Catching Some Z's

Left 4 Dead
Reviewed On
Available For

Zombie Shooter Will Have You Afraid of The Dark

Left 4 Dead has been getting a lot of buzz lately, and for good reason. If you’re expecting just an average zombie shooter, you’re going to be surprised. Whether that surprise is good or bad depends a lot on your play style and preferences.

The game starts out like any number of zombie apocalypse movies that have been popular as of late. A large portion of the world, or at least a major metropolitan area, has been overrun with zombies. Some virus or plague has erupted and turned everyone into mindless killing machines. Well, almost everyone. There are a few people who managed to survive. You play as one of a group of four survivors who have banded together to try and make it to safety. If you stick together you might have a chance because while you are immune to the virus that makes zombies, you can still be killed by the teeth and claws of the infected hoards.

Each of the four survivors is pretty much identical to the others in that none seem to have any special skills over the others. Any survivor can use any weapon for example. The one difference is in the way they role-play with one another in the single player campaign. Also if you are playing by yourself, I’ve noticed that the three other players tend to upgrade to the same weapons each time when controlled by the AI. Zoey will almost always grab the mini-14 scoped rifle (my favorite weapon in real life, so bonus points there) and Bill will go for the M-16. This does not happen all the time, but mostly.

The four survivors are led by Bill, an ex-special forces veteran. He is getting a little old, but there is no doubt that is one tough son-of-a-gun. Then there is Zoey. She is a student and really the light of the group. She supposedly is an expert at zombies because of all the films she watched, though I’ve not really heard her give any advice. Louis is an IT support guy. He’s hilarious when he sees things like a mounted weapon and talks about how he always dreamed of firing one. Typical computer nerd, basically. And finally there is Francis, the biker. He would be the heavy weapons guy in a typical game I think, and here prefers the shotgun. You can pick to play one of the survivors, or have your character randomly assigned, and the computer will play the other three in the single player game. You even get to see a movie poster at the beginning of the game that shows who you are playing, which is a very cool touch.

The game has some very simple keys, so there is no need to learn a bunch of fancy moves. On the PC you basically just have movement and shoot keys. You select your weapons by scrolling the mouse wheel. You can trigger a reload when things are quiet, or the game will automatically do it for you when your gun goes empty, but God help you if this happens during a fight. And you can also turn on and off your flashlight. Most of the time you want it on since the world is so dark, but there is one particular time when you will need to shut it off.

Like the keys, the game is objective based and very easy to follow. There are four campaigns and you just need to move from your starting point to a safehouse though a series of missions within the campaign, which is generally at the far end of the level. There are a few different paths you can take, but mostly everything is linear. And standing between you and the freedom of a safe place to rest are hoards of zombies. The last mission in every campaign is a final one where you need to hold a boathouse, rooftop or dwelling for a certain amount of time before help shows up to rescue you. It’s incredibly hard to do, but rewarding if you can pull it off.

The standard zombie wanders around aimlessly. If you’re in a safe spot you can actually watch them and it’s quite interesting. Sometimes they will fight each other. Sometimes they fall down. Sometimes they will bend over to look at something on the ground. They are quite animated for zombies. If you get too close to them, or shoot them, they get quite enraged and snarl and hiss and growl. Then they charge right at you, climbing over cars and other debris as best they can. They don’t shamble like normal zombies but instead run like track stars. These are the "in zombies" of movies these days. I much prefer the shambling type, but that is just a personal preference.

Managing the hoard of zombies is pretty easy, though they will surprise you. Also, at different points in the level, you will hear a musical tone which sounds a bit like the intro to The Godfather. This is a warning that a hoard is coming. Soon you will hear hundreds of feet scampering towards you and will need to fight off a charging group of the undead killers. This is really spooky when you’re on a roof and hear the music. Then you hear the hoard coming up the various floors, bashing down doors and getting closer and closer to you. But that is better than being caught in the open, believe me.

There are also special zombies which really give you trouble. The Smoker has a terribly long tongue and can grab you from ridiculously far away. When he explodes he goes up in smoke, hence his nickname. Then there is the Boomer, which is a zombie swelled up with methane gas. If he gets close and explodes on you, the smell attracts a hoard and also nearly blinds you. It’s not a good time to be a survivor. You can fire blindly, but it’s mostly up to your team to protect you until you can see again, several seconds later. There is also the Hunter, which is a really fast zombie that leaps across parking lots and up buildings.

Two really special zombies are the Tank and Witch. These are like bosses. The Tank is a huge mesomorph who can take and give a pounding. The Witch is a special enemy. She wanders around giving out a mournful cry, lost in sorrow. If you’re smart, you can avoid her. But shine your light onto her (the aforementioned time you want to turn your flashlight off is when a witch is around) or shoot her, and she gets enraged. She can kill a survivor in one or two swipes, so it’s best to avoid her if you can. Sometimes she spawns in areas where getting around her is tough though, so occasionally you need to shoot her down. Just be very careful doing it.

Left 4 Dead is unique because although the four campaigns have set maps, the disposition of zombies and power-ups is somewhat random. The program even has a director AI that watches over everything. If things seem to be too easy, you will find more zombies in your path. If you are hard pressed, you might find extra heath packs along your route, though don’t count on it.

The game is really designed to be played by multiple people. Online with three other survivors, Left 4 Dead becomes a great exercise in teamwork, with each person being able to shine at some point in the adventure, saving a teammate or finding some hidden powerups. Each person can even take on a needed role in the game, like sniper, tactical leader or scout. Voice communication is a must of course for true teamwork. In fact, the Army should let troops play this game to learn how to exercise cooperation in a very chaotic battlefield. If you have eight players, then four of them can become the special zombies (but not the Witch) and four can play survivors. The survivors try to get through the level or as far as they can, and then the teams switch sides. It’s really intense.

If you like playing online with friends or just random people on the Internet, then Left 4 Dead will probably be one of your favorite titles of the year. If instead you like long role-playing intensive campaigns like Half-Life 2, then you might not be so thrilled. There are only four campaigns and even though the AI is really good, it’s limited when you are by yourself. They won’t shoot you in the back or anything, but don’t know how to do some tasks like throwing Molotov cocktails or pipe bombs. And although they mostly stick close, they do wander sometimes, which is a recipe for getting killed as any horror movie aficionado should know. I played the game by myself for many hours and really didn’t see what all the great reviews were about. Then I went online and the light shined on me – you know, the next morning when I found that I had been playing all night.

As a single player game, Left 4 Dead is good but not quite great. As a multiplayer game, its one of the best I’ve played in a long time. Depending on how you like your shooters, your enjoyment will rest somewhere between those two extremes.

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