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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Left 4 Dead (9.3/10)

"It’s the zombie apocalypse. Bring friends..."


This was the original marketing campaign for Left 4 Dead. As the epidemic spreads four strangers; Francis, Bill, Louis, and Zoey, find themselves in the awkward position of having to trust each other and work together in order to survive. You'll play as one of them against the nightmare hordes that await. From legendary developer Valve, Left 4 Dead is probably the most fun I’ve had with any game in the last several years...

At it's heart, Left 4 Dead is really a spoof on every crappy, B-grade zombie movie ever made, right down to the cheesy posters (which are hilarious by the way). It doesn’t really have a ‘story’ per se. Instead there are four different levels or maps, each lasting about an hour. All follow the same basic zombie movie cliche: survive at all costs until you can be rescued. Each level is treated like its own movie. While they don't have a cohesive story in any traditional sense, it’s perfectly okay. Like most bad zombie movies, we’re not here for the plot, we're here for the zombies.

Standing between you and rescue are, of course, the walking undead. Lots and lots of zombies. These are not the zombies from Night of the Living Dead. They are not slow shamblers risen from graves. No, these are the fast buggers from such movies as Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later. Sprinters who attack in veritable hordes once they have noticed you! But it turns out you have more to face during the zombie apocalypse than just your standard run of the mill "Braaaaaaaaains!" zombies, no matter how fast they are. They've evolved...

There are different classes of 'Super' zombies to contend with in Left 4 Dead. One is the Hunter, who has an annoying habit of can pouncing on his victims from distance and ravaging them before help arrives. The Boomer is a huge fat bastard who waddles around before puking all over you. Sound nasty? It is... but there is a bigger problem. If you get covered in the vile bile it draws zombies towards you like bees to honey, or perhaps more appropriately, to rotting meat. If you hear the gurgling of a nearby boomer, be on your guard. The Smoker has a super long tongue it can use to grab you and draw you away from the group. As you struggle helplessly any nearby zombies can have a snack at their leisure. It’s only when you hear someone cry "Help, I’m being dragged away!" do you realize what’s happened. Actually, it's more like "Sh*t!" followed by either "Smoker's got me!" or "Hunter's on me!" or "Boomer got me!" or the worst call of all.... "TAAAAAAAAAANK!!!!!!!!!"

There are the two ‘Boss’ classes. These appear less frequently, but are always major battles. The first is the Tank. His appearance is proceeded by a foreboding musical jingle, then a roar! It’s brown trousers time, and then, there... he... is! He’s big, he’s fast and he’s tough. One can hit can knock you across the street. You’ll need the whole team working together to survive. He will usually focus on one target, and while that poor soul is getting pummeled, the others need to be ready to pour insane amounts of lead into him to bring the behemoth down!

Then there is the Witch. You'll hear her, moaning and weeping to herself. In a clever twist, Valve designed it so that Witches are avoidable. If you hear one, turn off your flashlights (light will draw her attention) and proceed cautiously. Once you spot her you may be able to skirt around her and avoid confrontation. But if you draw her ire she’ll come at you, skin and bones, glowing eyes, and huge, lethal nails like talons, screeching like a Nazgul from the Lord of the Rings. One hit from her and you are down. Like the Tank, the Witch takes teamwork and strategy to survive, especially if stealth is not an option.

To combat these menaces you are armed with your choice of either an assault rifle, shotgun, or hunting rifle. But I feel I need to impress upon you, gentle reader, just how many bloody zombies can come at you at once. You will find yourself running out of ammo, there are simply too many. Fortunately, Valve gives you a pistol with unlimited ammo, so you'll always have something to fall back on.

I doubt Left 4 Dead would have been nearly as successful were it not for the excellent controls. They need to be since the zombies are so quick and attack en masse. Right trigger fires your weapon, left is melee to get the buggers off if they get too close. Um, 'B' is reload. That's pretty much it. Okay, there are more controls, but they are easy to learn. Despite being a hectic and frantic battle for survival, it's surprisingly accessible. Pick it up and go play. Oh, and bring some friends...

... because teamwork is the name of the game in Left 4 Dead. You might think that with it being the zombie apocalypse and all that the rules no longer apply. For the most part this is true, but there is one thing you need to remember to survive: stick together! If you leave the safety of the group, consider yourself a zombie entree. This game was designed specifically to be played as a group with people communicating as they fight for survival. But if you're stuck playing with computer controlled survivors, I'm happy to say the ally AI is pretty good if lacking some initiative that you'd find with, you know, real people.

Left 4 Dead has pretty decent graphics, but they aren't anything special. Then again, they don't have to be. This is one of those quantity over quality situations. They are effective enough to scare you, and that's all that matters. The action is so hectic in this game you can't really tell what is going on half the time anyway. That's okay though, that frantic atmosphere is what makes it so great! This is enhanced by the sound work. The survivors banter back and forth with each other when there isn't an immediate threat, but will call out if they hear any of the aural cues from the super zombies. The howls of the hordes, the scream of the Hunter, the roar of the Tank keep you on edge the entire time. Still freaks me out, especially after a few drinks, when the tension is at its most fervent. Left 4 Dead captures the horror better than most zombie movies!

If you do survive one these "movies" you are treated to end credits which go over all the stats from that game. It's fun to see who had the most zombie kills, who used the most health packs, or my personal favorite: friendly fire. I win that one every time (I just shoot at anything that moves, even my teammates...)! There is even an "In Memoriam" for those that didn't make it! It ends with the total number of "zombies harmed in the making of this film." Priceless...

In fact, there’s not much to complain about with Left 4 Dead. The fact that there are only two sets of weapons, the second being a slight upgrade is a bit disappointing. It would have been nice to have more options. Same with the levels themselves. The four that are available are great, don't get me wrong, but after you've played them dozens of times you hanker for something more. Sometimes it feels a bit recycled but that's no big deal. Fortunately, Left 4 Dead 2 addresses these minor grievances.

While the lack of variety in both missions and weapons may handicap Left 4 Dead a bit, it's more than made up for by the variable spawn system Valve has created. It’s ingenious. Since it’s a fairly small game they have set it up so that every time you play it through, it’s different. The zombies respawn in different areas. Where there was a tank that bashed the snot out you last time, this time there might not be one. Weapon stashes might be in different places. I played a level recently where there were five tanks and three witches! We kept looking at each other saying, "What the hell? Did we accidentally change the difficulty level?" But the next time we played that level it was completely different, and it will be different the next time as well. That's the beauty of this system, it makes the game infinitely replayable (or close to it).

If you’ve read any of my other reviews you know I don’t play games online very often. This is a huge handicap for me, especially in this case. Of all the games that I wish I had time to play online, Left 4 Dead tops the list. More than Halo? More than Call of Duty? Yes, without a doubt. Why? Because if you get online in Left 4 Dead you can play as the zombies! Um, yes please. From everything I have read this eight player online versus mode sounds like a riot!

At the time of posting, 26897 zombies had been harmed playing of this game by yours truly. Now assume I kill an average of four hundred or so each time I play a level. Do the math. I've played Left 4 Dead that many times. And I will continue to do so, it's that much fun. My girlfriend is awesome for many reasons, but one thing I love is if she's had a rough week and I ask her what she wants to do, she’ll say "Let’s play Left 4 Dead! I need to kill some zombies!" It turns out that the zombie apocalypse has a silver lining after all!

Cheers,
Si

Score = 9.3 / 10

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