You might not think about team-based online multiplayer going hand-in-hand with "survival horror" games--games like the Resident Evil series that give you only limited resources while pitting you against legions of horrible monsters, often in cramped confines. After all, classic survival horror games are usually single-player experiences because they're about your character being all alone in a hostile, zombie-filled world. But Turtle Rock Studios, a developer with credits that include Counter-Strike: Condition Zero and the Xbox version of Counter-Strike, is doing just that with Left 4 Dead. This new team-based game for the PC and Xbox 360 pits small teams of humans against "the infected," which are hordes of ordinary people transformed into mindless killing machines by a mysterious virus that has spread throughout the game's various environments. We sat down with Turtle Rock's Michael Booth to get the first details.
GameSpot: What exactly is Left 4 Dead? We understand that it has survival horror elements, but what else is there to the game? How would you describe it?
Michael Booth: Left 4 Dead is a cooperative survivor horror game where four survivors must work together to escape a city teeming with an overwhelming number of the infected. If you work together, you have a chance. If you run off on your own, you will die.
GS: What's the setting? Is it contemporary America, in the vein of something like Dead Rising? Or is this a postapocalyptic future we're talking about? What sort of environments will we see?
MB: Left 4 Dead is set contemporary America. Although we've pushed the fiction a bit for the sake of gameplay (such as including the "boss infected"), the basic idea of a catastrophic pandemic and the collapse of civilization makes for great survival horror because it is quite plausible. We wanted our environments to remind you of home--but a horribly changed and tortured version of home.
The initial four campaigns of Left 4 Dead include both urban areas and rural areas, with lots of dense architecture and challenging landscapes. Each campaign also ends with an elaborate "finale" where the survivors must make a stand while waiting for a rescue vehicle to arrive and take them to apparent safety.
GS: Who's who in the game? Who are the main characters, what are they trying to do, and what exactly are the infected?
MB: The four survivors include Bill, a Vietnam veteran with combat skills that have helped keep him alive; Louis, an assistant manager at a local retail electronics chain store; Zoey, the teenage daughter of a wealthy family; and Francis, who is big, loud, and rough, but always has your back.
Imagine that you live in a major city during a time when a new and highly virulent strain of the rabies virus emerges and begins spreading rapidly among the human population. Those infected become dangerously psychotic and attack all noninfected on sight. You are one of the lucky few who seem to be immune to the virus, but are trapped in a city teeming with thousands of extremely violent infected. Banding together with a few other survivors, you try to escape.
GS: It seems safe to say that Left 4 Dead is a class-based game, considering Turtle Rock's previous work on Counter-Strike: Source, and judging from the early graphic showing the four heroes, each carrying a different type of weapon. What are the classes in the game, and how do they complement one another?
MB: From the survivor standpoint, Left 4 Dead is a cooperative game in which success is based upon the skills of each member and the team's ability to work together as a unit. As such, the four survivors have the same weaponry available to them and begin with the same skills.
On the infected side, however, the characters available to human players (the boomer, smoker, hunter, and tank) have very specific skills.
Shoot It in the Head!
GS: It sounds like infected characters play quite a bit differently from the humans. Will you be able to shoot guns, as well?
MB: The experience of playing an infected is entirely different than that of being a survivor. The four "boss infected" classes have very unique abilities based on their particular virus-induced...mutations.
For example, the boomer can vomit blood on his victim, which attracts hordes of infected to this victim. The smoker, meanwhile, has a 50-foot tongue that can pull a survivor out of position or even leave them hanging.
But the infected cannot use items or fire weapons, and will die quickly if they blindly charge at the well-armed survivor group. That said, the infected are legion in number and when one dies, they spawn right back into the fray after a short time. The infected just keep coming.
As such, playing as an infected tends to be more of a "hide and seek" kind of thing. You want to position yourself to attack at the worst possible time for the survivors, lurking and stalking for a bit until you make your move. That is, unless you are the tank. Then you charge right in and cause massive chaos and mayhem--tossing cars into the air, smashing through concrete walls, that sort of thing.
GS: Is there going to be some kind of story, or is the game mainly a series of multiplayer battles, like Counter-Strike? We understand the game will also ship with four campaigns, each containing five maps. Is each campaign basically a chapter, or a collection of maps that share a same theme?
MB: The campaigns are a connected and evolving set of maps. Like CS, the design goal is to create interesting areas that will allow for extended replay value. Unlike CS, the maps in each campaign are connected and lead to an eventual finale that the survivors are challenged to reach and complete. And along the way, player stats are collected and displayed at given intervals.
The only "story" elements in the game are the differing goals of each campaign, which are all of the "survive-and-escape" variety.
This is an intentional design decision. We've kept the overall goal of the game simple, because the moment-to-moment gameplay is often hectic and mentally demanding. Trying to stay with your team, keep everyone alive, and keep moving toward the next checkpoint is often enough to keep track of.
GS: Multiplayer cooperative gameplay is a big feature of Left 4 Dead, but will you be able to play by yourself in some kind of single-player game? If so, in that case is it just your character solo, or will other members of your team be controlled by artificial intelligence?
MB: Left 4 Dead is built upon Turtle Rock Studios' next-generation AI technology. This lets us create a scalable game experience whether you play alone with AI-controlled survivors and infected, or online with and against human players.
GS: Could you go into detail about the multiplayer modes? It sounds like there's going to be cooperative gameplay against the AI, but also competitive gameplay, with one team playing as the humans and the other team playing as the infected.
MB: The game is designed to allow human players to drop in and out without adversely affecting the experience or requiring the scenario to restart. We have also taken steps to maintain the survivor's game experience even with the presence of human-controlled infected. Although the infected can "win" by killing all of the survivors before they reach the finale and escape, it doesn't feel like a traditional competitive game--it still feels very cooperative from the survivor side.
GS: What sort of weapons will be in the game? Are we talking about modern-day equipment mixed in with a few futuristic prototypes? And can we expect any kind of vehicular combat?
MB: For the initial release of Left 4 Dead, the game's arsenal consists of weaponry that you would be able to scavenge during such a catastrophe: handguns, hunting rifles, shotguns, even some homemade weaponry like pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails.
We are planning to continue to create and release new content for the game via Steam, much as we have done for the Counter-Strike franchise. Over time, we expect the inventory of items in Left 4 Dead to continue to grow.
GS: Finally, a PC version is scheduled for the first half of 2007, with an Xbox 360 version scheduled that winter. Can we expect both versions to be identical? And will the two versions be playable against one another?
MB: Left 4 Dead was explicitly designed as an online cooperative survivor horror experience. I've been quite impressed with the Xbox 360 and its Xbox Live interface. Our game will be a perfect fit for it.
Allowing the PC and Xbox 360 versions of Left 4 Dead to play together is something we're still investigating.
GS: Fair enough. Thanks, Michael.