Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tech: Left 4 Dead

If you've ever wondered what it would be like if you and your friends got stuck inside a zombie movie, you now have your answer - it'd be like "Left 4 Dead":

"Left 4 Dead" is a first-person shooter from Valve that emphasizes cooperative gameplay. You play as one of four survivors of the apocalypse, on the run from hordes of sprinting zombies straight out of "28 Days Later." The four survivors move from safe room to safe room, and you have to stick together if you want to survive; like in a horror movie, the idiot who goes off by himself soon gets jumped and ripped apart.

There are a lot of horror movie moments here that arise purely out of the gameplay conceits. Since you don't regenerate health, for example, it's common for one member of the group to get particularly banged up (the injured teammate will limp around, moving visibly slower than the rest of the group). The zombie hordes are fairly adept at separating people, so the climactic "last stand" battles at the end of levels often result in one or more teammates being left behind to die. If you elect to try and save your comrades, you can either succeed heroically or be dispatched mercilessly by the zombies - both outcomes are straight out of horror flicks.

The actual design of "Left 4 Dead" is perhaps the most impressive thing about it. There are so many smart design decisions - from how you can see your fellow teammates through walls at all times, to how the game unfailingly prompts you when something special is happening, to how the levels are laid out to subtly propel you in the right direction without ever feeling too much like a railroad. The gameplay is seldom frustrating, even with the AI "Director" system dynamically populating levels with zombies and health/ammo supplies for a slightly different playthrough each time.

A big part of the game is the "Versus" multiplayer component, where a team of four Survivors squares off against a team of four Infected. Each Infected spawns as a special type of zombie with a unique ability, and their job is to kill the Survivors before they reach the next safe room. The gameplay here is wonderfully entertaining, since when you're a zombie you set up ambushes instead of running into them.

How much you ultimately enjoy your "Left 4 Dead" experience, though, is directly proportional to how many friends you can wrangle together in multiplayer. If you buy the game for the Xbox 360 without an Xbox Live Gold account, you're simply not going to have much fun. The singleplayer bot AI is competent, but it pales in comparison to living, breathing people to mess around with. There's also a shortage of content here - after two or three long evenings, you've seen everything the game has to offer, though future downloadable content might remedy this. All in all, though, it's a unique experience that will whet any zombie lover's hunger.

Rating: 84/100


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