Gameplay - 9.5
Visuals - 9
Audio - 9.5
Singleplayer/Multiplayer - 10
Chin Factor - 10
TrueScore - 9.6
"Every bit as fun as a real zombie apocalypse and twice as safe!"
If you're anything like me (and judging by the sales of books like World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, you are), you spend a good portion of each and every day wondering what a zombie outbreak might be like, and most importantly, how to survive it. Now that Left 4 Dead has hit shelves, we no longer need to wonder.
The game picks up two weeks after the first infection, conveniently by-passing such tedious genre conventions like where the plague originated from and how. Let's face it, the only thing people want to know about zombies is how to kill them. This isn't a slight against the game by any means though, since it features a surprisingly strong cast for a multiplayer game, something most of us are not accustomed to. Instead of generic soldiers or aliens from the future, in Left 4 Dead you control a group of four unlikely heroes, thrust into the zombie apocalypse from all walks of life. Zoey, the lone female of the group is a college student and horror movie aficionado and is as quick with her tongue as she is with a gun. Francis, the no-nonsense biker thinks himself to be indestructible and acts accordingly. Then you have Louis, a former Junior Systems Analyst just looking to survive and Bill, a gruff and grizzled vet with two tours in 'Nam under his belt and a new enemy to fight. Even though there is little real story in L4D, events and backstories materialize through the brilliant and often humorous dialogue characters have with each other. Literally hundreds of lines of dialogue was recorded simply for this purpose. That's dedication you can only find in a Valve game.
With so much talking going on, it's a good thing the voice actors are on top of their game. Everyone comes off realistically, nailing their prospective characters. Louis always has a nervous edge in his voice, typical of white-collar cubicle-lemmings on the edge. Bill has a nihilistic world view and a touch of fatalism in him, while at the same time clearly enjoying his one last chance of experiencing the thrill of combat. You get to learn all these quirks and qualities the characters possess simply by playing online with others and keeping your ears open.
The Hunter is one nasty fellow...
Like most games, Left 4 Dead is split into two main parts; singleplayer and multiplayer. Singleplayer is just you with three bots against the usual zombie horde. While the bots are entirely capable buddies in combat, what is missing most is that indiscribable human factor. Even if you don't communicate with your fellow team members at all during the game, it's still much more rewarding knowing these are real flesh and blood people you're playing with. It imbues the experience with that ever-important feeling of camaraderie and playful one-upmanship. Keeping that in mind, it's best to use the singleplayer portion strictly as a learning grounds, getting to know the controls and layout of the various maps. After you feel suitably accustomed to the proceedings, jump straight into multiplayer (for a more thrilling and ultimately rewarding experience, I recommend going for Advanced or Expert difficulty straight from the bat) and discard the singleplayer altogether. That is, unless you're a sucker for easy achievements.
... but a mere puppydog compared to the Witch
Multiplayer is where the real fun is and it too is split into two sub-parts. You've got the Campaign mode, which is essentially the main mode and has you and three others fight through four different scenarios, each containing five maps. This is easily the best part about the game, as the scenarios play out like old-fashioned horror movies, with names like Dead Air and Blood Harvest. The campaigns run the gamut from a downtown metropolis and hospital to small town America and beyond. As a great touch, once you finish a certain scenario, it will be dedicated to any players unlucky enough to succumb to the horde, after which the end credits roll that let you know how each player stacks up in his performance. At the very end you even get a "this many zombies were killed in the making of this movie"-counter.
Each map is carefully crafted and oozing with atmosphere. You'll often run into writing scribbled on walls by previous refugees, be they helpful notes and warnings or apocalyptic messages of doom. The flow of gameplay is smooth and despite a few divergent paths, every level is easy enough to navigate that even first-timers are able to take the lead without fear of leading everyone down a dead end. There is a common formula for every campaign which has you advancing along the path trying to reach safe houses at the end of every level, where you can stock up on ammo, upgrade your arsenal and heal up. After getting to the end of the final evel, you're tasked with holding a certain position (like an abandoned house or airport runway) against an unrelenting zombie horde that comes a-runnin', no doubt smelling the free meal. These last stands are among the tensest moments in all of gaming, with players dashing to and fro, trying to stop a tidal wave of dead flesh pouring in from every door and window. Needless to say, these moments are also among the toughest, requiring the very best of each and every player in order to make it through.
While that formula may not sound terribly thrilling when keeping in mind that there are only four scenarios to choose from and you'll be running through each multiple times, what really gives the game replay values is a system Valve has dubbed the AI Director. The Director is an adaptive presence that changes up the locations of health packs and ammo as well as the spawn locations of the infected and their numbers. What was a hotly contested battleground in one playthrough may be just another abandoned parking lot in another. Do well and the director will increase the heat by sending in more undead. But if you and your team are struggling, the Director will ease off, spawning fewer zombies and doling out ammo and health accordingly. This, accompanied by the always unpredictable human factor makes each and every play session different from the last and quarantees you'll be having a great time with the game no matter how many times you've beat each scenario. That being said, a few new scenarios wouldn't hurt and judging by Valve's terrific post-launch support of their previous games, we can expect just that.
Hey buddy, you got something in your eye!
The other portion of multiplayer is called Versus Mode. This is where up to four Survivors square off against four Infected (in addition to the regular AI-controlled zombies), each controlled by a player. Versus Mode flips the gameplay on it's head, creating a more fast and competitive setting. Both teams take turns playing as the Survivors and the Infected. The game scores you on how far your team of Survivors gets (if a team gets to the very end, it's an automatic win), along with various multipliers tied to difficulty level and number of Infected killed. The Infected need to stop the Survivors as quickly as possible and to do that each player is randomly assigned one of the four "boss zombies" from the Campaign mode to play as. Hunters are quick and agile zombies that stalk in the shadows and pounce on Survivors, clawing their guts out. Boomers are corpulent zombies that specialize in vomiting green bile on Survivors, thus sending the AI directed horde mad and blindly attacking any Survivor sprayed with the ejected substance. Smokers are tall and lanky zombies that can grab and drag Survivors great distances with their tongues. Finally, the tank is a hulking behemoth with an incredible amount of health, who is free to wreak havoc among the Survivors with his immense strength. There is also the Witch, a female zombie that can kill in one swipe (at Expert difficulty), but she is not playable in Versus Mode.
Even though the thought of playing as zombies is enticing, Versus Mode is not as fun as the Campaign mode. Sure, playing as a zombie is great fun and demands an entirely different approach to the maps and teamwork but the fact that two teams are competing against each other means it's also a very hostile and demanding experience. Whereas Campaign mode is usually a lot of fun for all players, Versus Mode can quickly turn into your typical online shooter game with profanities and expletives flying about. It's also missing that tense feeling you only get by having four people fight through a succession of increasingly hard scenarios as a team, not worried by points or looking good. Also, Versus Mode is only playable on two scenarios (No Mercy and Blood Harvest), making it more of a fun distraction in-between more serious bouts of Campaign sessions.
Expect plenty of hair-raising, pulse-pounding moments like this one
The single greatest strength Left 4 Dead has going for it is it's simple yet deep gameplay system. Unlike any other online game before it, Left 4 Dead is built entirely on top of a foundation of teamwork and the game is not shy of letting you know this. Every aspect of the game drives this "No I in Team" -mentality into you from the get-go. Thanks to some simple inventions, like a conxtext sensitive button that handles everything from helping up downed buddies to manipulating levers and doors means you're never in the dark about what button to press or what to do. Even though you have some radio commands to communicate with others, the dialogue is automated to the extent that you don't even need a microphone to enjoy the game fully and engage in some tactical planning. The entire system is easy to get into, yet delivers hours upon hours of deep and satisfying content. And unlike most multiplayer shooters, L4D doesn't rely on nor need any Patton-grade planning between players before they're ready to jump in. Just put four people together and they'll set off, helping each other on the way and coming up with fire teams and squad compositions on the fly. Naturally, having four players with mics makes everything that much more easy and co-operative.
Previously I touched upon the game's voice acting, which is top notch. Despite some good but fairly generic weapon sounds, that same quality carries over to the atmospheric sounds themselves. All of the Infected growl and scream in disheartening gibberish, whilst the four bosses all have their own, unique vocal signs. For example, the Hunter growls and roars like a rabid dog, whilst the Boomer is always belching and otherwise sounding like a wet sponge. The music is great but extremely scarce, which is exactly what the developer intended. The sound world concists mainly of an ominous silence, pierced every now and then by various background sounds like birds flying off hurriedly or animals squealing in the distance. Along with the suitably drab and oppressive color palette, this is what really helps set the ambience and creates tension.
Each scenario plays out like an old horror movie, complete with cheesy tagline
Left 4 Dead is built using Valve's Source engine, which is 5 years old as of now, a true relic in industry standards. And indeed, while the game is not technically impressive and the color scheme is a bit on the dark side, the game is very pleasing on the eyes and runs extremely well even on older machines. Animations are top-notch, with a number of inventive and cool death throes for the zombie hordes. Character models are also extremely detailed and feature Valve's trademark immersive facial animations that convey a myriad of emotions and feelings. The lighting builds on top of the great system introduced in Episode 2 and is one of the highlights of the game, graphically. Moving through dark corridors and cornfields is made that much more scary thanks to some terrific silhouettes and shadows. Like most games using Source though, the textures can be a bit muddy at times, though never to the point of becoming a distraction.
As it stands, Left 4 Dead has few real faults, if any. It's gameplay is typical Valve, which is to say it's been polished to a glimmering sheen. No other game before this one has captured the teamplay aspect quite like Left 4 Dead, resulting in an absolutely thrilling and utterly fun experience, whether you're playing with friends or strangers. It's easy to get into and gets more rewarding the deeper you go. And while Left 4 Dead certainly isn't a long game any way you look at it, it has replay value far surpassing that of any game I have ever seen. Like Portal before it, Valve has another winner on it's hands with Left 4 Dead.