Four Survivors And Bloodthirsty Zombies: What Could Go Wrong?
Many games have tried to show what the inevitable zombie apocalypse will look like, but simply put, Left 4 Dead is the most exciting and original survival horror game to hit the market. The majority of the shooters out there tend to thicken the line between multiplayer and single player so that each mode offers something widely different from the other. However, Left 4 Dead is one of the few games out there that takes that line and blurs it to an almost indecipherable amount so that the end result is something truly remarkable.
The game's opening cinematic begins with the words "2 Weeks After The First Infection". From there, each of the four scenarios you are put in have one objective: survive. There is no story in the game. The game manual provides some quick information about the characters, but throughout the campaign the only thing you need to worry about is getting to each safe room (which are conveniently stocked with weapons and health to prepare for the next journey) alive. Each campaign has 5 chapters, with the first 4 involving you getting from one safe room to the other while blowing the living heck out of everything in between. One of the coolest parts of the game is actually reading the walls of the safe rooms. Nearly every safe room will have messages written on the walls from previous survivors. The messages can range from personal notes to family members, directions to evacuation points, to just plain insanity. I recall one safe room where someone had jotted down how long it takes for a bitten human to change into a zombie. The next person that came through crossed it out and wrote an even shorter time. Another person had come through and done the same thing, and so did the next survivor passing through. It's contradicting information like this that keeps the fear of the unknown alive throughout the game.
In order to add variety to the game, Left 4 Dead uses what is called the A.I. Director. The main purpose of the director is to change up the order and placement of zombies, weapons, and other things within the game so that each playthrough feels new. What may have been a desolate alley could be a death trap swarming with Infected the next time you play. The Director can also change up the weapon spawns, so that early on in a mission you might find some powerful guns while the next time you play they won't be there. The system tends to work very well, and at the end of the day every time you play you are doing something different.
While Left 4 Dead is heavily focused around swarms of generic zombies that want to disect you, there is a group of them called the Special Infected. If you are killed during a game, it's usually because of these guys. There are 5 different types of Special Infected, with each one having their own individual role. The Hunter is a fast, nimble zombie that can jump across entire buildings in one leap and tackle survivors to ground. The Smoker usually hangs back in hard to see areas and uses it's long tongue to catch and constrict careless humans. The Boomer is a fat piece of lard who's main purpose is to vomit on the survivors, which not only temporary blinds them but also attracts a ton of Infected so that they are surrounded once their vision clears. The Tank is probably the deadliest enemy in the game, as it's basically a big piece of muscle that can down a human in two hits. Finally you have a witch (unplayable in multiplayer), which prefers to sit in a dark corner somewhere and cry. While she may seem harmless, she will instantly incapacitate anyone who bothers her (whether it's flashing your light at her or simply walking up to her) by sprinting over and eviscerating them with her long claws. The A.I Director also modifies where the Special Infected spawn, most notably the Tank. Sometimes a Tank won't appear until the end up the chapter. Other times, it may come into the battle as soon as you open the safe room's door.
Probably the main attraction of Left 4 Dead is it's heavy focus on teamwork and cooperation, and it lacks neither of the two. Both the Campaign and the Versus mode (the latter of which is obvious) can be played online with other players. Versus is probably the most fun out of the two. In this multiplayer mode, eight players are divided up into two teams. One team plays as the Survivors, while the other team takes on the role of the Special Infected. Those playing as the Survivors must play through the campaign as normal, but they now have to deal with other human players that are playing as the zombies. The Special Infected team does have some advantages, such as being having unlimited spawns and actually being able to choose where to spawn in order to coordinate your attacks. The game does set limits on how close you can be to the survivors when you spawn, and you can't be within their field of view either. Also, the game randomly assigns you a Special Infected to play as in order to add variety and to prevent the whole team from picking the same one.
Due to the cooperative nature of the game, playing online is usually the best way to enjoy Left 4 Dead. However, the game is still playable offline if you don't feel like dealing with the sometimes crap community. The artifical intelligence of your teammates is surprisingly good. They do not hesitate to shoot on sight and are perfectly capable of taking down nearly as many zombies as you. When getting attacked by a Special Infected, they are quick to come and rescue you. I did notice some problems with them throughout my time with the game, as on many occasions they fell behind and got murdered, refused to heal themselves when near death, or were neglegent to pick up ammo and other supplies. Despite this, the AI is very competant and they were rarely a problem.
Recently released by Valve is a new mode called Survival (as well as the remaining two campaigns for Versus Mode). In Survival, up to four players are placed in an area of the host's choosing (all but one are from the campaign) where they must work together to survive as long as they possibly can. The survivors are given an unlimited amount of time to gather up ammo and other supplies as well as work out a strategy together. It is similar to Horde in some ways, but different in many others. First of all, there aren't any breaks in Survival. Once you start it, it's on until the team is dead. The game throws the toughest enemies at you within a minute and a half, so it doesn't start out slow and easy neither. Simply put, Survival mode is the toughest but arguably the most entertaining part of Left 4 Dead.
The engine running Left 4 Dead is the same engine that ran Half Life 2 (the Source engine for all the clueless people). Because Half Life 2 was released around 2003-2004, the graphics definitely aren't up to par with games such as Gears Of War 2 and Call Of Duty. However, the visuals in this game fail to disappoint. Left 4 Dead uses lighting in the right places, and the all around look of the textures and different colors give the entire game a gloomy washed out feeling. The game also has a film grain effect to make it look more cinematic, but I have yet to actually see this because of it mysteriously only being available on high-definition televisions. Along with the graphics is the sound of Left 4 Dead, which actually plays a pretty big role in the game. The music is excellent, and builds up to a nerve-wracking score whenever something bad is happening. All of the zombies make eerie and truly messed up noises, and it all sounds excellent. After a while, you'll easily be able to detect certain Special Infected before you even see them. The Hunter makes a loud screeching noise when he leaps, and the Boomer sounds as if he's drowning in his own bile as he painfully strolls about. The comments made by the Survivors are equally as nice, as you'll usually be able to tell what state someone is in without having to look at their health bar just by what they say. Simply put, the overall quality, look, and feel of Left 4 Dead is very well done.
At the end of the day, Left 4 Dead is special in that it manages to convey what it would feel like to be in a world overrun by zombies. Every corner you turn holds something new thanks to the inovative A.I. Director, and the overral feel and tone of the game is remarkable. In the end, Left 4 Dead is the apocalyptic survival horror shooter that everyone's been waiting for, and it sure is a blast to play.