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.