Left 4 Dead (Xbox 360) review
"We were in bad shape. Two of the four people in our group were on painkillers until we could find a few actual medkits, and one of them had been pounced on and pinned down by a zombified hoodlum and probably would have been mauled to death if I hadn’t stepped in and shot the thing down. We’d been running through city streets, following markings written in spray paint by other survivors. They’d managed to set up strategically-placed safe houses all over the area designed to keep us secure from th..."
We were in bad shape. Two of the four people in our group were on painkillers until we could find a few actual medkits, and one of them had been pounced on and pinned down by a zombified hoodlum and probably would have been mauled to death if I hadn’t stepped in and shot the thing down. We’d been running through city streets, following markings written in spray paint by other survivors. They’d managed to set up strategically-placed safe houses all over the area designed to keep us secure from the thousands of zombies that now roamed the cityscape. After fighting off hordes of the undead and reaching the checkpoint, the heavy door slammed shut behind us, and we were greeted with ammunition, medical supplies and respite we knew all too well was only temporary. There was no food, and rescue was still a journey’s way ahead of us. In a moment we’d be returning to the zombie apocalypse once more.
Everyone else in my party went with SMGs while I called shotgun. Their endgame statistics revealed higher headshot ratios than my own, but for me, there’s only one way to kill a zombie: the messy way.
Even for a game that was designed to be replayed over and over, it’s impossible to ever know exactly what’s going to happen next in Left 4 Dead. You’re at the constant mercy of a clever AI director who evaluates the performance of your team and adjusts the conditions of battle accordingly, either by summoning item drops when he’s feeling charitable or by spawning waves of zombies when he feels you haven’t seen enough yet. Every time the party is called upon to complete a context-specific action to progress through each level, the option is accompanied by an on-screen warning: BE READY TO FIGHT THE HORDE.
And yet you can only be so ready. Your adversaries are not the old-fashioned foot-shuffling variety of zombies, but rather the frighteningly fast kind. They climb fences. They break down doors. They damn near trample each other over in pursuit of those precious few who have survived the infestation and remain ripe for being eaten alive. Alert one zombie, and you can be guaranteed at least a dozen more are right behind him. When you’ve taken too much damage, you’ll fall to your hands and be forced to continue fending off the foes with your pistol until one of your friends revives you, but these zombies don’t stop when you’re down. They stop when you’ve been devoured.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Left 4 Dead is the most fulfilling representation of the zombie apocalypse to ever grace a video game. Its four campaigns take you through dank sewers, dilapidated hospitals and ransacked airfields, and while its zombies are mindless adversaries as always, their strategy is to overwhelm with the force of terrifying numbers. The uncertainty of never knowing when a zombie attack will happen or where it will come from is a devastating sensation of isolation, claustrophobia and sheer terror. Being a shooter by Valve, it controls like your average Half-Life outing, but don’t get too comfortable, lest you become overconfident and run out of shells long before the immediate zombie threat has been vanquished. These monsters have taken a liking to close-quarters combat, yet the most your melee attack will ever accomplish is knock them away for a brief moment before they’re right back on you. Hopefully that extra second or two is all you need to reload.
Left 4 Dead is a cooperative experience, because what it pits you against is too much for any one person to tackle alone. You’ll need the extra guns to keep from being overtaken by the thousands of zombies you’ll face before you’re finally rescued. When you’re forced to defend a point – there are several takes on the classic “trapped in a ramshackle old house” scenario – you need eyes in every direction, since it’s impossible to ever know where the next horde will come from. When you’ve been incapacitated, you’ll need a partner to bring you to your feet. And you’ll call for help whenever you’ve been immobilized by one of the special “mutated” zombie types. At any moment you may lose control of your character for a second when suddenly the camera switches to third-person, and you’re given a nice view of yourself being helplessly constrained by the long tongue of a Smoker.
When this happens – and it will happen – you’d better hope a friend is within close proximity to pull you out of the bind. Left 4 Dead encourages an atmosphere of teamwork, right down to the number in its title, and it rings absolutely true. Stray too far ahead or fall too far behind and you’re setting yourself up for death. Very few individual threats in Left 4 Dead are worth worrying about, but the overwhelming scale of every encounter is what makes cooperation with your teammates so vital.
For certain, there needed to be more of what’s here. The AI director works wonders to make the game more replayable than it should be, and the joy of a good cooperative multiplayer experience is an amazing draw in and of itself, but Left 4 Dead offers only our campaigns, each of which can be cleared in less than an hour. I’m sure the PC end of this equation has been overrun by the mod community, but that doesn’t affect console players, nor does it excuse the fact that Left 4 Dead was at one point being charged at full price. Even Team Fortress 2, the greatest multiplayer game ever made (see: truth), ran for a mere twenty bucks at launch.
Yet what Left 4 Dead does well, it does so well that you can only wish there were more of it. Valve’s production values are high, as always, and the countless ways any given encounter can play out lead to just as many solutions. Mutated zombies mix things up a bit, too. You can hear the grunts and belches of a slow, fat, blubbery Boomer from a mile away, yet it wields a lethal weapon: The bile it vomits onto you attracts every common zombie in the vicinity, which could lead to some tricky strategizing if the stuff didn’t temporarily obscure your vision as well. You receive equal warning of incoming Tanks by the rumble in your controller; these enormous monstrosities represent what it would probably look like if the Incredible Hulk were zombified. While you don’t want to engage them at close range, attacking from a distance only increases the likelihood that you’ll get nail by one of the cars or chunks of rubble it throws with startling accuracy.
The Witches are another breed entirely. When one is near, you’ll hear her sobbing. She’s most likely off in a corner, crouched down, generally unconcerned with human passersby… until you disturb her, that is, with so much as a flashlight pointed in the wrong direction. That’s when she reveals long, razor-sharp claws. She chooses a victim, and what follows usually ends in a one-hit kill. And I don’t mean that you become incapacitated. I mean bitch kills you dead. But while it’s almost always possible to slip by a Witch unnoticed… well, how cool would it be if we could bring her down?
Left 4 Dead forces a gamut of human emotions, from machismo to bravery to selfishness to downright cowardice, often within the span of only a few minutes and frequently coming from the same people. The rescue scenarios that conclude each campaign particularly come to mind: With the industry overrun with “moral choices,” what’s more telling of a player’s inner workings than being faced with the decision to either save yourself and leave real people behind, or to risk it all by going back for them? The bevy of spontaneous reactions under pressure is part of what makes Left 4 Dead such a rewarding multiplayer experience. You could practically use the game to figure out which of your friends would be most trustworthy in the event of a real zombie apocalypse. That’s how intense, how real it all feels.
Note that Resident Evil only managed to make zombies scary by having its protagonists control like forklifts. Left 4 Dead is a shooter – a damn polished one – that’s even scarier.
If you enjoyed this Left 4 Dead review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!