Zombie Go Splat
Valve has given us a zombie shooter unlike any other. In fact, I hesitate to even call it just a zombie shooter. Maybe arcade shooter or action shooter is more appropriate – I can’t decide! That’s because Left 4 Dead has as much in common with games like Gauntlet and Smash T.V. as it does with Resident Evil and Silent Hill.
For good or ill, this is not a game that challenges your gaming skill. Rather, it’s a title that plops you into the scariest parts of your favorite zombie/horror flick – think 28 Days Later meets Army of Darkness – and never lets go. As such, players will go through the entirety of the game guns-a-blazin’ and on the edge of their seats. This is definitely one of the most exhilarating and heart-pounding experiences I’ve had in video games, though somewhat hollow and empty in retrospect. Regardless, this title was built for co-op and multiplayer action from the outset, so grab a buddy and start playing! Because Left 4 Dead is too intense to play alone!
The game’s opening cutscene sets the tone. Hordes of zombie minions run at four Survivors with reckless abandon, while hulking Tanks, bloated Boomers, sneaky Smokers, pouncing Hunters, and sobbing Witches try and corner them. The only way the humans can survive is by sticking together and blasting through the seemingly endless onslaught of infected and mutated brain-munchers. This five minute opening cinematic does a great job of familiarizing players with the characteristics of the varied enemies they’ll face and giving a glimpse into the personalities of the Survivors. Also, core tactics like staying away from car alarms, not shining a flashlight on a Witch, and proper grenade use are introduced.
You and your friends will take on one of these four characters unfortunate enough to find themselves stranded in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. Whether playing as Francis (the tattooed, bar fight specialist), Louis (the disillusioned Systems Analyst), Bill (the savvy Nam vet), or Zoey (the horror film-loving student on probation), each character, despite their very different backgrounds, has quickly adapted to their new world and is very efficient at decimating the threat.
The main story in Left 4 Dead follows the advance of these Survivors through four expansive environments made up of five chapters each. The group’s goal is to simply wade through the labyrinthine levels and waves of baddies, surviving long enough for rescue to arrive. The Campaign mode can be played alone with A.I. support, with a friend via split-screen, or taken online with up to three others (up to two others if you’re already paired with a buddy locally). This is definitely a game to be shared friends (it’s just that much more fun and teamwork is essential), but playing alone is certainly possible due to the excellent friendly A.I. Your supporting cast knows how to handle weapons and will even ensure your survival with timely administration of first-aid. But, unlike many other games out there, Left 4 Dead was explicitly designed with the multiplayer experience in mind – it’s not simply a tacked-on afterthought. Four Survivors will be present throughout the story, so you might as well enjoy it with other players. Plus, the game’s so darn intense that you’ll likely feel better about having someone on the couch next to you or at least on a headset reassuring you with their own thrill-filled hoots.
As previously hinted at, enemies in Left 4 Dead are made up of six varieties of zombie; each of them are worth detailing because their distinct behaviors make up the tactical draw of the title, and four of them are playable in competitive multiplayer. The Horde is the most prevalent. As the name implies, The Horde is made up of large groups of super-fast, enraged zombies that rush at and surround the Survivors. The Horde can frequently be circumvented by remaining quiet (don’t touch the alarmed cars please!) or moving past them without any sudden movements. If you do agro them, get ready for the blitz. Thankfully, they can easily be put down by unloading clips of bullets into them, but if you allow them to encircle you, you’re in for a lot of hurt.
Boomers are fat-slob zombies that amble toward you spewing a font of Horde-enticing bile. If you are coated with the green ooze, you’ll not only be blinded for about ten seconds, but The Horde will cling to you like stink on…well, you know. If you are able to explode a Boomer before they can puke on you, be sure it’s far enough away, as exploding bits of Boomer are every bit as attractive to The Horde as getting coated by a steady stream of puke.
Hunters and Smokers are lone wolves. They both try and hide in the shadows and ambush their prey. Hunters have a spring attack that allows them to pounce from long distances. If you are knocked prone by a Hunter, you will have to suffer the ensuing beating until a fellow survivor can rescue you (I told you teamwork was important!). Likewise, Smokers have a tongue-snare ability that entangles their victims, leaving them dangling and helpless – ripe for The Horde to rip apart. If smokers are dealt with by the Survivors, a noxious green gas will be left in their wake.
Tanks and Witches are absolutely brutal. The grotesquely muscle-bound Tanks can take lots of damage and can deal out even more. If tanks are charging your group, everyone has to concentrate fire on it or someone is going down! Similarly, Witches also know how to put a hurt on players. Fortunately, Witches can be avoided by listening for their telltale sobbing. If flashlights are left off and Witches are left alone to cry, players can successfully skirt the danger, but if someone in the group does something stupid, beware their claw-filled wrath!
These six enemy types are used in concert by the devs to keep players on their toes. A group can certainly go through the game without any strategy whatsoever, but keeping your actions in check makes for a far more engaging and tactical experience. As a nice touch, little messages will flash across the screen letting you know which player in the party screwed up and made the enemy attack. You can then berate said player as you make yet another stand against the zombies. This interplay of player interactions and group strategy will make the game distinct depending upon with whom you play. Thankfully, the devs also realized that some matched players may not jive with the rest of the group. As such, players can actually initiate a kick-player-vote from the in-game menu if someone is being disruptive. This is a nice bit of forethought that should keep public games fun.
There is a problem with gameplay though. Players will find it gets tedious. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, the game plays a lot like an arcade shooter. Despite the fact that enemy behaviors are distinct, players are likely to grow tired of endlessly blasting through repetitive foes. Indeed, the repetition mars gameplay and makes for a somewhat shallow experience. Truly, Left 4 Dead really doesn’t require much skill and gets dull after about an hour or two of constant play. But, hopping back into the action at another time both off and online is seamless and worthwhile.
Nevertheless, the game is very exciting in spurts; the sheer heart-pounding intensity of the solo/multiplayer Campaign mode is worth the price of admission. And, as a bonus, a competitive online multiplayer feature called Versus is available and provides for a fairly interesting diversion. Up to eight players can join in on the fun as one of the four Survivors or playable Infected. Boomers, Smokers, Hunters, and Tanks can all be used to thwart the advance of the Survivors. However, The Horde and Witches are not available for player control. Still, breaking through walls with Tanks, vomiting Horde-attractant with Boomers, pouncing on unsuspecting marks with Hunters, etc. is a real treat. Similarly, mowing through haphazard Infected attacks with the varied arsenal of weapons, including shotguns, assault rifles, dual-wielding handguns, pipe-bombs, Molotov cocktails, and more is every bit as fun.
With all this hectic action onscreen at the same time, one would expect for some major slowdown. However, there is none – the game is technically rock solid. Granted, the graphics are not nearly as sharp and detailed as games such as Gears 2 or Bioshock, but the visuals do a nice job of conveying the appropriate feel and incredibly fast pace of play. Also, sounds are of very high quality. The voice work, zombie effects, weapon rapport, and ambient noises are sharp and really amp up the intensity. Playing this game on a home theater system, I was in complete awe of just how exhilarating the in-stereo sound effects were.
The 360’s controls are very user-friendly. Literally, anyone can pick up the controller and start blasting away like a pro. This may deter some very skilled players but, overall, it’s nice that this cinematic experience can be shared with friends and family that aren’t necessarily into standard FPS mechanics. Primary and secondary attacks for both Survivors and Infected are mapped to the triggers, while crouching and a very handy 180 degree spin are accessed via the bumpers. Other than that, there’s not a whole lot more you’ll need to use. Face buttons are occasionally employed to jump, change weapons, manually reload, and interact with downed compadres and doors, and the D-pad can be engaged to administer first-aid, turn on the flashlight, and equip explosives.
Left 4 Dead is largely successful at bringing players a uniquely exhilarating, arcade-like zombie shooter. The eye toward multiplayer fun is definitely appreciated, and the accessibility is great. However, the experience is best taken in short bursts, as the repetitive action gets monotonous after awhile. But, if you need to go on a zombie killing spree ahead of RE5, don’t hesitate to pick up Left 4 Dead!
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.1 Graphics
The graphics may not be entirely detailed, but the rock-solid technicals are worth it! 4.0 Control
Though not especially engaging, the scheme is incredibly user-friendly. 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The in-stereo sounds are perfect for getting your heart racing. 4.1 Play Value
The multiplayer-centric design is refreshing, but killing waves of zombies over and over again can get boring. 4.1 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.