Left 4 Dead - Brains!!!

December 2, 2008

Zombies are nothing new to video games. Their shambling, rotting masses have been a vital part of the medium for decades. We’ve taken them on both solo and cooperatively in the Resident Evil series, but they’ve always been the shuffling, immobile type. The movie 28 Days Later changed the perception of the walking dead to the running dead, and Valve’s Left 4 Dead strikes the same exact terror chords as four players try to survive a zombie apocalypse. Does this day of the dead usher in a new dawn for cooperative games?

Zombies have taken over, and as luck would have it, you’re one of four survivors. You play as either Francis, the typical action game hero; Lois the out-of-work IT guy; Bill the Vietnam vet; or Zoey, a college student obsessed with horror flicks. Exposition is kept to a minimum. Aside from the game’s open, there are no glamorous cinema sequences, arresting dialogue, or any other kind of prose. You never even find out what’s causing the outbreak. It’s kill or be killed and that’s it.

This simple setup carries over to the actual game. Though there are four different characters, they all play exactly the same and brandish the same weapons. The loadout isn’t as extensive as we’d like, considering zombies are perfect gun fodder. You get handguns, machine guns, shot guns, sniper rifles, Molotov coctails, and pipe bombs. The latter is especially fun because it will attract hordes of the undead to it before detonating. Still, this game is just screaming for rocket launchers.

The weapons are pretty limited, and so is the content. There are just four different levels to play through, with each one having five different sections to conquer. Each section begins and ends in a safe house where you can replenish ammo and health in preparation for the next battle. Each level concludes with a desperate stand as you wait for transport. If you play by yourself, you’ll get five or six hours of play. If you tackle it with three friends online or off, you’ll be lucky to get four.

There’s also competitive multiplayer for up to eight where one group of players acts as the survivors, and the other side plays as the infected. You’re at a distinct disadvantage as the infected because you have to get near the gun-toting human players to inflict any damage. It takes a lot of coordination to be successful. You can play as the exploding boomer, the pouncing hunter, or the tongue-lashing smoker, and you’re never locked into the same one. It’s fun when well-coordinated, but incredibly frustrating when it’s not.

Unlike Team Fortress 2, which shipped with horrible net code on the consoles, things run smoothly in Left 4 Dead. You also have enough options to make sure the online experience is enjoyable.

Left 4 Dead features simple, elegant design. You can drop in or out anytime, and you can even let the AI take over for you on bathroom breaks or trips to the fridge. We’re confident that the PC version will feature a lot of extra content going forward, but we’re not convinced that Valve will support the Xbox 360 version with the same vigor considering the developer’s track record. How much enjoyment you get out of it depends on how much the gameplay resonates with you.

As far as the shooting is concerned, Left 4 Dead is about as simple as it gets. You can crouch for increased accuracy or melee, but that’s about as deep as it goes. There are no alternate firing methods, and with the exception of the sniper rifle, no ability to zoom in on targets or fire down an iron sight. It’s all about the twitch, and when you have dozens of bloodthirsty undead running at you full bore, there’s a lot of it to be done. Even the console controls are up to the task.

Despite their limited numbers, the weapons are fun to use. There’s something rewarding about dropping a Molotov in just the right spot and watching a dozen undead burn to a crisp. If you have the right weapon and keep your wits about you, few situations are impossible to overcome. The armaments do an excellent job of empowering.

Managing health is an important component of the game, and this is another way cooperation is important. There are two ways to replenish health: the first aid kit and pain pills. First aid kits will restore 80 percent of your character’s health, but there are only so many. The same goes for pain pills, which give you a 50 percent health boost that dwindles over time. Once they’re gone, that’s it, so playing with the greedy can definitely present a challenge, and their locations change with each play.

If your health does hit rock bottom, you’re incapacitated and you’ll have to wait for teammates to revive you. This can only happen twice before you’re dead for good, and with enemies like the smoker that can snare you with its tongue and hold you until you die, you’re really reliant upon others for survival. If you’ve played online much, then you know that this can be both a good and bad thing.

Teammates are also essential to survival because there are far too many enemies to kill. If you stray too far from the group, one rush of zombies is more than enough to take you down. If one of the boomers vomits on you, the undead are drawn to the scent and you’re quickly swarmed.

The AI does a competent job of standing in for you, or playing along if you don’t have enough friends to join. They’re a little happy with the first aid kits and tend to run into the line of fire, but you can’t blame them for your failures. The enemies are even smarter, navigating the terrain like rabid cats--making things unpredictable.

While the sheer amount of content is kind of lacking, the idea is that the AI director will scale the experience to make sure it’s always different. What this really amounts to is more health and less enemies if you stink and vice versa. We’ve had problems noticing these on-the-fly adjustments unless we were playing on the higher difficulty settings. It can be subtle, but it does work.

With few enemy types, no boss enounters, and no puzzles, Left 4 Dead is all about mowing down scores of zombies, reviving, healing, and moving on. It’s a very simple shooter to play, but it’s the way the enemies attack and navigate the environment that makes it so unique.

The source engine has matured quite nicely on the PC. Despite its age, if you have a competently powered rig, the visuals are still in the same league as some of the platform’s best. On the Xbox 360, it’s a more pedestrian effort. The lighting is especially good, but we would have liked to see it woven into the fabric of the gameplay a little more—especially for a game like this. The incredible physics we’re used to in games like Half-Life 2 are a wasted opportunity here—relegated to zombie death crumbles. The audio is excellent, with zombies screaming like banshees, characters speaking up to alert you to weapons and health, and ominous music hitting at all the right times.

Left 4 Dead is a fun game while it lasts, but that’s not long. There’s not much nuance to the combat or weapons, but the realistic enemy behavior gives it a sense of unpredictability. The AI director is mostly successful at scaling the difficulty to the skill of the player, and this is one coop game that actually forces you to cooperate. Some will find it refreshingly straightforward, others will find it repetitive, but everyone will have at least a few hours of fun just trying to survive.