Left 4 Dead: A (belated) review

I see what you did there...four fingers...left 4 dead. Ha. Ha.Welcome to the zombie apocalypse. Hope you brought friends. That’s the basic premise behind Valve’s latest game and they run with it. This game is not for the kiddies, or even some easily frightened adults. It’s dark, it’s spooky and there are ominous messages written on walls and odd bloodstains on the floor. Not to mention the imminent death lurking down every shadowed hallway. For the shambling dead, zombies can be awful stealthy.

When you boot this game up, the first thing it’ll ask you is who you want to play as. There are four choices, all of them standard horror genre staples. You’ve got Bill the gruff ex-army guy, Louis the office worker with a penchant for hitting the firing range, Francis the tattooed biker, and Zoey the horror movie enthusiast. Picking a character is merely for personal preference and catchphrases as any of them can use any of the available weapons. Got your favorite stereotype? Alright then, let’s kill some zombies. Lots and lots of zombies.

When you enter campaign mode, or the main storyline of the game, all four characters on the screen are in a “safe room” where you can stock up on health packs and ammo. Each person can have two weapons; everyone gets a pistol with unlimited ammo and one other weapon. Your choices are the shotgun, the sniper rifle or the assault rifle. If you’re alone or your friends have the patience, I recommend taking a moment to read the scrawled handwriting on the walls of each safe room. Not only is it eerie and well placed plot points (and some of the very few you get) sometimes there is valuable information about where to go. Right then. Let’s bust down this red metal door and wreak havoc. But wait! This is not your average “I’m super awesome and can take on the entire world population in zombie form” video game. This will require strategy. This will require teamwork. And above all, it will require staying with the group! If possible, bring along some friends to play with you or just hop online and the game will put you in with like minded people. Though Left 4 Dead can be played alone, it is ultimately a multi-player experience.

However, if your friends are too busy to save the world, the NPC’s will be happy to help. Valve did a pretty good job on the A.I. for the campaign. They are less likely than your real friends to ‘accidentally’ shoot you in the back of the head in the heat of battle, but also more likely to die as they seem bent on using their health packs to heal you instead of themselves. This seems cool until you’re alone in the subway because the horde of zombies just ate your friends. However, they won’t ever be clipping into a wall or shooting at nothing either. So it’s a trade off.

Gameplay consists of the standard get from point A to point B without being killed or eaten. Each chapter is split up into it’s own miniature movie with its own scenes, giving the budding zombie killer twenty levels to practice their firearms and Molotov tossing skills in. Valve threw in a few new things to mix it up and keep it interesting though. There are new Boss Zombies, or zombies that can apparently think instead of just run barreling into your shotgun blow. The five types are the Smoker, Boomer, Hunter, Tank, and Witch. Each has it’s own unique way of making your life miserable and a variety of strategies for killing or avoiding. Added to this is the fact that every time you load up the game, whether in campaign or multiplayer, the level is different. Oh sure, the main pieces of the set are still in place but don’t count on that ammo, health pack, or Molotov to be where it was last time. Ditto on the zombies. Where once a room was a safe place to reload and heal up, it may now be a swarming mass of animated flesh. Also as an interesting side note, zombies hate loud noises with a passion not seen since they first craved human flesh. So don’t set off the car alarm with your sub-par assault rifle skills unless you want seventy zombies freaking out on you. Or, turn it to your advantage by making a pipe bomb and watch the horde kick it until they explode into a fine pink mist.

All this though is merely training for the big leagues. The meat of the game, pun half intended. Competitive multiplayer. Because as much fun as it is to work with your friends against A.I. zombies, it is a hundred times more satisfying to eat your friend’s brain because he stupidly wandered off into the woods alone. Tough love buddy.

Again, when you fire the game up it’ll ask you to pick a character. You can choose to side with the survivors and work together to live or you can choose to be the walking dead and work together to kill. Playing a human, the mechanics are the same as the campaign mode only slightly ramped up since you have to account for your buddies’ intelligence instead of the computers. Or maybe ramped down, if your friends seriously fail at sneak attack. As a zombie, you are randomly assigned to one of three of the Boss Zombie types each time you spawn: Hunter, Smoker or Boomer. Each plays uniquely and requires teamwork and tactics to make them the best human killers they can be. Hunters spring like rabid spider monkeys onto their victims and tear away, smokers hide in the distance and use their excessively long tongue to drag stragglers into the dark and the Boomer vomits or explodes green goo all over the survivors which acts like catnip to the regular NPC zombies, causing them to swarm. Once or twice in a round, one of the people playing a zombie will be turned into the Tank, for maximum chaos and destruction. Sadly, the Witch is never playable but she is there and able to be used tactically. And let’s not forget the hordes of NPC regular old zombies.

There are very few drawbacks to this game and all of them are nitpicky. The storyline is extremely light, leaving the player to deduce exactly how and why the zombies are invading. Cut scenes, while understandably few and far between to keep the pace breakneck, offer little in the way of explanation. A handful more weapon choices would have been nice (I wanted my homemade flamethrower or even some standard grenades). And even though the characters have a far deeper grab bag of catchphrases to pull from, eventually it will get tiresome. If the game is going well though, you’ll barely notice these little flaws over the gunfire and screams for help.

All things said and done, Left 4 Dead is one of, if not THE most addictive multiplayer games on the market today. The combination of level variation and the absolute must of strategy and teamwork make this a game you’ll play over and over again. After all, wading into a sea of undead to save the world never gets old, does it?

Rated M for Mature for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence and Language. Available on Xbox 360 and PC.

For more information, visit the website at http://www.l4d.com

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