will begin to spawn more zombies and include harder challenges. In this same way, the AI will ease up when required for an optimal experience. This occurs throughout the entire game and changes when needed.
In addition to regular zombies are Special zombies. These break up the game and provide unique tension to the experience. Hunters leap from rooftops and pounce on victims, while the Smoker can grab survivors with its tongue which it uses to strangle.
The Boomer is immense and instead of using its own brute force it literally vomits on you, redirecting other zombies towards your location. The Tank an enormous and fear inspiring giant that very much does use its brute force to swat you away. Finally, while unassuming, the Witch if provoked with light or attack is a formidable opponent whose screams are terrifying.
As an FPS, Left 4 Dead is fantastic. A range of weapons are found at the start of each level and upgrades may be found elsewhere. Controls are standard fare and work well. What really shines is the overall polish to the UI or user interface. Simple additions or changes provide an easy to navigate experience that lends itself to veterans and casuals alike.
Teamwork is a central theme within Left 4 Dead and the game does its best to facilitate the process. The game rewards players for protecting their teammates as well as healing them. When overwhelmed you are incapacitated and teammates have a set amount of time to revive you. Off screen locations, weapons, ammo, and health are highlighted to direct your attention.
Left 4 Dead is run on the Source engine, a staple for games created by Valve. The game looks and runs fantastically, even during the most action packed sequences. Lighting takes a large role in the game and is done well. While not akin to Doom 3, the game uses the combination of light vs. dark quite well. A welcome addition to the genre is the fact that flashlights are indeed attached to your guns.
Sound and music work much in the same way as the AI director does, based on the situation music will change to create tension or warn of an oncoming threat. The moans and screams of the zombies will create terrificly frightening atmosphere as you anticipate an attack. Do yourself a favor and leave the sound and the music on, as both are fantastic.
Left 4 Dead is a game that benefits from playing with your friends. While the option does exist to play the game offline, to experience the game fully you are better off without it. Communication is key within the online components. Sticking together and being aware of your teammates is required to survive.
Versus mode places two teams of four against each other in two of the four campaigns. Each team is either the survivors or the infected. The infected play as the boss zombies although the Witch is excluded. Each team runs a section of the campaign and is scored on performance while the infected try to impair their progress. Survivors must work together just as they do in the normal campaigns.
The infected require a large amount of strategy. Besides the Tank, each boss zombie cannot survive on their own and must instead work together to separate each survivor. Versus mode is surprising fun and is quite addicting once you get over an initial learning curve.
To extend the game, Developer Commentary has been included within the game – just as The Orange Box included it. Playing through the levels, you can activate sound blurbs the explain design choice and other particulars that provide an interesting look at the development process.
Left 4 Dead is an experience perfect in almost every way. The game is polished, and the content is great. When minor complaints become “I wish there were more,” you know the game has done something right. With a fantastic modding community a definite possibility, this problem could very well be solved soon.
Valve is known for creating a solid experience with addictive mechanics, and with a track record for quality games you would expect nothing less. Left 4 Dead most definitely does not disappoint.