It's not often you can say you were lucky enough to be caught in a zombie apocalypse, but that's just what happened to us earlier today when we paid a visit to Valve's E3 2008 meeting room. Tucked away from the show floor proper, Valve had four PCs running to give players a chance to test out their cooperative skills in this four-player shooter that uses the Counter-Strike: Source engine. Although our team of four fell just shy of reaching salvation, we enjoyed every moment of it.
Left 4 Dead doesn't use a traditional campaign structure. Instead, there are four "scenarios" players can choose from. Our most recent look at the game from back in April had us trying to escape "the infected" (read: zombies of varying speeds and strength) through the woods. But this time around, we got to flee from them through an abandoned hospital. The ultimate goal is to make your way up, floor by floor, until you reach the roof, at which point a helicopter will come through and airlift your group to safety.
The four characters that made up our group included a younger female, a well-dressed gentleman in a dress shirt and tie, an older war veteran type, and a biker. Valve writer Chet Faliszek was on hand to tell us about the game, and explained that the characters are meant to represent the standard palette of characters you might encounter in an urban setting. There's nothing terribly special about them, but their "Average Joe" qualities help you connect to the group to lend the game a bit more tension that you might see in a game about a superhuman action hero.
Your selection of weapons include an M16 assault rifle, a shotgun, dual pistols, and a grab bag of pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails. These are generally found during safe house sections, areas between parts of the level where the infected roam that are used as checkpoints and places to help you ammo up and heal yourself. One of the most interesting parts about the game is the realistic way these minor tasks are visualized: You'll see a teammate reloading his gun and wrap a bandage around an injured limb. When they're low on health, you can see them limping, and a close-up view reveals a desperate twitchiness in their eyes.
The action itself scales depending on how well your team is doing. If they're hurting, you might not see as many zombies coming at you, but if you're plowing through the level, the game is going to throw more enemies at you. It's not randomized, but rather the game's artificial intelligence which decides how and where zombies will sneak upon you. They might pop down from the air vents, bust through doors, climb up elevator shafts, and so on. Faliszek says he's been playing the game every day for months and he's still on his toes thanks to this intelligent zombie wave system.
When a zombie is coming for you, you can either blast them with your gun or right-click the mouse to melee them backward. This helps when you see one sprinting toward you while reloading. But occasionally, moments will occur when a zombie will attack you in ways that require assistance from teammates. They can vomit on you, which will attract all nearby zombies like a magnet, wrap you up in a tentacle, or knock you on the ground, requiring a hand to help you up. You can also use your own medkits and pain pills to heal teammates. Co-operation is an absolute must in the game. If you wander off on your own, you've essentially sealed your fate. And trust us, it's not a pretty one.
The hospital scenario takes you from the standard corridors and emergency rooms you'd expect to see, up through the medical storerooms, onto the under-construction upper floors which lack walls, and up onto the roof itself. The entire path is a dark one, requiring use of a faint flashlight (which thankfully doesn't run out of batteries). Some areas will take you through prolonged periods with no infected, while others will flood them toward you with no mercy whatsoever. It gets the worst on the roof when the fight reaches a crescendo: Your team needs to station themselves on the rooftop structures and fight off wave after wave of zombies, tanks (giant, hulking zombies), and hunters (quick, acrobatic ones). Our group got close to making it to the end, but unfortunately it fell just short of the ultimate goal. Thankfully, you're given the ability to restart from the most recent checkpoint, but all the emotion you put into surviving still makes it quite a downer when you fail to do so. These scenarios generally last about 45 minutes, but play-testing has seen them occasionally last as long as two and a half hours.
We had a great time playing Left 4 Dead. The tension, the gore, the teamwork--it all makes for a thrilling experience. The game is scheduled for arrival this November on the PC and Xbox 360. Faliszek tells us the two versions are virtually identical. You can expect to see more on Left 4 Dead soon.