Zombies. Terribly overdone. Shambling yawn-monsters that populate a hundred boring films. The plot is always the same: a handful of survivors battling for their lives against impossible undead odds. So it’s a good job that Left 4 Dead is a game in which you play one of a handful of survivors, battling for their lives against impossible undead odds. Welcome to the first zombie movie we’ve seen that’s actually any good.
The object of the game, as you’ll gather, is tediously simple. Kill zombies, stay alive. In order to be one of a handful of survivors, though, you’ll need a few comrades. Three, in fact. Thus, Left 4 Dead is a four-player-only online affair.
The difference between Left 4 Dead and standard multiplayer co-op games is subtle: there’s no point-scoring element and no respawn. In other games, the more enemies you kill the higher you score. In Left 4 Dead’s standard mode, you can’t win – you can only survive until the end of four ongoing campaigns.
In typical Valve style, Left 4 Dead breaks new ground in gaming. It doesn’t rely on new weapons, varied levels or set pieces to keep your interest. In fact, the 20 levels – five per campaign – are bleakly repetitious, with a washed-out palette and little variation. Weapons don’t change either, with an array of things that go bang and things that go boom, which doesn’t vary as you battle your way through the undead nightmare. Don’t let the zombie element put you off: this is as close as any game has ever come to a true interactive movie.
What makes the game shine is the dynamic human element and unpredictability of the zombie horde. Left 4 Dead finally gets gaming away from the trigger-point mechanic: you have no idea if a dozen zombies are around the corner, or one, or none. There’s no predictability at all, and that has a huge effect. It doesn’t matter how many times you play a level, the tension is still there. Add to that the human factor of playing with a different group every time, and you’ve got almost unlimited replay value.
And there’s more. In Half-Life 2, you felt as if you were in a perfectly executed Bond film – always in danger, often in the thick of the action, but rarely were things so intense you found yourself dead; after all, the hero in a film doesn’t die. Left 4 Dead extends the movie-like quality more explicitly, automatically adjusting the difficulty level in-game. It keeps things frantic, but eliminates “die-respawn, die-respawn” frustration.
You might be nervous about having to play with a small group of real people online, but it works fantastically well. The co-op element is essential and everyone playing knows it. You absolutely must work together to stay alive, giving each other covering fire when one person is injured, strategically positioning to fend off large attacks and distributing medical aid. And if you do get an annoying team-mate spoiling it for the other three, you can cunningly call a vote to get them kicked off. You can also play by yourself using AI team-mates, but it isn’t half so much fun – they don’t have the strategic abilities to make stands against the ravening horde, and you just don’t get the same desire to keep your team-mates alive – the human element is really what Left 4 Dead is all about.
There’s little else we can say about this game except that it’s vastly, hugely more fun to play than it is to read about. So go and buy it.