Turtle Rock Studios and Valve are here at EA's Summer Showcase to let fortunate press members try Left 4 Dead. In this game, Turtle Rock's Source Engine-based shooter, you and three other human survivors are pitted against a town full of "infected," which so far are mostly the fast-running, vicious type of zombie à la 28 Days Later. Turtle Rock reps might be getting tired of that comparison by now, but no matter: After 30 minutes with the game, we're confident in saying the ferocity and speed of the enemies make this the most intense zombie-based game we can remember playing in a long time, if ever.
The scenario we tried had us fighting through an apartment building, through some overrun city streets, and then up into an infested hospital. There will be four scenarios in the game with five maps each; you'll have to load that many sublevels within each scenario and play each one in one-off single- or multiplayer sessions. That is, they'll be short enough to finish easily in one sitting. Turtle Rock plans to keep each scenario replayable with the "director," a system that monitors your performance in each level, as well as the frequency and density of enemies. It also tailors subsequent enemy spawns accordingly. So you might head down an alleyway on one play-through and encounter no resistance, which would be eerie enough in itself. But then the next time, you could run into 30 of the evil bastards coming at you at once. The game is just that intense.
We got to see how cooperatively focused the game design will be in Left 4 Dead. One of the more powerful enemies called the hunter can leap on to you or a teammate and thrash you on the ground. Then the trapped character will be powerless to get up until another player comes over and physically removes the hunter from him or her. In another instance, an enemy called the smoker--so named because it can surround itself with a cloud of camouflaging smoke--used its freakishly long tongue to ensnare and hang up a teammate. We had to run over and perform a lengthy "use" animation to get him down. That might not sound like a big deal, but sticking with your teammates and staying on guard is paramount in Left 4 Dead, so every wasted second really counts against you.
In fact, we were impressed by how intense the one-second-to-the-next gameplay is in this game. Thanks to the aforementioned director, you never know when a horde of zombies is about to come around a corner to rip you and your friends to shreds. That's doesn't even mention the smoker, the hunter, the boomer--which explodes into a foul cloud of methane gas when you shoot it--or the beefy, almost indestructible tank. All of these more advanced monsters can be controlled by up to four human players in a multiplayer match, though the infected in our demo were all controlled by the computer.
Regardless, we had to be extra careful because friendly fire was turned on, so we could easily waste our teammates if we were too loose with our bullets. A Valve rep recommended that we leave our flashlight on all the time, not only because it has unlimited battery power and helps illuminate the game's many dark nooks, but because it would help identify us as humans to our teammates. Another interesting gameplay mechanic we noted was that you can not only close doors, but you can also lock them. This will keep the frenzied undead from opening them up and proceeding right through, although they'll still be able to tear through the door, given enough time.
Frankly, we had a blast playing through most of the demo we got to try in Left 4 Dead. We say "most" because we didn't quite make it to the end; we were cut down to two then quickly to none, early in the fifth and last segment of the scenario. And that was just on the "easy" setting. Valve says that even in its office, few teams (or even individual players) can manage to finish a scenario on the normal setting. So we figure if there aren't a lot of individual scenarios on offer when released, you'll be playing those scenarios for quite some time before you master them. Better yet, Turtle Rock and Valve are committed to supporting the game after release with additional content. So you may well see additional nightmarish levels surfacing sometime after Left 4 Dead's release date in the first quarter of 2008.