Left 4 Dead truly is the ultimate summer blockbuster condensed into a bite size package. Never shy about its overall sense of corniness, the game embraces cult classic cinema such as The Evil Dead or Dawn of the Dead, and succeeds wildly by placing players within a frantic kill-or-be-killed environment. Bill, Francis, Zoey and Louis are about to have a hell of a day.
Developed by Turtle Rock and Valve studios (creators of legendary first-person shooter franchises Half-Life and Counter Strike), Left 4 Dead immediately comes bearing some serious shooter pedigree. The catch this time around is that survival weighs much more heavily on teamwork and open communication than typical gunplay finesse. Artful cooperation is the cornerstone to success, and to neglect this aspect means certain death.
A proper backstory is completely unnecessary; we’ve all heard this one before. Zombies — the fast 28 Days Later kind — have overrun the land and only the quick-witted will live to tell the tale. Choose one of four selectable characters (grizzled veteran, tough-guy biker, suave black guy and sassy but lovable girl), stock up on ammo and an array of predictable FPS weaponry, and head out into the wastelands.
The environments are well constructed for their purpose of catering an intense , white-knuckled experience. Expect an even blend of dangerous, wide-open terrain and claustrophobic choke points. Luckily safe houses, which serve as impregnable checkpoints, are reached along the way throughout each mission providing much needed haven. These bunkers are also where additional health and ammunition can be stockpiled. Throughout Left 4 Dead, players will battle the horde everywhere from the desolate woods to an overrun and deserted airport.
Ostensibly, Left 4 Dead is one of the shortest $60 games ever released. There are only four missions each taking at most an hour to conquer. Unbeknownst to most is that these zombies are a little bit smarter than that.
Valve created a monster when it began work on Left 4 Dead. The game thinks and responds to players’ actions unlike anything before. Utilizing an in-game A.I. director, the brain of the game seamlessly adjusts every factor invisibly and completely on the fly. This enables every playthrough to serve as a unique and varied experience entirely different from the previous. It is within these parameters that each mission becomes merely a blank canvas for randomly generated zombie chaos. Suddenly the replay value becomes infinite and Left 4 Dead’s true character begins to shine.
While zombies are commonplace, much bigger threats lie waiting in the dark in the form of hunters, smokers, boomers, tanks, and witches. Each enemy has a different attack style, from lighting fast pouncing to retractable tongues to horde-attracting vomit. Tanks lack special abilities but compensate with their massive size and superhuman strength. Most deadly of all are the witches whose eerily soothing sobs of sadness are merely a front for her feral claws, which can kill in one hit. Better keep that shotgun full.
Do yourself a favor and play the online campaigns with live human beings for the full effect. It’s hard to beat the tension of huddling together in a dark parking garage, only to hear the ominous music swell of an impending tank. Playing online with random strangers also ensures no two playing styles will ever repeat themselves; some parties will prefer to throttle full-speed ahead guns a’blazing while others will go slower, carefully searching each dimly lit hallway and corridor.
If it were to be judged solely on its gunplay, Left 4 Dead would invariably come up short against such a wide field of modern competitors. The controls play on the twitchy side and thus pinpoint precision goes right out the window. While the frantic pace may keep gamers on their toes, don’t expect it to translate well if they have trouble hitting their targets. I seemed to rely heavily on the shotgun (pump or auto) and assault rifle, and found absolutely no use for the sniper rifle. The submachine gun was mediocre and pistols, while wielding unlimited ammo, usually provide the last line of defense and never a go-to means of zombie disposal. Aside from Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs, these are the only weapons available.
Graphically, Left 4 Dead is a lot like an American car — just enough horsepower to get the job done but lacking any real sense of style or innovative design. The visuals lack the polish of Halo and the detail of Call of Duty. Despite no obvious great leaps forward, expect excellent physics modeling and well planned realism all throughout. Solid lighting effects (you knew there’d be a flashlight, right?) are also a welcome addition to the spooky locales.
Once the campaign dust has settled, a well intentioned but inevitably faulty multiplayer mode can extend the life of the game even further. Competing online, take control of the undead themselves — as everything from the boomer to the hunter and even the tank — then work against others controlling the humans from checkpoint to checkpoint. Problems arise, however, when players must wait to spawn and also not being able to choose which characters they spawn as.
This lack of forethought gimps zombie players, who are rarely able to muster the strength to topple a well communicating team of humans armed with shotguns. Gripes aside, there is still little else as satisfying as snipe snaring a live human from afar with a smoker’s tongue, or finally getting close enough to puke rancid zombie attractant on an unsuspecting survivor lagging behind. If you’ve got the patience, Left 4 Dead’s multiplayer mode can satisfy all levels of sadistic undead pleasure.
As with most products Valve creates, Left 4 Dead practically screams for mods and add-on packs. Expect a bevy of additional enemies, levels and possibly weapons to come in the following months (rumor has it even a flamethrower could be involved). No other game in console history has offered an experience this exciting without looking like its even trying. Come get some.