Review: Left 4 Dead

Zombies and video games have always been a close knit couple taking after the other successful and hugely overdone pairing, zombies and movies. From seminal classics like Resident Evil and House of the Dead to low budget fare like Zombie Shooter, gamers have been killing zombies for years. When it was announced that Valve, the hugely successful developer behind Half-Life and Team Fortress, was doing its own take on the zombie blending genre – Left 4 Dead, the gaming community was both shocked and thrilled at the prospect of a genre title from the AAA developer.

Lets not forget – Valve has had plenty of experience with zombie killing considering that half of the enemies you faced in the Half-Life series were zombified scientists and soldiers, thanks to the dreaded head crabs. Now that the object of our anticipation is in our hands, how smooth is the final blend?

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While most zombie shooters cook up intricate storylines to account for the events leading up to the game’s beginning as well as the sequence of the game’s levels, Valve has distilled the game to the maximum possible extent by stripping away everything not related to fine art of killing the undead, or in this case, the infected.

The game doesn’t have any story to speak of. There are four campaigns in the single player mode which are laid out like four survival horror movies inspired by settings in various popular genre flicks. You play one of four generic characters, a war veteran, a biker dude, an office drone and a plucky woman, who are the only survivors of an infestation that has rendered everybody else in the community a mindless, flesh-eating zombie.

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The four campaigns include a hospital rescue scenario, an riverside escape from a small town, an airlift from an airfield and an evacuation to a lonely military stronghold. Each survivor has a pistol by default, with unlimited ammo and can choose one additional weapon from among an assortment of 4 types – a submachine gun, an automatic rifle, 2 types of shotguns and a sniper rifle. In addition to the weapons, you can carry one first aid kit (permanent health recovery), a bottle of pain pills (temporary health boost), explosives (molotov cocktail or a pipebomb) and a permanent, inexhaustible flashlight.

In each campaign movie, you start with the other three survivors inside an impenetrable safe house and the objective is to move from safe house to safe house, passing through zombie infested streets, buildings and vegetation to the final rescue point using your weapons, reflexes and wits to get you there. At each safe house, you have the chance to replenish ammo and health before heading out, and these also act as checkpoints in the campaign.

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Now coming to the zombies. There are two major classifications: the drones and the special zombies. The drones are your usual mindless cannon fodder, but beware, these are not the Resident Evil type shuffling tubs of molasses. These are the olympic sprinter variation inspired by the “28 Days Later” flick. The drones will charge at you in units or in tens and can seriously test your reflexes the closer they get to you. They are easy one hit kills, but they have strength in numbers and are rarely shortchanged in this department. If you are surrounded, you can swat them away using a melee attack before pumping them full of lead. Sneaking up behind them with a melee attack also guarantees a kill.

The special zombies are of five types:

  • The Hunter – a wickedly fast slasher that can jump long distances (pictured below)
  • The Smoker – a gas bag that can reel you in and constrict you with his 50 foot long tongue. He explodes in a plume of poisonous gas when killed
  • The Boomer – a bloated puke bag, whose vomit blinds the player and attracts zombies in hordes (pictured above)
  • The Tank – a giant bullet sponge that can knock you back a hundred metres. It takes the combined effort of all the survivors and loads of ammo to bring him down
  • The Witch – a wailing cry baby that likes to be left alone. Disturbing her is almost certain death, especially at higher difficulty levels.

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The four single player campaign levels remain the same every time you play them, but what Valve have cleverly done is introduced the concept of “The Director”. Taking cues from the movie theme permeating the game, the Director is Valve’s AI that randomises the placement and numbers of the zombies and item stashes in every playthrough depending on several variables such as skill of the players, remaining health and ammo, the human/bot ratio in co-op, etc.

This guarantees that no two playthroughs are ever the same and adds a refreshing feel to the game. So in one instance, playing by yourself with your team mates controlled by the AI bots, you may find a level relatively easy. But take on the same level with three experienced friends over Xbox LIVE/Steam and you may pretty well find yourself overwhelmed by zombies. This unpredictability adds a shiny coat of replayability to the overall package. Considering that each “movie” can be completed in one hour, the randomisation will help you squeeze out extra mileage for your buck.

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The game uses Valve’s aged Source engine. While Source is still capable of pumping out stunning visuals, its has been dramatically toned down in this game in order to accommodate twenty to thirty characters on screen at the same time without sacrificing framerate. This has resulted in decidedly underwhelming visuals, but generally rock solid framerate and in my opinion, the trade-off is worthwhile.

Sound effects are very good. The groaning of the drones accompanied by the distinct yells, screeches and growls of the special zombies are very convincing and can send shivers up and down your spine. The background score varies according to the situation you find yourself in. From subtle tones as you creep your way through a sewer to a frenetic, shrill tone when a horde is descending on you courtesy of a Boomer, the sound effects are efficient and effective.

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There are two multiplayer components in the game – co-op and versus. Left 4 Dead was designed ground up to be a co-operative game and its shows throughout the game. From being able to see coloured silhouettes of your comrades through walls and floors to the change in the colour of the silhouettes when they are being attacked, to necessarily requiring the aid of your mates when you are pinned down by a special zombie, you never feel like you are playing alone. And the game truly shines when you have three of your buddies struggling to survive along with you.

All four “movies” can be played with friends in tow and the difference between playing with the AI bots and humans is like night and day. It is highly recommended that you complete your first playthrough with the aid of three buddies to truly derive the maximum from the package.

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Versus mode splits a group of eight players into two team of four each, alternating between playing as the survivors and the infected in a team deathmatch. The survivor side plays pretty much like the campaign mode with weapons and explosives at your disposal. Playing as the infected spawns you as a drone zombie or one of the special zombies and you have to vomit, jump, run, constrict and slash your way to victory over the survivors.

It has the potential to be a ton of fun, but unfortunately for those of us in India, it is an utter and complete lagfest whether on the PC or on Xbox LIVE. It appears that Valve has routed online play through servers on Jupiter for non-US players, resulting in game-ruining latency, which is surprising given the industry leading online capabilities of their other titles like Team Fortress 2 and Counter-Strike. Here’s hoping that Valve fixes these issues soon, because the offline package doesn’t have the legs to stand on beyond the third or fourth playthrough.

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Conclusion

Valve has delivered an engaging and exciting shooter in Left 4 Dead that maximises focus on shooting and co-operative play at the expense of any story. This has resulted in a fun, but shallow game that will struggle to hold your interest beyond the third stab at completing the campaigns. While the online versus mode is fun, it doesn’t have the depth of the traditional fan favourites like Halo, Gears of War or Call of Duty, so don’t expect to see many players online after a couple of months.

(+) Thoroughly distilled shooter with finely honed gameplay
(+) Superb fun in co-op
(+) Spine-chilling and nerve-wracking experience
(+) Innovative multiplayer versus mode
(+) Gameplay randomisation thanks to AI Director

(-) Lack of story leads to unsatisfactory, shallow completion of the campaigns
(-) May not hold your interest after a few playthroughs
(-) Difficulty at higher levels can be severely punishing

IndianVideoGamer Verdict: 7/10 (Rent)

Left 4 Dead is available in stores on PC for Rs 999 and Xbox 360 for Rs 1,999

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