Left 4 Dead is the kind of game that comes around once every four or five years that makes you seriously look at what "multiplayer" is and how it can be improved upon. With titles like Gears of War 2 and Call of Duty: World at War offering their Horde and Nazi Zombie modes, it would seem that Turtle Rock and Valve have essentially created something that contains concepts from both of those while offering a longer and more satisfying experience than the two combined. The game has a few faults, but none of these faults keep you from trying to take out the zombie apocalypse time and time again.
In Left 4 Dead, you'll be given four separate campaigns to play through as one of four different survivors: Louis (token black dood), Francis (tattooed badass), Zoey (obligatory hottie), and Bill ('Nam veteran). Your objective on each of these campaigns is simple: survive an onslaught of zombies and "special infected" as you try to get the hell out of Dodge. That simple objective, however, isn't necessarily the easiest thing to do if you are looking to take on the REAL zombie apocalypse. Kicking it up to Advanced or Expert offers a much meatier and rewarding experience filled with brutality for FPS veterans. With the "AI Director" calling the shots for the zombies, he'll throw anything and everything that he can at you. Since nothing is ever the same in terms of what gets thrown at you, Left 4 Dead focuses hard on being good at the game rather than being good at memorizing. There are tons of split-second moments where the wrong decision could mean the worst for your team.
Using the word "team" is not meant in any loose manner either. In order to progress through these higher levels, it will take a team of skilled individuals who are willing to pump some serious hours into putting together strategies to take on zombie opponents. Four player co-op via system link and Xbox Live allow you to completely fill your team up with human AI to take on the computer, and with two player split-screen with XBL guest support is available, you don't even need that many copies of the game to have fun. Left 4 Dead could benefit from a more streamlined partying function, but it's nothing that will hamper your gameplay experience too much.
Level design is definitely at a peak in Left 4 Dead, as every place you venture to has an eerie vibe that sets in your stomach and keeps you twitching around, waiting for something to jump out of the shadows. All of the campaigns play out in a pretty linear fashion with little to no branching paths, and level memorization will play a huge role in your survivability. Your base objective is going from point A to point B to meet up with some form of rescue attempt to get you and your friends out of the city. Each features a grand finale where you'll make your final stand against the zombie infestation, while the rest has specific points that will trigger hordes of zombies to swarm you mercilessly. No Mercy is probably the best realized of all the campaigns included on the disc, but the other three (Death Toll, Dead Air, and Blood Harvest respectively) are no slouches. While No Mercy and Dead Air are urban city-based campaigns, Death Toll and Blood Harvest put you in the rural situation of open fields, trees, and a dreaded cornfield that will surely swallow your whole the first five or six times you go into it. The only gripe here is that...well...there's only four campaigns. While it's been said that new campaigns may be offered down the line for DLC, the inclusion of only four campaigns that last about 30 minutes - 2 hours each (depending on difficulty and skill) just feels a bit short-handed. Granted, the PC users playing this will have a full-on mod community to offer all kinds of crazy ideas, but 360 owners get a bit gipped from it.
While hordes of regular "infected" will swarm you for reasons as miniscule as shining a flashlight in their general direction, the "special infected" are where things get very interesting. There are five types of "special infected" that will slow down your progress: Hunters are agile and pounce their opponent to the ground; Boomers are giant bloated zombies that vomit a zombie-attracting bile and blow up when you kill them; Smokers wears hoodies and have a 100-foot-long tongue to constrict you with; Tanks are buff brutes that run around like gorillas and pummel anything in their path; Witches sit in a corner and cry but attack with ferocious power and accuracy whenever startled. These five vicious archetypes create tons of tension and overall chaos when they attack in groups and with deadly precision, and since you never know when they'll spawn up, you have to keep your eyes and wits sharp. You might want to also keep your ears peeled, as each of the special infected has a distinct audio cue that lets you know they have spawned on the map and are ready to obliterate you.
If running through campaigns against computer AI isn't necessarily your thing, you could always go to the Versus mode, which is a 4v4 setup that pits survivors against special infected in an ultimate showdown scenario. Only two campaigns are available for this mode (No Mercy and Blood Harvest), but both can be played through in their entirety. The objective is for the special infected to kill all of the survivors, or at least incapacitate them, before their reach the safe room at the end of each level. Players on the infected side are not able to choose which special infected they become, but must instead let the AI Director assign them an archetype. Witches are not available for use, and Tanks are a special unit that is randomly assigned at what are seemingly random times. There will be plenty of times that you feel like it's rather unfair that you are going up against a bunch of guys with guns while you can be shot once with a shotgun and killed, but this is where working at a team pays off. As the survivors, running away from the group is never recommended, as tight-knit groups seem to make it a much easier chance of survival. Still, in the matches I played, both sides were filled with excitement and energy, which is something that you rarely see in games today, and it added to the overall gameplay experience. Even if you lose the match, you still feel like you accomplished something, and moreover, you had fun. Since there aren't any form of leaderboards or rankings or anything for the game, fun is all you have to play for.
The few downsides that you'll find with Left 4 Dead that keep it from achieving total gaming perfection are relatively small, but they will eventually eat away at you. To start, the game just isn't any fun without people to play with. If you don't have any friends to play with, you can always join up with some random folks on XBL, but even then, it just doesn't feel...right. There are also a handful of minor glitches that show up here and there, and while a few of them are comical (like how sometimes killing a Hunter causes it to go into after-death seizures and spray blood everywhere), some are just downright annoying (like how you can finish a Versus match and if someone leaves at just the right moment, the game will glitch out, reload the last part of the last level and make you lose the match instead of win). The lack of content is really the big problem here, though, and it's not just the fact that there are only four campaigns available. As you start a level, you'll get to choose between either a mini-Uzi or a pump-action shotgun to use, while pistols offer unlimited ammo. As you progress, you'll eventually come across extra weapons that include an auto-shotgun, M16 assault rifle, and a hunting rifle with a scope. However, they just feel like slightly upgraded version of the pump shotgun, mini-Uzi, and pistol that you've been carrying around, so there's little difference. At the same time, the idea of adding other weapons doesn't really seem very worthwhile, as these three do get the job done well and don't ruin the pace of the game.
With all this said, and all the stuff that has been left unsaid (like how great Source still seems to make games look and play or the fact that this is the first FPS on consoles that have amazing controls that, dare I say, rival the PC counterpart well), Left 4 Dead is the one game this year that should not go unplayed by anyone. Even if you've never played an FPS before, the forgiving AI Director will treat you decent enough to let you still have fun. Meanwhile, the crippling Expert difficulty level really makes for some fun times with your buddies...albeit very frustrating and full-of-cussing fun times. The few things that hold it back don't hamper the experience by much, so there's no reason you shouldn't be playing this game right now.