theuselessgod's Left 4 Dead (PC) review

If you have three friends, this game is a blast.

The Short

Pros

- Four player zombie-shooting co-op action

- Simple shooter to learn, difficult to fully perfect

- Four scenarios (more with free DLC on PC) and a wave-based survival mode

- Full mod support adds hundreds more scenarios to run through

- Excellent writing for what little of it there is

- AI Director ensures every game is different, editing the encounters based on how you are playing

- Tons of fun with a few competent friends; split-screen on Xbox 360 version

Cons

- Only four missions on-disc for the Xbox 360 version, and you have to pay for the DLC on Xbox as well

- Load times can be pretty bad for a low-asset game

- Graphics look decent but not great

- AI Director doesn't do enough. We were promised he'd block off paths or change things and he doesn't; he really just decides if you get either guns or more zombies

- Limited variety in weapons and zombies (though the specials are unique and fun)

- If your friends suck, this game will be awful

Looks like you've been....left for dead. HA!

The LongCo-op and zombies go together well. Even if we've probably had too much of both over the past few years, there isn't anything like sitting down with some buddies and zombie-smashing together. We've done it in duel stick shooters, Call of Duty mods, and who knows what else. It's been around for a while, to say the least.

Left 4 Dead was Valve's hat tossed into the zombie-slaying buddy-covering market. And while when broken down it isn't anything exceptional, everything fits together well enough in this zombie-slaying extravaganza to make for a fun romp...provided you have three friends willing to take it with you.

Good partners are essential on the higher difficulties.

The concept of Left 4 Dead is simple. You and three friends (or bots) have to get from point A to point B to get rescued. Between A and B are about twenty gajillion zombies to hunt down, so you'd better be ready to work together. Luckily, the gun fairy has been dropping weapons like candy all over the place (as well as ammo, health packs, pills, etc.) so you at least will be well-armed. You and your friend fight off the zombie horde while slowly advancing, until you finally win.It works because it has smaller set-piece battles to break up the larger ones. Shooting a car alarm or having to do something like lower a loud bridge starts "Horde" events, where basically a trillion cannon-fodder infected (aka zombies) rush your team in an attempt to overwhelm. On their own or even in groups of five or six these guys aren't too dangerous, but get away from your group and you can easily be surrounded or overwhelmed. It's the constant state of rest to escalation and then back to rest (and so on and so forth) that keeps the game's tension up while not being completely overwhelming. Having three friends helps too.

Stick together, or get overwhelmed

There are also a few unique zombies. By a "few" I mean "four." You have the Boomer, an exploding bottle of barf that covers you and obscures your vision as well as turning you into temporary zombie-bait. The Smoker, who grabs you with his tongue and traps you completely until a teammates kills it or sets you free. The Hunter, who leaps on you and pins you for sick damage until a teammate helps, a Witch who just sort of sits there unless you shine a light on her or shoot her and then she murders you completely, and a Tank (aka a boss) who is a lumbering giant that everybody has to work together to kill.

Because these infected can essentially pin you completely down (the Hunter and Smoker essentially) you are completely reliant on friends to get out. Forcing this co-op element was a good call: it makes it so teams have to stick together, because if you go running off ahead and get grabbed by a Hunter it could mean instant death. These combined with the persistent common infected keep players on their toes.

You can heal each other or give supplies if necessary.

What determines spawns is the Director, an AI operation that watches you and (based on difficulty) either helps or hurts you. If you are all down on health and out of healing, for instance, the next cupboard you find might have some temporary life-giving pills. If you are cruising through with ammo and health to spare, expect a Tank to show up and ruin your life. It works well enough, though I wish it was more dynamic. When originally presented they said he could change routes to make the game harder and different every time; it seems that was cut. Mostly now he just controls zombie spawns and supply drops, and that's it. At least it makes things different every time, but not really enough to change things up enough.

To be honest, the lack of variety is really Left 4 Dead's biggest weakness. Aside from a starter pistol there are only five guns in the game, with three of them being distinct upgrades from the first two. You have two types of grenades, one that baits and then explodes and one that burns. You also have two types of health: rare health kits that provide a permanent heal and pills that give a temporary boost. It's a bit sparse, and even when playing with buddies one can wish for more variety.

The same goes for the stages. On disc you only have four, and each can be cleared on all but the hardest difficulty in about 45 minutes to an hour. If you are on the PC you get a bunch more for free (including fan-made ones), but if you are on Xbox 360 you get boned by Microsoft and have to buy them. Tip: get the PC version. Load times are better, community is older, and all your DLC is free. Even then, having about 6 (?) stages on the final build still seems a bit sparse, and you'll see them a lot if you want to get your full value from this game.

Each scenario is presented like a bad zombie movie, which is pretty hilarious.

Despite my complaining, however, Left 4 Dead has a certain draw (though only really if you play with friends). Getting four people together and playing on the harder difficulties can be a challenge, especially since on the hardest difficulty one stray bullet of friendly fire will drop a teammate. Clamoring to survive massive encounters together while keeping an eye out for the special infected can be pulse-poundingly intense, and trying to survive the final stages of a level can literally mean deciding to leave a trusty friend behind to die so that the rest can live. It's hard decisions, made at split second intervals (because those zombies are fast runners) and can be quite a rush. Even with the limited variety, Left 4 Dead pulls through by having everything piece together well, especially when playing with a group yelling and screaming at each other.

The game looks decent, but not great.

Graphically, Left 4 Dead is just ok. It's running on the old Source engine made for Half Life 2 back in freaking 2005, so on modern machines it still holds up but has a lot of square edges. Zombies are particularly bland, probably because you have to put a bunch of them on screen at once, though blowing up heads is oddly satisfying. The environments are also decent but don't ever provide any scares (which I don't think this game was going for scares but hey, it is a zombie game) or do anything particularly interesting. It does have a cool feature where (if you watch the director's commentary you learn this) when the game is about to do something nasty to you the environments will brighten and blur ever so slightly, like the effect of adrenaline hitting the brain would in real life. This leads to veteran Left 4 Dead players (like me, hur hur) being able to actually predict when a horde event is going to happen before hearing anything, because they'll subconsciously have seen the shift so many times their own adrenaline will start pumping automatically when the screen has that extremely slight change. Pretty cool.The character are all unique and, despite not actually having any backstory, I found myself attached to them. I particularly liked Francis, the jerk biker who argues with Bill the war vet all the time but secretly I think they are friends. The character banter (and cries of sadness when one falls) is all very well written and randomized, meaning you rarely hear the same quips more than once. You start to piece together their relationships just by playing the game and listening and without the game explicitly saying, well, anything. It's a clever touch and one I wish more games did; I really felt like I knew these characters after playing a few dozen hours around them.

It has a film-grain effect over it as well, further pushing the "movie" idea. Or hiding the bad graphics.

As it stands, Left 4 Dead is an excellent zombie shooting romp with friends. Single player isn't nearly as fun, mostly because any challenge ends up being because your AI teammates are a little too friendly with the pills and health packs rather than the game being difficult. However, considering this goes on sale on Steam like every other day (I actually bought this one full price, but I got the second one for around $3), if you can convince three friends to jump on a sale and then get your zombie action on, you are guaranteed a good time. If you like shooting and hate infected, and have friends you don't mind getting frustrated with, this game is a fun romp.Plus it has a survival mode if you just like killing zombies unhindered by that pesky "point" thing that the game tries to force on you.

Four out of five stars.

"Oh boy. More infected."
"Don't be an ass, Francis."

More at http://nathanvsvideogames.blogspot.com

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