Left 4 Dead – First Impressions

I’ve been meaning to take Left 4 Dead for a spin for a while now. Appropriately enough, Valve’s latest offering kind of snuck of up on me. Once I learned more, however, my curiousity was piqued. A Zombie survival game that allows for system-linked four-player co-op? Given how much joy similar experiences have given us, it would be irresponsible not to check it out. Single player games are all well and good, but sometimes you just want to get out there and kill something with your buddies. So how does Left 4 Dead hold up?

 

After spending 2.5 hours playing through the first of four campaigns with Rusty (who better to take with you into the zombie apocalypse?), I would describe Left 4 Dead as Resident Evil meets 28 Days Later in a Counter-Strike Competition to the Death. The game pits a group of Survivors against vast numbers of Infected (who ascribe to the Fast Zombie concept of 28 Days), some of whom have mutated into monsters worthy of RE. The pace of the game is all CS: – you move quickly from one area to the next, trying to force your way through the hordes before you while staying a step ahead of the ones that are probably right behind. Everything is overseen by the so-called AI Director, which according to Valve watches the player(s) and alters the experience to keep the challenge interesting. It is true that enemies do not necessarily spawn in the same type, numbers and places every time, and that weapon, ammo and health pick-ups change or move to a limited extent. Still, I have to assume that the Director has been programmed with some kind of HAL 9000 subroutine, because that bastard is really stingy with first aid kits and pain pills.

 

Overall, it’s a pretty entertaining model, but not without its weaknesses: First is pacing, and whether or not this is actually a problem depends to a certain extent on your personal preferences. I find that what makes zombie movies scary is a gradually growing sense of dread and threat that builds and builds until They’ve Found Us!, and then there is a period of pulse-pounding terror, escape … and then the whole thing starts over again. In L4D, however, it’s pretty much full throttle from the word go. There’s no point in being especially deliberate or careful as you move through the levels, since if you take too long to get through a given area, the AI Director assumes you’re bored or stalling and throws a bunch of Infected at you. If you’re not careful, you can end up sandwiched between a bunch of zombies that are between you and your goal, and a mob that’s being sent your way to keep things “interesting.” Your best bet is to clear an area quickly and move on.

 

Second is the story, and again this comes down to preference. If you like a compelling narrative, then look elsewhere. All we know is that it’s been two weeks since an apocalyptic pandemic (no idea what, how, why or where), and very few survivors remain. Beyond that there is no story to speak of – just a single, unchanging objective: battle the Infected, find the next safe room, reach the extraction point. Safe rooms are secure locations that separate one chapter from another within a campaign and give you a chance to restock on health items, weapons and ammo. They are pretty much the only place where L4D makes any concession to a story larger than your current predicament. Survivors who have passed through before have left messages scrawled on the walls: warnings, notes to loved ones, boasts and observations on the Infected. That Infected will try to grab at you through the barred door is an effective reminder that “safety” is relative.

 

Mechanically, the game is solid, as one would expect from Valve. The four Survivors – Zoey the college student, Bill the ‘nam vet, Francis the biker and Louis the IT guy – aren’t brilliant physicists or anything, so they are limited in what they can carry with them through the apocalypse. You have a pistol (or two!) with unlimited ammo, and in true Valve style it looks and sounds great. You get one main weapon: an Uzi, an AR, a pump or automatic shotgun, or a hunting rifle (an M14 with a scope). You can also carry one explosive device (a pipe bomb or molotov cocktail), one first aid kit (which heals you or a fellow Survivor for lots of health) and a bottle of pain pills (which gives you some “temporary hit points”, without changing your actual total health). Everyone also has a flashlight, which is handy because a lot of the game is very dark. Managing these meager resources is an important part of the game; fortunately it is possible to share healing items and when playing with fewer than four human players, the AI-controlled bots are pretty good about hooking you up with some meds – if they have any to spare, that is.

 

I will say here that I’m a little disappointed that the armoury is so small, but it’s only fair to point out that there’s nothing you can’t do with the selection of weapons provided. I just wish there were more.

 

Player death is handled in an interesting fashion: when reduced to 0 hit points, you collapse to the ground, drop your main weapon and pull out your pistol(s). You’re immobile, but you can still look around and shoot, so you’re not helpless. Infected will try to finish you, so hold them off as long as you can and hope that one of your friends can get over to revive you. If they do, you will get back to your feet with some health, but that will gradually dwindle down to near-death – you’ll need first aid if you want to have any staying power. If you get dropped a second time without being healed, or if no one gets to you in the first place, you die and have to sit out until the other Survivors reach a rescue area, where you’ll be freed from a closet or other enclosed space and dropped back into the action with modest health and weaponry. It’s a little counter-intuitive (“I guess the zombies take prisoners?” Rusty wondered), but it does impose a meaningful penalty for getting killed without forcing you to wait for the group to reach the next safe room.

 

The Infected themselves are apparently not actual undead, just humans ruined by a pathogen of some kind. The most common type you’ll encounter are simply called the Horde, because there are usually a lot of them. They charge screaming at you, but aren’t particularly hard to put down. They will climb ladders and drain pipes and out of holes in the floor to get at you, and rely on weight of numbers to make an impression. They are also drawn to the flashing and beeping of pipe bombs, which means that a single such device cleverly employed can devastate a Horde.

 

Then there are Infected who have mutated and gained unusual abilities. Hunters crawl around on all fours, climb walls and can leap long distances. If they pounce on you, you’ll be knocked flat, defenseless under their claws. Only a fellow Survivor can save you by shoving or shooting the Hunter off. Smokers have exceptionally long prehensile tongues, which they use to grab Survivors, drag them away from the group and then constrict them to death. If you get grabbed by a Smoker, you have only a couple of seconds to kill it before you’re constricted and helpless, at which point you’ll need a friend’s help to get free. Smokers also leave a cloud of harmful gas when they die. Boomers are corpulent Infected who lumber forward trying to projectile-vomit on Survivors. If you get hit by their chunder, you’ll find it extremely difficult to see, and you’ll become a stinking beacon for the Horde, who will swarm you. Boomers explode violently when shot. Tanks are massively muscled, hulking gorilla-like Infected which smash through almost anything. Their fists deal massive damage and have a powerful knock-back (just ask Rusty about his rooftop Tank encounter). As befits their name and appearance, Tanks are very hard to put down. You’ll usually only encounter a couple of Tanks per chapter, but that’s plenty. Finally there are Witches, female Infected who just want to be left alone. Unlike most other Infected, you can avoid Witches if you’re careful; they will only attack if damaged, if you get too close, or if you shine your flashlight on them. If a Witch does attack, you’ll need to be quick and brutal – because that’s exactly what she is.

 

One aspect I really like is the intro. There’s no tutorial level; the game’s basic concepts are communicated through a pre-rendered cinematic, which does a good job of underlining the need for team work among the Survivors, shows what to expect from most of the Special Infected and demonstrates the best use of several weapons before dropping the player into the action. Another plus is that loading screens are kept to a minimum; you’ll only encounter them when you kick off a campaign, and again when you reach a safe room and pull the heavy door closed, which ends your current chapter and begins the next. During the chapters, however, I never noticed any pauses or stuttering to load content.

 

It feels a bit wrong to give a final verdict on a game that I haven’t played all the way through, but everything I’ve seen and read suggests that while the locations change from one campaign to the next, the gameplay itself remains the same throughout. Assuming that’s true, then any one campaign is a fair example of what Left 4 Dead has to offer. The one comment that kept coming up as Rusty and I fought our way to Mercy Hospital was, “this would be easier/more fun if we had a couple more people”. The AI-controlled Survivors are certainly competent, but they can’t be given instructions and sometimes do very silly things. So knowing all that, what I’d love to do is get my hands on two copies of the game, a couple of Xboxen and battle the Infected with three humans. The game is clearly focused on cooperation and the ideal situation seems to be one where you and three friends experience the action together.

 

My opinion is that the game has little value as a single-player experience, and that the amount of entertainment you are likely to get out of it is directly related to the number of humans you can play with (or against in versus). Higher difficulty settings and the antics of the AI Director provide a degree of re-playability. Overall, Left 4 Dead is a promising title that threatens to run itself out of steam.

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Valve makes a note: HUGE SUCCESS

Valve announced today that its Steam digital distribution system has exceeded 15 million users.

In addition, an official press release states that Valve has seen 158% sales growth over the last holiday season, putting the company in a very strong position for 2008 and beyond. Steam’s rapid growth is likely due in part to the critical success of Portal, as well as the ever-expanding offerings available through the download service.

Offering fans even more good news, Valve‘s Doug Lombardi has told Eurogamer that while “There’ll be more Portal, for sure,” the developer isn’t looking to simply throw a handful of new puzzles at us. “The details of that, to be honest, we’re still working out,” he said.

Also being worked out at Valve headquarters are the continuing adventures of crowbar-wielding physicist, Gordon Freeman, who’s due to appear in Half-Life 2: Episode Three. “With Episode Three we want to live up to the promise of where we are taking things to; there’s a lot of work being done to make sure we deliver on that promise.”