Together we are strong. We get by with a little help from our friends. Let’s get together and feel alright. Teamwork and cooperation are integral parts of everyday life, yet recent gaming trends have shafted cooperative mechanics. Most games throw in a 2-player mode as an afterthought… yet by embracing teamwork as a core tenet of the action, Turtle Rock has created a shooter that feels completely different from every other game on the market.
Like many of the best Zombie films, Left 4 Dead offers little in the way of context. A virulent strain of rabies has turned the vast majority of the population into slavering flesh-hungry monsters, and small groups of immune survivors have to keep moving from town to town in order to stay alive. Whilst the game dwells on the grindhouse action rather than any forced exposition, witty graffiti and heartbreaking messages serve to reward curious players with a little extra backstory.
The objective of each level is simple and similar. The four survivors have to fight their way through expansive maps to reach safe rooms: impregnable closets filled with ammo, guns and goodies. However, their way is blocked by (as you’d expect) hordes of rabid infected monstrosities. Left 4 Dead subscribes to the 28 Days Later school of zombie behavior, exhibiting fast and relentless enemies that attack in huge numbers (especially when alerted by setting off car alarms or other equally stupid mistakes). Special undead frequently provide mini-boss fights or catch unwary players off guard; exhibiting special abilities that can incapacitate stragglers. Hunters, Smokers and Boomers all provide a unique challenge... and the monstrous Tank has enough raw strength to heft enormous boulders and send survivors flying. Just to shake up the formula even more, the fragile yet dangerous Witch can be completely avoided by using stealth and keeping a safe distance, but will rip survivors to shreds if disturbed. Hear crying? Approach with caution.
The premise, therefore, is incredibly simple- but the vein of cooperation and teamwork runs through every aspect of the gameplay. On a very basic level, downed players need to be revived a la Gears Of War, and can voluntarily sacrifice their single first aid kit to heal another wounded teammate if the situation calls for it. The weapon selection spans a grab bag of close range shotguns and versatile, ammo-intensive rifles that ensure the team needs to designate specific combat roles (i.e. point man vs support). As mentioned above, the special zombies demand close contact and cooperation to take down. For example, the agile Hunter pins a survivor to the ground and will maul them to death without assistance. Oh, and all four players will need to focus their firepower to take down a tank.
Each selection of four short levels is bundled into a short non-canonical campaign which is themed around classic grindhouse films. Each campaign starts with a humorous fake movie poster- and when completed, displays the ‘credits’ that lists each player’s kills and dedicates the ‘movie’ to the survivors who didn’t make it. However, there aren’t actually that many levels- and each map essentially consists of the same dark forest or grim city environments. This might sound like essentially poor value… but Left 4 Dead has an incredible ace up its sleeve. Everything from the number of zombies, their spawn points, their frequency and even the types of special undead are governed by an invisible yet omnipotent AI director that pulls every string from behind the scenes. Every single match is completely different despite being played on the same map, with completely different set pieces and spawn points that are tailored to complement the party's stress levels. Getting a bit complacent? A tank and horde might spawn behind you. Low on health after a relentless horde? Maybe the director will dispatch a few skirmishing Hunters to stalk you in the shadows. Each match is perfectly-paced, entirely unpredictable and frantically exciting. The concept of the AI director works perfectly, and we can see it being able to segue into practically any FPS. It's the future of shooters- and especially horror games.
Up to four players can cooperate in the campaign, and Left 4 Dead makes no bones about the fact that this is the meat of the experience. A maximum of two players can also participate in splitscreen matches, which is taken into account by the director who will go easier on duos. Unfortunately solo players will likely find it difficult to complete the crescendo finale events that lie at the end of each story, and should seriously consider staying away from Left 4 Dead in favour of more singleplayer-oriented titles. Competitive multiplayer allows a team of survivors to take on player-controlled special undead, but the balance is completely biased towards the gun-toting foursome. We hope that subsequent updates will restore some semblance of power to the infected hordes!
- Competent shooting with a cooperative twist
- Unique, refreshing action
- AI director ensures a different game every time
- Small number of maps/stages
- Unbalanced competitive multiplayer
- Can be frustrating solo
The Short Version: Left 4 Dead is a refreshing and frantic take on the hackneyed Zombie Shooter; delivering its own unique blend of desperate mayhem and cooperative tactics. It also happens to be an exceptional FPS. PC gamers and Xbox Live Gold members will discover a fantastic new addiction, but the experience may leave solo players cold. We hope that the concept of the AI director will start to appear more prominently in future titles as we’re convinced that it represents the future of FPS gaming.