The idea of making a first-person shooter that involves zombies is not a new concept. In fact the zombies and videogames have been synonymous for quite some time now. Left 4 Dead may sound like every other game you have played before on paper, but until you experience it first-hand you cannot begin to imagine just how good it really is. Instead of focusing on a huge back-story that explains why the city is run amok with the undead the game focuses on cooperation, intense action and most importantly fun. Never before has a game transitioned between the campaign and online modes so flawlessly nor has a game with seemingly so little content been able to remain fresh over and over again. Left 4 Dead is quite possibly the perfect zombie game and one of the most pleasant surprises of the holiday season.
Unlike conventional games Left 4 Dead is presented in four separate episodes with each one resembling a Hollywood movie complete with its own poster. Each one focuses on a different theme and is broken down into five smaller chapters. At the conclusion of each one you are given a set of credits that basically run down all of your stats. It is all of these little touches that make the game fun each and every time you play through an episode. The object for each movie is to move through the area while mowing down zombies and trying to keep each other alive until you reach the extraction point such as a helicopter pad or the docks where you can be rescued. Think of it as four zombie movies back to back and get the idea.
There is no mistaking that L4D has been built as a cooperative, four-player experience. The game casts four characters that you can take control of and there is no difference between the single-player game and the online modes. While it is recommended that you play online with three others the game works surprisingly well solo thanks to some extraordinary AI partners. They will cover you when you are healing, heal you when you require it and even revive you when incapacitated, basically they work to serve you and they rarely become a nuisance. The only downside is that they are definitely not leaders; they will only follow what you do and always stick behind your every move. Great for the lower difficulties because it keeps you front and center on the action, not so good on higher difficulties when you are low on health and ammo and one of them is sitting pretty on both.
Playing as any of the characters really does not change the experience. You have Bill, the grizzled war veteran; Louis, the quiet office worker who was probably at the wrong place at the wrong time; Francis, the biker who loves blasting zombies to smithereens just a bit too much and Zoey, the quintessential female character who is tough and motherly at the same time.
While none of them plays any different than the next they all have great personality thanks to the chatter system found in the game. This is one of the smallest and most influential mechanics introduced in L4D. Your team mates will call out when they are reloading, when health and ammo are found and even call out enemies when they see them. This really draws you into the world and makes you feel like everyone on your team, AI controlled or not, is working towards the same goal, and that is something most co-op games fail to capitalize on.
Another impressive and overlooked aspect of L4D is that no experience is ever the same, even on previously completed levels. This is thanks to an AI director that deems what to throw at the player at any given time. If you are blasting through the game with ease it will toss more and more hordes of zombies at you to increase the tension, but if you are struggling and running low on ammo it may tone down the intensity and throw some spare ammo and health your way. This makes playing through each level over and over an entirely new experience, especially when you play online with other people. This is extremely important because as I mentioned earlier on the surface L4D feels extremely light when it comes to content.
The core game is broken down into four episodes and each one can be completed in under an hour on normal difficulty. This may sound like a rip-off when you consider you are spending sixty bucks for four hours of entertainment, but what L4D does so well is keep you coming back over and over again. The fact that each level feels different on each successive play through speaks volumes for the game’s design. Combine it with the fact that playing it solo and online with friends is an entirely new experience and you have a game that lasts hours upon hours due to the fact that it is just plain fun to go back and play over and over. Rarely does a game with such little content remain entertaining for multiple sessions, but L4D does it flawlessly and is quite possible the perfect co-op experience.
There is one other mode that the game pulls off that adds a new twist and of course some replayability. The online versus mode allows players to assume the roles of the infected against the survivors. You can take on the role of a Boomer, Hunter, Smoker and if you are lucky enough a Tank. Sadly you cannot be a Witch, which would have been incredibly awesome just for the record. In this mode you will really have to combine your efforts as each infected only works when combined with others (except for the Tank of course). For instance confusing players with the Hunter by bouncing around gives the Boomer a chance to sneak up and vomit on everyone, thus leaving them blind to attack. The strategy really changes when assuming the role of an infected and makes for a nice diversion from the regular game.
Left 4 Dead is powered by the same engine that brought us Half-Life and it is amazing just how versatile and powerful it still us. Source Engine is now four years old and while it isn’t as flashy as Unreal Engine 3 it is truly remarkable when it comes to rendering lots of objects onscreen. L4D is a solid looking game and without so much as hint of frame rate loss. Facial animations are incredibly detailed and the game sports some of the best dynamic lighting I have ever seen.
The audio is equally remarkable sporting some amazing sound effects as well as the aforementioned chatter. The sound of a shotgun shell connection with a zombie’s head has never been this satisfying and the first time you hear a Witch crying in the distance it will haunt you for the rest of your life.
Left 4 Dead is one of the most visceral and enjoyable experiences you will find on Xbox 360 this holiday season. If you love classic zombie movies and/or love the idea of co-op shooter there simply is no better game. While the content may seem slim the replayability is unmatched thanks to the dynamic AI director. If you are planning on hopping online there really is not a better co-op experience this winter and this will keep you playing long into next year. With a promise of new content on the horizon Left 4 Dead could easily be the sleeper hit of 2008 as well as being the base of comparison for all cooperative games from here on out.