Tuesday, January 20, 2009

20cc reviews: Left 4 Dead

It's very sad how few games worth notice have been released lately. And this is in the aftermath of the Christmas rush. It seems like we should have something to play, and yet so little of what there is is any good. I had high hopes for so many games at the end of last year, and so many were disappointing.

Essentially I'm trying to justify writing about a game that's been out since November.

The first thing I will say about Left 4 Dead is that it's a Valve game. This means two things. First, that I had very high expectations for it. Second, that I had to wait more than a year after the originally scheduled release date to play the damn thing. I understand Valve's commitment to quality, but generally it results in my forgetting about the game by the time it's finally released. This was the case with the Orange Box, and Left 4 Dead. I followed it faithfully for several months, and then when Valve continued to ignore the release date, I lost interest.

Well, it's out now, and I've played it, and I have to say it's pretty good.

I'll give a summary, for those of you who don't follow Valve's work as closely as I do. Like so many of their games, Left 4 Dead is inspired by, or rather blatantly copied from, a mod made on Valve's Source Engine. This was true of Counter-Strike, Portal, Team Fortress and, I believe, Day of Defeat. In other words, all of Valve's games except Half-Life. I don't hold it against them, though, because they tend to greatly improve on the third party games.

In the case of Left 4 Dead, the inspiration was an entire line of mods, themselves based on the omnipresent and seemingly inexplicable human fascination with zombies. There isn't much of a plot, since the game is designed mostly for the multiplayer. This is a problem for me, since I don't like playing online most of the time. However, unlike Counter-Strike or Team Fortress, Left 4 Dead is still fun to play alone. The player selects one of four campaigns and is then thrown into the shoes of one of four survivors, lost in a zombie infected city or countryside, depending on the campaign. The objective is simply to fight through the endless hordes of flesh-starved monsters to reach the next safe house. A safe house marks the end of each of the four levels within a campaign. After the forth level, the players reach the extraction area, and are required to hold off the horde until help arrives.

Valve has taken this amazingly simple, quadricentric format and made it into something undeniably addictive. For one thing, the zombies themselves are fascinating to watch. Those of you who know the game will probably wonder why I chose to mention this before the Director. Because it was the first thing I noticed. When you watch from a distance, the zombies stumble around, rest on the ground or, strangely, with their foreheads against walls, even fight and kill each other. When they hear you, you can almost see the recognition on their faces, the sudden dawning comprehension, and when they run at full speed toward you in a meticulously lifelike sprint, it can be really terrifying.

The next thing about the game is the aforementioned Director. This is what gives the remarkably short game such good replay value. It was made with a program that observes your progress and factors in your life, ammunition, speed, and other values. It uses this information to decide where to put weapons, medkits and ammunition, where to spawn zombies, and when to bring the horde to harass you. This means you will never play the same level twice. You can never count on finding a new weapon in the same place. You may reach a box in which there used to be a medkit, open it and discover only a bottle of painkillers. It isn't the kind of game in which you can peek around each corner and snipe each zombie, since if you move too slowly the zombies will decide to come looking for you.

In addition to the cannon fodder zombies are four (surprise) “Special Infected:” the Hunter, the Smoker, the Boomer and the Tank. These four don't abide by the normal horde rules and instead move around the edges of the level, actively hunting the players. In online Versus mode, other players take control of the Specials, and each one comes with a special abilities. The Hunter moves quickly, pounces and survivors, and tears at them with its claws. The Smoker has a long tongue that it uses to catch and throttle survivors, and it releases a cloud of smoke when killed. The Boomer vomits a pheromone-laced bile that attracts the horde, and explodes violently when shot. The Tank is big, and it throws things, and not at all easy to kill. Just to add a little more fun, there is one more Special that cannot be controlled by humans in Versus, the Witch. The Witch sits quietly in a corner and cries. If you shine a light on it, or shoot it, or walk too near it, it gets up and kills you. Don't screw with the Witch.

There are, however, a few problems with the game. For one thing, the graphics aren't quite up to the level of the current generation. That's not so much a problem for me, however, since I'm running it on my laptop with a 1.7 GHz processor that can't handle the game at high quality anyway. The bigger problem for me was the way they designed the weapons. When I first heard what weapons were available in the game—a pump shotgun or Uzi at tier 1, an automatic shotgun, M16 or hunting rifle at tier 2—I was impressed with the way they seemed to be trying to use weapons that would be relatively easy to find in the case of a zombie apocalypse. However, this attempt at realism is negated by the fact that you can carry so much ammo, it doesn't really matter which gun you're using. Zombie just within sight? Carrying a shotgun? No problem, take the shot. If you don't hit it the first time, take another shot, you can spare a couple shells. If you do manage to run out, which will probably happen only if you're playing on Expert difficulty, then you can switch to your pistol, which has unlimited ammo. I recognize that Valve makes shooters, as a rule, but that doesn't mean you should be able to enter every room guns blazing. The rest of the inventory is well designed to create a feeling of desperation. You can carry, in addition to your two guns, one medkit, one bottle of painkillers, and one thrown weapon, either a Molotov cocktail or a pipe bomb, on the occasions that you find them.

The game is definitely worth the price, my only wish is that they had limited the pistol ammo, and lowered the ammo cap a tiny bit.

As a closing comment, if any of you are too cheap to buy the game, or are just interested in seeing some of the third party zombie mods, I would suggest you take a look at Zombie Panic. It's free, can be downloaded from Steam (If you're into PC gaming and don't have a Steam account, I highly recommend that you get one. You can get them at <http://store.steampowered.com/>, just click on the button on the left side of the screen for a free client download.) and is a good deal of fun. It has a tense, quick paced feel, a good variety of interesting weapons—like a golf club or computer keyboard—and a weight-based inventory system, something that is generally reserved for the the RPG sphere. I would play more of it myself but, for some reason, my computer seems to have a problem with multiplayer mods.

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