Left 4 Dead Preview - Zombies, Guns, and Explosives - Oh My!

wytefang | 16 November 2008 | Comments off

They say that a true test of character is how you respond under stress or danger. When the heat is on, how do you hold up? Apparently, based on my recent actions while playing the newly released demo of Valve’s new multiplayer co-op zombie shooter, “Left 4 Dead”, I’m probably not the guy you want by your side when the zombie apocalypse hits.

I snapped, freaked out, panicked - you chose the verb, either way I lost it - and raced out of the room...Allow me to explain. Our small group of 4 survivors were trying to work our way through a dilapidated apartment complex, already ravaged by the Infected (think of the zombies from the movie “28 Days Later” rather than your average shuffling undead). We’d only just gotten through the first apartment and had managed to get downstairs - after wasting several unruly Infected along the way - when a bloated Boomer zombie boss rambled into view and spewed vomit all over my character, “Louis”. Suddenly the music ramped into panic mode, my screen was coated with a thick sludge, making it hard to determine friend or foe and a zombie horde attacked, drawn by the scent of the Boomer’s vomit to feast on my tasty flesh. Rather than stand back and try to support my teammates with my limited visual acuity, I snapped, freaked out, panicked - you chose the verb, either way I lost it - and raced out of the room to the first closet with a working door, locking myself in and pointing my trembling gun in front of me to take out the first thing through the door.

These are the moments that separate Left 4 Dead from games like Resident Evil or F.E.A.R. or any other horror-based videogame.

Valve’s recently released Left 4 Dead Demo gives gamers everywhere a quick taste of what to expect come November 18th and it’s a tantalizing slice of action - though not without a slightly bitter aftertaste. Gameplay comes in two main modes of action - you can either play with up to 3 other friends in co-operative mode, working through the game’s main campaign (composed of storylines delineated by Chapters) or you can play with up to 3 other friends against 4 other human players running the bad guys, aka the “Infected”, in Versus mode.

Probably the biggest difference between the 360 version and the PC version will be the inclusion of Split-screen gameplay (though Valve recently admitted that it may appear on the PC as an unsupported feature) and its own unique batch of 50 achievements.

The Demo only allows gamers to try out the first 2 Chapters of the initial No Mercy Campaign story, though the full game will offer three more campaign stories for players to panic through.

Perhaps the worst sound that any Survivor can hear is the muffled moaning and crying of "The Witch", possibly the game's biggest damage dealer.Left 4 Dead scales well, graphically, but the real star of this game is the sound-production. Music is creepy, atmospheric, and intensifies the fear and drama tenfold while the sound effects are extremely effective in conveying the imminent danger of looming enemies or environmental hazards. The game’s 5 zombie bosses, in particular, each reveal their possible presence via unique sounds - if you hear growly, raspy breathing, beware the Hunter, if the sounds are more bubbly and burping, the Boomer is lurking in wait. Perhaps the worst sound that any Survivor can hear is the muffled moaning and crying of “The Witch”, possibly the game’s biggest damage dealer. According to an interview at Shacknews with Valve writer Chet Faliszek, “The witch will definitely kill somebody,” explained Faliszek. “She’s entirely lethal. Whoever sets her off, she’ll go after that one person and she will kill them. Other creatures, yeah, you can push them away, you can run, you can do all these different things, but she is single-track. She’s going to kill you.”

Left 4 Dead Television Trailer

Because these aren’t the average run-of-the-grave, moldy-slow zombies shuffling after you, gameplay does get a bit too frenetic at times, though that’s probably the way Valve & Turtle Rock (makers of the CS mod for Half-Life 2) wanted it. Knowing how to move through the apocalyptically ruined environments while keeping good firing lines open and not getting in each other’s way is half the battle - the other half is just staying “frosty” and staying “alive.” Each Chapter starts and ends at a Safehouse which provides ammo, weapons, and healthpacks. Characters are only able to carry a single healthpack and are expected to use it in the most timely fashion, on either themselves or their teammates. Along the way, you may find Pain Pills that provide a temporary health boost but weapons, ammo, and explosives are difficult to find, requiring careful rationing by smart players.

Left 4 Dead’s modified Source engine provides plenty of dark areas interspersed with light, so it’s neither too dark and unmanageable, nor too cheery. Definitely not “cheery.” Survivors each have a gun-mounted flashlight to guide them through lightless areas and it comes in very handy at times.

The (now) venerable Aliens vs. Predator videogame series serves as the closest analogy in gameplay terms to Left 4 Dead. Players are expected to stick together, help each other out, and be co-operative in general, in order to survive. However, there were some concerns raised after several play sessions that shouldn’t be ignored.

My primary question is how well with this game hold-up to repeated play sessions? Will it have enough “meat and potatoes” to be replayable in the long run? Obviously Valve will provide its usual excellent support and downloadable add-ons but if the gameplay is only a one-trick undead pony, so to speak, will that be enough to build and keep a strong, lively community? From my initial experiences, it’s going to depend a lot on the personality of each particular gamer (as always).

The scare factor is definitely high.In my hands-on time so far, guns provide the only specific differences between characters and there’s usually some overlap even in that category. This won’t be a game that has the teamwork and load out depth of a Battlefield or Call of Duty game but there are subtle nuances that are easily overlooked that can make things every bit as exciting (and nerve-wracking). The scare factor is definitely high and the game’s AI Director has the ability to most appropriately spawn enemies at the worst (or best, depending on your living or zombie viewpoint) times and locations. This should make every game experience unique but since the maps aren’t going to be changing, it may not make enough of a difference.

Another small issue was that only a few of the five zombie bosses seemed very challenging. The Boomer, Witch, and Brute are all horrifyingly dangerous but the Hunter and Smoker seemed far too easy to handle. Whether they’ll eventually be tweaked depends on player feedback, but for the moment, I don’t find them terribly difficult to face in battle.

A final complaint is that there only seems to be two different zombie attack patterns - random straggler attacks and huge, rushing zombie hordes. Since these foes are relatively mindless, other than the bosses, this isn’t unexpected but it lowers the variety that you might have faced had you been up against a human SWAT team, for example. The Infected are never going to ambush you (though a boss might) or lure you into danger the way a thinking combatant might; once you realize that the toughest thing you’ll deal with is a really large crush of fast-running zombies, some of the fright factor loses its appeal. 

I had another niggling issue about the lack of apparent interactivity within the environment itself. In the Demo, I didn’t notice any true environment complexities such as the ability to barricade doors or break them down. Some abandoned cars will set off a car alarm if shot or bumped, which brings the ghoulish Infected running, but other than that, not much else seemed too interactive. Perhaps the full game will offer more in this regard so I’m not worrying just yet.

When you take the Left 4 Dead Demo as the sum of its grisly body parts it seems obvious that it’s going to be a fun, scary, unique co-operative experience but one that may not provide as much depth as originally hoped or presented. If Valve manages to tweak the experience in the areas of zombie attack patterns, environmental interactivity, and beefier zombie bosses, the human race could be doomed. It’s just a matter of time. Now run. RUN!!!!!!!

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