Valve is one of few developers that's always had a positive reputation amongst its fanbase. Half-Life, Portal and Counter-Strike are just a few examples of their high-caliber talent. This trend is likely to continue when Left 4 Dead infects stores on November 18. Before I even discuss game-specifics, I must compliment Valve's industry veteran Chet Faliszek for his new development philosophy. He believes that videogames are no-longer "finished finished" once stores have them. He views these products as services that should be improved and expanded months after initial release. That is exactly what L4D will be, and we couldn't be more excited. But what exactly will we be doing in this first person shooter?
Los Angeles has become the latest epicenter of a zombie apocalypse. There's no clear reason why this outbreak has taken place, but that's the least of your concerns as one of four human survivors. Left 4 Dead at its core is a co-operative multiplayer shooter, but it can be played by yourself as well. Whether you have three human friends supporting you, or the same number of AI bots, you'll have your work cut out while trying to safely trek from point A to B. That's the main objective of the game. Players start out in a safe house and load up on as much equipment as possible. Shotguns, auto shotties, assault/sniper rifles, dual pistols, Molotovs and pipe bombs can all be carried on your avatar, and then some. These are your lifeline, because even though you can execute a melee attack to create some breathing room between you and these zombies (in addition to stunning them), there's no other way of killing them.
Now due to how I've written this, you'll find my hands-on impressions after I explain all the fundamental details. Don't ask why, just read. L4D plays out over four epic chapters that span five different locations. These cover all sorts of places throughout the busiest city in California, ranging from the metro itself, to more rural, wooded settings. The kicker is that once your former fellow citizens gain wind of your presence, the onslaught will be non-stop. These punks are fast, aggressive, and sometimes even intelligent in their own creepy way. They come in five possible forms: Smoker, Hunter, Boomer, Tank and the dreaded Witch. Those first three are the more common types, but each has deadly abilities. The smoker's lengthy tongue can snatch and drag you like a frog towards its position, where there are likely other zombies waiting to destroy you. The Hunter behaves like a tiger in that it can leap quite the distance in arc-like fashion to pounce on a human and begin clawing away. Boomers are perfectly disgusting because they do nothing but vomit. If your character comes into contact with the vile material in any way, you'll be instantly mobbed with a handful of zombies. Worse yet, these freaks be kamikazes by allowing themselves to explode right in your face, making their stomach contents pretty unavoidable. This is merely the beginning, because occasionally we'll have to deal with Tanks, and their names describe them well. They can take hefty damage, and dish out just as much with simple swipes of their arms. But if nothing else, stay away from Witches at all costs. These female zombies situate with their knees on the ground, and head buried in their arms. However, disturb them at all, and you're as good as dead. With all this in mind, just be happy that Valve eventually removed the Hunters' ability to turn completely invisible. Why? Well, it's thanks to multiplayer.
Take Left 4 Dead online, and you'll enjoy matches in which you play as each side twice. We have no idea if one role will be more entertaining than the other, but we're sure that gamers will develop a preference. The object here is about identical to the campaign. Four players fill the humans' shoes and work together to exterminate the zombie threat as they make way from one safe house to the next. The participants who take on the monstrosities, however, continue respawning until the surviving team is eliminated. The process takes about 20 seconds every time a zombie player dies, and they can choose from several different locations, with the exception of right next to your opponents. Considering our sources, it seems the zombie squad has the tougher task thanks to their limited health. If you're handling a smoker, boomer or hunter, you can be downed relatively quickly. The zombies will have to coordinate very well. How it's determined what type you are is handled by the game's director, as Valve coins it. Essentially the director is an advanced AI that calculates every bit of action taking place, and tries to maintain balance accordingly. That means if a zombie team is being manhandled, they may be given the opportunity to respawn as Tanks more often, and bring a witch or two into the mix. This applies to the campaign as well, so you'll have to be extra careful if you're scoring mad kills. As the humans though, you have to deal with the same swarms of AI zombies, in addition to your human opponents, so that ups the difficulty somewhat. This sounds to be intense and lots of fun, and we look forward to trying it out. Better yet, Valve instituted code that instantly replaces dropouts with AI support, so a match won't end just because someone ends up pissed off or has to leave for a legitimate reason. All stats are recorded and tracked, and can be viewed from various menus to help you decide whether you want to actually play with someone. This is very useful to weed out the purposeful team killers. Yes, friendly fire is always on, which makes L4D even more frantic to think about.
Oh, and before I forget, there's no need to worry fans of offline multiplayer. Valve understands this still-existing need, and had no problem making sure it's featured in Left 4 Dead. I don't know if fellow COE staffer Ahmad Mosly would play this, but he praises any developer that continues what so many companies have abandoned.
Audio and graphic-wise, L4D will reign superior on PC, but the Xbox 360 version will be no slouch. This is to be expected from Valve really, since they have extensive experience with PC software development, and of course Xbox 360 games. The company knows what they're doing with each platform. No matter what you game on, Left 4 Dead should be pretty impressive with its steady frame rate (20+ zombies on screen at once), multiple forms of lighting, humanistic facial expressions in response to the action and gruesome violence. If you own an HDTV and complimentary surround sound, November 18 will bring yet another game to exploit it.
Thus ends the generic details of this preview, now I can move along with a brief perspective from my time spent with the demo available on Xbox Live Marketplace.
First off, the four human characters are unique. Apparently L4Dís testers convinced Valve to design distinct models because of confusion as to who was an infected, and not. Remember, you can damage your friends in this game, so obviously being able to tell the difference is pretty important. Thereís Louis, a former electronics store assistant manager, Zoey, a wealthy young woman, Francis, the biker, and the very skillful Bill, a Green Beret Vietnam veteran. It doesnít really matter who you pick to control though, because they all play basically the same and can use all the weapons. As for the gameís arsenal, Iím already in love. There are two shotguns, dual pistols, and assault rifle, and explosives, amongst other things. The pipe bomb emits a sound that attracts all nearby zombies, and it takes about ten seconds to explode, so that leaves ample time for a sizeable group to meet their doom. The controls are very similar to other games Valve has created using the Source engine. All shooting is done from the hip, and the face buttons take care of jumping, object interaction, switching guns and reloading. The left trigger does your melee strike/shove, the right obviously shoots. The D-pad is how you switch between everything in your inventory: health packs, pain pills, the flashlight, and explosives. It all feels very comfortable, and the aiming sensitivity is wonderful. I was popping zombies left and right with my all-time favorite FPS weapon, the shotgun.
Itís also extremely cool how many different subtleties I noticed. Those facial expressions I mentioned before are very much here, and help you feel connected to these characters. They also arenít shy about yelling when you accidentally shoot them. Thereís a real-time ticker that shows when a teammate helps another, and when you manage to kill one of the Smokers, Hunters, Boomers or Tanks. Oh, and believe me, if anyone in your squad is caught with the Boomer barf, you will be bombarded with zombies for a good twenty seconds or more. Itís also incredibly satisfying that when someone is pinned down by a Hunter, which the individual canít escape him/herself, you can knock said zombie off with a melee or straight-up kill it with your gun. Seriously, this is just a fun game to play, and I know Iíll have fun with the co-op, which I was unable to try out because of lack of available friends.
Left 4 Dead also isnít the prettiest game Iíve ever seen, but it does the job itís come to do. Thereís more than enough detail and animations to satisfy. I noticed a one second drop in frame rate only once, which is great considering I encountered pretty large hoards of the undead. Thus it comes to this. I knew this game was probably going to be pretty cool from the start, but had no idea it could be this cool. Thatís why Iím picking this one up, and would be more than happy to do the review for Project COE. Valve has done it again, and assured us that we wonít be playing just Resistance 2, Gears of War 2 and Call of Duty 5 throughout the holiday season, as if that wasnít enough already.
Project COE wishes that more game software developers shared Valveís philosophies and approaches to our beloved industry. Not only does the Kirkland, Washington studio work hard to support its products for the long-term, but their ongoing encouragement of the user community has earned them a reputation that most companies would kill to have on their side. Thatís why Left 4 Dead, despite not yet seeing sales similar to Gears of War 2 or GTA IV, is a monumental success thanks to its staunch focus on co-operative experiences you canít find elsewhere. Sure the content isnít as substantial as some might want, but thatís what DLC is for. Left 4 Dead makes you feel alive while working with friends to kill hoards of zombies, or perhaps the gameís personalities for that matter.
Right off the bat, Valve did well in leaving why Los Angeles is the epicenter of this undead apocalypse to our own imaginations. Seriously, who cares if some shady pharmaceuticals company has been doing naughty things behind close doors, resulting in a virus that finds it way out into the general populace? Left 4 Dead isnít concerned with semantics, because it knows your only desire is to experiment in the many, many ways to dispatch the very antagonists that want you to feel pain, although even want should be termed loosely here. If you want plot, go watch a movie; Iím sure the less-than-profitable movie industry wouldnít mind one bit.
Still here I hope? Good, because you should know everything I want to tell you about L4D. Before I describe gameplay specifics though, a certain four unique characters should enjoy a little time in the review limelight here. Initially Valve designed generic heroes for us to control, but thanks to feedback from testers and gamers in general that they listened to, the decision was reversed in favor of Bill, Zoey, Louis and Francis. That first fellow is our Green Beret Vietnam veteran that apparently doesnít mind witnessing death in any accord; but then againÖmost soldiers back in the day didnít have time to worry about their poor psyches. Zoey has spent her recent spoiled rich girl days lounging around n the college dorm room indulging in horror films, hardly touching anything resembling a book. Consider her the gameís Paris Hilton, minus all the sex tape bullshit and lack of any respectable intelligence, despite her lack of studying. I mean, at least she can spell youíre, and ironically all that movie watching has become mighty useful. Louis is your token black guy trying to push ahead in life, but of course these damn zombies ruined his dreams of becoming more than an IT Junior Systems Analyst. Finally, a certain chest and arm-exposing black leather vest makes it painfully obvious that Francis is trying to repent for his self-destructive stint with a biker chain gang by blowing away those that he may very well have rivaled in the past. Heís also funny as hell by pointing out every strange thing he hates, like vans.
What I just did provides proof that L4D lets you run wild with your cognitive noodle surrounding these characters, because despite some truth in my words, the rest of my thoughts were made up on the spot. Feel free to draw your own conclusions when you play as I smile knowing that several thousand gamers have now imagined what Zoey is like in the bedroom.
Ok, now I can willingly waste my time critiquing what every Half-Life and Counter-Strike fanatic has already known for years, Left 4 Deadís gameplay. Valve has stuck with what everyone knows has worked for all games that use it, the Source engine, and iteratively improved it to meet the needs of ever-growing demands. Seriously, gamers praised Portal, a three hour adventure, for an entire yearÖnot to mention the countless inside jokes. Plus, itís the only game that Ben ďYahtzeeĒ Croshaw has openly relished, so Valve has to be doing something right eh? Unfortunately the star of Zero Punctuation didnít heart Left 4 Dead nearly as much, but thatís where I come in. Playing the disc inside Valveís four-fingered box is a joy every step of the way, and trust me, you take a lot of them. But as I stated before, Iíd find it strange for anyone whoís played a Valve product to not know what the hell theyíre doing in L4D. Move, point and shoot with the analog sticksÖunless youíre one of those stubborn keyboard and mouse gamers that refuses to acknowledge the imminent extinction of the PC market. Shoot with the right trigger, melee with the left, or press whatever the hell you want on your precious 50+ key hunk of overbearing plastic. The d-pad switches amongst your trusty beam of light, first aid kit, pain pills and explosive weapons of happy. I wonít touch PC there, figure it out yourself. Finally, the face buttons take care of in-game interaction, that always FPS-compatible jump function, swapping your primary weapon and pistolsÖand the obvious reloading. Tweak the sensitivity to your comfort level, press the applicable back button a few times, and enjoy the most captivating zombie shooter as your life becomes further dormant.
As for methods of ass-kickery, Iím afraid thereís no crowbar, but you can create your gaming smiles with the pistol(s), pump-action or auto shotgun, assault rifle, Uzi, or scoped hunting rifle. If there are any conveniently concocted Molotovs or pipe bombs lying around, toss either or both to set some zombies ablaze, or witness as the odd beeping of the bomb attracts every brainless hostile in the vicinity and proceeds to paint the nearby environment in their coagulated essence. This assuredly doesnít seem like a lot for a shooter of all things, and truth be told, itís not. However, weíre fairly confident that more will be added to the arsenal in future downloads, because thatís what Valve stands for. In the meantime, choose one gun out of the aforementioned list, and simply ignore the fact that theyíre always lying on some random bloody table as you trek from point A to B.
Unlike every zombie film out there, L4Dís army is hardly generic, but thatís what makes the game fun. Sure, most of the undead are nothing more than infected locals, but when Valveís AI Director decides that youíve enjoyed enough glory for the time being, it sends you an express package of pain. Letís start with the Boomer, that like Homer J. Simpson if he were undead, would win the long-winded award for ďZombie That Engorged The Most Donuts In Its Previous LifeĒ. These freaks are massively fat, ugly and spare no thought to making like the original Jurassic Park sneezing brontosaurus in showering you with its lovely digestive fluids. If youíre caught, your group must put up with a rapid ambush of the local zombie population for about 15 to 20 seconds, because somehow these sickos actually enjoy the smell. If youíre personally covered, have fun seeing through the green slop that covers the inside of your TV monitor.
Moving along, Iíd like to reference the recent holiday for our next friend by gladly comparing the zombie Hunter to when A Christmas Storyís Ralphie pounced on and whupped the local school bullyís smug-faced little ass. Thatís exactly what Mr. Hunter does. It creeps around, waiting for the perfect opportunity to pin Bill, Zoey, Louis or Francis to the ground, and proceeds to rip said victim to shreds with a scary set of claws. The Smoker gives Gene Simmons a lengthy run for his money by ensnaring any member of our team with its firehose-sized speech muscle, except he isnít using it to talk. With a victim in tongue, they typically choke said person to incapacitation or pull him/her into a distant group of fellow undead. If this werenít bad enough, the last two make gamersí lives everywhere a nightmare. The Tank represents its name well while also failing to function by its logic. The bastards are a chore to bring down, pack a serious wallop with just a simple punch or chucking part of the earth at youÖand to top it off, theyíre fast! Finally, itís in your groupís best interest to stay far, far away from Witches. Really, if all they did was cast magic or something to hurt you, Iíd be happy. No, they sit in some random corner crying their eyes out like some six year old that just crapped his pants crossing the monkey bars during post-lunch recess and expect to not be disturbed. The best COA is to avoid walking within ten feet of these wenches if possible, which more often than not isnít the case. Thus if you incite their wrath, they make whoeverís responsible pay dearly, thank you AI Director. Thereís a chance of eliminating one before any damage is dealt, but good luck with that. The moral of this story is to not mess with anyone that messed up their trousers.
Keeping in mind that last statement, itís certainly plausible to escape engagements with any of these special zombies with little to no scratches. While any generic zombie can be dispatched with relative ease, these products of Valveís sadists require a bit more tact and strategy. Boomers are definitely the easiest to handle. If theyíre distant enough, a couple pops of any weapon make them do just thatÖbut if you explode one when too close, their bile can still make you miserable. If you can lay off the trigger though, using melee knocks them backwards and prevents their mouths from ever opening, gaining you the perfect chance to strike appropriately. The Hunter can also be knocked out of the air, but if it pounces on someone, quickly melee him off or simply shoot until death. The Smoker also isnít much to deal with if the circumstances are in your favor. It doesnít attack unless a team member is belly-to-back with it, so until then, you have time to nail him good. Regarding the Tank, I simply wish you luck. It really depends on where you are when these monstrosities spawn, because as Iíve pointed out, theyíre strong and fast. Your best bet is to light one on fire, and pump it with lead as quickly as youíre able. The same goes for a disturbed Witch, but you should be even more frantic to put them to sleep, because any contact with one is an instant incapacitation.
All this currently happens across four in-game campaigns: No Mercy, Blood Harvest, Dead Air and Death Toll. If those names sound like films, youíre not far off. Valveís audio-visual presentation was designed specifically so that Bill, Zoey Louis and Francis appear to be actors in a zombie flick. Before the carnage even begins, you see a movie-like poster with each characterís name alongside applicable GamerTags/Windows Live IDs. The campaign names even have taglines, but Iíll leave those to you to discover. This means that upon completion of a mission, youíre treated to rolling credits that emphasize all survivors and deceased personas, in addition to a slew of interesting statistics. Wait until you see the final line, as it blatantly pokes fun at media that features animals or other random earthly inhabitants that the government has given ridiculous rights to. Imagine though, that the PC version of Left 4 Dead is graphically superior to the Xbox 360 build, seriously. I canít say Iím overly impressed by the 360ís visuals, but theyíre certainly not painful to see either. If anything, thereís merely a degree of polish that youíd probably like but will never find in terms of overall detail, realism and smoothness. L4D looks great either way, and thereís virtually no slowdown in spite of the number of zombies that may be active during any given time, and weíll take that over a slideshow any day. Speaking of this director, Iíve mentioned it several times and sort of described its job, but not as Iíd like. Well itís simple. Valve is obviously big fans of the Matrix trilogy, the Architect more specifically, and thatís what theyíve recreated. Mr. Director is that douchebag in the background calling all the shots, deciding if and when you see any of the special zombies while considering your every move and action. But hey, the game has to be challenging somehow so the hardcore doesnít bitch right? Valve certainly couldíve chosen a different route, but they didnít, and thatís fine. Plus, dynamic AI is the way of the future for gaming.
Alright, Iíve stalled long enough; itís time to clue you in on the details youíre most likely here for, so I wonít punish anymore. Yes, multiplayer kicks so much ass that if it were your behind taking the brunt of it, you likely wouldnít make it out of bed tomorrow morning. I also congratulate Valve for catering to the crowd that fellow COE member Ahmad Mosly is a proud part of, the offline split-screen community. While it wouldíve been awesome to see four player support, we can be happy with two, because most of the time we donít even receive that. Donít even bother whining about loss of screen space, because if you own anything equal to or larger than a 32 inch set, then youíre FINE. If not, then itís time to consider upgrading, eh? Yet itís obvious that playing over Xbox or Windows Live is where the fun will always be. Admittedly the teammate AI is impressive in light of actually shooting zombies, but more often than not they misbehave in sticky situations, especially when Witches are involved. They also never care to pick up explosives, which isnít helpful for those ambushes. Thatís not a problem when you play with other humans, given of course that youíre actually capable of working together. Seriously, if you donít like coordinating with other gamers, I hope you donít play this game, because youíll just piss us off. Left 4 Dead is about nothing but executing tactical teamworkÖand of youíre not into that, stick with Halo or Call of Duty, thank you. Otherwise, despite there being only four campaigns right now, you can enjoy some of the most wicked online gaming ever conceived for co-op. It really canít be described properly, you must experience it yourself. If youíre on the fence, donít make me splinter your ass pulling you down. Go pick this up now and start playing with your buddies who would be dumb not to have Left 4 Dead as well. This doesnít just deal with the campaigns either, as you can compete head-to-head with another four-human team. Itís called Versus readers, and it too is a treat. If youíre the survivors (Bill and Co.), you play through one of the two supported campaigns as you would normally, but must also be on the lookout for the opposing players who spawn every 20 seconds as special zombies. Controlling the undead isnít too tough, so itís important to stay alert and work together. If you donít, not only are you as good as toast, but youíll likely receive a nice lashing from your squad mates. Itís truly not wise to upset your team, because thereís an in-game voting system that allows players to collectively boot you from a session. If you havenít, you should now understand why Iím so aggressive in emphasizing intelligent teamwork!
Before I conclude, Iíll briefly mention audio. The music expectedly picks up in dramatic tempo when an ambush is imminent, or when youíre being toyed with by the special zombies. It suits the game and the atmosphere, but isnít anything truly award-worthy, but thatís perfectly acceptable. At least if you have a surround sound system, you can enjoy it a bit more, especially when your woofer smacks you in the face with that feeling of dread. Sound-wise, Valve has done it again by providing authentic discharges for your guns, which means you should never grow tired of letting the auto shotty rip. As for the voices, theyíre nothing special, and actually more so functional by intention. You hear Bill, Zoey, Louis and Francis pointing out weapons and items as you journey along, calling out the special zombiesÖand of course, crying for help when things become heavy. Occasionally someone throws out a typically cheesy but still humorous one-liner as you might expect from a zombie movie, but other than that, itís dialogue for you to choose whether you pay attention.
I canít speak directly for the team at Valve and Certain Affinity, but I find it safe to assume that Left 4 Dead is a game by gamers, for gamers. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. The geniuses behind Half-Life, Counter-Strike and Portal have achieved victory amongst their fans and the general shooter market yet again, and it should surprise no one. Los Angeles is a calliní folks. Bill, Zoey, Louis and Francis need the expert tact of your controller hands, and likely will for many months to come thanks to pending DLC support. Grab your friends and a few 360s or PCs, and have the time of your lives with one of the best co-operative experiences to ever grace our industry.
Left 4 Dead
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January 18th, 2008: Review/Video Review Published.