- Review Price: £19.97
”’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.
It’s a fairly simple setup, but it’s perfect for co-op play. With the odds so against you, you and your fellow players have no option but to work together if you’re going to succeed, and the only things you need to worry about are surviving, shooting anything that looks too pallid and making it to the end of the stage in one piece. Sometimes you’ll only encounter scattered showers of drifting flesh-eaters, but turn the wrong corner or make the wrong move and – bang – it’s raining undead men (not to mention undead women).
Watch each other’s backs, help and heal each other and there’s a chance you might win through. However, as every good zombie movie fan knows, fear, panic, selfishness and general stupidity will get in the way every time. This doesn’t matter. Left 4 Dead is an amazing game when everything goes right, and there are times where you’ll find the whole experience seems to bring out the best in you and your fellow players. All the same, it’s the bits where everything goes wrong that stick in your memory; the hideous mess where one player triggers a swarm while everyone else is still gathering ammo and healing up; the ill-considered deployment of Molotov cocktails in crowded areas; that bit where – and, yes, you didn’t mean to – you startled the witch just when it looked like you were all but home and dry. You might not hear the recriminations, but you just know what everyone is thinking, and it probably involves a rude word.
The witch – a sobbing zombie femme fatale who turns pretty nasty when aroused – is only one of the traps Left 4 Dead has in store for those with the Leeroy Jenkins approach to risk management. Car alarms and poorly timed attacks can all bring on a horde of brain-munching gourmands, as will performing certain trigger actions that are required to open up pathways through the stage. The witch is also only one of five boss zombies, the others being a Hulk-esque ‘tank’, a pouncing ‘hunter’, an exploding, chubby ‘boomer’ and a ‘smoker’ whose usual weapon is a huge, grasping ‘tongue’ that he can use to capture and then constrict his victims. With time you’ll get to know and fear them, for while it’s not long before you regard your common or garden zombie with a sort of withering contempt, it will take a while before you can hear the gurgling of a smoker or weeping of a witch without a certain trepidation.
Part of what makes Left 4 Dead work so well is the whole way it’s staged and designed. Each scenario, basically a self-contained story that stands up as a movie on its own (complete with poster for the loading screen) is divided into five stages, each separated by a safe room that gives you a space to heal and stock up on supplies, and the game time to load the next stage. Played straight through each scenario can be cracked in about an hour, and in that time it fits in several memorable set pieces, some nice spots of tension and release and – finally – a big, climactic action scene. Now, with four scenarios that should mean you can see everything the game has to offer within a meager four or five hours of play, but in fact no scenario ever plays out the same way twice. With a game so built around co-op play that’s practically a given, but in fact it’s a testament to the power of what might turn out to be the game’s most revolutionary feature: the director.
The director is essentially an AI system that watches the players and constantly tweaks the current stage accordingly. Players dawdling or playing things too safe? The director sends in a zombie horde in from the rear to light a fire under their sorry, cowardly behinds. Players not sticking together or pushing too far in front? Send in hunters or boomers to teach them a lesson. The director does an amazing job of making sure that the game never gets too easy or predictable and that the pace never lets up. In a way, you can see it being the answer to the old problems of emergent vs. orchestrated gameplay. You don’t have to funnel the player down a linear path like Call of Duty (though, to be truthful, Left 4 Dead does) if you can keep tailoring the world around them to ensure that they’re having a good time. If only Far Cry 2 did something similar, it would probably have been an incredible game.
As a result, Left 4 Dead is tight, action-packed and atmospheric, with the combat reliant on a limited but punchy weapon set and the sheer weight of zombie numbers for its appeal. Of course, our zombie chums make pretty dumb opponents, but the boss zombies mix things up and – as in Resident Evil 4 – the fact that zombies can break through doors, weak walls or ceilings means you’re never really safe. Technically, the game proves that the Source engine is far from yesterday’s tech. The visuals are another step on from Half-Life 2: Episode 2, adding some superb cinematic grain effects and some stunning lighting to the sort of crisp, textural detail we’ve come to expect. If Valve was shooting for a gritty, grindhouse look, then Left 4 Dead achieves it, and the sound and incidental music – just wait for that creepy Witch tune – is built to match. The story may be simple, but this really is about making your own legends. It’s the sort of game that you’re tempted to reminisce about later, preferably in tedious, geeky pub talk with real-world friends.
It’s also a game where smaller touches have a huge effect. A neat Ready Brek glow around your comrades, visible even when they’re in another area, helps you avoid getting split from the group. Dialogue is used, not just for mood but to share information and encourage teamwork. See something important and your character will share the knowledge. Help someone – or shoot them by mistake – and you’re congratulated or admonished by the character concerned, whether the person on the other end of the Internet connection says or types anything or not. You want to play better, not because you’ll get a new rank or a new piece of equipment, but because it’s part of the fun and camaraderie of the game. Plus, Steam achievements are there to give you instant but more long-lasting rewards for feats of skill, courage or daring. It all helps you feel locked into the game.
Admittedly, there are a few questions over long-term appeal. After the first two or three times you play through a scenario, you may begin to feel overly familiar with its workings, and even new players and the Director can’t keep things 100 per cent fresh. Here, however, Left 4 Dead plays the ace up its sleeve: a separate Versus mode. Four players still work together to escape each stage, but now they’re joined by another four players. This opposing team gets to take up the mantle of the boss zombies (barring the witch and – for most of the stage – the tank), with the teams alternating between zombie and survivor roles in a bid to score higher on each stage. The survivors are tougher, but the zombies can respawn, and the special attacks – like the Boomer’s vomit which coats the affected player with the Zombie equivalent of Lynx – are almost as enjoyable as they are evil. Versus mode is fiendishly addictive and, even in the unlikely events that a) you grow tired of the straight campaign and b) Valve doesn’t release additional scenarios for download, it provides a guarantee that you’ll get more than your money’s worth from Left 4 Dead.
Here’s how it is: every few years we get a multiplayer PC game that practically demands that we stop whatever it is that we’re currently playing and give it a go. Once it was Quake, then Counter-Strike, then Battlefield, then Counter-Strike: Source, Call of Duty 4 and Team Fortress 2. I think you can safely add Left 4 Dead to that list. It’s great played with friends, but oddly just as fascinating when played with total strangers. Even in the season for big name, epic shooters, this is one action game you shouldn’t miss.
Another storming online action game from Valve, hitting all the right zombie movie notes while working ingeniously to push players to work together. Throw in superb scenarios and AI controlled pacing, and we have another classic on our hands.