Like a mythical creature, the co-op zombie shooter has eluded us for years, hiding away in hundreds of trashed design docs and unfinished mods. It’s fitting, then, that Valve, the company that can do no wrong, is the one to shackle this beast. High on its horse following hits like Half-Life, Portal, and the ever-improving Steam digital distribution service, no development studio was more qualified to tackle the idea everyone thought of but couldn’t execute. Left 4 Dead is the product of a team that has mastered its craft, making it look easy.
It feels like familiar ground. The first person view, standard controls, and Valve art direction all serve to ease the learning curve. The experience captures our dreams, and that’s what makes it so comforting. Left 4 Dead is a fully-realized zombie apocalypse with references to Aliens and Evil Dead. It’s escapism for the twenty-somethings who think a real-life zombie infestation or hostile alien invasion would be “totally rad.”
That anarchistic fantasy is typically discussed in the afterglow of a great zombie movie. Shaun of the Dead was one thing, where the characters had time to hurl vinyls at zombies for fun, but Left 4 Dead is devoid of those comical notions. Every turn comes with the threat of being dragged away by a fifty-foot long tongue, being pounced on from rooftops by a clawed beast, or having a bloated zombie puke all over you. My teammate confesses, “I’d be so happy if this really happened.”
Like last month’s Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead paints its world in grim strokes. The fact that many would still glorify these worlds says a lot about our current existence. But unlike Fallout, I doubt the designers of Left 4 Dead went into this intending to spark reflection on their players’ personal world views. Ultimately, it’s more a product of the art design that’s gone into the game. The world is believable, despite an unconnected plot and linear design that funnels you through buildings and alleyways. You don’t question why so many paths are sealed up by barricades because even a pile of furniture or some comment scrawled on a wall tells a story.
It’s that attention to detail that adds so much to a game with no plot and a recycled concept. Valve’s Team Fortress 2 was a competitive multiplayer shooter, but the roles managed to have more character than most story-driven games in recent memory. The successes there have carried over to Left 4 Dead, where the same techniques are used to both tell a story and make a character easy to identify. The four survivors in Left 4 Dead may follow Hollywood archetypes, but their charm is undeniable. You can’t help but smile every time the lone female Zoe complains, “I’m calling zombie bullshit!”
While the four survivors’ designs focus on visual distinction, the infected rely on audio cues. Typical moans and groans aside, it’s the sounds of the special infected that stand out the most. The boomer’s constant belching and puking, the smoker’s strained gags and coughs, and the hunter’s bloodcurdling screams all serve as a reminder that you are being stalked. It’s this addition that evokes camaraderie among the survivors, since any attempts to be a lone-wolf are met with unavoidable death.
The last two special infected err more towards creating acts of heroism and fear among the survivors. The tank intimidates with a roar and gorilla-like gait, focusing on a single survivor– unless others are brave enough to draw its attention. The witch, whimpering and helpless, is typically found blocking important paths. She’s a bit pissy, forcing the survivors to turn off their flashlights and tread carefully or face her wrath.
Besides creating an overwhelming necessity for teamwork among the survivors, the special infected serve another more interesting purpose. Four more players can assume the roles of the infected. In the hands of a coordinated team, they can be a relentless force – the game completely changes as the survivors will find it necessary to run as fast as possible without losing anyone. Chapters are played in alternation, with the two teams swapping roles between survivors and infected at each round. The dynamic between the two teams creates a completely original multiplayer experience reminiscent of the Splinter Cell series.
The comparisons to Splinter Cell aren’t merely superficial either. Like the spies vs. mercs experience in that gem, Left 4 Dead requires coordination and a competent team to be at its best. Incompetent teammates will leave you frustrated, but grouping with like-minded friends makes the experience sublime. Four difficulty levels alleviate some of those issues, but a fumbling teammate will leave you retrying over and over even on the standard difficulty. Couple that with moments where the “AI Director,” the behind-the-scenes magic that makes each Left 4 Dead session unique, seems intent on killing you, and there will be times where you simply won’t be having fun. Those moments are rare, though– a side effect of a game that’s infinitely replayable.
In a season brimming with multiplayer shooters, it’s more important than ever to stand out from the pack. For many, online-shooter fatigue is setting in, but Left 4 Dead rekindles the moment-to-moment experiences only gaming with friends can offer.