Left 4 Dead is the definitive zombie experience
Valve has done it again. With fantastic games like Portal, Team Fortress and Half-Life, they are among the most successful and acclaimed developers around. And there's a new franchise on the block: Left 4 Dead, Valve's highly kinetic zombie shooter. There are quite a few games going around that feature zombies in some way or another, but Left 4 Dead gets it absolutely right. Playing through the game makes you feel as though you're playing through a classic zombie horror movie, which is exactly what the developer was aiming for. If you're looking for the definitive playable zombie apocalypse, Left 4 Dead is what you need.
Valve is great at creating atmosphere in their games without much exposition in regards to plot or character backgrounds. If you're the type that likes to read manuals that come in the game's box, you'll find about 5 lines of background information on each of the 4 characters. Those 20 lines are more info than you'll find in the entire game combined in terms of plot or personal motivation for these persons. Left 4 Dead attempts to re-enact the classic survival horror movies, and it furthers this point by presenting four campaign that are all styled after movies, with posters to boot! Each of them simply drops you into an environment, has one of the characters say a couple of lines to set up this screen-play's goal, and then lets you loose. There are no cutscenes, nor do you get dialogue trees presented to you. The four characters—Bill, Louis, Francis and Zoey—are all very archetypical, and it's almost too easy to shape your personal vision of them in your head.
However, the world also has a personality of its own. The city you traverse has been damaged rather severely by the zombie infection, and everywhere you go, you see signs of the infestation. Cars have been left idle in the streets and shops deserted. In each safehouse, which is your goal during every level of the campaign, mad scribbles from other survivors colour the walls, and they're always interesting and funny to read. Love notes from mothers and wives, contradicting information about the nature of the disease, notes on whereabouts; it's all on there, and it makes the whole game feel so plausible. It makes the player feel as though he's part of a much greater world that once lived and breathed, but it now decaying. It's a large part of Left 4 Dead's greatness.
That other large part is its excellent gameplay. There are plenty of games involving zombies and the many ways in which you can bring about their destruction (I'm looking at you, oh so awesome Dead Rising) but Left 4 Dead is in a league of its own. In concept, the game is pretty simple. Four survivors (preferably 4 gamers playing together through co-op) make their way through the campaigns, running from safehouse to safehouse, and eventually surviving long enough to get picked up by a rescue vehicle. In order to fight off the zombie horde, they use a couple of different types of firearms: assault rifles, snipers, shotguns, pistols and grenades or molotovs. It might sound quite simple, and it really is, but you need to play this game to understand why it has received such praise. The game always makes you feel as though you are just barely surviving: hearing the horde's screams and then seeing dozens of zombies bursting through a door really gets your adrenaline pumping, and it is a thrill few games can claim to contain. Besides regular ol' zombies, there are also some Special Infected, like the Hunter, a zombie that leaps onto of a survivor and pins them down, or the Smoker, who can drag players away from their peers by ensnaring them with his considerable tongue.
The zombies are stupid, but once they notice your presence, they come at you with incredible furiosity that will make you never want to stop pulling the trigger. Sometimes, the horde seems infinite, and you find yourself unloading into a body of hundreds of zombies, and yet it just doesn't seem to end. This is especially nerve-racking during the so-called “Final Stand”, which requires you to survive holed up on a rooftop or in a house while you wait for salvation to arrive in the form of a helicopter or a tank that'll get you out of there. Teamwork is very important in Left 4 Dead, especially when you're playing on the higher difficulty settings. Communication is key to victory in any multiplayer game, but Left 4 Dead hightens the need for it even more. Coordination is absolutely paramount, lest you be completely overrun by infected humans.
Besides the campaign and the (free!) downloadable Survival game mode, both of which have you play as the survivors exclusively, there's also Versus mode. It makes you play through any given campaign, and then makes four players survivors and four players Special Infected. The survivors have to, you know, survive, and the Infected have to take them down as quickly as possible. At the end of ten rounds of Versus, the team with the most points wins the game. It's probably the mode with the most lasting value, because there's a nice degree of variety and unpredictability to it. However, despite the fact that the modes have replay value to them (thanks in part to the AI Director, an AI that adjusts the zombie and item spawns as it is reading the pacing of the ongoing match) L4D decidedly lacks content. With only four campaigns to choose from that are featured across all modes, you'll be seeing a lot of that hospital or those sewers. There's a fifth, short campaign up for download, but it's not for free. The lack of content is really the only thing holding Left 4 Dead back, because it's a very polished and complete game otherwise.
Graphically, Left 4 Dead has aged a tiny bit, but it still looks very good. The environments are highly atmospheric, and the zombie animations are fantastic. The music is good and the voice-work is sparsely-used, but great. Truly, in terms of presentation, Valve is unrivaled. Not because of what they show, but what they allude to; they are absolute masters of this trade.
If you like zombie games, there's absolutely no reason why you shouldn't be playing Left 4 Dead right now. If you haven't yet, go do it. Off you go.