Left 4 Dead is probably one of the least complicated games currently available. There's no story, no whining, no higher goals that need to be achieved or skeletons in closets that need to be dealt with - it's just the last four survivors of the zombie apocalypse with a bunch of guns and an endless stream of zombies driven by the urge to feed.
And who would've thought, guns plus zombies equals endless amounts of fun.
The setup of the game is straightforward: you choose one of the four survivors (as usual, I'm the girl, Zoey), grab your gun of choice, and you fight your way from safehouse to safehouse, culminating in a huge finale, after which you get rescued - only to do it all over again. There are four campaigns, which lead you through cities, hospitals, forests, airports, you name it.
There are a few limitations that give the game a tactical feel to it. You can only carry two guns: everyone has a simple handgun that never runs out of ammo, and as a second gun you can choose from a sniper rifle (useless), shotgun (good at close range), and a machine gun (t3h awesome). Both the shotgun and the machine gun have a more powerful variant that you can pick up later on in each campaign. In addition to the limited weapons you can carry, you may only carry one healthpack and one set of "pills" that temporarily restore your health.
Then there are the molotovs and the pipe bombs (you can only carry or one pipe bomb, or one molotov). Pipe bombs in Left 4 Dead are the coolest thing in gaming since the dopefish. Zombies are attracted to lights and sounds, and the pipe bombs produce both, which leads to hilarious mobs of zombies amassing around your pipe bomb, only to be exploded into massive clouds of blood (in a zombie...?) and body parts. Disturbingly satisfying.
The game sports different types of zombies. You have regular infected, which are the simple crappy zombies that are easy to kill, but during hordes there are easily 100s of them coming you way. On the highest difficulty setting (expert) each hit by a crappy zombie takes away 20hp, so they are a force to be reckoned with once you leave the baby stages of the game.
The others are the special infected. There's the smoker, which grabs and drags players with its tongue, until another player rescues them. There's also the hunter, which pounces players, leaving them incapacitated until rescued by another player. The tank is a really big and strong zombie, and you need the entire team to take them down (on expert, it's usually wiser to set them on fire and RUN LIKE HELL). The Boomer is a big fat mutant who barfs bile over players that attracts zombies. My favourite is the witch, a crying little-girl like creature that is relatively harmless until disturbed by gunfire or flashlights, at which point she kills you with one blow.
As you can deduce from the above paragraph, Left 4 Dead is a true co-op game. This game is pointless when played in single player, and only reaches its fullest potential when played online, preferably with friends or people you already know. The tenseness of fighting off endless hordes of zombies is addictive, and more than once have friends and I let out heroic roars when we reached the next safehouse with just one hp left, closing the door behind us with 100 zombies still coming our way. The word "epic" doesn't even begin to describe some of the playthroughs.
The game itself is beautifully designed and very well balanced, and while the Source engine predates the first coming of Christ, it still does its job just fine. The levels are strictly linear, so after a few playthroughs you know the good spots, the best places to fight off the hordes.
The four characters to choose from are standard zombie movie types - Francis the biker guy, Bill the Vietnam veteran, Louis the office worker, and zombie film addict Zoey ("Huh, check this out."). When in versus mode, you also get to play as the special infected, but I find this game mode a bit cumbersome not only because I suck at it, but also because you usually get killed in 3 seconds.
There are also a few things wrong with this game. While the four campaigns are a lot of fun to play, they are quite short. The game boasts an AI director that places all the zombies, ammo, and healthpacks in different places every time you play, but it doesn't take long before you know the different possible spawn spots by heart (although you still get the occasional surprise when a tank, a smoker, a boomer, a hunter, and a witch all spawn inside the safehouse, but oh well). A few more campaigns would've been fun.
Another big problem is the total lack of any intelligent behaviour by computer-controlled characters, rendering this game utterly useless in single player. While the computer characters have incredible shooting skills, they fail to understand the concept of sticking together or "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few". There are several moments in the game where you have to flick a switch to alert the hordes, at which point there are a few possible locations that are relatively safe to defend. Computer characters are unaware of this concept, and since there's no way to give them orders, they'll just stand in the middle of the hordes and die. A lot.
They also don't understand that sometimes, someone is simply done for. If a player is surrounded by ten billion million zombies, and is already on the ground (you remain on the ground for a while so you can be rescued), it's usually best to just let them die; they will respawn later on in the level in a closet where they can be rescued. In other words, sometimes it's better to let someone die and attract all the zombies, while the rest sneak away and move on. Computer characters will always try to rescue someone, no matter the odds, which makes the game frustrating at times because it feels like herding cats. But without the cute mental image of kittens and balls of yarn.
One of my biggest complaints, however, is the total and utter lack of a level or campaign in a mall. I don't know about you, but I have problems calling something a zombie game if it doesn't have a mall.
While Left 4 Dead has some minor issues it's probably the best multiplayer game I've ever played. It's just so much fun to be limping around a level with no health, no ammo, and just a crappy handgun, fighting off the hordes, reaching the safehouse, only to get killed by some ^@$*#%% you couldn't see hiding behind a lamp post.
Valve have put a lot of effort into making the multiplayer experience work, and every aspect of the game is designed towards this goal, and it clearly shows. Sure, the game isn't sophisticated nor does it have top-notch gaphics, but it doesn't matter since those things are all inferior to gameplay anyway.
Minor niggles aside, Left 4 Dead is a great game, and I'm still playing every day. Maybe we should host an OSNews game one of these days?
- Title: Left 4 Dead
- Platform: XBox 360
- Release Date: November 2008
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