Left 4 Dead Xbox 360, PC
Zombies sometimes feel like a slightly overused element in gaming, mostly thanks to the first three Resident Evil games, but after last year’s fantastic Portal, Valve have done it again and created a game that is head-and-shoulders above any other interactive entertainment released this year.
The titular number 4 refers to the four survivors of the undead apocalypse, who are always present and if not controlled by a human player will be directed by the game’s AI. These, the only human characters that are ever seen in the game, are Francis the cocky tattooed biker-dude, Louis the mild-mannered IT systems analyst, Bill the grizzled Vietnam War veteran and Zoey the horror-movie-loving college chick.
At any time whilst playing you can choose to ‘take a break’, the AI will take over control of your character and you can resume playing at any time. This ensures that gameplay never halts, and the pacing and tension are maintained.
All characters have the same skills, but everyone will soon find their favourite. Regardless of who you select your objective is the same, to survive. There are four campaigns, each split into five sections separated by Safe Rooms and ultimately ending in escape onto a rescue vehicle.
It doesn’t take long to realise that you have a simple choice, to work together or die. The zombie horde is made up of 28 Days Later-style Infected humans, meaning that these are not shambling metaphors for death that you are dealing with, but rather hungry, angry people that will run, jump and climb in their quest for flesh.
Individually, these unfortunate individuals present no great danger, but en-masse they can overwhelm an unprepared group. Of greater concern are the five Special Infected creatures, which can quickly decimate a seemingly-prepared team. The most frequent of those are the Hunter, an agile hoodie-wearing youth who will leap great distances to tear someone’s throat out, and the Smoker, a lanky shambling thing with an extraordinarily long tongue which he uses to ensnare and drag survivors away from their allies.
Slightly less often will be the Boomer, a surprisingly fast obese man that loves to wait around corners and vomit on unsuspecting victims. The vomit has two negative effects, firstly it will blind players for a short while, and secondly there is nothing that attracts the zombie Horde more than the smell of fresh Boomer bile. The Boomer must be killed from a distance otherwise you risk being showered by the contents of its stomach.
Rarer still is the dreaded Witch, a skinny pale girl with long hair and nails who wouldn’t look out of place in a Japanese horror movie. She just wants to be left alone to have a good cry, but flashlights and loud noises can startle her, resulting in almost certain incapacitation for whoever is unlucky enough to disturb her.
Thankfully the most infrequent assailant is the monstrous Tank, a huge gorilla-man-thing on steroids; he will hurl cars and slabs of concrete at you before charging faster than a randy rhinoceros. He can practically shrug off gunfire, and will take the efforts of the whole team to bring him down.
This is game that has been built around the concept of co-operative play, so much so that despite the friendly AI being rather good, playing Left 4 Dead solo is the gaming equivalent of masturbation. Sure, it’s still fun, but it makes you long for the real co-op experience.
The HUD is perfect for its intended usage, to keep you aware of your team-mates conditions and positions at all times. Along the bottom of the screen your allies health is shown, as is whether they hold any First Aid Kits or Pain Pills that can give a temporary health boost. You can also see your friends’ silhouettes through walls, ensuring you can never become separated by accident.
If you stray too far from your colleagues you are helpless. Without a friend to help you, if you are jumped by a Smoker, Hunter or Witch you cannot escape. If you lose all health then you’ll be incapacitated on the ground, you can still shoot with pistols but cannot move until someone helps you up. If you bleed out whilst downed you will die and respawn either at the next safe room.
Levels are essentially linear as your goal is always the next safe room, but each chapter will usually have a few alternate routes. The four scenarios present varied locations – No Mercy is a urban setting featuring subways, sewers and a hospital, Death Toll is a trek along a highway which passes through countryside and small-town areas, Dead Air is set in an airport and Blood Harvest has a rural woodland and farm theme.
Each campaign takes roughly 45 to 75 minutes to play through depending on the difficulty level (and whether you survive it, of course), which may seem meagre but this game offers some of the best replay value ever seen. This is largely thanks to the ‘AI Director’ which is a dynamic system that Valve have created to ensure perfect pacing, drama, tension and difficulty, and which provides a truly unique experience each time.
The Director varies the positioning and quantity of weapons, health and enemies based on each team’s skill, current status and location. It also creates an appropriate mood with the use of dynamic music and communication between the characters. To say that Left 4 Dead is cinematic would be doing Valve a great disservice, as they have broken away from the cinema-inspired conventions of contemporary titles to create a game that is at the pinnacle of what interactive entertainment can achieve.
It combines the procedural narrative of the Director, with the interactions between the human players, and the unpredictability of the excellent enemy A.I. to provide near-perfect emergent narrative. Players will create their own memorable moments and stories without effort. This is the kind of game that you’ll go to bed dreaming about, and wake up wanting to play again.
It’s full of “Did you see that?!” occurrences that you’ll be talking about with mates for ages. Witches hiding behind doors that lead to a handy shortcut, Smokers snaring you in mid-air whilst jumping onto a rescue boat, Hunters dropping from trees and pouncing before you even realise what’s happened, Tanks punching you off a roof as you ran towards salvation waiting on a helipad, Director-created periods of eerie silence punctuated by the explosion of a Boomer taking advantage of your dropped guard.
To be frank, Left 4 Dead is a presentational masterpiece. Valve’s latest Source engine has possibly the best lighting yet seen in a video game, textures feel substantial, wet surfaces actually look wet, the animation is magnificent and zombies react just as you’d expect when hit by bullets in various body-parts. The level design is superb and all the incidental details help to make you feel as if you are traversing real places rather than just moving through linear spaces.
The audio is exquisite. Each Special Infected has its own signature noise that alerts you to its presence, the Hunter’s high-pitched scream, the Smoker’s coughing, the Boomer’s belching, the Tank’s roar of rage and the Witches eerie sobbing. Valve have done away with traditional cut-scenes to provide a sparse narrative that is filled in by scrawled graffiti on walls and random conversations between Survivors. Each Survivor has over 1000 lines of unique dialogue, and if for some strange reason you neglect to play Left 4 Dead with a headset you can click the left analog stick to shout a context-sensitive line based on whatever you are currently looking at.
Although this loss of a continuous narrative may be of a disappointment for some, it really has helped remove distracting elements in a game that has been designed for replayability. Besides the campaign there is also a versus mode that allows one team to take control of the Special Infected themselves (minus the Witch), as teams take turns in surviving as long as they can.
The Infected team are assigned a random Special and must run ghost-like through the chapter to find a spawn point that is neither in view of the Survivors nor too close to them. Infected can see Survivors through walls, as well as being able to climb and break through certain barriers too. However, apart from the Tank, the other Infected are quite vulnerable and will die in a few shots, so players must co-ordinate their attacks to ensure success.
There is a certain devious satisfaction in being able to turn the tables and prey on innocent humans. Whilst controlling the Infected feels awkward at first, you’ll soon be working out the particular tactics that work best for each mutant, and seeking out the perfect positions to lie in wait.
Its difficult to find flaws in such a flawlessly-executed title, but some players may be disappointed that there are only five guns (Uzi, Pump Shotgun, Assault Rifle, Auto Shotgun and Hunting Rifle) on top of the infinite-ammo pistols and fixed machine guns. To be honest though, you’ll usually be too busy surviving to want any more flashy armaments.
The fact that there are only four campaigns is made irrelevant by their replayability, and even after 30 hours play they never feel inadequate. The only disappointment really is that the versus mode can currently only be played in two of the four campaigns, but Valve have already said that the next DLC update will remedy this, and will likely add another campaign too.
So, the only real drawback is that you’ll need some friends to play with. Luckily, in a game that demands teamwork you won’t be short of willing random buddies on Xbox Live. Left 4 Dead also includes split-screen online and offline, meaning you can drag real-life friends into the end of the world too.
Once again Valve show other game developers how to create genuinely unique and immersive title. Every aspect of Left 4 Dead has been refined and tweaked to perfection. It’s addictive and atmospheric, and it contains undoubtedly the best co-op gameplay we’ve seen yet. The survival horror genre has just been revolutionised, the zombie Horde is beating at your door. Grab a shotgun and fight for your life!