Platforms: PC, Xbox 360 - PC version reviewed
Please don't gasp with mock-amazement as I let out the year's biggest non-surprise: Left 4 Dead is absolutely brilliant. After Half-Life 2, Counter-Strike: Source, Team Fortress 2 and Portal, we've come to expect nothing less from Valve. This is a developer that seems to knock out games that redefine genres or push new frontiers with the ease that Electronic Arts pumps out annual sports updates. When Valve says that it's going to do for the co-op shooter what Counter-Strike: Source did for the competitive FPS, you have to sit up and listen. Of course, there are other games out there that are making waves in the co-op field - Halo 3, Gears of War 2 and Resistance 2 spring instantly to mind - but I suspect Left 4 Dead will be the one that every developer worth their salt will end up stealing from.
This isn't a set of side missions or a spun-off game mode, but probably the best example yet of how you can take four players and make them feel part of an unfolding story. Like Half-Life 2 and its episodes it's a game packed with moments and villains that are destined to become iconic, yet like Counter-Strike: Source or Team Fortress 2 it's the sort of game that seems endlessly replayable during lunchtimes or after-work sessions. Its an experience that no PC gamer with even the vaguest interest in action games will want to miss.
Of course, it will also help if you like zombie movies. Left 4 Dead follows the same basic premise as George A Romero's classic Dead trilogy (we'll politely ignore Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead if it's all the same with you), which also inspired Capcom's Dead |Rising and Resident Evil 2. In short, some kind of mystery infection (possibly related to Strictly Come Dancing) has turned the general population into mindless, murderous zombies. As a result, the whole world has gone to hell in a hand basket (again, I blame Strictly Come Dancing), leaving only isolated pockets of survivors.
One such group consists of a grizzled vet, a biker, a student and a systems analyst, and each of Left 4 Dead's four scenarios sees that small band trying to get from a perilous start location to some point of escape. Four players each take on or are allocated one of these roles, with any spare positions taken up by the AI. The only thing in your way? A seemingly endless horde of zombies, plus a scattering of 'boss' zombies who will do their best to ensure that a) they don't make it and b) their internal organs will end up as tasty zombie snacks.