A new PC demo of Left 4 Dead stormed on to Valve's Steam service last week for those that preordered the game. For the rest of you, you'll have to wait until November 11 to play the anticipated zombie apocalypse simulator. Thankfully, we played through the demo and have these thoughts to tide you over.
The demo showcases the first two chapters of the No Mercy episode. The first chapter, Apartments, has you fighting in a rundown building through waves of zombies, as well as bosses, such as the witch, boomer, and tank. In the second chapter, Subway, you work your way through the red line tunnels [insert blood red joke here], man a mounted turret, blast a blitzing horde of infected, and then, finally, enter the third safe house. What immediately stands out about the demo is that you never play the same round twice. Other than the contents of the safe rooms, everything is randomnly generated, including the locations of regular infected, boss infected, and weapons and health pickups.
Because replay value in Left 4 Dead is a large focus for Valve, this is great. It also adds to the tension and scare factor--the cries of an infected witch armed with giant claws are enough to unnerve even the stoutest shooter fan. On some rounds, you may have to do battle with the hulking tank; on other rounds, he's nowhere to be seen. When you do battle the tank, you will usually find a table of superpowered weapons to help you deal with this ultrapowerful beast. The scoped hunting rifle is excellent for long-distance kills; the automatic shotgun can deal massive amounts of damage at close range without stopping to reload; and the assault rifle is well rounded from a distance or at close combat. If you're hoping to take down the tank without these weapons, you're going to need a lot of help or a prayer.
Both chapters are available to play solo or online with friends. Your AI teammates perform admirably, sticking together as a group and using first aid kits or pain pills for healing. Unlike a few of the players online, they are also great at reviving and healing you should a hunter pounce on your face to incapacitate you. On the other hand, a successful co-op round feels immensely satisfying. The level of teamwork needed to simply stay together as a group is impressive. Surviving an entire chapter on the more challenging difficulty settings feels like a miracle.
All four difficulty settings are available to play. The infected are typically docile on easy mode, standing around in the burning wasteland and minding their own business. On expert, the infected will spot you and immediately sprint forward, seeking to munch on your brain. Boss infected are also more prevalent, and only vigilant teammates will be able to save you from a distant smoker that attaches his tongue to your neck then begins to pull it out.
When you've tired of playing these two chapters, you can turn the tables and play as an infected by entering a series of recently discovered cheats. Keep in mind that these are developer cheats and not representative of the game as a whole. But playing as a tank and throwing slabs of concrete at survivors is very satisfying. Very.
In one final note, the demo was also the first Valve product to utilize the new Steam Cloud service. Cloud allows you to store your game settings, as well as save files online so you can easily hop from one PC to another without having to continually toggle the invert Y axis option, for example. Cloud is expected to work with all future Valve releases on Steam, and third-party developers will have access to the feature as well. Valve also expects Cloud to expand to include user-generated content.
Be sure to give the Left 4 Dead demo a try, if only for a very unique multiplayer experience. The full retail game is expected to be available on Steam and store shelves on November 18.