Review: Left 4 Dead

As you move down a shadowy road riddled with dark, menacing trees, abandoned buildings, and wreckage, your heart begins to pound. You point your flashlight toward an abandoned building as a brief shuffilng sound enters your ears. Nothing there. Turning back toward the road, you are met face-to-face with hundreds of snarling, rabid undead running at a breakneck pace – toward you. Your three compatriots open fire, but it’s too late. The pallid, sticky tongue of a being known as a Smoker has you in its grasp. As you are pulled away toward rows of seemingly endless trees, it’s up to your teammates to free you. Will they succeed or have they already been incapacitated? You could have already been Left 4 Dead.

Left 4 Dead, Valve’s newest multiplayer darling, is one of the best bets for rounding up a few friends and getting your frag on. Though it’s got its flaws, it’s your best bet for running and gunning with friends. Ever since word spread that a zombie-infested fragfest was coming to the PC and Xbox 360, gamers foamed at the mouth. Finally, Valve’s expertise reaches into its bag of tricks and infects a deliciously tense and creepy shooter, for what would otherwise be your average co-op title.

You can opt to play as one of four survivors of an ongoing zombie apocalypse: Zoey, Louis, Francis, or Bill. Zoey, much akin to Alyx Vance, is female and always a level head. Louis is an African-American who enjoys to question your aim. Francis is your average biker guy, though he does have more sense than you’d expect. Bill’s a rugged, no-nonsense old man who’d rather kill you than look at you, especially if you’re a zombie. While none of the characters offer any specific advantages over the others, the lack of variety is welcome in that you can take on a different persona each time.

L4D’s take on the co-op shooter allows for gamers to take their own pathway through at their own pace. Though there are four main campaigns that make up the majority of the story, none of them need to be played in order nor unlocked. The main campaign levels are No Mercy, Death Toll, Dead Air, and Blood Harvest – each perfectly capturing the tension and atmosphere of zombie flicks we’re all used to seeing, cheesy movie poster and all. No Mercy finds the Survivors on their way to Mercy Hospital, and finds gamers trekking from a zombie-infested house, through the city, all the way to a dilapidating hospital to attain some rescue. Death Toll runs rampant through the subways and sewers subsequently. Dead Air pits players in an airport setting, and Blood Harvest (the last campaign) is a harrowing trip through the countryside (complete with crops of corn), ending with a bridge spanning all the way to the end. Each campaign is comprised of five acts – four main ones and then a finale, where it’s time to call for a rescue and escape the impending peril.

At the beginning of each campaign you start from a safe location (saferoom), where there are health kits, guns, and ammo to stock up with. Weapons range from auto shotguns, Uzis, pistols (your default weapon), Molotov cocktails, pipe bombs, and even improvised weapons such as cans of gas that you can shoot to create an explosive combination. Once you’ve armed yourselves accordingly, it’s time to head out. The horde of zombies you will face always varies, and is comprised of two main zombie types: normal and special infected. Normal zombies are your 28 Days Later variety – quick, strong, vicious, and fast. They’re usually downed with a few bullets or so. Special infected are much more lethal and are as follows: Tanks, Smokers, Witchers, and Hunters. Tanks are just what their name implies: a brutish, muscled freak who can hurl pieces of the environment at you and your team, and take tons of firepower to eliminate. Smokers are notorious for their long tongues with which they grab and drag the Survivors offscreen, and exude hazardous smoke. Hunters are elusive and pounce on Survivors, making them hard targets to hit, and lastly, Witches are not to be trifled with. Witches cry alone in the darkness. If you’re tempted to walk up to one and see what’s got her so down, you’ll find yourself incapacitated in no time. Though there are ways to kill Witches quite easily, it’s usually best just to avoid them (especially if you’re low on health.)

Each campaign can be finished in an hour or less, depending on the skill of your human teammates, what difficulty you’ve chosen, and whether or not you’ve decided to go on an achievement-grubbing hunt rather than actually play properly. This, of course, does make a complete playthrough of the entire title completely short. However, the introduction of the “Director” AI was meant to curb such a short amount of gametime. The Director feeds on how well you and your party are doing throughout each level. It’ll change things up every time a new campaign is loaded. While there could be a Witch on the bridge in Blood Harvest’s campaign, the next time you play there may not be one at all. It’s this element of surprise that should (in theory) keep each subsequent playthrough fresh. This is where my main gripe lies: once you’ve completed all of the campaigns a few times, little can be done to make the experience feel new again. No matter what zombies pop up where, or what happens to occur in each level, you’re still playing through the same environments over and over. Why four campaigns can warrant a $59.99 price tag is beyond me, as the first few weeks are fantastic, but if you like variety in your games, the same maps will begin to grate on the nerves. Though, if you’re content to beat a dead horse every night for a few months, the Director AI should be enough to satisfy.

What’s more, level designs offer little variety. Though environments are sprawling and interesting to behold, simple puzzles abound in each campaign. Just about every one involve pulling a lever of some sort, waiting for an enormous amount of zombies to arrive, killing them, then running through the door the lever opened. For a game that seeks to thrill and instill a sense of dread, this makes playthroughs predictable, and it’s something that even a Director can’t change.

When you’ve completed the campaign you can always choose to play through Versus mode, which is a bit lackluster. The premise switches things up and has human players take on Special Infected, trying to take out another team of human Survivors. This gametype is nowhere near as tense or as fun as the campaign, as respawning takes ages, and much more strategic elements are in place, that if you get mixed up with random teammates, you may as well surrender. We all know how many winners there are on Xbox Live. Controlling a Special Infected seems wonky and lazily created, and you will find yourself growing bored after the first few rounds – killing the Infected is much more fun than being one.

Since the object of Left 4 Dead is to kill practically everything that moves, you’ll be shooting – a LOT. This means that accuracy should be key, and your AI teammates should know to stay the heck out of your way. Well, they don’t. L4D suffers from particularly dim AI at key moments in the game. Often, they will jump out in front of your Uzi while you’re amidst a sea of zombies. They take damage, you miss your target, and the opportunity to get the achievement for no friendly fire is missed altogether. Though the excuse for the AI could be that the game is meant to be played with human teammates, some individuals do not have this luxury, and the AI should have been tweaked a bit to account for such.

Left 4 Dead is gorgeous, and character models reflect this appropriately. Even when the screen is riddled with zombies, framerate rarely drops and lag is hardly present, even with four online teammates playing simultaneously. This was impressive, and if you think it looks great on the Xbox 360, you’ve seen nothing until you’ve played it on the PC. Though many zombies are palette-swaps of other zombies, you never see them too long, so it’s a non-issue. As for the score, Left 4 Dead employs some motifs throughout the campaigns that clue you in as to what’s going to happen next. When a Tank makes its appearance, dramatic and ominous strings swell out of nowhere – you often note the music far before you ever notice the Tank is barreling toward you. How do you find a Witch? Eerie, ethereal moaning and swirling strings drift through your speakers coupled with the Witch’s rueful cries. Instrumental cues such as these are reminiscent of Dead Space, and a welcome touch to add to the dread.

All in all, Left 4 Dead plays smoothly, offers simple run-and-gun excitement (and strategy when necessary), though it isn’t without its share of problems. If you’re looking for some quick, gory action to share with friends, this is your best bet, especially if you’re a fan of zombie flicks or the undead masses themselves. DLC has been announced for purchase in Spring, so this should inject some new life into the undead goodness, and hopefully add some more, needed content to justify the inflated price tag. If you’re not looking to be Left 4 Dead when all of your friends list is playing, then do yourself a favor and pick this up – you won’t regret it.

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