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Left 4 Dead (PC) artwork

Left 4 Dead (PC) review

"Left 4 Dead is an intense horror experience with a pitch-perfect atmosphere of paranoia and portending doom, punctuated with madcap battles against massive zombie hordes. Or, at least, it is for about an hour or so. Once the player becomes immune to the creepy music, desensitized to clawing swarms of zombies, and gets to know the maps a little better, the game quickly becomes nothing more than a straight-faced co-op shooter."

Left 4 Dead is an intense horror experience with a pitch-perfect atmosphere of paranoia and portending doom, punctuated with madcap battles against massive zombie hordes. Or, at least, it is for about an hour or so. Once the player becomes immune to the creepy music, desensitized to clawing swarms of zombies, and gets to know the maps a little better, the game quickly becomes nothing more than a straight-faced co-op shooter. It is challenging, proficiently designed and fun, but the horror qualities of the game fade all too fast.

It's a shame, really, because those first few hours are simply dripping with gore-caked goodness, offering a near-perfect horror experience. The game begins with an opening cinematic that doubles as a rather clever stealth tutorial, introducing you to the four player characters (called Survivors), their biggest threats, and several gameplay mechanics. Afterward, you can choose to either play an online campaign, an online versus mode, an online survival mode, or play through a campaign in single player. Once you select a game mode, you can choose which character you want to represent. There is Bill (grizzled Vietnam vet), Louis (optimistic everyman and token black guy), Francis (biker and, I strongly suspect, former middle school bully), and Zoey (mandatory hot chick). There is no mechanical difference between these characters; it's all just a matter of appearance and personality. Characterization is surprisingly good, with their backstories and personal quirks shining through the short lines of dialogue they spew at randomly-selected moments. Plot is all but non-existent, consisting mainly of, "Get from Point A to Point B, and oh yeah, zombies."

Although the online campaign is clearly intended as the way the game is meant to be played, there is something to be said for trying single player for a game or two. Having human teammates will make you feel less alone as you guide and encourage each other. But in single player, you're all on your lonesome except for three AI-controlled teammates that follow you around like heavily-armed ducklings, allowing you to wallow in Left 4 Dead's rich horror atmosphere at your leisure. Gameplay consists of running and gunning through several urban and a few rural environments, popping lots of zombie skulls in the process. On the surface, it sounds pretty generic. But where the game really excels is in its excellent tone, managing to stay cohesive as it alternates between sheer panic and painful suspense. This is partially accomplished through the game's artistic style, though it can at times be a bit too muddy or grainy. More importantly, brilliant gameplay cultivates the feeling that the Survivors are never truly safe. It doesn't matter if you slide the difficulty down to easy; you'll still feel like you're lost in an urban hellscape, the groans of the undead seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.

The only problem with single player is the AI, which is about as intelligent as a sack of wet turnips. Enemy pathfinding seems perfectly fine, but for some reason, your three computer-controlled Survivor teammates act even dumber than the zombies. They usually just stand around and wait for you to do something, but every once in a while, your compatriots will have an acute attack of the stupids. "We can go down this well-lit alleyway," the AI reasons, "or we can go into the pitch dark warehouse filled with ominous moans." For some reason, they'll choose Obvious Trap Avenue every time, forcing you to follow them and save their stupid butts from a richly-deserved brain chomping. While this might sound frustrating at first, it faithfully recreates every horror movie I've ever seen wherein somebody decides to do something stupid ("Let's split up!"), leading to mayhem for all.

Why not just leave your idiot teammates to their doom? Two reasons: first, if your health reaches zero, your character becomes 'incapacitated', meaning they lie on their side with only their peashooter of a pistol drawn. Only the aid of a teammate can get you back on your feet and fighting fit again. The second reason? The Special Infected, a squad of super zombies that require teamwork to take down. The Hunter and Smoker can pin or constrict Survivors, making them utterly helpless until a teammate comes along to free them. The Boomer can summon hordes of lesser zombies, and finally the Tank and the Witch are simply too powerful to safely take down all by yourself.

While these Special Infected might seem like a cheap trick used to reinforce the co-op nature of the game (and yeah, they kinda are), they are each designed with a gameplay-enhancing goal in mind. The perfect example is the Witch. You can hear her from a long distance away, sobbing in a pitiful, all-too-human manner. The Witch is non-aggressive until startled. What makes her so compelling is that it's tough to know exactly what will set her off. Shooting her is an obvious no-no, unless you're feeling lucky and think you can take her down before she gets you. But simply standing near her for too long, shining your flashlight on her, or firing your weapon too much will cause her to attack. The Witch is tough, incapacitating a player in one hit and killing with the second, so most players opt to try and avoid her entirely. The Witch is a brilliant gameplay device in that she forces even veteran players to be aware of their surroundings. They must listen for her telltale sobs and watch out for her hunched, emaciated form. She teaches players not to shoot everything they see, and forces them to occasionally go without flashlights, a nerve-wracking prospect in Left 4 Dead's gloom-soaked maps. Most importantly, she adds to the style and atmosphere of the game, ratcheting up the tension with her soft, eerie crying and nail-biting theme music. And she's just one specific Special Infected out of five; the other four are equally well-designed.

Once you're finished drinking in the horror elements, you'll no doubt want to hop online and play with some real live human beings. And here's where Left 4 Dead's cracks begin to show, where the 'horror' part of the game fades away into tiny print and the 'co-op shooter' part shows up in bold, 20-point block text. The psychology of the player shifts; when you have human teammates encouraging, teaching and counting on you, it's harder to get truly scared.

Like most online games, you'll find players that know the maps like the back of their hand, killing the novelty a bit. It's still a challenge, however, due to what is called the AI Director. Specifically, the AI Director is the mysterious force that chooses when to spawn a Special Infected or a zombie horde. It also sprinkles around weapons, ammo, and first aid kits with the goal of auto-adjusting the difficulty depending on how well the players are doing. Left 4 Dead has the usual gamut of difficulty levels that the players can select (easy, normal, hard and expert), so the Director is less about overall difficulty and more about getting the pacing right. Left 4 Dead depends on an even mix of tension and panic, and it's the disembodied Director's job to adjust that formula moment to moment. If you're doing well, expect trouble in the form of a sudden onslaught or a few extra Special Infected. If you've taken a beating, you might be gifted with a few extra, conveniently-placed supplies. For the most part, The Director is extremely successful, if a bit sadistic. Between the Director and the Special Infected, it takes a while for Left 4 Dead's novelty to fade away. You're shooting such a wide variety of zombies in such a wide variety of locations and situations that it takes you a while to realize that, yeah, you're just shooting zombies. Again and again and again.

When that gets old, you can try out versus mode. Versus mode deserves a special mention because it really is a masterstroke. In versus mode, two teams take turns playing as the Survivors and the Infected. The Survivors do what they usually do; try to make it to safety before they're gangbanged by walking corpses. How far they get and how many (if any) survive determines their score. The Infected team plays defense as four out of the five Special Infected (the Witch is unplayable, deemed too dangerous in the hands of intelligent players). Dying is no big deal for the Infected team; you simply wait twenty seconds, then respawn wherever you please. There is a great deal of sadistic glee to be had as you coordinate with your teammates to utterly screw the hapless humans. It is, shall we say, uncomfortably entertaining to watch a haggard survivor almost limp into the safe room... only to pounce on him at the last moment and peel his skin off.

Playing as a ruthless creature of the night undercuts some of the fear that pervades campaign mode, but it's hardly versus mode that should be blamed. The fundamental problem with Left 4 Dead is that the idea of an online horror game just doesn't work. Online games require near endless repetition, because what makes it fun is the idea of playing with your friends again and again (or, failing that, harassing random Internet-dwellers). But what Valve apparently forgot is that repetition murders horror. After you've been startled by a pouncing Hunter for the hundredth time, you're not going to be startled the one-hundredth and first. No, after that one-hundredth time, the Hunter will be just an annoyance, an obstacle you have to defeat to win. The game will become about strategy, at least to the extent that it can with the mercurial AI Director leering at your brainpan like it's a platter of fresh brownies. It will become about skill and perseverance, it will become about getting from Point A to Point B so you can complete your objective. And, at that moment, you may very well sit back in your chair, wrinkle your brow, and ask, "Wait. How come I'm not just playing Counterstrike?"


SpencerTSisson's avatar
Featured community review by SpencerTSisson (August 16, 2011)

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SamildanachEmrys posted August 16, 2011:

I don't agree at all, but that's beside the point. Your views are well explained and illustrated, and it's all generally quite well written.

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