Trafalgar's Left 4 Dead Review
- Stylishly produced, stylistic down-to-earth-and-then-some zombie shooter.
- Immensely fun to play, while it's still interesting.
- Nice to computer hardware.
- Range of environments and textures.
- Incredibly realistic zombie physics; hundreds of death animations.
- 4 playable humans and 4 playable zombies. Yes! Playable zombies!
- Range of weapons.
- Replay value, due to a number of features. This will be examined below.
- Co-op, in the truest, most forced sense of the word.
- Excellent atmosphere, due in part to the awesome soundtrack.
- In direct conflict with one of the above points: limited replayability. Don't worry, I'll explain this later.
- Zero depth; no storyline.
- The graphics, though okay, won't impress you.
- There are a few connection problems with online co-op, though I'm sure Valve will patch this up in the near future with their continuous Steam updates.
- You need a connection to the internet to install.
Left 4 Dead, a First Person Shooter in the somewhat exhausted genre of "zombie apocalypse sim" , is just that: a violent, bloody rampage through 4 recently infected American locations towards a by-no-means-guaranteed rescue. The game is deliberately made to feel like a corny zombie movie (not a film, a movie), such of the likes that would achieve nothing but rampant hate from its critics. However, in a video game, this equates to one thing: FUN.
It is a Valve product, and as such runs in the Source engine. This makes it very nice to your computer, but not so nice to the eyes, compared to some of the other titles out there nowadays. However, it is far from hideous, and the shortcomings of the engine itself aside, it's still a very sturdy balance between the game being impossible to run and it being aesthetically pleasing. The engine's also been updated, so if you're used to CounterStrike: Source, you might think you've bought Crysis by accident and are somehow running it with 50 FPS on your horribly aged computer.
Environments span from infected cities to infected forests, infected sewers, infected villages, infected cities, and infected forests. Hundreds of zombies, all running around like the Olympic gold-medallists that make up most of the cast of "28 Days Later" will attack you, in 6 different types. You are granted control of a standard second-rate zombie gore-fest movie character with about as much depth as a toddler's paddling pool - either the headstrong biker guy who is apparently enjoying himself; the attractive college-student girl who, though she is generally quick-witted and calm, sometimes cracks under large amounts of pressure, exposing her true side as a terrified, helpless victim of disaster; the old war veteran who begrudgingly takes it upon himself to destroy as many zombies as he can due to some silly loyalty or grudge or something to do with his country; and the slightly-more-easily-related-to dishevelled office worker, who is simply trying his best to cope with what he's been given; who are in turn handed control of a small set of firearms (ranging from a 9mm pistol or two, or a Mac-10 type SMG to a fully automatic shotgun or hunting rifle), two types of "grenades" (namely Molotov cocktails and "pipe bombs" , a home-made device that attracts the area's undead before exploding and killing them all), health packs and pain pills (that grant temporary health that decreases over time). My, that was a long sentence.
The game spans 4 creative "Movie" levels, including a range of different environments and textures; from the post-apocalyptic ruins of a dead city to the spooky, mist-filled expanse of your traditional horror movie forest. Each one contains 5 levels that run seamlessly into each other, and most can take up to two hours to complete; more, if you're on the hardest difficulty setting.
As I've mentioned, it has good graphics compared to the strain they take on your hardware. I am aware that I am repeating myself somewhat, but as Valve made this game, it runs on the ageing Source engine (albeit a heavily updated version), and as such is quite nice to computer hardware, especially the GPU. It also means that you won't be amazed by the visual display like you were when HL2 came out, but this is, overall, quite a good thing, in my opinion. However, my opinion may be slightly biased owing to the unfortunate fact that I play my games on a Dell laptop with a frankly useless defective nVidia card.
The game is fun. This may seem to go without saying, seeing as this is a video game review and all, but many developers seem to have recently lost sight of what makes a game fun to play. Valve, however, are not one of these developers: running around removing the extremities of the shambling populace of an American city, whilst not being in any way sophisticated or deep, is immensely entertaining.
It's a true co-op game. Again, this would seem to go without saying as the game is an online multiplayer FPS, but one must remember that most online shooters don't actually require you to work with your team-mates, provided you're skilled enough to take on the bad guys alone. L4D, however, does: if you leave the rest of the group behind, you may as well hand over your weapons, ammunition, health packs, pain pills and last will and testament before you go, because you won't last long. Sure, you might survive a couple of minutes if you've got a decent amount of skill and the reflexes of a cat with an unhealthy addiction to caffeine, but sooner or later you'll be disabled by the attacks of a "special infected", rendering you literally helpless, pinned by a bloodthirsty zombie that has busied itself by ripping chunks out of your chest until some forgiving team-mate comes back to save you.
You can even play as a zombie! Laugh in psychotic glee as you watch your decaying avatar decimate the fragile body of humanity's last hope for survival, before being decimated yourself by a shower of lead from her ally's automatic shotgun, and then having to wait a painfully long 20 seconds to respawn and inflict more short-lived carnage. However, despite the fact that more time is inevitably spent spectating than actually playing, the whole experience still manages to be incredibly entertaining, with the occasional moment of sheer hilarity.
Realism is completely discarded, unless you're playing Expert mode - in which case you're either insane or haven't stopped playing the game since it was released. Allies are bullet-proof and normal zombies are made of cardboard, with fists made of marshmallows and no teeth. Most special infected, though slightly tougher to bring down, are all completely stupid and apparently can't move if they're being shot at. However, on Expert mode, the difficulty curve takes a massive swing upwards and the game suddenly reverses these roles: the zombies are suddenly wearing flack jackets and brandishing baseball bats with nails in them, the special infected are made of iron and the survivors have less durability than... well, a cardboard zombie. There is a difficulty mode for every player, though seasoned FPS veterans will find it very boring to play anything other than advanced.
However, characters aren't equipped with handy bottomless attaché cases that they somehow conceal on their general person (read: the Resident Evil series), and as such can only carry 1 health kit, 1 carton of pain-pills, 1 "grenade" , 1 assault weapon and 1 or 2 pistols, at maximum. So at least some small degree of believability is maintained, even if special infected can scale drainpipes faster than they can run.
The AI Director, one of the main selling points of the game, certainly deserves a mention. The Director was Valve's meagre excuse for frankly not including enough maps in their game, as it is supposed to dynamically alter the difficulty along with other aspects of each level based on the performance of the players. For example, if the player had just been pummelled by a legion of slavering undead, health and ammo kits would be thoughtfully provided by the temporarily benign Director. However, if the team were doing uncharacteristically well soon after, the Director would respond by laughing maniacally as it conjures twice as many undead as there were before.
However, in a practical sense, I remain unimpressed. The director seems to do what it wants all the time; I find it to be complete random luck that dictates the amount of useful items you come across throughout the game, and general boredom on the Director's part that dictates the volume of zombies it provides for us to kill. Also, some of the dynamic-ness is removed due to there being only a small number of easy to remember places in which health and ammo does/doesn't spawn.
While we're on the subject of replayability, I should probably mention the infuriatingly addictive achievements system the game features. Though only available when connected to the internet, the achievements do in fact give that extra dimension of replayability, as a dedicated (read: sad) individual such as myself will want to endeavour to collect them all. Yes, all 51 of them. The difficulty with which one can complete certain tasks ranges from you being able to do many completely by accident, to some being nigh impossible to attain. Examples include the "Crown'd" achievement, wherein you must kill a witch with a single headshot (only physically possible if a very precise strategy is employed involving short range shotgun deployment in easy mode); the "Man vs. Tank" achievement, wherein you must single-handedly take down a tank (more or less physically impossible unless all of your team-mates are dead, and you're Chuck Norris, and playing in easy mode, and laden with molotov cocktails); and, as a special infected, "Barf Bagged" , wherein you must vomit on all 4 survivors at once as a Boomer (highly difficult due to you being what is basically an inflated, noisy mass of flab).
Yet more ways in which the repetitiveness may yet be staved is through the production of third-party mods. I've heard talk of level designers fervently wetting themselves over their recent ideas, like recreating a campaign to tell the story of the popular comedy zombie movie, "Shaun of the Dead" . Another one would be the recreation of the Mall area from "Dawn of the Dead" . As the Source engine is open-source, anyone can do whatever they like to it, and as such Left 4 Dead may soon be sprouting extra limbs and eyes and things, and though many of these may be removed by most players due to them doing nothing but slow it down and reducing its aesthetic appeal, we may yet see it evolve into a far larger game than we see now.
Anyway, as we've established that the AI Director has only really partly succeeded in increasing the replay-value of the game, I guess I should comment on the levels. Well, there's not much to comment on. Literally.
Okay, well maybe I'm being unfair. There's 20 levels - which is a fair amount - all of which are small, linear pathways from one safe room to the next, with a couple of alternative mini-routes for survivors to take should they want a slight change from the way they went last time. However, though there are 4 movie campaigns (each with 5 levels), I find myself playing through the same sort of area at least twice. The dark, misty, zombie-filled forests of the "Blood Harvest" campaign are practically interchangeable with the dark, misty, zombie-filled forests of "Death Toll". There's the obligatory sewer chapter, though it appears in 2 separate campaigns. And I'm certain the suburban town in "Death Toll" is simply an old, forgotten extension of the "No Mercy" campaign's deserted streets. I mean, there's a nice range of textures and environments, but it just feels like Valve ran out of ideas when I can't distinguish between a screenshot of "Blood Harvest" and one of "Death Toll".
Okay, so I mentioned the "Special Infected" earlier, so I may as well explain what exactly they are:
The Special Infected are a group of 5 types of super-zombie, with unique abilities that set them apart from the entirely dispensable crowd of faceless undead from which they hail. There's the Hunter, a faster type of zombie who can leap great distances to collide with an unsuspecting survivor, pinning them helplessly to the floor and ripping sizeable gooey chunks out of his/her chest; there's the smoker, a kind of ranger zombie who stands in the shadows atop tall buildings and ensnares unwitting survivors, pinning them helplessly to a wall (or themselves) as they constrict or basically beat the living crap out of their entangled prey; there's the Boomer, a hilariously overweight zombie with possibly even less health than its smaller cardboard brethren whose sole purpose is to suicide-bomb (or vomit on, though this is harder) the survivors, coating them in blinding "Boomer-bile" that also attracts the aforementioned horde; there's the Tank, which is the zombie equivalent of, well, a tank: blasting through the enemy ranks with quite a bit of speed and far too much health and power for many entire survivor teams to outlast, especially in a cramped area; and then there's the Witch. Now, the Witch provides much of the fear-factor in Left 4 Dead, as she is comparable to the Tank in the power department and looks like something out "The Ring" but with added glowing red eyes. However, she is designed to be avoidable, and appears as a small girl, rocking backwards and forwards on the floor and crying. In fact, this is her challenge: can you make it past the Witch without disturbing her? Should you fail this task, the punishment is pretty simple: the Witch emits a shrill scream and makes mincemeat out of the offending survivor, before mercifully running away. In Easy mode, she incapacitates a survivor in about 2 hits, before proceeding to mangle his/her prone form with a hail of slashes from her long claws, usually resulting in death. In expert, she skips the incap phase completely and, with one swipe from her inhuman hands, the startled survivor finds himself flying headlong into the adjacent wall, quite dead. As she moves with some frightening speed (faster than you, might I add), and has more health than anything other than the Tank, if indeed you startle her, you'll be one survivor down before you can shout the string of curses that result from being suddenly ambushed by a screaming, undead girl with massive, bloody claws of instant death. I must mention, however, that avoiding the Witch is sometimes made impossible when she is placed, immovably, in the middle of a narrow corridor that must be navigated in order to proceed. It is in these rare cases that the AI Director can be seen at its most malevolent, when it basically sticks two fingers up at you and says, "only 3 of you are getting through here alive".
Another thing I simply have to mention is the music and sound. A branch of the AI Director, the game's music is generally simply a series of incredibly spooky ambient themes: one would expect no less from a zombie movie. The plan is that the Director will play specific sounds or clips of music when specific things happen. And it works incredibly well. For example, if a Hunter comes within hearing range, a low bass-theme will quickly alert you to it's presence, or if you've just been ambushed by a raging Tank, a loud, driving theme will play, signalling your impending demise. There's a theme for the appearance of every Special Infected, though the only ones that could really be described as music are the Tank's and the Witch's, probably because they tend to last longer.
Yes, the Witch. Again, the music serves to greatly enhance the scare-factor of the game, as if the eerie childish crying wasn't already enough.
And sound quality is excellent. I could probably pinpoint you the exact location of a specific Special Infected simply by listening carefully.
Also, due to the fact that co-op is completely essential, the option to be a dick (the human aspect of most online games that can end up severely affecting your enjoyment of them) is, well, not an option. Should you decide to shoot your team-mates, you will shortly be claimed by the quietly waiting hunter around the corner. Should you run off on your own, openly dubbing the other survivors "stupid noobs", you will ironically (and deservedly) be the first to perish. You rely on your partners to save you from the clutches of said Special Infected, and as such a certain degree of respect, teamwork, and enjoyment of the company of your allies can be found on most servers. Of course, the occasional dick sometimes wanders into your lobby, but he is shortly identified by his lack of points and health, and kicked by the handy player-vote system that anyone can initiate.
Oh yes, I just said that. Respect, on the online servers of an FPS! You may never see this again in your time in the online gaming "community", so some people may want to consider buying this game simply to be a part of this historic moment. My theory is that L4D is an altogether more casual and hence less frustrating game than it's Source counter-parts, or Counter-Strikes, because it is impossible to be unfairly killed by a stray bullet that has somehow passed through two walls and a door and still managed to connect - fatally - to your face. That, and the fact that most people are playing for fun rather than fame and glory among their equally lifeless internet buddies.
Hey look, I guess I just summarised the game. But I'll do it again in a separate paragraph to the last section, for those of you who like things in A-Level exam essay format:
To conclude, Left 4 Dead is an immensely enjoyable and original game, and a worthy (and relatively inexpensive) addition to anyone's Steam Games list. Or in fact, a great place to start. Though it's not going to captivate everyone, I challenge you not to enjoy it, at least on your first playthrough. It plays like a bit of an arcade shooter, due in part to its total lack of storyline, which could probably be effectively summarised as "YOU + FRIENDS + GUNS = BULLET-RIDDEN PILES OF EXTERMINATED UNDEAD", but this is okay. It doesn't pretend to be anything else.
My personal verdict? I absolutely love the game to bits, and will continue to do so until it gets stale, which is unfortunately inevitable. But for the 50 or so hours it's doubtlessly going to captivate my sad little mind, it's well worth the £25 I forked out for the privilege.
Oh, and I'm sure it'll prove invaluable when the day finally comes that we are confronted with the zombie apocalypse scenario in real life.