It’s tough to not associate Valve with quality at this point, so it’s no surprise to see that their latest, Left 4 Dead, is completely awesome. It successfully blends the cinematic and grandiose qualities of their single-player epics with the social and competitive chaos that’s associated with all great multi-player games. Even more, all of this is set in the midst of a zombie apocalypse and all the potential dread and intensity associated with this setting are completely and utterly exploited. If it isn’t obvious already, Left 4 Dead is easily one of the best games of the year and one of the best co-op experiences you’ll have, ever.
Two weeks after all hell broke loose, it’s you and three others simply trying to get out of the quarantine zone. It’s very simple, and there is no developing narrative, but as in most of Valve’s games, you get a good sense of the state of the world by just playing. Abandoned vehicles, wrecked metro stations, the writing scrawled all over the walls in every safe house – they all tell a tale. They do a great job of establishing that the infected rule over whatever is left and that you’re definitely in the minority. Even the four characters you can play as are injected with enough personality that they’re far from just four different skins to choose from. They’ll occasionally exchange lines with each other, and they’re always funny, really establishing a sense of bond and friendship. For a multi-player centric game, it’s amazing how Valve extrapolates the strong narrative and immersive qualities of their single-player games and integrates them seamlessly into Left 4 Dead.
That said, those qualities are more complimentary than anything. The core gameplay needs to function and Left 4 Dead practically shines. Initially, it’s deceptively simple. Shoot every infected bastard you see and move on. It’s initially underwhelming, but it doesn’t take long to realize that teamwork is mandatory. You simply can’t go rogue. Going on too far on your own usually means you’ll be incapacitated by special infected types; leaving behind stragglers equals the same result. It takes time to revive a player or heal, forcing everyone to cover each other’s backs. Friendly fire is always on, so you have to be careful with where you fire and to also not run into a teammate’s line of fire. The more you are injured, the slower your run speed, causing the entire team to slow down with you, or patch you up. Little, subtle, easy-to-understand gameplay mechanics like these do such a great job of enforcing teamwork and are what makes Left 4 Dead so brilliant.
Sticking together, healing each other, and generally informing each other of any given situation creates a genuine sense of camaraderie, even with strangers in public lobbies. Half of this has to do with the hostile world of the game, and the other half comes from the gameplay. It’s a successful marriage of two totally different things that coalesce and create the bigger picture you experience when playing. The game is really at its best when that hostility reaches the breaking point, and the skills you’ve attained and learned are pushed to the limit. Chatter from all your teammates – all the screaming, all the tactical updates, all the panicky chatter – that occurs when hordes of 40 to 50 creates an experience so authentic that Left 4 Dead stirs emotions you’d probably feel if you really were in a zombie apocalypse. Most of this is attributed to the impressive and almost flawless infected AI. For what they are, they move and run with startling realism and, considering the amount of them coming after you in any given moment, they practically never run into any path-finding issues. They’re extremely convincing adversaries; they climb, hurdle, and jump over anything that’s in their way to get to you. There’s no foolproof method to exploit any problems with the AI, because there really is none.
A potential problem that could’ve diluted this sheer, visceral experience would be if the game became predictable. With only four campaigns that last a little over an hour, you could potentially determine every spawn point, every ammo pile, and so on, but Valve avoids what could’ve been a disastrous flaw by going procedural. Everything that is placed and triggered on the map is determined by the Director. This ominous figure basically checks up on how you and your team are doing and then calls the shots. The result: maps are always constant and never physically change, but infected spawns and items placements are always different. Sometimes, a room might contain an abundance of supplies, a group of zombies, or simply nothing. You might run into a horde trigger, or you might just run by with no problems. This feeling of uncertainty creates an undeniable sense of tension and boosts the replay value of the campaign tenfold, which is arguably the most important thing the Director provides. It also creates a difficulty level that’s just right; the game’s never too easy or too unforgiving. Chances are you’ll barely straggle onto the next safe house, which makes surviving that much sweeter and more rewarding.
However, let’s say you want something more competitive – something a bit more traditional. Left 4 Dead’s 8-player versus mode fills that gap. Four survivors and four infected types go head-to-head, and every round consists of both groups swapping roles from the previous round. The survivors try to make it to the safe house, and the infected attempt to stop them. On the survivor side, it actually feels quite different than the co-op campaign. There’s an added sense of urgency, because you’re going against human opponents, and they spawn much more often, really pushing you to move forward and little else.
On the infected side, the experience is totally different and is arguably the most fun aspect of the game. You’ll spawn randomly as one of the special infected types, except for the witch, and each one plays differently; hunters pounce on survivors to take down stragglers or brash rogue survivors; smokers attack from a distance with their ability to drag survivors away; boomers vomit on survivors, which attracts the horde and bile-spreading splash damage. Finally, on occasion, infected players will be able control the tank, a steroid-infused monstrosity with a penchant for beating the crap out of everything.
There’s an entirely new teamwork dynamic that stems out of this, because unlike the survivors, each infected brings their own unique qualities to the table. For example, a boomer can vomit all over an unsuspecting survivor, while hunters and smokers try to separate the team, causing panic on their end and hilarity on yours. It’s amazingly fun and quite possibly the best part of Left 4 Dead. The only glaring problem with the versus mode is that only two of the campaign maps are available for use. This restriction seems arbitrary, but with so many ways to attack on a map, it doesn’t limit the replay value that much.
When it comes to looks and sounds, Valve certainly delivers. The latest version of the Source engine provides the best-looking Source game outside of Team Fortress 2, which is still in an entirely different league of its own. Filmic effects, like grain and strong contrast lighting, never get overbearing and only add to the game’s atmosphere. Character models look outstanding and while you won’t always get a good look at their faces, they’re very, very emotive. Perhaps the greatest visual strength is the game’s excellent usage of lighting. It’s brilliant when muzzle flashes grant only views of only brief, spastic movements of a horde, and reloading completely blinds you, inducing panic. There’s also a surprising amount of visual variety throughout all four campaigns, really keeping things fresh. Granted, upon closer inspection, you’re going to notice some average-looking textures and some bland areas (sewers in particular), but you won’t have a lot of time to complain. And since this is a Source game, it’ll probably run on a monitor hooked up to a potato. At its lowest settings, it looks like Half-Life 2, which isn’t a bad thing at all.
Just like the strong visual presentation, Left 4 Dead’s audio delivers in spades. Its dynamic music is particularly well done. It’ll change and shift depending on the situation and just like a lot of things with the game, it adds to the constant tension. Voice-acting is pitch-perfect across the board, sound effects are excellent, and zombies sound appropriately pissed. There’s little to fault; it’s superb.
There are a lot of irrelevant nitpicks you could call out, like limited weapon selection and how going through the campaign with bots isn’t as fun (you really shouldn’t be playing this if you’re here for the single-player). There is, however, the question of the game’s staying power. As much as the Director changes things up all the time, these are just four campaigns and only two of those work with versus. The content available as of right now can last weeks, but months? Not so sure. Valve has promised to support Left 4 Dead like they have for Team Fortress 2, so no worries for future content, but admittedly, the retail package could’ve benefited from an extra campaign or two. It also could’ve used some more developer commentary, too, because they’re always excellent.
Considering the amount of games that have made their way to retail throughout this holiday season, Left 4 Dead stands as one of the few that you simply must buy. It’s an atmospheric, immersive co-op experience from both the survivor and infected perspective, and it’s all polished to a mighty, brilliant sheen. If you’re still not sure, just knowing Left 4 Dead is under the Valve name should be enough. In a perfect world, Left 4 Dead would have had just a bit more content, but what we get is still more than filling. Enjoy it, love it, and then spend weeks exhausting what the game has to offer. Make some memories and have boatloads of fun. Left 4 Dead is simply spectacular.