Andrew Bryant brandishes a uzi and a molotov cocktail menacingly as he attempts to cross a city full of mindless zombies.
Just another daily commute then!
Game Title: Left 4 Dead
Publisher: Valve Software/EA Partners
Developer: Valve Software
Format Reviewed: PC
Also Available on: Xbox360
Price: £14.99 – £39.99
Zombies Apocalypses are forever cool, and I’m not referring to the collective body temperature of the typical antagonists… Whilst the popularity of many horror stalwarts such as vampires, werewolves and furbies ebbs and flows over time, the zombie apocalypse is always high on and horror fans favourite genres.
Whether it is down to George Romero’s genre-defining Dead series, setting a standard that many have followed, or just the parallels we can all draw with them (they are, after all, just human… only a bit dead), nobody knows, but we love ’em all the same, with their snarly but vacant faces, endless taste for the grey matter and limitless social commentary that is their pointless (un)lives.
Games have always enjoyed a good modern zombie: Wolfenstein 3D gave us mute mutated zombie soldiers with a gun in its chest, Resident Evil has always loved throwing virus-mutated living dead at players in droves and Dead Rising even trod on Romero’s toes with its zombie-slaughtering mall-based antics. Left 4 Dead (hereafter L4D) is the latest big name to enter the video-game zombie market, bringing with it a brilliantly evolved gameplay mechanic and an almost obsessively clear understanding of just why everyone loves zombie movies.
The games introduction movie (see below) sets the scene pretty comprehensively and brutally. Two weeks following the outbreak of an undefined infection (like all good zombie plots, it’s a fairly ambiguous phenomenon), a large portion of the population have been wiped out, leaving but a handful of survivors who have been, wait for it, left for dead (boom-boom). Lest they succumb to the hordes, these (p)lucky so-and-so’s have to make they way through four desolate crumbling environments (I hasten to use the word warzone, since it’s quite one-sided) to safety, slaughtering many an undead corpse on the way.
Left 4 Dead Intro Movie
With their last multi-player release, TF2, Valve created a massive stir by taking on an interestingly unique design, combining a Pixar-esque graphic style with the philosophy of making every class distinct and recognisable (from character design to barks to abilities). Despite upfront trepidation, TF2 was a rousing success, many a meme was coined and everyone was much the wiser. Out were the indistinguishable nobodies that graced Counter-Strike/Battlefield/insert-shooter-here – in was a distinct army of homicidal cartoon goons!
L4D features four distinct survivors, each brimming with a hefty chunk of stereotypical character. Ability-wise, no survivor character is superior. Yes, in theory Valve could have made their abilities distinct – Bill, the Vietnam vet, could have better aim… Francis, the Hell’s Angel, could do with an extra 50 health… Zoe, the trim college student, should really be able to run & jump higher and Louis (being the stereotypical black guy in a zombie movie) really should attract more bullets and zombies – but they didn’t, which I suppose means there’s no fighting over what character to play (unless ‘I want the one with the boobs’ qualifies as a fight). Their unique attitudes to the dire situation they find themselves in, backed up by Valve’s typically brilliant voice work, makes them stand out from typical horror movie stock cannon fodder.
Whilst no back story is actually provided for Zoey, Louis, Francis or Bill, the player will be able to fill in the blanks about how the characters got into their situation. When asked whether he thinks the situation will ever end, Bill proclaims that he’ll “kill every last one of them, if it’s the last thing he does”, just like a crotchety military vet would do. Zoey quotes movie phrases frequently (as stereotypical college students do), Francis offers up a typically cocky ‘biker’ attitude to the situation whilst Louis is an obvious Shaun nod, right down to the red on him (well, a red tie anyway).
This unexpected depth too the characters draws the player into their plight further, even down to playing as you’d expect them to handle the situation. Having joined a server mid-game several times and being lumped as Bill (no love for the vet, it seems), I found myself guiding the group of illiterate noobs I just happened to be playing with (more on L4D’s match-making later), telling them to heal, watch out or just STFU when the Witch presented herself, just like Bill did in the striking intro movie. As a contrast, when playing as Francis or Louis, I unexpectedly ended up playing as more of a loose cannon.
Opposing the survivors, augmenting the varied horde of ‘regular’ zombies (which are of the 28 Days Later/Dawn of the Dead 2004 running variety), stand the Boss Infected – the undead Moriarty to the living Holmes. Again featuring distinct shapes and sounds (and, this time, unique abilities), the Boss Infected’s remit is simple and too the point – grief the players into submission. Coming in five varieties (four of which are playable in Versus mode), they are the Hunter, the Smoker, the Boomer, the Tank and the Witch (just think ‘Alma from F.E.A.R.’).
These entities are spawned into the game randomly by one of the games unique selling points – the ever omnipotent AI Director. This complex algorithm monitors survivor health, progress, accuracy & competence amongst hundreds of other variables and spawns everything from ammo to weapons to health to horde rushes to bosses (the latter two often occurring simultaneously in multiples of 3 or 4).
This constantly changing gameplay driven by the players performance, amongst other things, means not a single game is really ever the same. Granted, it sometimes gets things wrong, with either large lulls in places where a zombie horde would move you along or 2-3 Tanks mere minutes apart on a hospital roof where a single thump from its massive tree-trunk arms can send you flying to your death below, but these mere frustrations don’t detract from the general solidity of the challenge it presents. It’s just a shame such can’t be said of the survivor AI.
When playing the game in single player mode, or in co-op mode with less than four players, the reigns will be taken up by friendly AI that will, at best, get the character through the chapter. The problem is, it’s remarkably self-proficient but not very good at working for the team. Sure, it’ll try and help if you’re being griefed by a boss, but in my experience it rarely heals you when you need it (medikits are too valuable to heal someone with more than 20 health), won’t press on through a map without prompting and certainly doesn’t understand any form of tactics – tactical use of chuckables is out and I’ve even seen it push someone into a Witch. This is something that will hopefully be patched, and luckily, the game works on a lobby system, with a drop-in/drop-out option, so people can join and fill the AI’s place when they see fit.
The match-making which gets the players together can be a bit hit and miss at times. It’s properly integrated into Steam’s community model (including achievements), allowing lobby’s and dedicated servers (which can host games for people, rather than the lobby leader doing it – I came too the conclusion it’s an Xbox thing) to be tied to both friends lists and groups, allowing proper games to be set up between people who know each other remarkably quickly.
For everyone else, there’s quick matching and a lobby browser. The problem is, at the moment there’s no way to tell the quality of the connection from yourself too the server/other players until you’re in game, which can result in terrible games beset by lag because one player was matched from the other side of the world. The game is very quick to load on a modest machine, but it’s still time lost because you didn’t know the host had a dial-up modem. Fingers cross filters will be offered to allow players control over ping tolerance, amongst other features.
Update – a patch issued by Valve has improved both the latency issue and the server-finding. On average, each game now has 6/7 out of 8 players with good (green) pings, although whether this is down to the games server-finding abilities or just a generally better availability of dedicated servers is still quite transparent. 🙂
Whereas the meat of the game is in the 4 Co-op campaigns, they can only last so long, which leads nicely onto Versus mode, which takes the game onto a competitive footing. Getting from A to B is no longer the name of the game for the survivor team, rather getting from A to somewhere as close to B as possible as your infected opponents lambaste you left, right and centre. A proper coordinated strike by 4 infected can devastate a team, especially if there are multiple Hunters on the team (classes are randomly picked by the director) and a Tank is guaranteed too ruin everyone’s day.
Scoring is based on distance travelled and the general health of the team at point B – get to the end with loads of health and you do well… get there by the skin of your teeth and you don’t do quite as well… don’t get there at all and you’re filled with just enough malice to unleash a frenzy of hate as the sides switch and the tables turn, with the once-infected now play the roll of the survivors. Many a Vs. player will know the feeling of dread as they skulk through Blood Harvest’s forests being stalked by the guy who was player Louis 5 minutes earlier as they vomited on him or knocked him off Mercy Hospitals roof as the Tank.
Graphically, the Source engine powering the game is looking fine, although it’s no CryEngine or Dunia, but then what are these days. Valve have proven time and time again the point that brilliant art design far outweighs graphical power and L4D proves too be no exception – the desolate environments are both detailed and highly interactive and the post processing effects add a filth to the atmosphere that creeps you out even more than usual. Couple this with one of the best dynamic music/sound systems since iMuse which, controlled by the Director, mixes the background themes based on progress, mood & incident and the aforementioned voice work (over 1000 lines have supposedly been recorded for each survivor – take that Far Cry 2) and we have further proof that Valve are at the top of their game for providing an immersive digital environment that doesn’t require top-dollar hardware (Hear that LEC? Keep your shitty SW games!)
Like everything else they’ve had their name attached too, L4D is another gaming masterpiece to come from Valve. It’s a teensy bit rough around the edges in places (which probably stems from the shorter testing period than what was expected, what with TF2’s long public/pre-order beta) and there’s a distinct worry about the amount of content in the game – 4 ‘movies’ (5 levels in each) for co-op mode, with 2 of them modified for the Versus mode. But why am I worrying? This is Valve we’re talking about – they patched Half-Life a few weeks ago and that’s 10 years old!
No doubt in a few months time, after they’ve given TF2 another look (hint hint), L4D will start receiving content updates and we’ll all be happily surviving our way through further zombie apocalypses for years too come.