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.
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.
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.
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.
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.