The zombie genre feels like it has exploded in recent years. There have been zombie movies galore (28 Weeks Later, Land of the Dead), a book (World War Z), as well as games (Dead Rising, Stubbs the Zombie). Into this fray comes Left 4 Dead, a cooperative multiplayer action game built on Valve's Source engine and made by Turtle Rock, the developer responsible for Counter-Strike: Condition Zero. It's fast-paced, it's gory, and it looks pretty cool.
There's a premise to Left 4 Dead that seems reminiscent of the plots of the movies 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. Basically, a mutated rabies infection breaks out, and it turns human beings into zombies. These aren't the traditional, slow, shambling mobs, but rather the sprinting, leaping, and terrifying kind of zombies. However, as is the case with many biological infections, a small percentage of the population is immune for some reason, and you'll play as one of the survivors trying to escape a zombie-infested Los Angeles. And you won't play alone, as you can battle alongside three other players online.
You can play as one of four distinct characters in the game. There's Francis, the biker; Zoey, the teenager; Bill, the Vietnam veteran; and Louis, the retail manager. Each character can use all the weapons in the game; the idea isn't to segregate each character into a specific weapons class, like the sniper, the close-quarters guy, the heavy machine gunner, and so on. Instead, it's a desperate fight for survival using everything you can grab against seemingly endless zombie hordes. The game's built-in "director" will populate the path in front of you with zombies, and it'll intelligently pace the game, so there will be eerie lulls and then all heck will break lose and the hordes will be upon you.
The action can get pretty intense. In addition to the regular zombies, there are mutated zombies that have special abilities. The boomer zombie can project vomit that can blind you, and it explodes in a shower of gore when killed. The hunter is a highly agile zombie that can climb walls and leap around, and it can knock a character down onto the ground. If it does that to you, a teammate will have to shoot it off of you, as you'll be helpless. Oh, and the hunter can go invisible if motionless. The smoker is a zombie with an incredibly long tongue that it uses as a whip, grabbing characters by the neck and hanging them. The tank is a huge, lumbering zombie that can pick up cars and other massive objects and toss them at you. Then there's the witch, a bit of a Trojan horse in that she looks like a regular zombie, but can kill in a single hit and is as tough to take down as a tank.
Against these zombies, you'll have access to a wide range of modern-day firearms, from shotguns, pistols, assault rifles, and more. You'll need them, though. If you're killed, it's okay so long as other members of your party are still alive. That's because they'll find another survivor that is trapped in a locked room, which is basically how you respawn in the game. But if everyone in the party is killed, then obviously there's no one to rescue any survivors.
As the game is built on the Source engine, it looks very sharp and along the lines of Half-Life 2. There's a gritty, realistic feel to it, since it is set in a contemporary world, and it looks like a heck of a lot of fun. Left 4 Dead could very well be the zombie game to look out for when it ships later this year.