Platform: Xbox 360, Windows PC (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
Check out the Video Review.
Zombie games are all the rage as of recent after the continued success of the Resident Evil series and the recent hit Dead Rising. Games like Call of Duty: World at War and Saints Row 2 have added in Zombie Modes, and fans have responded well to the invitation to pump rounds into undead flesh. Left4Dead takes it a few steps further by giving gamers a shot at fighting alongside friends through waves of zombies in over-the-top action-movie inspired gameplay.
Left4Dead doesn’t really have a stand alone singeplayer mode, but instead lets four players enjoy the story online. This seamless blend of singleplayer storytelling and multiplayer cooperative play is fantastic and a good indication of where gaming might move in the future. It doesn’t really tell a full “story,” per say, but instead lets players create their own. Humanity has been infected with a virus that turns people into sprinting, screaming monsters. There’s no explanation given, there’s no overarching “save the world” plot, there isn’t a serial villain, waiting in a lair, there’s just a destroyed city and four average people trying to survive it. It helps create a brotherhood, or unity between the four survivors, each of which is given a little glint of personality that will randomly come out during the game, depending on hundreds of invisible lines of code dictating the randomness of the experience.
It’s obvious that the game was built for cooperative play from the ground up, and meant to have an infinite amount of replayability. Just as the character’s dialogue is randomly inserted depending on the situation, so is the spawning of the enemies. Thanks to a unique addition to enemy AI called “The Director,” zombies are dynamically spawned depending on players’ actions. If they are low on life, messing around, or shooting each other, the combat might be scaled back and more ammunition and health will be spawned. The trade-off here is that the adventure will be less epic, with less impressive scripted events, but it will suit itself for the players more accurately. If the team is plowing through zombies without a problem, the result will be much a more intense experience, and the waves of enemies will present more of a challenge.
The director is almost like another character; a Dungeon Master, if you will, spinning the fate of the players while creating unique situations each play through. Because of the director and amazing level design, each play through the game is a new experience, despite there only being four unique locations. Left4Dead also perfects Drop-In, Drop-Out Co-Op, allowing players to even “take a break” and allow for AI to control their character while they are away.
But, even though the option is given, nothing can replace having a friend alongside during the fighting. Valve took great care to make sure that cooperative play was built deeply into the game, and there are portions where it’s mandatory to help or be helped by allies. Aside from the typical, quick running infected there are also several other types of enemies that can bind, blind, and pin players. These different types add more urgency to the game, and require more teamwork than typical zombie attacks. Because of this, communication is necessary, and most of the time you’ll be thanking your friends for sniping the Boomer before he attacked, or knocking the Hunter off before he killed you. Valve has also found a nice way to handle player death by randomly placing them in an upcoming closet to be rescued after the team reaches a checkpoint. It seems like a simple solution, but helps keep the combat moving without punishing a player too much for death.
There is a competitive multiplayer mode, where four players fight from one checkpoint to another while four other players control zombies. They are able to play as one of the enhanced zombies, attempting to stop survivors from reaching a safe zone. It adds a new style to the game, and feels like an enhanced version of the campaign mode. It’s more difficult, since the players are able to see the location of the survivors before spawning, and can plan and wait for the perfect moment to attack.
Using the Source engine is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Valve has worked out most of the kinks and is able to keep games running without framerate drops during incredibly hectic scenes. On the other hand, the engine hasn’t received a large update since 2004, and it’s starting to look a bit dated. Luckily, due to the nature of Left4Dead’s combat, the few issues with the engine are avoided, and what’s left is an amazing looking title, capable of dozens of enemies on screen at the same time. The lighting, music, and the overall presentation is a highlight, and its polish is evident. Zombies do disappear after death, but it’s done smoothly and is barely noticeable, and the body physics are also worth mentioning, giving the game some of the best death animations in gaming.
When playing with friends, Left4Dead gives the best cooperative experience in gaming, hands down. Nothing compares. The game is lacking a bit in terms of content, and more weapons and locations would definitely add to the experience, but nothing can take away from the sheer enjoyment value. Valve’s newest might be one of their most masterfully crafted, and the attention to detail is impeccable. It might not win any game-of-the-year awards, but in terms of fun it might beat out anything else this generation has to offer.