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.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (November 19, 2008)
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