Left 4 Dead Review
Undead and Loving It
Zombies. You know the ones I mean. Drool lots, moan lots, shuffle shambolically from side to side, and would dearly love to feast on your brains, though I can’t possibly comment on whether this repast would be accompanied by a nice Chianti or not.
Valve, the kind souls who brought us gems like Half Life, Counterstrike and Team Fortress, have set their hearts on developing a paean to the genre that borrows heavily from the filmic work of veteran director George Romero, and his myriad imitators. Sure, we’ve seen plenty of games that, ahem, give life to the undead, and even Valve themselves have trodden this path before with the seminal (and exceedingly creepy) “We don’t go to Ravenholm” map in the 2004 classic, Half Life 2. Recent offerings in this field have included the shopping mall epic Dead Rising, and even Call of Duty: World at War, with its excellent “Nazi Zombies” bolt-on mode, and we wait with baited breath to see what the forthcoming addition to the hallowed Resident Evil series will bring to the table.
Story? What story?
If you are looking for a single-player experience with a deep and engaging plot, then this probably isn’t going to be a title that floats your boat; no explanation is ever actually provided as to the cause of the “Zombie Apocalypse”, though its nature is pretty self-evident, with a veritable legion of grey-skinned nasties roaming the once pleasant land looking for a grey matter takeout.
For aficionados of coop games, Left 4 Dead is a delight …
You take on the role of one of a rag tag quartet of survivors, who have somehow not succumbed to the general zombification that’s going on all around; You can take on the mantle of (or let the game chose for you) Francis, a leather-clad, tattoed beefcake who’s having the time of his life in the wake of society’s collapse or Bill, a grizzled, chainsmoking veteran of countless wars, resplendent in fatigues and green beret. Alternatively, there’s Zoey, who appears outwardly unassuming but sure knows how to handle a hunting rifle, or Louis, an IT analyst who’s swapped spreadsheets for shotguns in a desperate bid to keep possession of the stuff between his ears.
No matter which character you may end up playing as, your goal is simple (some might even say, refreshingly so); stay alive, and help your fellow team members make it to a series of four safe houses, and ultimately to the extraction points at the end of each campaign where other survivors will come to the rescue after a final, frenetic set piece showdown.
We have to remember that this is a Valve production, so what might be lacking in the storyline department is more than compensated for by pure, unadulterated visceral action that moves at a truly blistering pace. The only times where things slow down a tad, is when the specially-coded “AI Director” system thinks it ought to give you a precious few seconds of respite in which to recuperate and rearm before launching the next onslaught in your direction.
The AI Director (no relation to messrs. Spielberg and Kubrick) is Valve’s answer to keeping the experience fresh in any given playthrough; weapon spawns will be randomised, as well as the location of zombies within the map and the ferocity of their attacks; the idea behind all this is to make the game as reactive as possible to how players take on the challenges they are presented with. This is probably a good thing as the four campaigns on offer in SP and coop modes can normally be completed in approximately an hour apiece, which initially raised a few eyebrows in the community at large in the value-for-money stakes. If truth be told, there’s so much fun to be had playing through each 4 map (plus “finale” level) campaign, that the chances are you’ll quickly be back for more – there’s some serious replayability here, as the game is just so easy to pick up and get stuck into. I’ve played through the campaigns several times now, and am more than happy to go back for more, either on my own or with friends on XBox Live – either way it’s a total blast!
A slurp in the dark
Following on from the precedents set in the Half Life series, the developers have given their trademark consideration to the atmosphere and sense of immersion in the game world, and the audio is one of the real stars of the production; the voice acting features some excellent delivery in the banter between the team of survivors, and the musical soundtrack fits the bill perfectly with a range of eerie piano lines and choral elements all featuring in the mix – it would appear that a “less is more” approach has been taken with the latter, but it serves its purpose exceedingly well.
As one might expect from this particular stable, the weapon effects are loud, satisfying and feel “just right”, so there are no complaints in that department.
As this is a pistolzine.com review, it would seem somewhat churlish not to spend at least some time examining the firepower on offer in the game. As per any FPS worth its salt, the “Big 5” are available for players to use to fill the air with lead; pistols (which can be dual-wielded, as well as having an inexhaustible supply of ammo), SMGs (actually, there’s only one, and it closely resembles Uziel Gal’s most famous invention), Shotguns (semi and auto), Assault rifles (again, there is only one, and this is based on the M16) and Sniper rifles (again, there’s only one, and it goes by the rather uninspiring moniker of the “hunting rifle”).
It’s really a case of good news and bad news when it comes to getting tooled-up; the guns work and feel great (and as previously mentioned, sound great), but perhaps my single biggest reservation here is the lack of variety, and that’s where the bad news lies in my humble opinion; I think Valve would do well to release an add-on pack as downloadable content somewhen down the line, and I’m pretty certain this would go down well with the community that’s built up since release day.
One thing to bear in mind, especially with the automatic weapons, is that the more trigger-happy among us, may find themselves running out of ammo – there’s always the opportunity to restock once you arrive at a safe house, and you can use your pistol (or pistols) if you go happen to go dry. There are a few ammo spawns dotted around each map, and these can be found with a bit of exploration, but of course, the longer you take to get to the safe house, the more likely you are to encounter zombie ambushes.
Here at Pistolzine, we’re also delighted to see that there’s the “Akimbo Assassin” achievement (30G) on offer for those that get through a campaign using nothing but handguns – great plan! That said, I happen to be a massive fan of the shotties, which produce some very colourful results when dealing out headshots at close range!
The environment also has some treats to provide in the shape of flammable petrol cans (just pop a few rounds off at one to cause some zombie immolation), and the time-honoured exploding gas canister makes an appearance here and there. Minigun emplacements also crop up from time to time, and no explanations should be required as to what one of these babies can do to hordes of approaching brain-eaters.
Additionally, you can also carry one kind of thrown weapon (providing you can find them in the first place); pipe bombs and molotov cocktails can thin the numbers of an attacking horde with considerable aplomb. The former is a throwback to Valve’s heritage with its pretty red light that looks not dissimilar to a Combine grenade from Half Life 2. That red light is also extremely useful as it arouses the curiosity of nearby zombies who will be drawn inexorably toward it to investigate, only for the device to go up in their faces when they get there. Molotovs take a while to light and throw, but again, can cause havoc in the right circumstances – just try not to stand too close when it goes off!
Finally, you’ve always got the opportunity to throw your fists about, and if truth be told, the melee attack can be *very* handy indeed when you are being harassed from all angles.
Visions of the apocalypse
Visually, Left 4 Dead does a pretty decent job of portraying how the world might look in the aftermath of a catastrophe of this magnitude; your journey through the campaigns will take you through urban and rural areas, and these have been dressed well to help ramp up the immersion. However, if you’re expecting an aesthetic treat on a par with Gears of War 2 or Far Cry 2 and their ilk, then you might well be disappointed. Left 4 Dead has been built on the now four year old Source engine, and while it may have choked a goodly number of rigs back in the day, is really starting to show its age now – I’d probably describe the graphical side of the game as functional, workmanlike if you will – but again, I’m prepared to overlook this fact (as well as some odd clipping glitches, such as when your teammates become transparent when you stand too close to them) as it’s just such damn good fun to play!
Help me out here!
For aficionados of coop games, Left 4 Dead is a delight; you can opt for local split-screen play, SystemLink, or hook up with four friends on Live for the ensuing carnage – it should go without saying that playing with others is always going to be a heap more fun than going it alone provided you have a good set of buddies to partner up with. I’ve had so much fun with this aspect of the game that it’s kept me from exploring the competitive versus multiplayer mode which pits teams of zombies against survivors; more news as soon as I have it!
It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)
All in all, Left 4 Dead serves up an irresistible dish of adrenaline-fuelled fun – it might not stretch your synapses with involved puzzles, or have quite the same level of production values as some recent releases, but what it does, it does well, and with some real panache, all the while injecting a good deal of enjoyment back into the genre. We might well have the sleeper hit of the winter season on our hands, and I really couldn’t recommend this enough; put your brain firmly into neutral, dust off that pump-action, and set controls for the heart of the apocalypse.