Despite the love of Hollywood to turn games into movies, there doesn't seem to be a need for a movie based on Left 4 Dead, as it's already been made several times over. Left 4 Dead is a game that venerates zombie movies throughout the ages, from George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead to Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. In the game, you and up to three other survivors must battle a zombie apocalypse with a simple goal; you aren't trying to eradicate the undead horde, you're just trying to survive.
However, Left 4 Dead is also a completely different kind of game, and it feels as much of an experiment as it does an amazing gameplay experience. Valve has moved against convention and delivered a game that is built almost entirely around cooperative multiplayer action. Sure, there is a single-player mode that lets you play through the game with bots, but that feels like practice. Bots lack the dynamic play, the interaction and the interplay, and the social aspect of co-op play. This is a game that comes to life when you play with at least one other human player, and it's even better if there are four humans in each game.
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Let's start with the basics. Left 4 Dead is about the seemingly hot new fad in storytelling: the dreaded zombie apocalypse has finally come to pass, turning the vast majority of the population into a mindless, ravenous undead hordes. A handful of humans remain immune to the zombie virus, and you play as a small group of them. There's Zoey, a young woman; Bill, the grizzled veteran; Louis, the middle-class office worker; and Francis, the biker. Armed with real and makeshift weapons, these survivors must battle their way to salvation. It's a simple plot that anyone can recognize, and Valve pulls it off with its trademark incredible attention to detail.
In each of the game's four scenarios, you must battle your way to a series of safe houses that lead to a rescue point. You can have up to four players in a game, controlling each of the characters, but if you're short of humans, the AI can fill in and control the bots. The AI is generally solid; it's good about killing zombies, not hitting you with friendly fire, and even patching you up with med kits if you're down. The downside is that the bots are passive; you always have to be in the lead, which is problematic when you're hurting. If you're playing with other humans you can tell them that you're hurting and can switch the formation around. That doesn't happen with bots. Still, you can play the game with the bots on almost all the difficult levels save for expert. Frankly, expert is so brutal that you'll need four human players to prevail, and even then it's not a sure bet you'll make it through.
Each scenario is presented like a movie, which is a nice touch. At the beginning there's a movie poster showing the cast. If you survive, the "credits" display the statistics for the game, like who killed the most zombies, who inflicted the most headshots, who delivered the most friendly fire, and the like. The final credit shows how many zombies were killed in the making of the film, and a nice touch I really like is that if only some of the survivors make it to safety, the film is dedicated to the memory of those who didn't. Even the scenario titles are awesome in a cheesy sort of way. There's No Mercy where you battle through a hospital, Dead Air which requires you to fight to an airport, Death Toll has you make your way to a dock, and Blood Harvest where you take shelter in a farmhouse.
The zombie horde that you battle is based on the "fast" zombies seen in movies like 28 Weeks Later. These zombies don't shamble. Instead, they sprint at you with inhuman speed, scale fences, and bust down doors to get at you. Horde zombies aren't smart, but they are dangerous in large numbers. The real danger comes in the form of some special zombies. There's the hunter, which can leap across large distances to pin a survivor to the ground. Then there's the smoker, which has a frog-like tongue that can grab a survivor by the throat. The boomer is a corpulent zombie that vomits or explodes to spray survivors. Getting hit by the substance will not only temporarily blind survivors, but it drives the zombie horde into a feeding frenzy. The tank is just that; he's a brick of a zombie that can take an enormous amount of damage and dish out a fair amount. And finally, there's the witch; she's an enormously powerful zombie that can take down a survivor with a single swipe.
The game is paced almost perfectly so that you're always pushed to the edge. You'll run low on health. You'll run low on ammo or you'll run out entirely, requiring you to rely on pistols, which have unlimited ammo but aren't as effective as shotguns, assault rifles, and submachine guns. There are pipe bombs and Molotov bombs that you can scavenge, and you can turn propane tanks and gas canisters into weapons. The latter are particularly useful in the many "crescendo" elements in the game. These are points where you must initiate an action in order to open the way forward like having a van drive through a steel fence to open the route. The kicker is that the moment you initiate the action the zombie horde are going to come down on you like a tidal wave. The good news is that you have time to prepare and place down fuel canisters and discuss the battle plan. If a player falls victim to the zombie menace, a respawn mechanism reintroduces them back in the action as another survivor who has been found (though don't ask why the new survivor is exactly the same as the old survivor).
Now, if there's a ding against Left 4 Dead, it's that the fact that there are only four scenarios, which is a small number to wrap your head around, and you can play through a scenario in 20 or 30 minutes on the normal difficulty setting. On higher difficulty settings, it'll take longer since you'll die a lot, requiring restarts at the beginning or the most recent safe house that you've reached. Granted, the four scenarios are highly replayable; you could play them over and over again and events unfold differently. There are two reasons for that. The first is the built-in "director" system that manages the action. If you're doing well, it will throw more zombies, like a sadistic dungeon master in a game of Dungeons & Dragons. If you're doing badly, it might decide to ease up on you a bit by providing health kits and ammunition. The second reason is simple human nature. It's a blast to play with others, but it can also be a hilarious experience, as well as a slightly frustrating one at times.
The value proposition also takes a slight ding when you discover that the Versus mode that lets you play as the zombies against other humans is only available in two of the campaigns (No Mercy and Blood Harvest). Please note that versus mode is an absolute hoot, especially in a LAN setting, but I had a lot of fun playing online as well. In Versus, one team controls the human players (you need at least a single player on the human side; the rest of the characters can be driven by bots) while up to four others play as the special zombies. If you're on the side of the undead, the game picks your special zombie class for you; all classes are available save for the witch.
Versus mode plays out with each team alternating between human and zombie. Each team takes a turn trying to see how far it can get in each level; the humans win if all the survivors make it to the safe house or survive long enough for extraction. The zombies must prevent that from happening. Points are awarded for each stage, and the team with the most points at the end of the campaign wins. It creates a anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better mentality that drives the competition.
Playing as the zombies requires a lot more coordination since the special zombies need to work together to be effective. If the highly vulnerable boomer can get close enough to vomit on the survivors this not only blinds them but it unleashes the zombie horde. In the chaos, the other special zombies can divide and conquer the survivors. But if the zombies attack the survivors in a piecemeal fashion, the survivors will likely make it through.
The Source Engine that powers the game may not be as cutting edge as other graphics engines anymore, but it does a great job at rendering a variety of environments that are packed with detail and clutter. And the lighting system is incredible; this game has some of the best flashlight mechanics since Doom III. You'll be in a pitch black dark room and the only illumination comes from the small cone of light from your flashlight. The light is attached to the muzzle of the gun so when you reload the cone of light shifts to the ceiling. Another nice lighting effect the strobe light effect that occurs from the muzzle flash when you're firing in the dark; all you see are the faces of the zombie horde in flashes. Then there's the excellent facial animation that lets conveys so much emotion on each survivor's face, as well as the typical Valve sense of humor in some of the graffiti in the safe houses.
The game runs well on both the Xbox 360 and the PCs that I've played on. The Source Engine has been around for four years now, so it's been optimized and tweaked quite a bit. The PC version looks better at higher resolutions, and the load times are definitely quicker. That's not to take away from the Xbox 360 game, which also looks good, though the loading times do leave something to be desired, as every time you hit a safe room requires you to sit around for a bit for the next level to load.
The audio is also strong; there's an incredible amount of voice acting in the game as each character has a large number of lines to draw upon. It's not just the simple things, like crying out warnings, but it's the extra things, like how they mourn a fallen comrade. The special zombies all have their telltale sounds that warn you of their presence, and the music shifts dynamically to accompany the lulls and the heights of the action.
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