A look at Valve’s unique take on the zombie survival horror genre
Yup. that’s right, it’s time for me to review the newest dead-heads to the party. As if you couldn’t have seen this one coming. If you’ve know my tastes slightly, you knew I was going to chew into this game’s brains like a hungry zombie at a buffet. Left 4 Dead hit us just a scant, few weeks back and there’s are hordes of us already addicted. Why? Well if you are asking that question then, as much as I hate to tell people to leave the site, stop reading this and get the game for yourself. That is, of course, if you like first-person shooters and non-stop, heart-pounding, bloody action. This is going to be one of my longer reviews, but that is simply because I can see players still playing this game for a long, long time. It’s amazing to me how deep the game is without actually having that much depth.
When I heard nearly two years ago that Vavle had begun on a first-person shooter game orriented around the zombie genre I got as giddy as a kid on Christmas morning. Yes, I admit to an unhealthy obsession with all things zombie as I sit reading my Marvel Zombies and Marvel vs. Army of Darkness comic books, watching my plethora of zombie movies, and playing any game I can possible get my twitchy trigger finger on when it comes to killing the undead. Thankfully, I haven’t eaten anyone yet. How was I to resist what Left 4 Dead offered me? I think I’m already infected, it’s just taking decades for me to turn.
When Valve set forth to make Left 4 Dead the really went at it from the angle of putting the most action and replayability into the game as they could without adding all the fluff and filler. Since I am talking about “fluff and filler”, I want like to go ahead and cover the story of Left 4 Dead for those of you out there wondering how the survivors got to where they are in the game. Okay, are you with me? Ready? Here it comes, the whole backstory of Left 4 Dead. You may want to sit down for this one. It all began when… I don’t know. Neither does anyone else. That’s right, all we players know is that 4 strangers, Zoey, Francis, Bill, and Louis, have banded together to try to get out of the infected zones. We don’t know jack about how it started, where the infection came from, how widespread the infection is, or even how the foursome met. We know three major things: The names of our would-be heroes, that at least 2 weeks have passed since “first infection”, and that there are lots of things to shoot at.
Now, there are probably some players out there grumbling and reaching for their keyboards to blog about how it sucks that there’s no story for Left 4 Dead. Let me interrupt those of you who are thinking that way to explain the thought process behind this decision. Okay, well, I don’t have definitive proof that this is “why” it was done this way, but my theory makes a hell of a lot of sense. Imagine waking up tomorrow morning in the real-world only to find out that hundreds of thousands of people around you were infected with some strange illness and stumbling about with barely functioning brains (yeah, I live in Las Vegas, I see that every day). Now imagine your home being attacked by these people and you scramble to get away. Your only thought is going to be “How do I survive”. You probably wouldn’t know the details or what is going on even if you cared at this particular moment. Now, if that infection is fast-moving and widespread you may not even get any details from official sources if you do get 5 minutes to sit down and watch The View (Look, I know you watch it. No need in hiding it anymore).
Well, that is exactly what Valve gives you in Left 4 Dead. These poor four slobs were just doing whatever it was they were doing when they had to choose between run and survive or hang out and watch the news. There’s no backstory to Left 4 Dead because Valve didn’t want there to be one. You know as much as the survivors and now you want to survive as one of them. Zoey looks like she might have just been about town when hell broke out (and I am going to vote she’d recently eaten Mexican Food. Get in the elevator with her and you’ll understand my theory there). Francis, our kind-hearted, biker dude, probably lost his prize Harley to this whole mess. Louis looks like he was at work, still dressed in his dress shirt and power tie. Bill, well I think he was either scamming on the ladies down at senior citizen’s veterans lounge or he was busy running his Army Surplus store.
When it comes to playing Left 4 Dead there are 3 ways to go about it:
- Single-Player Campaign mode – Here you can choose to play as any of the survivors and the AI will pick up the slack by controlling the other three for you. There are 4 scenarios with 5 stages to play through. I will cover them a bit more in a moment. You can play through all 4 scenarios on your own if you choose.
- Co-Op Campaign mode – Here you can team up online with 3 friends or strangers take control of one of the survivors and attempt to complete the 4 scenarios. This time, though, you won’t have the AI watching your back. I am still not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
- Versus mode – This is the real action here. 8 player versus matches. 4 play as survivors, 4 play as “special” infected. No. not special as in “short bus”. I will explain that in a moment too.
The 4 scenarios are basically each an homage to the zombie-horror genre. Each place the player in a very familiar, if not cliche, environment. Here the breakdown on the scenarios:
- No Mercy – Welcome to the old standard “Quick, the dead are coming back and they want to eat me. Let’s go to the hospital” scenario. Why people would run to a place where there are people dying by the hour on a normal day without a zombie apocalypse is beyond me, but hey, it works I guess.
- Death Toll – Ready to run the gauntlet of broken bridges and every zombies favourite, traffic tunnels full of defunt cars? Here you go, then. Prepare for a lot of car hopping and tunnel running in this scenario.
- Dead Air – “Hrm, everyone is dead. I wonder if my frequent flyer miles are still valid”. Here you can play through the basic urban landscape, alleys, parking structures, and a flight terminal to make your way to a plane that passes over head in the beginning of the scenario. Can I go ahead and put Dead Air down as my favourite scenario? Play it and you will see why. Out of all the 4 scenarios, this one has a scripted moment that really lets you know just how much the world hs gone to shite.
- Blood Harvest – Join Mr. Gibson as you run through corn fields and passes farms to get to safety (Mr. Gibson not included). What would a zombie game be without a creepy farm? Farms are creepy anyway, day or night. Maybe that’s just me… but they are.
Each scenario, as I said above, is broken up into 5 stages. These 5 stages are separated by “safe rooms” which the infected cannot penetrate. This is an important feature when it comes to the Versus Mode play. There’s no getting past the steel reinforced doors of the “safe rooms” for the infected, player or not. At the end of each scenario the survivors attempt to make their way to a rescue vehicle befitting the scenario. For all intents and purposes the scenarios are not linked. That means if you finish No Mercy and move on to Death Toll don’t expect to see a cutscene explaining what’s happened between the two scenarios. They are unrelated. Each scenario is a fresh start towards survival, they just place the survivors in a different locale. These scenarios can be played through solo or with 3 other players online.
Now for the yummy stuff: Versus Mode. As of this writing only the No Mercy and Blood Harvest scenarios are available to Versus Mode play. In Versus Mode 8 players can compete with and/or help each other through the scenario. As the infected, the player takes on the roll of one of the 5 “special” infected found in the Left 4 Dead world. I guess I should cover those for you, eh? Okay, here they are in no particular order:
- The Hunter – Able to leap tall infected in a single bound, faster than speeding dead people, more powerful than a three week old taco! In all seriousness, the Hunter can leap great distances and pound on survivors. Once he has them down he can tear at them to his heart’s content. The only way a survivor can get these beasties off them is with the help of another survivor.
- The Smoker – No, he’s not a spokesperson for Big Tobacco. In fact, I really doubt they’d want him as their poster-child. He uses a very long tongue, at least 100 feet, to entangle the survivors and drag them back to him he slaps them around like unloved stepchildren. He also has a nasty cough. Someone really should have him get that looked at.
- The Boomer – These “infected” are about as nasty looking as it comes. I don’t call them “he” or “she” since, unlike the other infected, you just can’t tell. They are bloated and filled with bile. They can either vomit on players or explode in the midst of the survivors (with the help of a few gun shots). Ther bile is the best “Spanish Fly” out there for the infected. Get Boomer-Bile on you are a survivor and you can expect hordes of the undead who were just milling about to head straight for you.
- The Tank – He’s big, he’s mean, he tosses cars and infected about, and he wants to give you a hug. When this bad boy rolls onto the scene the music will change, letting you know you are most likely scewed. He can either slap you halfway across the block or rip of a chuck of concrete and toss it at your face. It will take a whole lot ot firepower to put this guy down.
- The Witch – She’s probably the most dangerous of all the special infected. She’s some little emo girl crying in the corner because her favourite “Idol” singer was voted off… I think. She’s not too fond of light, especially your flashlight. Hell, she’s not too fond of you, period. She is content to sit in her corner and cry if you leave her be, but if you don’t she’s the fastest and most damaging infected you will ever see. One hit from her and you are down. End of story. Too bad you can’t play as her. Ooooh, That’s right, no playing The Witch for you. She’s too powerful. Deal with it.
When playing Versus Mode each of the 5 stages of a scenario are played twice, allowing the teams to take turns as survivor or infected. Your assignment as to which special infected you will play is random, but if you want to do proper damage to those pesky living people with those loud toys and their mean flashlights you are going to have to work together.
There is none. However, don’t let that stop you from reading the writing on the walls. No, that’s not a metaphor. There’s actually a lot of writing on the walls of the safe rooms from survivors who were there before you (AI, not players). You can actually read some funny “wall conversations”, as I call them, if you take the time.
Point, shoot, run, scream. Left 4 Dead is a first-person shooter to it’s core. There are some features specific to the game, of course, The infected can find certain walls that they can scramble up to reach rooftops. The survivors can heal each other or help each other up from “incapacitation”. So on and so forth. In the end, however, it comes down to one thing: team play. Go “Long Gunmen” on this one and you are toast. Pure and simple
While it can be hard to hear the music over the staccato gunfire, screams of the undead, or Louis screaming like a schoolgirl (yes, he does this a lot), you should pay attention to the music. The music will let you know when there’s a Witch around or when a Tank is approaching. Each of the special infected have their own sounds. This let’s the survivors have some warning that they are about to be dinner. Fun, huh?
As much as I hate to put it so simply: It’s freakin’ Valve. The detail to the models, be they survivors, infected, or weapons and environment, is top-notch. Valve has shown with the Half Life series that they know what they are doing when it comes to graphic appearance and that know-how is not missing from Left 4 Dead.
The sheer fun of the game makes it worth anything else. It’s rare that a game can get a real-world, physical reaction out of me. No, I don’t jump or get scared while playing. I do, however, find myself curling my toes or gripping the mouse a bit harder when fighting so hard to get to a safe room or chew some survivors face off. But the best “good” of all is that no two games are alike. Thanks to the AI Director weapons, infected, and special infected are in different places each time you play through. Say hellow to infinite replayability folks.
When playing solo the AI is great at covering your back, but that is it. You can’t really give them commands, they won’t use anything other than guns, and they like to walk in front of you while you are shooting. This can be annoying when you want to stave off a wave of infected from a secure spot… but your stupid AI teammates would rather sit in the middle of the parking lot. That’s right Louis, scream!
There were a few bugs upon release that could be exploited during Versus Mode, but they have since been sqaushed and tossed out in the trash bin. However, I am going to call “ugly” on the fact that we can only play Versus Mode in two of the four scenarios. What the hell, Valve? Other than a “We can sell a micro-transaction DLC that will change that and make us more money” thought I cannot explain the rationale behind this one.
Infinite replayability. Counter-Strike and Team Fortress already showed us that gamers will be happy playing these Co-Op or Versus style matches online for years upon years after the games release. Left 4 Dead doesn’t really relent when it comes to the pace of the game and if it does, if it’s quiet… get ready! The emphasis on working as a team online is great so long as you don’t get the occasional twit who just wants to ruin your fun. I also have to say that to get the fullest out of playing online with others, voice chat is a must. Thankfully it is built in to the game with options for push-to-speak or defualt on modes. I’d to see more maps and scenarios added in the future as, to date, this is the best zombie game ever… to me. In the days where gamers have become epic stories being told on grand landscapes it is nice to have one that is pure, stripped down to the bone fun. That’s what Left 4 Dead gives you, despite the cheesy title.
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