Review: Left for Dead

The concept meeting at Turtle Rock Studios probably involved a few pints of beer and a showing of Shaun of the Dead.

Developer: Valve South
Publisher: Valve Corporation
Release date: November 17, 2008
Reviewed on: PC

Clatto Verata N… Necktie… Neckturn… Nickel…

Left 4 Dead’s premise is as follows: three dudes and a chick blast through endless hordes of zombies. That’s it. That’s the story. And, surprise, surprise, it works.

Left 4 Dead’s opening cinematic shows the four armed-to-the-teeth Survivors make their way through deserted streets. There’s Bill, the badass chain-smoking war vet. There’s Francis, the hardcore tattooed biker, doubtlessly made so hardcore by repeated blows to the head by a Harley Davidson exhaust pipe from his gang-fighting days. Then there’s Louis the IT Support Analyst. This man’s wearing a shirt, a tie, and a smirk, and anyone who’s ever worked in IT Support would know that hordes of crazed zombies are nothing compared to a double server outage on a Monday morning. And, finally, there’s the cute girl Zoey. Not sure what her job is, but boy, does she look with a gun.

A few seconds into the intro the Survivors are jumped by the zombies. They come sprinting from all sides in proper zombie fashion, the ones dropped by the Survivor’s suppressing fire soon to be replaced by yet more zombies, even angrier-looking ones. After a bit of a ruckus caused by a particularly nasty-looking steroid-OD’d deader, the humans finally make their escape via the roof. Cut to game menu.

I, for one, was impressed.

You Gotta Shoot Em’ in the Head

Knowing well that this is essentially a multiplayer game, I decided to first go through the campaign solo in the hopes that I don’t let anyone down when I’m ready to play online. The game menu, apart from looking pretty on the animated background, proved to be fairly intuitive. I’ve put on my headphones, selected the first out of the five missions featured in the first campaign (lovingly called No Mercy), and got ready to kick zombie arse.

And kick arse I did. The game’s mechanic is simple, yet effective. The goal in all the missions is to get from point A to point B (called the Safehouse), laying waste to all undead in the process. The zombies came in waves, and the gameplay reminded me of standing off against tons of baddies in Serious Sam or even the original Doom on Ulta-Violence.

Before each mission, the game let me grab a medpack, sometimes some painkillers that gave me a temporary health boost, and a weapon to use as my primary firearm (you can only carry one at a time) in addition to my secondary weapon. Zombie-disposing tools of choice came as an Uzi, an M-16, a sniper rifle, and a shotgun. The secondary weapon is the bane of all armories around the world, your standard action game’s unlimited-ammo pistol. The pistol, even in akimbo mode, did not prove to be particularly effective, so I found myself relying heavily on the primary weapon – at least until it ran out of bullets.

Each of the primary weapons did a perfectly good job sending wave after wave of the bastards out of commission, though, admittedly, I found the sniper rifle practically useless since most of the fighting had almost always been point-blank.

If the zombies got to one of the human characters, I could revive them at the cost of being unable to defend myself for a few seconds, and the AI returned the favor by patching me up and giving me painkillers when my character was low on health.

But the single player campaign had very soon started to feel repetitive. In terms of progressing towards the objective, my computer-controlled teammates had absolutely no initiative whatsoever, and shooting zombie after zombie after zombie on my own got boring fast. Eventually, it was just like bashing your head against the coffee table: it feels good when you stop.

Z is for Zombies

Regular zombies do not pose much of a threat. That is left to the so-called Special Infected, the five types of Zombies Two-Point-O’.

The first is the Hunter, a fast zombie that pounces on you and humps you until one of the other Survivors pushes him off, or until you merrily depart from the land of the living.

Second is the Smoker, a zombie with a ten-meter long tongue who can not find a better use for it but to shoot it out at the Survivors and drag them half-way across the map. Again, you’d need a Survivor’s help to make him let go.

Third is the Boomer, a fat boy deader whose special attack is to throw up all over you and attract hordes of zombies while blurring your vision at the same time. It also explodes when you kill it, so better be careful.

Then there is the Witch. She just sort of sits around doing nothing until startled, and then she can take off all your health in just a couple of blows.

And, finally, there’s the Tank. He’s the baddest of the bad, the king of zombies, the undisputed lord of zombiedom. This bodybuilder nightmare’s practically impossible to take down on your own, is fast as hell, and can kill you in just a few hits, and that’s if he doesn’t decide to hurl pieces of the surrounding buildings or cars at you.

Hail to the king, baby.

You’ve Had a Lot of Brains, I’ve Had a Lot of Time, but You Ain’t Had Mine

After making my way through the first campaign, I decided I’m 1337 enough to try an online mode called Versus. In Versus, you spawn either as one of the Survivors or as one of the Special Infected and try to take each other down. The Versus mode can be extremely fun once you get the hang of it, but, sadly, it’s available only for two out of the four campaigns.

Immediately after joining the online game for the Infected team, I had been simply annihilated. The infected you spawn as is randomized between Hunter, Boomer, and Smoker (you can apparently spawn as a Tank, too, but I’ve never gotten that lucky), and the game forces you to wait 15 seconds before re-spawning in a location of your preference after the Survivors blow you away. Having had my arse handed to me, I’ve decided to try the online Campaign mode for a change.

In it, just like in Versus, you can select which Survivor you want to play as, even though they’re identical in everything but looks. Playing with real people as the other Survivors added a lot to the experience and made saving team-mates (or being saved by them) from the Special Infected have a much more personal feel. Unlike my single player experience, as soon as other real people’s (virtual) lives were at stake, shooting zombies in the face refused to get old.

It adds to replayability that the game uses a so-called “AI Director,” code that randomizes the placing of items and zombies each time you play through a map based on how well (or bad) you did, making the levels either easier or harder, accordingly.

Later on, I took another go at the Versus mode. I was a zombie again, and, like before, had the Survivors massacre me time and time again. I eventually figured out that the only way to beat the Survivors was to work as a team, but even though I had the theory, I still sucked at being a zombie.

The experience on the whole, however, had been a thoroughly satisfying one. Welcome to the 21st century: nothing like shooting a real-person-controlled-zombie in the head.

The Gabe Newell Connection

Steam is very much a big part of Left 4 Dead. In fact, Yours Truly had the game just lying in the drawer for more than a week before finally getting temporary internet access to install the thing; you can’t install the game offline.

This, however, is an excusable flaw for a game that is multiplayer in nature. The charm of Left 4 Dead, the sensation of actually fighting off hordes of zombies as you struggle to survive, only comes through when playing with real people. Each campaign map supports four players, one per character, and the Versus mode supports eight, four on each side.

Of course, there’s always the option of going through the campaigns in Single Player mode, but, like mentioned above, that soon becomes as dubious a pleasure as singing the Swedish national anthem while trying to chew through a soda can at the same time.

Eyes and Ears for Dessert

As far as presentation’s concerned, Left 4 Dead does not fail to deliver.

The game runs on Valve’s own Source engine, and even though the game only features 20 maps, each one both looks and plays fantastically well. Little details like the hand-writing on the Safehouse’s walls add a nice touch. Practically all maps take place at night, and the lighting (especially the flashlight effects) is very well-done.

All the zombies look and move very zombie-like, and their death animations look great. Their heads explode nicely, and you can shoot their arms off, too.

It’s the little pleasures in life that count.

Left 4 Dead sound effects do not fall behind. The menacing music is always well timed, the zombies growl constipated zombie growls, and the guns, even the last-resort pistol, all sound like they mean business.

Notably, the map loading screens are styled as film posters, a different one for each campaign. The slogan on one of these posters is “HELL CAME TO EARTH. THESE FOUR ARE GONNA SEND IT BACK.”

Which brings me to the thought that it’s high time I start up Steam and contribute to the worldwide effort of sending hell the hell back.

Post Mortem

According to the developers, the Infected in the game are not re-animated corpses per se, but rather live humans infected with a rabies-like disease that made everybody go mad. Filthy lies. Zombies, the lot of them, best excuse to cry Havoc and let loose the Dogs of War.

My Rating: 4/5 Penguins


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