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Left 4 the Dead

Video Games | Tuesday, January 6th, 2009 | 8 years, 5 months ago

That’s what the Mrs. mistakenly called this game and I actually prefer it.¬ Left 4 Dead sounds like a zombie boy band, no?

Steam had a tantalizing sale on its entire stock this past week, discounting everything from 5-80%.¬ I already own pretty much everything worth owning on Steam, and I wasn’t thrilled with the demo, but with Left 4 Dead discounted to $38 from its original $50 I decided to take a chance on it.¬ As you can see from my 2-week Steam gameplay summary, it was a sound investment.

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Left 4 Dead is a well-polished, 21st century extrapolation of the old Doom co-op formula.¬ This is a void I’ve sorely wished to be filled ever since Doom perfected it – playing with friends and strangers co-operatively, fighting for survival while competing for excellence.¬ I’d given up on id Software to provide this experience since their infatuation turned from co-op to versus about midway through the Quake series, so it’s great to see the concept resurrected by Valve, an equally competent developer.

The set-up is scantly deeper than Doom or Quake; everyone in Everytown is a zombie except you and 3 buddies.¬ Leave town.¬ There are inklings of Valve’s trademark “recent history tableaux” by means of graffitied walls and hurriedly abandoned domiciles, but multiplayer games rarely afford anyone the time for thorough sightseeing.¬ Brilliantly, Valve anticipated this, no doubt thanks to their history of testing the bejezus out of their products, and addressed it in part by prompting the 4 protagonists to randomly make insightful and/or smarmy comments about their environment.

I played an incredibly frustrating round on the Expert difficulty level and my group and I, having made some careless and costly mistakes, were getting ornery due to our rate of failure.¬ I, playing as Zoey, entered a hallway with “God is dead” graffitied on the wall.¬ It was perhaps my tenth time through this map and this detail was nothing new to me, so it was to my great surprise when Zoey autonomously exclaimed to her group “Oh no!¬ The zombies killed god!”¬ My group (with voice chat) and I (without) laughed uproariously at this, all at the same time, and our emotional batteries were sufficiently refreshed that we could once again enjoy our thorough pummelling.

I’ll break here to bring attention to the fact that this is one of few games where I don’t only tolerate losing, I actually enjoy it.¬ This is a superbly balanced game where the solution is always apparent, and for the most part failing to produce this solution is a reflection of one’s ability, not familiarity.¬ I’m smug and smirky when I win this game, but I’m delighted when I lose whether or not it’s my fault.¬ Props to Valve for following Hunter S. Thompson’s advice on Vegas to “learn to enjoy losing.”

What’s responsible for this lightheartedness and continued interest is the replayability of this short, linear game.¬ Any one of the four scenarios has taken me anywhere from about 35 to 75 minutes to complete, and you never really know how long it will take each time even though the maps themselves are static and become more and more familiar.¬ This is due to the much touted and lauded “AI Director” feature which varies the density and ferocity of enemies, the placement or absence of weapons, and the overall intensity of every game.¬ I don’t know what the variables are to determine these factors – sometimes you can afford to take things slow and other times you can barely catch your breath – but it’s enough never to lull you into a state of comfort.¬ And that’s the real key to this game’s longevity right there.¬ Zombies are like a box of chocolates.

The zombies are great, too.¬ When you play the hospital-themed scenario the zombies wear stethoscopes or patients’ gowns, whereas in the airport scenario they wear orange safety vests and business suits.¬ They shamble aimlessly about, mutter and gargle to themselves, get confused and change direction, and top it off with a nice long barf.¬ Though they are mindless shells they retain their individuality in their clothing and facial features, and this makes things all the more uneasy when they spot you and twist their visages into furious glares as they sprint toward you (occasionally mid-barf), only to be pur√©ed, wholely or in part, by you and your would-be chums (without whom you WOULD be chum).¬ In the field they’re not your most serious threat, but you can see it in their eyes – they HATE you and they want your THROAT.

Your opposition ain’t all peaches and cream, though (however similarly viscous).¬ “Boss” creatures lurk about and are playable either by AI or a second team of four.¬ Boss zombies include the tonguey Smoker, bilious Boomer, dextrous Hunter, and cantankerous Tank.¬ Each¬ has its own recognizable vocalizations, from the belchy blubberings of the Boomer to the maniacal chitterings of the Hunter, emphasized further by the good guys’ avatars who opt to announce “Boomer!” aloud to the group.

The last boss creature, the Witch, isn’t playable by a human and is dangerous but docile.¬ She is preceded by her sorrowful sobs and phenomenally eerie accompanying choral refrain which intensify as you approach.¬ In a lit room she seems unimposing and pitiable.¬ In the dark her eyes are alight with despise.¬ Don’t approach too quickly and keep your flashlight off.¬ Agitate her at your peril or avoid her entirely.

Weapons are predictable but reveal their own useful characteristics over time.¬ Me, I stayed true the shotgun, my old faithful, before branching out to the more precise machine guns and eventually the sniper rifle which has become my new favourite.¬ Reloads are announced verbally by the protagonists, encouraging teammates to pick up the slack, and it’s a good thing because occasionally an eternity-and-a-half will pass before you’re ready to shoot again (free tip – you reload faster if your clip isn’t empty).¬ Switching to your pistols with unlimited ammo clips is often your only alternative to reloading while swarmed, though a deft right-click with any weapon will knock back just about anything slobbering on you.¬ Knowing when to shoot, when to reload, when to melee, and when to skedaddle is what separates the residents from the tourists of zombietown, so expect to get an earful over voice chat if you choose the wrong one.

The graphics and level design are complimentary in terms of attractiveness and navigability.¬ If it looks like you can jump up on something, you probably can.¬ If you see a stumbling silhouette 300 yards away you can blast it, and what’s left of the corpse will be there when you arrive.¬ If you’re lost it won’t take long to find some sort of pointer or clue.¬ Locales feel lived-in (and died-in), reminding you constantly that the question of what the heck happened here is never answered.¬ It all comes together well and makes an excellent first impression.¬ The longevity of the Source engine is commendable since this game is as visually impressive as anything out there, yet the frame rate is so reliably fast that I found my aim to be more precise than in just about any other shooter made these past few years.

On the down side there’s superfluous achievements I don’t care to earn, being assigned a low ping server is a crap shoot with bad odds, and it’s likely you’ll see all the assets in a couple of afternoons.¬ Conversely, scores are shown after each round yet no one really wins or loses (just survives), players may leave or go AFK and a friendly AI will take over until they or someone else rejoins, and heck, I’ve made a couple of “friends” (in the social network sense of the word) just by impressing or being impressed by their skills in-game.¬ For such a linear, predictable shooter there are a lot of small touches that aren’t immediately apparent but reveal the underlying charm over time.

Over a decade ago Valve published magazine ads for the original Half Life that made fun of other shooters for their lack of story – “Run, run, run, turn, shoot, run, shoot,” it taunted – so it’s as if they’ve come full circle to bring us this rather mindless affair.¬ However, it’s the shared experiences and the stories you write while playing that are deserving.¬ It’s saying a lot that the basic gameplay elements help you, rather than hinder, to tell these stories, but it’s the interactions with strangers and friends that will compel you to transfuse every last quart out of each map.¬ For instance…

Last night I greedily played through an entire scenario with the sniper rifle.¬ It’s a perfect weapon for long-to-medium range but its precision does little during the inevitable frenetic close-range scraps.¬ My remedy for this is to hang back a bit (but not so much that I’m a lone target for bosses), let my scrumptious teammates wiggle their sweet meats, and pick off anything that gets too grabby.¬ This is more effective than it seems, which is probably why one of my teammates became annoyed with me for “not helping”.

With resentment in the air as well as an odour resembling rotting plums we still made it to the finale by the skin of our teeth (or whoever’s skin and teeth those were on my jacket).¬ The aforementioned surly gentleman greedily withheld his precious health-giving pills as I limped along with a scant single hit point remaining.¬ I deftly hopped up to a precarious but isolated tower and held fast through thick and thin, popping heads and heroically inducing sighs of relief from my healthier comrades.

Wave after wave pummelled us, with boss zombies waiting until the most inopportune moments to nip at our heels, when tragedy struck – Hoarding Harry took one gnaw too many and was down for the count.¬ I dove off my precipice and hobbled to him, stray zombies collapsing all around me as my team covered my advance.¬ I made it.¬ I crouched and administered first aid, just barely healing him before I myself succumbed to my wounds.¬ Astonishingly, my fairweather companion turned to help me just as our far-off teammates announced and headed for our just-arrived rescue vessel.

Predictably, this announcement was followed by the vengeful hollers of perhaps three-dozen zombies and one of each boss zombie.¬ Three quarters of the way through healing me, my would-be saviour turned tail and ran for the boat, leaving me 4 dead.¬ A sorry end for me, but a delightful denouement to a great story.

Any and all resentment evaporated and we all shared chuckles and congratulations.¬ The credits rolled and began with a dedication:

“In memory of Brian Damage”

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