The zombie apocalypse. Be honest: You've thought about it. When most humans have been turned into shambling, flesh-hungry monsters, how will you fare? Whether you fancy yourself an intrepid survivor or an infected savage, Left 4 Dead is the game for you. Battling your way through the grim, desolate world is always tense and challenging, thanks to the unpredictable, relentless enemies. It's equally thrilling to play as one of the zombies (aka the infected), coordinating deadly ambushes as you try to kill the survivors. Nevertheless, Left 4 Dead's well-crafted gameplay simply must be experienced in multiplayer. Human teammates (or enemies) make each play-through dynamic, mitigating the game's two hang-ups: limited map selection and uninspired friendly AI. Despite these hitches, Left 4 Dead is a remarkably fun, excitingly tense game that will make you want to revisit the apocalypse again and again.
There are four campaigns in Left 4 Dead, each spanning five levels. The first four levels end in safe houses (places to heal and rearm free of the zombie menace), and the final level ends in a desperate stand as you wait for your rescue vehicle to arrive. You'll travel through urban, suburban, and rural areas, each one grim, desolate, and littered with evidence of the apocalyptic event. You never learn exactly what happened, but the rich environments and thoughtful graffiti set the stage expertly. One campaign on normal difficulty (the second of four tiers) takes about an hour to complete, so you'll soon become familiar with each set of maps. Although the limited selection and grim, overcast color palette can sometimes feel a bit repetitious, the dynamic enemies, varying weapon and ammo spawns, and ever-changing human factor combine to make each play-through feel surprisingly unique.
Left 4 Dead stars four charismatic survivors whose appearances and personalities add an immersive element to the game. They each banter in appropriate, often amusing ways when healthy, and they become more subdued and anxious when injured. The character models are top-notch, and there's nothing quite like looking at the macho biker when he is injured and seeing fear creep across his face as he begins to doubt that he'll survive. Seeing the relief on his face when you heal him is almost as satisfying as the relief you'll feel when your AI allies heal you. Their team spirit doesn't stop there: they'll shout out when the find ammo or health, and, crucially, will pick you up when you've been incapacitated by an enemy.
For all of their good qualities, you'll definitely appreciate your fellow survivors more when there's human controlling them. AI teammates are definitely competent when it comes to killing the infected, rescuing you from the enemy's clutches, and reviving you when you're down. However, they aren't particularly keen on using explosives or defending strategically, so while you choose to camp out on an elevated platform to better defend against the horde, they generally won't be inclined to join you. Though you can certainly end up with equally uncooperative human teammates, you can at least communicate your strategy to them or, in a pinch, call an on-the-fly vote to boot them from the game.
When you play with one or more competent teammates, Left 4 Dead is an absolute blast. Even if you've played every level many times, you'll still find the infected are distributed in different, unpredictable patterns. They may be milling around in a parking lot, half-oblivious to your passing, or they may come screaming at you from around a corner or over a building. They look nasty, run fast, scream hideously, claw viciously, and, best of all, they die in a wide variety of superbly animated ways (often with explosive decapitations or flying limbs). You might get jumped in a hallway, stairwell, both, or neither. Each area of the level becomes a potential battleground, so you have to be constantly vigilant, ready to make a defensive stand or rescue a teammate at a moment's notice.
The difficulty changes as you play. The game throws tougher, more numerous foes at dominant survivors and offers periods of respite or more frequent resupply to beleaguered teams. You carry one primary weapon, like a shotgun or assault rifle, as well as one (or two) pistols with unlimited ammunition. You can also pick up pipe bombs and molotov cocktails, which are each fantastically deadly in their own unique ways. These powerful explosives, along with primary weapon ammo and health boosts, are vital to your survival. However, supplies are often hidden in rooms that are slightly off the beaten path, and slowing down to explore more areas will put you at higher risk for a zombie attack. This risk-reward element adds another strategic consideration, which further ramps up the tension. There are so many ways that your journey could go awry, from human error to strategic miscalculation to flat-out zombie inundation, that you'll have to be constantly on your toes to adapt if you hope to survive. It is this tension that keeps each campaign uniquely challenging and makes survival so fantastically rewarding.
Of course, your goal isn't always survival. When you play Versus mode, it is often the exact opposite. Two teams of up to four players each compete for points in this mode. Survivors earn points by progressing through the campaigns, though only two of the four are playable in this mode. The infected earn points by damaging and killing survivors, and the teams switch sides at the end of each level. Furthermore, the infected players spawn as zombies with special powers. Boomers vomit on survivors, marking them as targets for the ravenous horde of normal zombies; smokers lasso survivors with a long, froglike tongue; hunters pounce and viciously tear survivors apart; and the rare tank just smashes everyone with his massive bulk. It's frightening enough to encounter these uniquely deadly enemies in the campaign mode, dealing with their disgusting sounds and vicious attacks that seem to come at the worst times. It's a whole different level of horror when you know it's your friend who has pinned you down and is clawing out your guts.
For survivors, Versus mode is a faster-paced game because the longer you take, the more opportunities the infected have to ambush you. For the infected, it's a whole different Left 4 Dead experience. Instead of fighting your way through an endless, nebulous enemy force as you drive toward your objective, you have to plan and execute targeted strikes on a small, mobile group. The areas you once plotted to defend now become grounds for ambush. There are even certain walls that the infected can climb or break through, creating entirely new routes for moving through each level. Zombie players have to be careful because they are much weaker than survivors and can easily fall victim to bullets from any of the game's well-tuned weapons. However, they will continue to spawn until the survivors die or reach safety, so they have multiple opportunities to spring attacks throughout the level. It's very satisfying to vomit on your survivor friends, summoning the horde to devour them. It's a whole different level of awesomeness to drag them out of the resulting chaos and slowly choke them to death as they desperately call for help.
Between the tense campaign and the frenetic Versus mode, Left 4 Dead offers two distinct flavors of multiplayer action that are equally delicious when enjoyed with friends. The single-player experience (and the marginally better but somewhat sluggish split-screen mode) isn't as tasty, simply because the friendly AI can't compare to a human teammate. Between play sessions, you may find yourself craving more maps, but once you're in the game, you'll be so consumed by your quest to survive that you'll likely be grateful for your knowledge of the terrain. It's a tricky proposition for a game to serve up such seemingly meager variety, but Left 4 Dead does so with panache, and gamers will likely be enjoying this recipe for a long time.