DALLAS, Texas--Left 4 Dead would have undoubtedly been a finalist for multiplayer gameplay of the year, if not for the fact that Valve recently just announced that the game has now slipped to early 2008. Still, it's hard not to be completely engrossed in this cooperative multiplayer action game that has you playing alongside three other players as you try and battle it out of a zombie-infested Los Angeles. It really feels like you're trapped in a movie like 28 Days Later, and the game's desperate firefights and awesome scenes of dozens of zombies rushing you hits something primal in your brain.
We finally got our hands on Left 4 Dead for a lengthy play session with some of the folks at Valve and developer Turtle Rock Studios, which also developed Counter-Strike: Condition Zero. The game's premise is this: a plague has turned almost everyone in Los Angeles into zombies. These aren't slow, shambling zombies like in the old 1960 horror movies, but rather adrenaline-charged nightmares that will sprint, jump fences, bash doors, and more to get at you. There are also a smaller number of stranger zombies, like the smoker, which emits a black, choking cloud of smoke that can blind you and has a froglike tongue that can real you in. Or there's the tank, a huge beast of a zombie that will take an unbelievable amount of punishment before dying.
You play as one of four survivors who is somehow immune to the zombie disease. That's the good news. The bad news is that the zombies want to eat you, and you have to battle work together to fight your way out of the city. We played as Louis, the retail manager of a big box electronic store. Then there's Zoey, a teenage girl; Francis, a biker; and Bill, a grizzled Vietnam War veteran. Each of these characters can use every type of weapon in the game, so they're fairly interchangeable. At the same time, each one makes an impression thanks to the incredible facial animation in the game.
The heart of Left 4 Dead is the fact that you'll have to battle against incredible odds in very familiar urban settings to get through the game. You can carry a primary weapon, such as a shotgun or assault rifle, as well as a pistol that you can use as a last resort. We started out each level in a safe room where our characters could change between different weapons, refill on ammunition, and pick up health packs. Each character can only carry a single health pack, by the way.
Once you have your gear, it's time to venture out into the world. We battled our way through city streets, hospitals, sewers, a subway line, and warehouses, with the goal of getting to the next safe room, which marks the end of each level. The environments are both well rendered and realistic, which helps ground the game in a believable and familiar setting.
The action in the game is completely crackerjack once it gets started. At first you'll encounter one or two zombies and dispatch them at ease, but then you'll turn a corner and suddenly see the screen full of zombies running right at you. The first time we encountered such a swarm our team became split into two, and our teammate was the center of the zombies' attention, swarming all over him. We furiously tried to shoot them off our teammate while screaming for help from the others, who came running. The combat is frantic and desperate and charged.
Left 4 Dead isn't wall-to-wall action though, as there are lulls in the game where you'll wipe out a zombie horde (barely), and then have to move on. There's a sense of teamwork as you stick together and call out to one another. Vocal commands are a big part of the game. When you reload, your character calls out that fact to the others, letting them know that you're going to be unable to fire for a few seconds. The time it takes to reload can seem like an eternity with there are a bunch of zombies in your face. There's also a lot of in-game chatter, as characters can call out warnings and commands. It's tense as you maneuver through a house or structure and use your flashlights to sweep through darkened rooms, looking for zombies. It's also a good idea to have whoever is in the back of the group to keep an eye for anything attempting to approach the group from behind. It's a very tactical game in that sense.
Each character has a health bar that drains the more damage they take, and yes, there is friendly fire too, so you have to be careful with that. If the bar drains, the character falls to the ground and must be helped up by another character. This has to be done relatively quickly, too, or else the person on the ground will die. If you have low health, you can use a health pack to bandage wounds. Just select the health pack and use it like a weapon, however bandaging wounds is a process that also takes a few seconds, and you don't heal until the process is done, so this too can seem like an eternity when there's zombies about. If a character dies, keep an eye open for a red light, which marks the presence of a safe room where you can discover another survivor. That's how you basically respawn in the game.
At the end of each level, the game takes stock of your performance, showing you how many zombies you've killed and your achievements. Shooting a zombie off someone's back, for instance, gets you a special achievement. Taking out a tank zombie gets you another, while getting through the level without getting knocked down by a zombie will get another. There are plenty of other achievements, as well, but it looks like this is a portion of the game that's still getting fleshed out, as the rewards screen consisted mainly of placeholder user interface elements at this point.
This game is so incredibly atmospheric, cinematic, and engaging that we didn't want to stop playing. Left 4 Dead uses Valve's Source engine, so the graphical look is comparable to a Half-Life 2 or a Counter-Strike, but it looks even better thanks to the fact that it's set in such a familiar setting. As good as it looks, though, we're hyped on the actual combat, as it really feels like it's going to be the definitive zombie game. Even better, we're told that the game has an incredibly amount of replayability, as there are different situations and wild moments that can occur each time that you play. This is a game to most definitely keep an eye on, and it'll be released early next year.