Summary: Is Left 4 Dead really as fun as everyone says it is? YES! With its fast-paced gameplay, nonstop action, and co-op support, Valve's zombie shooter is sure to delight. Read on for the full review!
Turtle Rock Studios, a recent acquisition by Valve, only has a few releases to its history, like the Counter-Strike port for the original Xbox and various maps for Counter-Strike: Source. So it comes as a shock of sorts to see a first time release of this caliber, although it’s probably not as surprising when you consider they have all the weight of Valve behind them. Valve has obviously dedicated quite a bit of time to Left 4 Dead, and it shows in the spit and polish surrounding the game, but let’s take a look at the background info.
Story? We don’t need no stinking story!
Left 4 Dead is based around 3 modes: Co-op, versus, and single player, each one taking place during one campaign, with 4 campaigns overall. Each campaign is also broken up into smaller chapters and most campaigns are comprised of 5-6 chapters each. Each campaign is set in one of many hackneyed and overused zombie settings, i.e. Generic City, Generic Farmlands, an airport and woodlands. There is not a real story to speak of, and as such, a narrative is not really needed. As far as we are concerned, zombies have started attacking cities and we are doing anything and everything we need to survive, blasting, flaming, shooting, punching, and destroying our way to evacuation, and survival.
In the co-op and single player campaigns, you play as one of 4 distinct ‘survivors’ who must get through the campaign to get to an evacuation zone, while fighting off the zombie horde who want nothing more than to gnaw on your juicy, juicy brains. Each character has a distinctly different look, whether it’s the John McCain war vet “Bill” or B-Rock “The Hammer” Obama “Louis,” in his casual shirt and tie. Chapters are broken up between “Safe Rooms,” small, zombie proof areas that provide the player with ammo, weapons, and health packs at the beginning of each Chapter. In order to complete each Chapter, all living survivors must reach the safe room and shut the door. If a survivor dies before reaching the safe room, or if your teammates decide to sacrifice you for the greater good, then the remaining players must reach the safe room.
Versus mode works similar to co-op, only instead of going against an AI controlled zombie horde, up to 4 players control the survivors and another 4 control the “Zombie Bosses”, the Smoker, Hunter, Boomer, and, every few rounds, a Tank. Only 3 bosses are allowed at any one time, so when playing on a full team of the undead, you may find yourself time to time watching for a minute or two until one of your putrid, decaying buddies gets killed. The objective in versus is the same as co-op campaign, but it is up to the zombie bosses to stop the survivors from escaping. This is achieved thanks to the special abilities of each of the Zombie Bosses.
Each boss has his or her…or ‘its’…special abilities in their constant struggle against those who don’t want their brains eaten. For instance, the Smoker comes equipped with a 100’ tongue that is perfect for grabbing victims from unforeseen locations, holding them hostage until it is either shot or the victim is melee’d. While in the smokers grasp, the victim is left to the mercy of horde, which as you can see, doesn’t mean much since the survivors are snacks to them.
The Hunter crawls along at a slow pace, but has the ability to lunge and pin the survivors to the ground, slashing and attacking, leaving them completely helpless unless another survivor knocks the Hunter off. The Boomer does a good Michael Moore impression as it ‘blorps’ and ‘oozes’ from place to place, vomiting or exploding on survivors, which in turn attracts the horde in droves to attack. The rarest boss is the Tank, a level specific spawn that is practically unstoppable, except with copious amounts of weapons and pipe bombs. The tank moves fast and can knock survivors across an area, even lobbing huge chunks of the ground at people with the alternate fire. There is a fifth boss, the Witch who cannot be player-controlled, but can be almost as bad as the tank considering she takes quite a beating and will knock any survivor down should they happen to startle her. Words of advice: Don’t startle the Witch.
Weapon selection is decent in L4D, consisting of .45 pistols (which can be dual-wielded), Uzi’s, Pump-action shotgun’s, an M16, the mini-14 sniper, and an automatic shotgun. There are not grenades, but there are Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs, which are key ingredients for my favorite zombie dishes, Zombie Flambé and Zombie Soup, respectively. There is also a decent assortment of gas cans, propane tanks and oxygen tanks that can be strategically placed to blast the horde into a low-earth orbit, should any bits of them survive the initial explosion that is.
It looks like Valve went to great lengths to ensure maximum re-playability, and it shows thanks to the great map design and the AI Director. The maps flow in wonderful ways, leading you to one distinct point, but there are many different routes of getting there depending on how you look at it. Sewers have multiple passages, and secret tunnels provide you with ways to bypass any undead that could be waiting in droves for an ambush. The AI Director works to adjust the difficulty level and replay factor, by randomizing placement of everything from zombies to bosses to weapons. Every play through is genuinely different thanks to the AI Director. For instance, one play through might get you a tank or some pipe bombs at certain points, while the next won’t. This will force you to play different each time, since memorizing parts of the maps won’t help you too much.
As far as actual graphics, while L4D looks good, it goes without saying that the Source engine, despite Valve’s near-constant graphical updates, is definitely getting long in the tooth. Textures just aren’t as sharp as more modern games and modern features, like bloom and HDR, just aren’t as good as in competing engines. That being said, the engine gets the job done and does it quite well, allowing a larger install base thanks to its lower system requirements.
L4D features excellent audio production that works extremely well to pretty much scare the living crap out the player. Positional audio is fantastic; with 5.1 speakers or headphones, you hear every little zombie shuffle or disgusting belch from the Boomer. Audio production is so well done, we were able to pinpoint the exact location of the Witch simply by the direction of her cries. There is very little music to speak of, except when you are approaching the Witch and it borders on the creepiest sounds you will probably hear in a game for a long time. We’ve played this game for about 20 hours so far, and it never fails that when you start to feel comfortable, something will jump out and cause you to scream a never-ending stream of profanities that could potentially cause your neighbors to call the cops, depending on your location. Valve has once again set the standard for audio production in video games, and many developers could learn a lesson about what it takes to create atmosphere through sound ambience.
Not everything is perfect with L4D however, as there are a few nagging bugs that do need mentioning. The matchmaking service can be problematic, especially during times of peak usage. We experienced many dropped connections in-between levels and even during a few games mid-chapter. Also, L4D seems to have trouble concerning mouse buttons and binding. For instance, the game allows you to heal a teammate by holding down melee, which we had bound to one of our mouse buttons. Unfortunately, the game never registered more than a button hit and would not allow us to heal a teammate this way, forcing us to rebind melee to another key. These are nagging issues that hopefully will be patched over time.
Left 4 Dead isn’t perfect though, the slight bugs and connection issues can be annoying, and the Source engine has almost outlived its ability to remain useful. But the amazing audio production, well crafted atmosphere and emphasis on teamwork, along with hilarious zombie humor, works to create a truly original game that is only gives more credit to an already longstanding tradition of excellence at Valve. Good luck, and we’ll see you at the zombie apocalypse.
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