Left 4 Dead is the next big game from Valve Corporation, the company responsible for mega-hit games such as Half-Life, Counter-Strike, and Team Fortress 2. Though the group who initially made this was Turtle Rock Studios, Valve saw the potential in the game and bought the company and integrated it into their own, much like they assimilated the creators of (and the rights to) Counter-Strike and Team Fortress. Left 4 Dead pits four survivors fighting their way out of a zombie-geddon scenario in four chapters. This game is unique because it features a four-person co-op campaign, or a versus mode where eight players team against each other, four survivors and four infected. Though the content is somewhat limited, the replayability of this game more than makes up for the small amount of maps and lack of narrative.
This game is all about co-op strategy. There are always four Survivors:
If a player is not playing one of the four Survivors, the AI will take over for that character.
In the images above you can see the key characters from the game (From left to right: Francis, Louis, Bill, Zoey).
At the same time, there are four Special Infected that players will encounter in Campaign Mode and will be able to play as in Versus Mode:
In addition to the above four playable Infected, there are two more Special Infected that Survivors will encounter:
Finally, the last important “character” of Left 4 Dead is the Director, which is an unseen AI that controls the appearance of Special Infected, Hordes, weapons, and items based on how the players are fairing. Left 4 Dead is unique in that there are no set spawn locations in the map—instead, the Director controls all of that. This means that every run-through of the game is different, and gives this game infinite replayability. It also means that the Survivors must stay together, because often if a Survivor gets split from the group, the Director will spawn a Special Infected like a Smoker to incapacitate that character (thereby punishing him from leaving the group). Also if the Survivors are doing really good, the Director will increase the amount of Special Infected they fight; conversely, if the Survivors are not doing well at all, the Director will scale back the difficultly to let them catch their breath.
Left 4 Dead features four campaigns that span five levels each, culminating in a Finale that requires a huge amount of teamwork to escape from. In Campaign Mode, four players playing the four Survivors must work their way through the levels, dodging or fighting through everything the AI Director throws at them; often it pays to be meticulous and search every side room, because there’s always a chance the Director will spawn items in those rooms. There will be times in some levels where the Survivors must defend a position against the Horde, such as waiting for an elevator to arrive or for a building’s generator to kick in to open the door. These present little mini-climaxes that serve to break up the flow of running-and-gunning against zombies. The finale presents a difficult situation, often forcing the Survivors to defend a large position until help arrives (in the form of a helicopter or a boat to escape in).
Versus Mode, on the other hand, plays much differently. The object of versus mode isn’t to defeat the campaign—the Survivors have a much higher chance of losing in Versus mode, because Special Infected (played by the opposing team) are much more intelligent (due to human control) and spawn faster. Instead, in Versus Mode, it’s a competition to see which team, (playing as the Survivors) can get further through the levels. Thus both teams take turns playing Survivors/Infected. The Infected team scores no points, but rather does their best to stop the Survivor team from getting further (and thus scoring higher) in the level. The Infected team can spawn every thirty seconds, and the Infected they spawn as is random between the Hunter, the Smoker, and the Boomer (ideally, there can only be one Boomer, one Smoker, and two Hunters spawned at a time); sometimes during climactic moments an Infected player will be chosen by the Director to spawn as the Tank, and provide a boss encounter for the Survivors—though the Tank will only spawn once per level, if at all, since it is much more powerful than the regular Special Infected. Versus Mode has the same mini-climaxes and Finales that the Campaign Mode does, but they are much more difficult for the Survivors and often results in their deaths because of the increased intelligent tactical planning of the human Infected.
The only downside to Left 4 Dead in its gameplay is its limited content: each of the four campaigns can usually be completed within two hours, and Versus Mode only uses two of the four campaigns. There are also only a few amounts of weapons (in two tiers: the Pistol/Uzi/Shotgun and the Dual-Pistol/Assault Rifle/Auto-Shotgun/Hunting Rifle; in addition to there being only two types of grenades: Moltov Cocktails and Pipebombs). Also, there seems to be a few bugs at the time of this review that results into some odd situations, such as three Hunters spawning (which means a potential instant-win for the Infected if there’s a Smoker, and every Survivor is incapacitated at the same time), but these bugs should be fixed in time.
Though the Steam engine is beginning to show signs of its age, it’s still top-notch in the graphics department. Valve spares no expense in developing realistic character design, from the four distinctive Survivors to the surprisingly varied and unique endless horde of zombies. The scenery also plays an important part in the game, and using advanced creative lighting (thanks to the HDR features of the Steam engine) the ambience really sets the mood for a zombie survival game. The creators of this game found a unique way to create a multitude of different zombies while using very little texture resources by using a random generator that is able to choose from a variety of “top” and “bottom” clothes, in addition to being able to change the color of the texture; leads to a uniqueness that makes no two zombies alike. The Special Infected are also unique in design, allowing them to be easily distinguished from common Infected so the Survivors can see the threats and stop them (this is a balancing issue so in Versus mode the Infected don’t have an unfair advantage due to scenery).
The sound effects in this game are exactly the right sounds for survival horror: the Infected make all sorts of disturbing sounds (akin to the pseudo-zombies of the movie 28 Days Later), and every Special Infected has a unique sound they make that distinguishes them in dark scenes (for example, the Hunter screams when it sees Infected; the Smoker coughs; the Witch cries loudly). The music is described by the developers to be a unique, AI-driven, client-side based algorithm: every client has their own music “score” that is unique based on the condition of their character. The game also uses musical cues to indicate when certain events happen, such as the appearance of the Tank or the Witch, or when a Horde is swarming in to attack the Survivors. The only minor mark in the Sound department is the regular, non-event music seems to be few and far between, and I feel could use more inclusion to increase the atmosphere even more.
Left 4 Dead uses the Steam engine, which means that it uses the exact same control scheme as Half-Life 2, Counter-strike: Source, and Team Fortress 2. They’re relatively straightforward FPS controls, and the game is great at teaching you how to play if you’re not familiar with the Steam controls: it uses a system of on-screen instructions that regularly appear until it seems that the player has a handle of that control, then that screen doesn’t appear again. Survivors have a primary “fire gun” and a secondary “melee” control, while Infected have two attacks (for example, the Smoker’s primary attack is its tongue-lash, and the Tank has its rock throwing). There’re no problems with the controls at all.
Competitive Aspect: 8/10
The competitive aspect of the game, in the form of Versus Mode, is probably the main reason this game has a lot of replayability potential. Playing as an Infected is much different than playing as a Survivor: Infected die quickly and often, and Survivors take a lot to die, but they stay dead for the rest of the level. Since you only score points when you’re playing on the Survivor side, it balances out against the clear advantage the Infected have in Versus Mode.
The only downside to this game’s competitive aspect is the arbitrary actions of the Director that can tip the balance too easily toward one side or the other. Often the appearance of a Tank can instantly tip the balance in favor of the Infected when it spawns in an enclosed area (where the Tank can run down each Survivor and incapacitate them); conversely, the Survivors can get early access to the Tier 2 weaponry that will make it harder for the Infected team to kill them (since the Tier 2 guns are far more powerful).
Despite the occasional trump card the Director throws at one team or the other, the Versus Mode is very fun and always replayable due to the variety of players and tactics available, despite the limit of two of the four campaigns available.
Left 4 Dead is another fine addition to Valve’s line of team-based multiplayer games. It combines some of the character class-style gameplay of Team Fortress 2 (with the Special Infected) with the strategy-based team play of Counter-strike: Source. It’s truly a unique game with few comparable games (the closest thing available is something like Diablo 2, with its “different dungeon every time” aspect), but it’s still an easy enough pick-up-and-play multiplayer game that this reviewer can definitely recommend to any sort of gamer, hardcore or casual. After all, who doesn’t like killing zombies?
Final Score: 9/10