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Left 4 Dead (PC) artwork

Left 4 Dead (PC) review


"I can't quite believe that I find myself, just a few weeks on from Fallout 3, playing yet another game of such ferociously high quality. Left 4 Dead is astoundingly good fun, polished in all the right places, tense, atmospheric and relentlessly gruesome. As a single-player affair, it would have satisfied my old-school bloodlust just fine. In co-operative mode, the game's main selling point, it's to die for."



I can't stop thinking at super-speed. In the past few days, I have become completely zombified. But not in a slow, sluggish way, you understand. Indeed, I've become hyper-aware, twitchy and over-stimulated. I've been waking up at night every few minutes, running downstairs to ensure all the doors are locked. If I hear someone behind me, I quickly spin around to check they're not about to claw me to death. I can't focus properly on work, just in case I need to spring into action. I avoid sobbing women even more than usual. I've been rendered completely useless in most everyday situations - but in the case of an apocalyptic pandemic of these proportions, Left 4 Dead has left me well prepared.

Yeah. It's quite good.

2008 has been an astonishing year for videogames. The last few months in particular have been superb, and I can't quite believe that I find myself, just a few weeks on from Fallout 3, playing yet another game of such ferociously high quality. Left 4 Dead is astoundingly good fun, polished in all the right places, tense, atmospheric and relentlessly gruesome. As a single-player affair, it would have satisfied my old-school bloodlust just fine. In co-operative mode, the game's main selling point, it's to die for.

We're deeply entrenched in classic FPS action here, with linear level design and literally hundreds of enemies onscreen at once. In many ways, this is the sort of game that Doom 3 should have been, and anyone understandably disappointed by iD Software's blundering mistake should find that this fills a void that's been nagging away for a good few years. We’re treated to edge-of-seat, quiet moments of suspense, interspersed with blistering, high-octane violence as hoards of infected former-humans charge from all directions. This is a game purely about survival, and the sense of sheer panic is overflowing.

It's thanks in large to the superb enemy design, where each type has very specific and noteworthy strengths. The bog-standard zombie isn't much of a threat on its own, but they travel in huge packs and are terrifyingly fast. They may look clumsy and harmless from a distance, but the instant one spots you, the entire group is tearing ravenously at your flesh. These critters reside very much in '28 Days Later' territory, but there's more: Hunters launch themselves from astonishing distances, pinning you to the ground until a team-mate comes to your aid; Boomers projectile vomit, alerting other enemies in the area to your presence; Smokers reach out with abnormally long tongues, sucking you inwards before exploding in a plume of - well - smoke; and the enormous Tanks pick up chunks of concrete, hurling them towards you with fierce and deadly accuracy.

There's one more enemy class, one that deserves a section of its own. The Witches are a fabulous achievement. Their chilling cries are audible from a distance, and when you hear one, it's time to go into stealth mode. They're passive when undisturbed, allowing you to sneak past and continue on to the next safe area. But if alerted to your presence, by loud gunfire or a flashlight beam, you're in trouble. On higher difficulty levels, these horrific ladies are absolutely deadly - we're talking one-hit kills here. When a stampede of zombies is on the way, and there's a Witch nearby, the scene turns into one of complete carnage.

It's a phenomenally brave move by Valve to include the Witch in this form. She's a beautifully-designed enemy: terrifying yet oddly vulnerable. She's a gruesome mass of hair and claws and lots of blood, an incredible creature to gawp at. And yet you rarely get a proper look - nine times out of ten, doing so is suicide. It works on every level imaginable. She's truly frightening.

Left 4 Dead is indeed a scary game, but in a way unlike almost anything else I've ever played. Its visceral fear evokes a few memories of Alien vs Predator: that twitchy, on-edge feeling as you make your way around the levels. It rarely makes you jump, and the atmosphere borrows too much from B-movie cliché to be genuinely chilling in a System Shock 2 sense, but the omnipresent feeling of high-speed tension drenches the entire experience. It toys with your survival instinct something rotten.

Co-operative mode stands out as the strongest, but there are two more game types to keep you occupied. Firstly, the main game can be played through as a solo experience, guiding three computer-controlled buddies through the missions. Tackling this first, to get my practice in, I thought it was wonderful. Having spent the last few days playing practically non-stop with real people, I can barely imagine going back.

Because, although it's still great, the single-player mode can't ever bypass the fact that Left 4 Dead is absolutely a team game. The bots are perfectly adequate - more so than in most squad-based shooters I can think of - but Left 4 Dead really excels in forcing players to work cohesively as a unit, always thinking on the fly, always debating various approaches to progress. It also rewards human error with some incredibly memorable sequences. Somebody making a mistake is never all that frustrating, because it all contributes to the bleak, panic-stricken atmosphere the game delivers. With computer-controlled team-mates, Left 4 Dead is a solid old-school shooter. With people, it's like living out your zombie-infested nightmares.

Example. I played a campaign yesterday with a couple of friends and a stranger. The stranger seemed very new to the game, but we were running through the No Mercy mission on 'Expert' difficulty - a cripplingly unforgiving mode. In the distance, as we inched our way through a subway, we heard the faint wailings of a Witch.

"Flashlights off!" we shouted. The stranger didn't respond. Instead, he charged on ahead, ignoring both the command and the fact that we had all stopped in our tracks. "TURN YOUR LIGHT OFF! COME BACK!" Still nothing.

The panic in that moment was incredible. Here we had three people literally yelling into their microphones at an errant survivor who was plodding along to his inevitable demise - and yet, ultimately, we could do nothing about it. When the Witch killed him in one, he eventually replied. "Shit – sorry." We were a man down. This simply wouldn't have happened without the hyped-up cockiness of an actual human.

In this respect, the friendly AI is often a little too good at sticking to a single formula. It's in the chaos that Left 4 Dead becomes truly remarkable, and the computerised buddies tend to tread very carefully. But the other problem with single-player is that you're forced to take command. Squad members follow you blindly, and it's essentially up to you to protect the pack. In co-op mode, each player has to function as an equal part of the unit, and that's what's so fascinating.

The third game type functions very much like co-operative play, but with one significant difference. In Versus mode, the 'special' enemies are human-controlled too. This is the area in which Left 4 Dead begins to feel a little like Valve's previous online FPS, Team Fortress 2. One team fights to reach the objective, the other team does everything they can to stop them. It's a lot of fun, and tends to result in even more mayhem than the other modes, as the bad guys constantly try to outwit the survivors. The only slight downfall here is that actually playing as one of these special enemies feels a little clunky, clumsy and slow, with unintuitive controls and odd movement - but you adjust to it fairly rapidly.

Still, despite my fun with this mode, I don't think I quite got it until I played solely with a group of friends. At this point it became absolutely hilarious, as we tried our absolute best to cyber-bully our chums with some good-natured psychosis. A particular highlight was our resident Smoker dragging one helpless soul in the bushes, before the rest of us - a Hunter and a Tank - mercilessly kicked the shit out of him, repeatedly, until he died and we all laughed at his corpse. This is a game designed for friendship groups with a slightly twisted sense of humour.

Ultimately, though, Versus lacks the focus on perhaps Left 4 Dead's most noteworthy feature: the insanely evil Director, a computer-controlled entity that determines the positioning and amount of enemies, weapons and first-aid kits in a given map. From early plays, I was concerned that four hour-long missions wouldn't be enough to justify a full-price release. In reality, this couldn't be further from the truth.

I must have gunned through each campaign at least three or four times now, and each time has been radically different from the last. While there are a couple of typically Valve set-pieces along the way, repeat attempts are so wildly varied that it's impossible to entirely master a level. Zombies clamber over fences, break through walls and out of buildings, and all the while you're left thinking, 'What?! They weren't there before!'

The Director is pure, calculated evil. Always trying to second-guess you and push you to your limits, it's an invisible force to be truly feared. To begin with, we decided to take it slowly. We were new to the game, after all. But we quickly learned the golden rule of Left 4 Dead: never stop, never look back. Whenever you're not making direct progress towards the finish line, The Director isn't happy. Your punishment is, more often than not, an untimely death.

On one occasion, having cleared out an entire portion of the level, we decided we needed more first-aid kits. There were some around a hundred metres back, so we decided that two people would stay to guard the area while the other two returned. What ensued was a double-whammy of absolute insanity, as foes poured from both directions, leaving all four of us dead as a result of not sticking together. Fabulous, and well-deserved. The Director does not take complacency well.

The result of this randomised AI brought back another gaming memory: F.E.A.R. Not just for the up-tempo blood-soaked action, but also for the way its most memorable moments are created by you, the players, making smart and snappy decisions on the fly. Or, conversely, completely horrible ones. To be honest, the latter probably provide for more entertainment in the grand scheme of things.

And yes, there are only four missions on release, meaning the game can be 'completed' on a superficial level in one lazy afternoon. But this is almost entirely irrelevant, because Left 4 Dead simply isn't that sort of game. It keeps on surprising time after time. At present, I can't imagine the novelty ever depleting.

Besides, each of the campaigns is so internally diverse that it feels like a much bigger game than it actually is. The scenery changes in a distinct yet fluid manner, as the four of you work your way through infected towns, seeking refuge in hospitals, following a distress signal down a railway track, and surviving the absurd siege of a farmhouse. There's one particularly spectacular sequence at an airport. And another in the sewers. And another in - oh, you get the picture.

Boring stuff, then: it looks brilliant, considering it uses a four-year-old engine. The level design is linear yet thoughtful, as we've come to expect from a Valve release. The frame-rate is consistently high but certain servers suffer from pretty heavy lag at times. And you can't browse to select a server, which will certainly annoy a few people. Instead, starting a new game drops you into a game lobby at random, forcing you to play with unfamiliar team-mates. Only, in practice, it doesn't really work like that. You can set up your own lobby, and if someone on your friends list is currently in a game, you can request to join that one straight away. As a result, the system becomes a minor annoyance rather than a massive hindrance, and the only real problem I noticed was that it occasionally dropped me into foreign-language games. Maybe I should just learn German.

Such frustrations are instantly forgettable in the face of the gorgeous little touches that elevate Left 4 Dead even higher into the stratosphere. The swelling atonal soundtrack that builds to an intense crescendo; the dynamic expressions on the faces of the survivors, changing to suit the drama; the way the plot is left to the player’s discovery via graffiti scrawled around the world; the loading screen posters, depicting the 'movie' you're about to 'act' in. The list could go on far longer. For the sake of your patience and my sanity, I'll leave it at that.

So what it all boils down to is this: despite a few extremely minor qualms, I can't imagine anyone with an internet connection not being absolutely smitten with this. It's pure, belting, action-packed fun, time and time again. It's a polished, pivotal gem of a title, and it's quickly become my favourite online game by quite some margin. The incredible brains at Valve have somehow followed up their single-player prowess with a multiplayer experience of equally transcendent quality, and I'd be more than happy to play continuously, fighting the hoards, until there were no zombies left.

Except I know that would never happen. If Left 4 Dead has taught me anything, it's that there'll always be more zombies. Always.

Rating: 9/10

Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (November 19, 2008)

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honestgamer posted November 19, 2008:

Excellent review! Here's a sentence that stuck out at me:

While ever you're not making direct progress towards the finish line, The Director isn't happy.

How about 'whenever' instead of 'while ever' at the start?

But back to why the review was excellent... You really did a good job of pulling me into the experience and even feeling a certain degree of tension. The part about playing with an inexperienced player was somehow chilling, and your other examples were high-quality, as well.

I got to feeling as if I'd experienced the game--just a little--and that made me want to experience the full thing... just a little (because I'm rubbish at freaky games like this). Maybe I'll find a way to play it, even though we weren't sent a copy. I'd go with the Xbox 360 version, though. Console gaming all the way for me!
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zippdementia posted November 19, 2008:

I cry every time I read a good review of this game, simply because I know I'll probably never get to play it. I'm not an Xbox or PC fan, so unless it gets ported to PS3 or MAC, I'm sunk.

Totally unfair... I was one of the project's earliest fans.
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wolfqueen001 posted November 19, 2008:

Man, with how awesome you make this game sound, I'm surprised you didn't give it a 10. Not that that means much.

Anyway, this is a game I'd been looking forward to myself, only I know I'll probably never get it because I probably won't have a decent enough PC and internet connection to run it for years to come. It really sounds like its strongest point is online, and that's something I haven't gotten fully into yet. I blame lame dial-up connections.

Anyhow, so is what you played the real released game or just a demo? You said there were only four missions upon release... Does that mean they'll add more and just make them downloadable or something or is that the total period? Also, are they/have they fixed the server issue? And if not by actual release, how will they do that? Or will they at all?

Though I will say that maybe the whole random server thing could add to the panicky suspense thing you describe, since being thrown into a completely unknown place with (almost) no one you know would really rachet up the emotion, the way I see it.

This was a great review, by the way. I think I'm starting to get the hang of your style more. Or maybe you're adapting in your own way somewhat. Either way, keep it up. I like it.

I did find one typo, though:

I'd be more than happy to play continuously, fighting the hoards, until there were no zombies left.

Should be hordes. You need to stop hanging out with EmP so much. =P

The only other complaint I could make with this review, really, is that it's a bit long, but you make it interesting enough to where that doesn't matter so much. Plus I'm one to think that quality is way more important than the length of the review, anyway.
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Lewis posted November 20, 2008:

JV: I knew that sentence didn't read that well. Feel free to edit it.

WQ: You're absolutely right. JV can feel free to edit that as well, if he wants. I used the one as in 'to hoarde food' didn't I? Or maybe I just made up a word.

LANGUAGE SHIFT!

Anyway, cheers for the feedback, all. The version I played was the review code, but since it was sent to me a day before release and is perfectly compatible with everyone's retail copies, I assume it's the same.

Valve has always been a fan of releasing multiplayer games with a limited number of maps and adding free downloadable content as the months pass. Plus I'm sure the huge Source Engine community will start modding it soon enough, adding tonnes more levels. In fact, they already have. Someone's tweaked the code to add TF2 maps - I'm not sure whether that's strictly allowed or not, but it sounds like fun.

Regarding the score, it's funny you should mention that. I had the review open to one side for hours, intermittently changing the score, being about to submit it, then deciding I'd sit on it for a while longer. In the end, I decided that the fact it took me so long to reach that decision meant it probably didn't quite warrant a 10, but it's probably the best 9 I've ever awarded. If this were IGN, we'd have been talking 9.4 territory, while Fallout would have probably scraped a 9.5.

Still, what a joy to write about two games this good in just three weeks.

EDIT: one more thing. The PC version will definitely be more satisfying in the long run. Valve already have an enormous player community on the PC, whereas it's smaller on the XBox. My thoughts are that, like TF2, the PC community support will me much stronger in the months to come.
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wolfqueen001 posted November 20, 2008:

You didn't make up a word. You're right: "hoard" means to stash, like how you used it in that example.

Anyway, it's good to know that there might be mods and additions added to the game. I'm definitely one to prefer FPSs on PC than on console, so hopefully I'll be able to get around to this sometime in the future depending on how circumstances turn out. Hm... Will they fix the server thing with those sorts of updates, too? If it really matters that much.

Oh, and I just remembered something I wanted to ask before.... How exactly does the Witch kill you? Like, I know it's first-person, so you won't really be able to see the effects on your person, but with a one-hit kill, I'd imagine it's pretty gruesome. I also find it hard to believe that she only uses her claws to do it, though maybe she does.

I really should check out this game sometime. I'm surprised EmP hasn't said anything about it, or complained that he'll never have a powerful enough system to run it on. Since he loves zombies so much. I'd imagine this game would be like heaven to him or something. <_<
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Lewis posted November 20, 2008:

The witch launches at you, pins you to the ground, then claws you to death at such a rate it's practically impossible for someone to save you in time.

You're left staring up at her gruesome face, but the blood and guts are there for everyone else to see, if they dare to get close enough.

Also, her claws are pretty big:

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wolfqueen001 posted November 20, 2008:

Wow. That's frightening. ...they're like knives....
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Lewis posted November 20, 2008:

http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=QRFBWQU_yJ0 - you don't get a good glimpse, really, but watch the guy's health bar. Almost full health down to below 20% in one hit, followed by a two-second struggle before death.

Actually, this one sums it up very nicely:
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=rmBiN2hceJc
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wolfqueen001 posted November 20, 2008:

Yep. That's definitely freaky. I wonder what playing this game must be like in the middle of the night with the lights off and all that ambient creepy noise. Talk about immersive. And I only just watched those videos.
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zippdementia posted November 20, 2008:

Stop Lewis. Stop it before my heart explodes with envy.
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Halon posted November 20, 2008:

I was fooling around on expert on the demo and shined the flashlight on the witch for the hell of it. The game ended no more than five seconds later.
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overdrive posted November 20, 2008:

Yeah. I was looking at those videos Lewis linked to and found one linked to them which has a witch confrontation in a more lit area.

That was pretty freaky. One person would get its attention and it would just sprint like a bat out of hell at him until it knocked him down and then it was up to everyone else to blow it to hell before it utterly slaughtered the poor sap. Good stuff!
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zippdementia posted November 20, 2008:

Most wanted game that I can't play. So so so so so sad. I'll have to hold out for a PS3 release. Or go over to Phasma's house, he'll understand.

And he's got an Xbox 360.
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Halon posted November 28, 2008:

For Black Friday this game is only $19.95 on Amazon. I'd say it's worth it!

EDIT: Game might've sold out already in a total of ten minutes. It's being sold from somewhere else and I think Amazon is out.
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Lewis posted November 28, 2008:

I've poured more time into this than anything else for ages. It's worth it, whatever the price (within reason).
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Halon posted November 28, 2008:

I've been holding it off for some time because I wanted to try Crysis Warhead's multiplayer first and I know once I start L4D I won't stop. I was about to start yesterday but for some reason busted out Serious Sam instead. Finally I broke down and played it last last night.

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