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Left 4 Dead Review

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  • X360
  • PC

A shortage of content is the only thing keeping this unique cooperative zombie shooter from eating you alive.


You know as much as you need to about Francis here just by looking at him.
In most first-person shooters, there's a fine distinction between the single- and multiplayer games, a distinction that Valve's Left 4 Dead does its best to obliterate. This is a case where the campaign, online co-op, and online multiplayer modes all bleed together into a delightfully putrid miasma of first-person zombie panic. For all the games that have used zombies as foils, Left 4 Dead is probably the closest a video game has gotten to recreating the oscillating senses of dread and terror that are fundamental to a good zombie movie. It makes for one of the most thrilling and unique shooter experiences you'll have this year, as well as one of the most authentic, kinetic zombie games ever made.

The beauty of Left 4 Dead is that it taps into a vision of the zombie apocalypse that is so familiar from films that it allows for a frightening economy in the way the game establishes its characters and setting. The game opens up “two weeks after first infection” with a brief cinematic of the four survivors amidst a horde of attacking zombies, and it's the closest the game comes to providing out-and-out exposition. The lack of further explanation of how the zombie pandemic started actually works to the game's advantage, as confusion and the fear of the unknown are two of the greatest strengths of a good zombie scenario. On a practical level, you'll be so concerned with simply surviving that any other concerns quickly fall by the wayside.

There are some blurbs in the game's manual that provide a little more back story for the four survivors, but they're all so archetypal in appearance and behavior--though without feeling generic--that you get a great sense of who these people are simply by interacting with them. The game also uses the state of the world itself to drive home just how bad things have gotten. Alternating between city streets, open wilderness, and other hallmarks of modern civilization such as hospitals and airports, this is a world that you know, albeit one scattered with the debris of previous carnage where civil services have broken down all but completely, and anyone still alive has boarded themselves up inside buildings and armed themselves to the teeth.

Zambies!
One of my favorite parts of Left 4 Dead is the safe rooms, where previous survivors have scrawled messages to loved ones, contradicting details about other safe locations, tallies of zombies killed, and darkly comic boastings like “no zombie is safe from Chicago Ted.” Even though you never see another non-zombie over the course of the game, the world seems familiar and lived-in. In a way, Left 4 Dead is a kindred spirit with Portal, another Valve-produced game that relies on inference and non-intrusive means to establish the bigger picture.

The campaign mode consists of four independent scenarios, the objectives for which are consistent throughout: survival. You'll start out stranded in one location, surrounded by the undead, and you'll fight from one safe house to the next, working your way towards a destination where you'll presumably find rescue. Between points A and B, you'll find yourself in a world undulating with mobs of shuffling, “common” zombies who, if left to their own devices, will usually just ignore you. If you shoot a zombie, or disturb them by operating machinery or accidentally set off a car alarm, they'll snap to attention and start sprinting towards you with the singular focus of tearing you to shreds. In small groups, these brown-label zombies don't pose much of a threat, though the game will regularly try to overwhelm you with hordes of them, which is a simply terrifying sight.

Of greater concern are the breeds of special zombies, who are tougher than the regular horde, and who come with some unique and deadly abilities. Boomers are corpulent, dyspeptic blobs who can hit survivors with a blast of vomit that both blinds them and causes them to attract a horde of zombies. The smoker tends to hang out further away from the main path, using its long tongue to drag survivors towards it. The hunter is a quick and nimble zombie who, when close enough, will pounce on a survivor and maul them. The tank is a hulking, thick-skinned beast that will tear up hunks of concrete and hurl them from afar, and it only takes one or two punches from one of these to incapacitate a survivor. Each of these special zombies require the use of specific tactics, though none are as dangerous or unique as the witch, who appears to be a thin wisp of a girl who, if left undisturbed, will simply sit on the ground and whimper plaintively. But if you get too close, shine your flashlight on her, or, God forbid, shoot her, she turns into a screaming whirlwind of deadly claws that can be quite difficult to put down. The game constantly encourages you to avoid the witch at all costs, and with good reason.

Just another day in the zombie apocalypse.
Forward momentum is critical to survival, though there are several points in each scenario where you'll find yourself trapped, with no recourse but to try and outlast the swarms of the undead before you can progress. Similarly, the scenarios culminate in a dramatic last stand, where you're forced to fend off wave after wave of zombies from a specific location as you await the arrival of your rescuers. Regardless of where you are, survivors need to stick together. A straggler makes a fine target for a hunter or a smoker, and once they've snared you, the only way you're getting out is with the help of another survivor. Other survivors can also heal you with their own first-aid kits, give you pain pills, and lift you up off the ground when you're incapacitated. The co-op nature of Left 4 Dead is a blade that cuts both ways, in that your explicit reliance on other players can make the experience both more satisfying and frustrating. The alternative is to play with some surprisingly competent computer controlled survivors. While the AI features a few quirks, such as their tendency to not pick up pipe bombs and molotovs, as well as the occasional problem negotiating doorways, they're not nearly as prone to accidentally shoot their teammates, and they're extremely attentive when you get pinned down or incapacitated. The lack of flesh-and-blood teammates evens out the experience, tamping down both the highs and the lows.

There's also a versus mode which pits two teams of four against each other--one as the survivors, and one as the zombies--with the roles alternating between rounds. Save for the increased difficulty of playing against live opponents, playing as the survivors isn't much different from the campaign mode, though playing as the zombies is an entirely different experience. Zombies aren't anywhere near as resilient as the survivors, but while the survivors have only one life per round, zombies can spawn repeatedly. With each life, you're randomly assigned to a different type of special zombie--either boomer, smoker, hunter, or tank--before you're allowed to choose your spawn point, preferably near the survivors, though the game puts a limit on how close you can spawn. Stalking your prey and coordinating with your zombie teammates makes this the antithesis of the survivor experience, and the presence of plenty of common zombies keeps the versus mode feeling true to the campaign. It's a shame that, for some inexplicable reason, only two of the four maps that Left 4 Dead ships with can be played in the versus mode, simply because it's so much fun.

A well-placed molotov is a good way to deal with the teeming undead masses.
The basic movement speed in Left 4 Dead is pretty fast, and while this isn't a game that demands pinpoint accuracy with your weapons, you never feel like the game is taking it easy on you. A big part of this is thanks to the game's AI director. Depending on both the set difficulty level and how well you've been playing the game so far, it will change up when, where, and how many zombies get spawned, as well as the placement of random items like first-aid kits, pain pills, molotov cocktails, and pipe bombs. Prior to the game's release, Valve has put a lot of focus on how radically the AI director can affect the play experience from one session to the next, and while each scenario features a few alternate paths, the consistency of your objectives restrain its influence to specific beats rather than the overall rhythm. This would be a complete non-issue, except that with just four scenarios, each taking roughly an hour to complete, it doesn't take long to see everything Left 4 Dead has to offer. The reactive nature of the AI director and the variables inherent to the game's multiplayer focus give these scenarios longer legs than they might have otherwise, but you'll still wish there was more to it. In a way, it's a credit to how well-crafted the scenarios are that you come away hungry for more.

As with The Orange Box, Left 4 Dead features a developer commentary mode which places brief bits of audio commentary throughout the game. The delivery can be a little dry at times, and it might be a little too nuts-and-bolts for some, though the insight provided into the process behind the game, as well as how the choices made have an impact on the final product, are consistently fascinating.

Left 4 Dead runs on the Source engine, the same engine that powered Half-Life 2 some four years ago. It's definitely getting a little long in the tooth, but it still puts on a pretty good show here. The game's smart use of lighting, film-grain effects, and various, subtle contrast and color effects give much of the world a desolate, washed-out feeling. The character models feature some of the most realistic, emotive faces I've seen in a game, and the stride of their animations will change depending on their current condition, to the point that you don't even have to look a a survivor's health bar to know how they're doing. There are some quirks, with interactions between characters being pretty consistently awkward, but the game's art direction is so thoroughly engrossing that the problems are easy to ignore.

Come give your Aunt Clara a kiss!
The sound in Left 4 Dead plays a deceptively subtle role in both the mood and the gameplay. The feral screeches of the zombies are unsettlingly animalistic, and the ways in which the survivors will shout out to each other conveys their varying levels of desperation. The music is also damned effective, employing eerie synthesized tones straight out of a John Carpenter movie to create a dangerous level of tension, and building up to some ominous horns whenever the action is about to get serious. It's not all window-dressing, though, and with a keen ear you'll be able to identify the presence of a special zombie before you'll actually see them. This is of particular importance when dealing with the witch.

The PC and Xbox 360 versions are pretty comparable across the board, though there are a few predictable deviations, such as the higher resolutions afforded by the PC hardware and the sharper controls of a mouse and keyboard. Communication with your team is key in Left 4 Dead, and while the PC version supports voice chat, it's not as standardized as it is on the 360, and you can't expect every player to have a headset. While the PC version features a quick dialogue tree that lets you call out a few specific phrases, it's no substitute for direct communication.

Due to the mere four scenarios included in Left 4 Dead, the biggest factor in deciding between the two versions will be post-release support. The standalone nature of the scenarios would make it easy for Valve and/or the community to cook up some new and exciting levels, which could extend the life of the game considerably. The Xbox 360 version is still terrific fun, though the limited post-release support that Valve has provided for the contents of The Orange Box on the 360, compounded by the inability of players to distribute their own custom maps, potentially gives the PC version a distinct advantage.

Beyond its categorical success in establishing a vivid picture of the zombie apocalypse, Left 4 Dead's biggest breakthrough is the way it blurs the lines between the often compartmentalized pieces of a modern first-person shooter. It makes for a game that's unlike any other, and while the limited amount of content is admittedly unfortunate, that shouldn't keep you from experiencing this fast-paced, nerve-wracking game.
111 Comments
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Posted by LordAndrew

I liked what I played of the demo. I'll probably pick this up sometime.

Posted by mracoon

I was addicted to game from my first play through of the demo. I'm waiting for my copy to arrive, I found it much cheaper on Amazon then on Steam so I decided to get it from there instead.

Moderator
Posted by TheHBK

Sounds great, got to give it a go round. 

Posted by GodzillaVsJapan

I tried the demo its good to see it was well received by you guys. I will be picking up the PC version though because of all the support it will be getting

Posted by TFG

Great review, will definitely pick this game up.

Posted by Tolendante

I'm patiently (well, not really) waiting for my last class to end, so I can get to Gamestop and pick up my pre-order.  Considering how much time I have put into the demo, I'm expecting to get a lot of play out of this one.

Posted by IncredibleBulk92

The only thing thats actually making me think twice about buying this game is the lack of support for Team Fortress 2 on the Xbox 360.  New levels and maybe new weapons seem like their really needed in this game and would really help the life span of the game.

Tell you what Valve, you release some free content packs for the 360 version and I'll buy you're game 1st hand, if you don't then maybe I'll pick it up in a few months 2nd hand when I've made my way through the pile of games that has amased.  There's plenty to do right now anyways
Posted by ahoodedfigure

Deceptively significant?  Oops.

I was a bit disappointed to learn the Smoker was a zombie type.  I assumed it was a player class, where you need packs of smokes to keep the nerves down, but you're less likely to panic when you're smoking :)

I think Valve has shown that they're a smart group of folks who know how to make a game.  This has me jonesing for a zombie film tonight :)

Posted by stustap

Hmmm.  Loved the demo, but I'm concerned by the lack of content.  However, I feel I need to pick this up this week otherwise the online community will be dead by the time I do.

Posted by WEGGLES

Waitin on the shipment to arrive at EB games...

stupid snow.

Posted by Warped655

Even though this game may lack content, it is likely valve will release plenty of free stuff for it. and then there are the fan made mods... so... I'm pretty sure that the game will eventually have PLENTY to do.

Posted by sloppyjoe

The PC supports custom maps?

Posted by Kush

I really hope my copy arrives soon...I am dying the playing this game about killing the dead. :P

Posted by CodeHero

I am afraid I will grow bored of this game too quickly to pay the 50 dollars.  I guess that wouldn't happen on the PC, but I want to play this with my friends who only have xbox's.  I'm gonna wait to pick it up.

Posted by Knives

I disagree with the lack of content. While a single run through on normal or easy will only take a few hours, the advanced and expert modes provide much challenge. And the game really is different every time you play. I've put in about a dozen hours in the retail game and demo and I'm still loving it.

Posted by Crono

The game is awesome, I just finished one of the campaigns in Expert and the "credits" after each of the campaigns is great.  This game should not be played religiously, as it will most likely tire you out quickly; but if you play it with moderation as a game to keep coming back to between other games, you will most likely enjoy this game for the rest of 2009. 

This game is a blast if you get teammates that communicate.  People really get into the game and that is one of the best parts about this game.

Either way this game is a 5 to me, no matter how short the content may be.  I am not worried because Valve has an excellent track record for releasing new content (on the PC) so there will most certainly be more in the coming months.

Posted by n00bosaurusRex

@sloppyjoe

Yes, the PC definitely supports custom maps.  I've heard that the AI director can be thrown into any map and can work its magic accordingly... however I think you need to designate spawn points for ammo, health, hordes etc.

Here's a video of L4D on dustbowl from TF2:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9l7VWgknA-M

Can't find the link but I also found a blog post last night where someone had figured out how to make it where you can play through all the maps for Episode 2 (HL2) in left 4 dead.

Posted by Xymox

Good review. 
As pointed out I think the mod community will pretty much make or break this game. I personally see a ton of potential for mods. 

Posted by MeatSim

I played the demo while the frame rate seemed fine the gameplay it self was to choppy and jerky for me. 

Posted by momentarylogic

Played the demo, couldn't connect to any servers, but I immediately found myself wanting to buy this game asap. This is going to be HUGE.

Posted by MasterSplinter

If Valve gives it a lot of support with extra content on the 360, I'm going to love it.

Posted by John

Crap, I gotta wait till december 3rd to buy this. I hate not having dollah bills to toss up in the sky.

Posted by dsplayer1010

Do you think they'll release free content frequently like they do for Team Fortress 2?

Posted by thrtyfutsmurf

looks really pretty good. worried though that it wont be as fun should I play alone. I don't have regular live compatriots so I'd most likely have to join up with randoms...I wonder if that would be as good??

Posted by Death_Burnout

On a personal note, the length of the game is perfectly fine with me, perfectly replayable, i really love the game so its a 5/5 for me, im really excited to see if Valve add an official campaign for the PC one day. Not to be an ass but i couldn't imagine enjoying it on the 360 :/

Posted by daniel_beck_90

awesome review

Posted by Knives

Damn, only have money for one game. Left 4 Dead or MK vs. DC, I can't decide! Just kidding, that's an easy fucking choice. L4D is a blast.

Posted by PapaLazarou

I've always loved Valve but this is the first game they've ever made that I'm just not in love with.

I like the gameplay because it's Source but...... theres no "real" single player and thats what the game needs is a Half-Life like Single Player for me to sink my teeth into and get story. See Team Fortress 2 being a multiplayer game only and counter Strike is fine with me because that's what they are designed to do and feel right. Left 4 Dead to me however feels rather linear so I don't want to play through the coop again because I know what happens and it's not much and the Versus I don't find fun, like all the zombie mod games... playing the zombies isn't fun. I also find that Left 4 Dead is missing a TON of content like being able to play as the AI director and it's just a very lackluster experiece thats over in a couple of hours. I also have to add that the whole lobby/matchmakign thing just doens't do it for me and I wish they added a server browser tab so I don't have to keep copening the console and typing in openserverbrowser and have it say to me lobby games only, which also kills the mod community.

I love the setting and the animations and the feel of the game.

It's just lacking and feels like a 360 ports.. again they use bars instead of a number ping which pisses me off.

Posted by RHCPfan24

It looks great but why give MKDC a 5 and this a 4?  I know I am not the only one a bit surprised by this score.

Posted by Scooper

I agree with this review but you can expect a long life if you're a PC fan just like any other multiplayer Valve game on the PC, they'll be maps and mods for a good few years to come no doubt.

Ps. If anyone's wondering about the annoying match-making system that's in the game right now, Valve's said their first post-release patch should put in a standard (if slighty modified) server browser so you won't be forced to join a server on the other side of the Atlantic. Also they've also said they'll be adding new zombie bosses in good time but if that's coming to the 360 I haven't much hope; Valve wants to release content for free guys, they can do that on Steam but Microsoft wants a grip for you to download anything that's not a patch fixing a game-breaking bug, and they probably thought about charging for that a few times too.

Posted by orshick

I played the game till 5 am. It's great fun.

Posted by mr_registered

Great review Ryan, can't wait to pick this one up!

Posted by cashbasket

This game is an affront to those of us that have no friends.

Posted by Charleslegrand

So basically they lost a star because there are very few levels?  Aright, well custom maps will do the trick so it's basically a 5/5 on the PC

Posted by AGold

Yes the PC version supports custom maps. I've been working on one for months. Valve hasn't released the SDK update for it yet, and probably wont for a few weeks so I can start coding and pacing my map for L4D. It's going to be 90% custom props and textures. :)

Posted by TimesHero

I'm sorry, but this is the kind of game that requires a video review!

Posted by AndrewB

I was about to yell blasphemy when I saw a 4 star review here, but then I saw the reason, and I have to agree. Left 4 Dead needs more levels; a whole lot more, and perhaps one or two more enemy and weapon types. Of course, knowing Valve, they'll be releasing at least the maps part of that equation, and for free, too.

Posted by rerty

this game looks like a fucking HL 2 mod,,,are they really charging full retail price for this?

Posted by DarkPants

good review ryan, picked it up yesterday..

Posted by CrazyRalph023

demo was awesome....great speed and surprises really make this a must pick up for myself. can't wait to play with my college roommates

Posted by Kohe321

Getting this, definetely.

Online
Posted by Dandy

Being a valve product I would not be afraid of the lack of content.  They have always done an amazing job in supporting their products well after release.

Posted by KEITH1437

I give it a 5/5 because VALVe gives you free updates on Steam so maybe new campaigns. Also, re-playability is huge for me.

Posted by Scorched

I did not sleep last night
played this game with my friend til I had to go to school
beat it within 4 hours of release

Posted by sloppyjoe

Ok, thanks for the info.  Custom maps makes moves this from a probable buy to a must buy for me.

Posted by BawlZINmotion

Excellent review, though I think we all know there will never really be a shortage of content for a Valve game. At least if you are a PC user...

Posted by addictedtopinescent
Great review Ryan, too bad the game doesn't have a whole lot of content but it still looks great and I will buy it for sure.
Edited by Linkyshinks

 The PC version powns the crap out of the 360 game in almost every aspect.

I cannot wait for all the extra stuff that will come to the PC, and the mods.

Posted by Snail

I could totally tell that Ryan preferred mouse over joystick by seeing the video-guide! xD Or was that Brad...

@anyone bitching about MKvsDCU 5 stars and this 4: If you don't agree fine, to each his own. Everyone has it's own opinion and 2 different reviewers reviewed 2 different games, now go masturbate.
Posted by Peach

I've played the game at my friends house. I have to say that I'm in complete agreement with everything this review has to say.

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