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.