Left 4 dead is a rare co-op game in which the other players actually feel necessary. You need four chumps worth of guns in play to take on the hordes, and you need your friends to save you from special zombie attacks, so if you separate from the group you might as well drizzle chopped nuts over your shoulders and start shampooing your hair with barbecue sauce.
-Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I recently joined the modern era and got myself a television
. As a companion to said device, I bought a Microsoft Xbox 360
in lieu of buying cable tv
. I do not regret this choice. One of the games I bought with the system was one I've been wanting to try since I read about its release - Left 4 Dead.
The premise of Left 4 Dead is quite simple. There is a zombie apocalypse. You and three other people have (so far) survived to band together in an attempt to make it out of the afflicted area. You have guns. And that's it. Nice and easy. The problem is that games with simple premises can all too often screw it up by ruining the gameplay, or by running off in another direction from the one the player thinks the premise will take them - with no good explanation.
Not so this one.
The game is deliberately designed to look like a zombie movie - from the movie poster announcing each campaign in the game, to the fact that your characters in the game are introduced with your Xbox gamertag 'playing' those characters, to the 'rolling credits' at the end of each section. Heck, one of the settings in the game's few options is the degree of film grain you want in the game's visual engine. Want to look like a refugee from a 1970s George A. Romero movie on a bad 16mm print? No problem.
Of course, with such explicit references to a beloved genre as the zombie movie, the game does in fact pile the expectations of all lovers of that genre onto its shoulders. The question is of course whether it can deliver. Or as Yahtzee puts it in a no-pauses rant:
The trick is to recreate the tension and emotion of the zombie apocalypse, where you and the last three sane people on earth huddle together in a basement somewhere while the entire population of the landmass stand outside meaningfully rubbing their bellies and waving ice-cream scoops. That is a true zombie game, because if you can pull it off you could replace the zombies with, say, koalas, and it'd still feel like a zombie game.
Does it work?
Yeah, in my opinion, it does. There have been and still are many zombie games out there - why this is so has been written about by many. I tend towards the explanation that zombies are viscerally satisfying opponents in a video game because they, while (usually) recognizably humaniform, are explicitly there to be destroyed. There is no and can be no moral, ethical or even technical reasons for sparing them - because all they want is your sweet, sweet brains. They're not going to help you across the island; they're not going to compete with you, they're not 'other humans who deserve a chance.' Nope. They're targets, and targets that are in your way and trying to nom your scalp.
Left 4 Dead doesn't really try to tell you any form of story about the zombie uprising, which the game calls 'the infection.' Other than some artful and clever graffiti left scattered through the game, there's no information on what happened, and there isn't any hint as to what caused it. But really, who cares? There's shambling hulks to kill.
This brings me to the next main point about Left 4 Dead. Zombies usually exist in games and movies either as slow, shambling menaces who bring down their agile human prey through inundating them via numbers, or as superhuman killing machines which hunt people like people hunt mosquitos. L4D manages to do both. There are several types of zombie - the 'regular infected, 'i.e. the basic shambler, and then five types of 'special infected' known as The Witch, The Hunter, The Smoker and The Boomer and the 'boss-like' Tank. Although naturally the special infected are the most dangerous, the reg'lar ol' shamblers aren't too shabby - because if you don't play smart, the invisible fifth player in the game will do its damndest to eat your face.
That fifth player is what Valve Software and Turtle Rock Studios, the game's creators, call the 'AI Director.' Again utilizing a movie term, they make it fit. This AI doesn't have a visible avatar, but simply watches, God (or Director)-like over the action, reaching in behind the scenes to make things easier (by leaving ammo, health, etc.) or harder (by spawning special infected). That isn't all the AI Director can do, though. The AI Director can and does actually make a huge difference in how the regular infected act. It will try to adapt the behavior of the regular infected to your play style. If you and your three compatriots try to hang back upon entering an area and take long-range potshots at the visible shuffling masses, you may find that the next time you try this tactic the first shot you take triggers a mass rush at your position as the Horde (as it is called) runs in screaming for fresh cerebral sundaes. Or you might find the area disturbingly empty as you walk through it - only to have the Horde batter down walls or doors and rush you from the side, from the front, or some direction you hadn't even thought of.
When that happens, the zing! of adrenalin is quite, quite familiar to those who watch zombie movies waiting for the scream moments. But in this incarnation of the genre, you have guns. You can unload on those grey stinking bastards. If you're unlucky, you have a single pistol (unlimited ammo, which is why you might be forced back to using it, but slow-firing and slow to reload). If you're slightly better off, you have two pistols, allowing you to Chow Yun-Fat your way through the mob, dual-wielding your ass off. Or if you're close to an ammo cache, maybe you have an assault rifle, a submachine gun, a shotgun, or a hunting rifle.
If you've been thinking ahead, you might have a Molotov cocktail or a pipe bomb, or even a gas can or propane tank you've picked up to roast some shamblers.
Although it sounds simple (and is, in concept) the fun has (for me) lasted a good long time. Why? Because, as Yahtzee mentions above, this game is co-op optimized. Via Xbox Live, you can jump into a game or start a campaign with friends - and because of the way the game is balanced, it's not usually profitable for other people to be jerks because they'll probably need you to watch their back, heal them, hand them painkillers, or help them up when they've been knocked down by something...oooooh UGLY!.
Oh yeah, and that's not all this thing can do. As Yahtzee notes, "You can also opt to play as the special zombies themselves which transforms the game from tense survival horror to hilarious griefing engine."
Yep. You can play an online game as teams - each team takes turns playing the survivors or the infected through each section of a campaign. Playing the zombies is hard, because they really are as fragile as they seem when you're a survivor - the only thing you have going for you is the (hopefully) increased devious sneakiness of a human player over the AI Director. Hide behind things, around corners, across alleyways, and do your best to bring the hurt down on those little warm brainsnacks.
I recommend the game strongly, especially if you can get it during one of Valve's periodic sales or via the used games market. Note that Left 4 Dead 2 has been announced for late fall 2009, which means the first game will likely become cheaper.
Left 4 Dead is available on physical media for the PC and Xbox 360 via Electronic Arts and via Valve's Steam online service for the PC.
Developers: Valve Software (who purchased Turtle Rock Studios) and Certain Affinity for the Xbox version.
Engine: Valve's Source engine, as used in Half-life 2.
ESRB Rating: M for Mature
Released on: November 18, 2008
53,595 zombies were harmed in the making of this film.