Left 4 Dead is Valve's first release since last year's Orange Box, and like many games in that package, it looks like an interesting new take on the first-person shooter. Left 4 Dead is a survival horror game, and its gameplay hinges on your ability to use teamwork to help three buddies make it through each section of the game. The people at Valve turned up in London this week with a brand-new version of the game, and we sat down alongside them to hear their thoughts and play the latest edition of the game.
Our demo took place on the PC version of the game, although the Xbox 360 version will launch simultaneously with all of the same features intact. The level we saw started in the middle of a deserted wood, at which point we and our three fellow journalists selected a character and came to grips with the basics of the game. The mouse-and-keyboard controls will be familiar to anyone who has played a first-person shooter, and as we looked around and oriented ourselves with the environment, we began to see some of the weapons and items we could put to use. We found both a shotgun and an Uzi, but the game limits you to one main weapon in addition to your standard pistol and a health pack. Although the shotgun is great at taking out zombies that are in your immediate surroundings, it's less effective at picking them off at range, but the Uzi definitely lacks the satisfaction of the shotgun's close-up headshot.
The combat is fast and frantic, with enemies that are a lot more 28 Days Later than Night of the Living Dead. They're fast and erratic in their movements, and if they spot you, they'll immediately run in your direction with the sole intention of tearing you limb-from-limb. If they get too close, they'll attack you with their bare hands, and if they manage to take you to the ground, you'll temporarily become incapacitated. If you're on the ground, other zombies will kick you and even curb-stomp you, so it's not a position you want to be in for long. Luckily, you're still able to fire your handgun even when you're immobilised, and you'll have a short period of time for your friends to come and revive you with a medipack. Perhaps more than any other game, Left 4 Dead demands that you work together as a team, and it's extremely punishing for anyone who chooses to go it alone.
It's worth noting that Valve calls the enemies "the infected" rather than "zombies," although it's not above using all the familiar zombie cliches that will be immediately recognisable to genre fans. There will be plenty of in-jokes for the horror fans to pick up on, with nods to classic movies littered throughout the game. Aside from the standard zombies, we also caught glimpses of some of the more heavy-duty undead that you'll have to dispatch, from the boomers that explode in a shower of blood and guts (which will cover your face if you get too close), to the huge mutant zombies that can absorb entire clips of bullets before they go down.
As we progressed through the wood in our demo, we came across a bridge that led to an industrial development of factories. The environments look fairly basic and have a characteristically Source-engine appearance, but the artistic design of the middle-America location and the characters that inhabit it are particularly noteworthy. The characters talk among themselves, warning each other when they need medical assistance or are reloading their weapons. There's also some nice banter between the team as they deal with the horror that surrounds them, such as the old man character telling an injured woman that his medical treatment would hurt but that she'd be ok afterward.
The level structure in Left 4 Dead provides heightened periods of action that are interspersed with strategically positioned rest points. As we made it deeper into the factory, we entered a secure room with huge steel doors, and once we'd locked down the doors, the game autosaved and loaded the next part of the level. The room also let us pick up ammunition, weapons, and medical supplies, and we could administer health assistance to the rest of the team. Valve promises that no two plays of the same level will be the same, though, and you'll encounter enemies in different places every time you play through.
Left 4 Dead's emphasis on team play is what drives the game and makes it unique, and it certainly succeeds in re-creating that feeling of being a last survivor in a desperate situation. It's almost impossible to make it through the game without sticking close to your team, and the result is an experience in which you really feel like the last human survivors in a town infested with zombies. Left 4 Dead is coming to the PC and Xbox 360 in November, and we hope to bring you more on the game in the run-up to release.