Left 4 Dead
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Just How Long have we been waiting for this? A four-player co-operative shooter in a city overrun by zombies - a concept so obviously wonderful (and wonderfully obvious) that it could have been plucked from the halls of the very gods.
The initial release of Left 4 Dead will consist of four large campaigns (each spanning five or so maps) which will cover a mile's worth of streets, tunnels, decaying buildings and general urban claustrophobic spaces - all devoid of human life but packed with the Infected. The general rules of play are simple: don't get your noggin nibbled and do your best to escape.
"In one campaign, the Survivors have holed up on the rooftop of an apartment building, explains the game's creator Michael Booth when further details are demanded. "Their food and water supplies have run out, but they've seen a military helicopter making occasional visits to the helipad on the roof of the hospital across the city. They decide to run the gauntlet to the rooftop helipad in the hope of radioing the helicopter and escaping." In between them and the hospital, however, lie 'fast' zombies of the 28 Days Later ilk, boss creatures who can lob cars and puke zombie attractant juice on your team members and not very much ammo at all.
"The overall objective of 'survive and escape' works well because the moment-to-moment experience is very fluid and intense, continues Booth. "Working as a team, rescuing friends from various dangers that flare up, fighting the hordes as well as Infected bosses, finding your way through the sprawling landscape - all of which occurs in unpredictable areas and at unpredictable times. It should all keep players on their toes."
One Smart Zombie
Left 4 Dew/originally sprouted from (Valve chums) Turtle Rock's work on Counter-Strike bots in Condition Zero. The quality of the bots they created utterly eclipsed that of the finished game, and Al remains at the forefront of their infected plans.
"When you say, Our zombies have excellent Al', it sounds a bit odd since most people equate Al with doing clever behaviours and being smart," continues Booth. "However, it also includes things that people take for granted such as knowing how to walk, run, crawl, jump or climb from point A to point B, which can be very complicated. A horde of Infected becomes much less intimidating if they all get stuck on a car in the street...
And so, coupled with a few nodules of cleverness that let the Al talk to the engine's animation, and ragdolling functions to give zombie horde deaths a mite of the old 'spectacular', your foes will be able to go everywhere you can - and do it worryingly quickly. Or, as Booth indicates: "Whatever an enraged person might do in a similar situation to get to the target of their rage."
Hunter And Hunted
But of course, the zombie plague isn't just made up of undead businessmen and tramps - the Infected come in far more fearsome guises than this. The Hunter, for example, boasts remarkable speed and the ability to leap massive distances - even up walls. The Smoker, meanwhile, has a long tongue capable of plucking a member of your squad right off their feet and out of the sanctuary of the group. Surviving in a zombie-infested town means covering each other's backs and moving in formation, but with creatures like this around it's not going to be easy. Luckily, there's a way to escape the anxiety of being stalked. If you fancy running around like you're about to miss your bus and are pretty angry about it you can play the game as a zombie instead. Or, indeed, one of his more powerful counterparts.
"It's thrilling to perch on top of a 15-storey office building as a Hunter and peer down at the Survivors fighting for their lives," explains Booth. "You wait for your opportunity and then pounce, pinning your victim to the ground and begin to shred them, causing immediate panic among the Survivor team."
With co-op gaming fast emerging as the number one trend this year (see also Kane & Lynch, MOH: Airborne and Gears of War) Left 4 Dead is the clear leader of the slavering pack. More co-operative zombies in games please.
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Any game whatsoever can immediately be rendered fun through the inclusion of a co-op mode. A game in which four players stand around slowly getting buried deeper and deeper in sand would be fun, for example, simply for the witty repartee of your friends and glib remarks about its (presumed) crap framerates and crippling load times.
A game in which you and your strangely dressed companions stand around next to a tree, discussing bags and boots while waiting for someone else to log on so you can get on with things - that's pretty much World of Warcraft, and 11 million people find that fun. so they can't be wrong. In short, even a game in which you're doing the square root of bugger all is fun if you've got a couple of mates in there with you, painstakingly mulling over the manifold reasons why they think you might be gay.
Take this nascent co-op fun factor, blend in some heavy firepower, several drops of Valve patent-pending magic beans, and thousands upon thousands of sprinting zombies that lean into bends as they power towards you while screaming to high heaven, and what you've got is the gaming adrenalin-rush of the year. It can't be denied: Left 4 Dead is every single shade of awesome.
For latecomers to the zombie apocalypse, let's run over the basics. America has become infected by a mysterious plague that has turned most of its inhabitants into the 28 Days Later... variation on the zombie theme (ie not the living dead, but people turned into cannibalistic monsters).
Bad To The Bone
You and your mates (mysteriously transposed into the forms of a sexy brunette, a gruff Vietnam veteran, a tattoo-heavy biker and a black bloke wearing a tie) are among the immune - and in each of the game's four campaigns you must battle your way through five linked areas, each heavy on Infected hordes, towards salvation. The odds are against you. The military aren't coming, but at least someone lias left ammunition at regular (if randomised) intervals and Molotov cocktails in every public toilet or two.
Getting down to nuts and bolts, the zombie hordes are magnificent. When they haven't been alerted to your presence they shamble around - fighting amongst themselves, vomiting on the floor, leaning against walls and groaning. Some won't even attack, they'll just stare at the ground as you approach - grunting. Listen hard enough and you'll realise they're actually saying, "Run! Run!" More often than not though, they'll become enraged and rampage -sometimes spawning from a nearby comer (at the whims of the Al Director mastermind rather than scripting) or summoned by one of your party accidentally setting off a car alarm, getting a rusty lift to stir into life, or being drenched in Boomer vomit
Brains And Guts
When the Infected rush, it really is a thing to behold - there are often so many on-screen that you're not so much taking aim as hosing an acre of pallid flesh with bullets. Limbs fly, heads are decapitated, you scream and you shout with horror and delight (real-life you, that is) and r companions are left wounded on the floor - letting off pistol shots in a vague attempt to help out Zombies jump, swarm and climb over everything and anything; fences, walls, rooftops, cars... none are an impediment to an enraged member of the Infected. Bullets go this way and that, and seeing as friendly fire is most definitely on (and impossible to turn off) there's often a lot of accidental damage dealt in the panic.
Some of the Infected though, for biological reasons unknown, have been assigned duties over and above that of your common or garden fast zombie. Some have become the aforementioned Boomer - obese tubsters intent on spewing green vomit over you and your friends to entice the horde, whose vast forms explode into a cascade of guts with a couple of bullet strikes. Meanwhile Smokers fire their tongues at stragglers, dragging them into danger and constricting their breathing; Hunters leap about the place - landing on chests and scrabbling at bellies; and muscle-packed Tanks (think zombie Hulk) appear every now and again to the sound of distant pounding and promptly start knocking cars in your direction.
Each two-hour(ish) campaign is split into five lumps - separated by safehouses where you can relax, heal up and the game can load up the next environment There are airports, train stations, small towns, cornfields, farmhouses, ominous woods, hospitals, building sites, office blocks and churchyards to navigate (see On the campaign trail'), and each campaign is subtly different - in tone and scripted events, if not the ebb and flow of gameplay. Each has a finale in which you must hold out against the Infected until the help you've radioed for arrives -whether you're atop a skyscraper, hiding in a child's bedroom with far too many doors and windows, or standing on a petrol tanker on a broken runway.
When played on higher difficulty levels, these are L4Ds true hallmarks of brilliance - you'll experience endless failures, coupled with endless joy and instant reloads.
En route to this there are various other typical zombie situations that are embedded into the campaign's structure, away from the machinations of the unseen Infected controller that ensures that zombie (both specialist and run-of-the-mill) placement and high-powered weapon drops are random. You might need to wait for an elevator to arrive, for example, or perhaps to start a car so that it crashes through an airport security desk and simultaneously enrages every zombie in a square mile radius. And as soon as they're enraged, you'll whoop and you'll holler and you'll scream with joy:
If you haven't played Left 4 Dead yet, you may well think you've already got the measure of it - but there's a myriad of little touches you won't have counted on. Stuff like the messages written on the walls of safe houses that detail the plight of fellow survivors - messages to loved ones, advice on where to find safe zones or scribbled time-lapsed conversations on the increasingly desperate situation.
The sound effects, meanwhile, are quite magnificently bodily. The Boomer makes belching, burping noises that almost make you feel nauseous, while the Smoker coughs and wheezes, meaning you're simultaneously put on edge by their proximity and drawn into this most squelchy and corporeal of plagues.
This Valve magic, this thinking beyond the realm of necessity, is simply everywhere. From the sinister music and wailing that accompanies the presence of the Witch (see 'Meet the Witch') to the way the game plays with the 'film stock' quality of the visuals and even the colour palette of buildings and the like to unconsciously inform you of what's going on and the danger levels of the situation you're in. The zombies are even dressed in ways that befit the area you find them in, with patients in Mercy Hospital-running around in surgical gowns with their arses hanging out. Even if said hospital seemed to treat only flabby men.
Tiny details are everywhere. At one point I was playing with a fellow reviewer, a nice Austrian man, and two bots - we had reached a natural pause in proceedings and he called me back to an overflow pipe that was pouring water into a gutter. "Look! he said, "When I stand under this water, it bounces off my head!"
I agreed, as the water was indeed spattering off his sexy brunette head, just as it would in the real world. We stood there looking at each other for a second or two, but were interrupted by him being pounced on by a Hunter and me knocking it off and shooting it twice in the face with a shotgun. It was really quite emotional.
Yet another lovely touch is the contextual dialogue - still a bit of a hobbyhorse for Valve, as seen in Team Fortress 2. This gives certain situations dialogue options to play at apt moments, or not at all. As such, you could have played through a campaign four or five times and still be surprised when one of the characters makes a quip about how much they hate fast zombies, and how they're pissed off that they're not slow, proper zombies. It doesn't always work: sometimes a character will scream about someone being pinned down by a Hunter when said beast's brain has already been blown into the great beyond. But it adds an extra dash of originality to each playthrough.
Remarkably in a review already demarked by a somewhat glowing nature, we haven't actually got to the second helping of the game yet - the aspect of it that will give it a dash of longevity over and above the four campaigns that (with the best will in the world) you won't be playing forever. Versus mode lets four of you play the game co-op, as usual, but also lets up to four rivals occupy the minds of the specialist zombies out to thwart you.
If playing as a zombie, you appear at the same place as your living foes, and you have to race off ahead to where they can't see you to enter the game proper. You can also scuttle up certain paths onto roofs or behind breakable walls before starting the hunt - Boomers spew zombie attractant with a left-click; given a decent view Smokers automatically lock onto rivals' necks to snag them with their tongues; and when crouching and left-clicking, Hunters can leap all over the place - ultimately on top of their unfortunate prey. And every. now and then someone even gets randomly selected to play the Tank, and the results are rarely anything but thrilling.
A good team will coordinate all four skills, royally screwing over their opponents and killing them before they reach the next safe zone.
When they're dead, or they reach a safe house, scores are collated, roles are reversed and the level is played again the pattern repeating all the way through to the campaign's finale.
At first it's strange - and a bit weird not only seeing every player through the walls when playing as an Infected, but also the long-ish spawn times and having the computer decide which variant of zombie you're destined to be. Once you get it though, you're hooked. The mood of Versus, currently open to only the No Mercy and Blood Harvest campaigns, is markedly different to straight Al-led Left 4 Dead. It's pacier and non-stop in its action - human players need to rush to the end of the level, and the Infected are spawning regularly to stop them.
Some of the situations that crop up are simply hilarious, my personal highlight being when I had finally staggered into a safe house to join my teammates and turned around to shut the door - only for an Infected player hiding in the shadows (actually the aforementioned Austrian) to fire his projectile tongue at me and drag back out into the fray, where someone from Shacknews drenched me in vomit. My human allies foolishly ventured back out to save me, but died in the resulting onslaught - losing us the round.
So, does L4D have weaknesses? Well, if you're not playing with the full four players in the campaigns or the full set of eight in Versus, you won't be having as much fun as you could. The Al that fills the gaps in the absence of a full deck of players just about does the job, but often lags behind or attempts to heal you at entirely inopportune moments - more importantly though, they don't shout "Boomer!" or "I'm being tongued!" through your headset Good as the game is, there's no denying that your first play through a level will be the best - and there's no way you should tarnish it with anything less than the full complement of players. Or indeed playing it without a headset to talk to them through - it should be in the system requirements.
Despite its efforts at level randomization in terms of zombie flow and the fun of Versus, I'd also argue that L4D doesn't have eternal replay value, as do the likes of Counter-Strike and Team Fortress 2. Obviously things can be mixed up in terms of difficulty levels and the people you're playing with, but the more you play the more accustomed you are to which areas are coming next and how they're likely to pan out Then again, with Valve promising new creatures, new campaigns and existing maps redone with Versus capabilities that will be sent to you through the Steam pipe (presumably for free, if you look at the TF2 model) it does seem a bit churlish to moan excessively about it.
Left 4 Dead is a monumental pillar in multiplayer gaming; playing it without yelping in delight is like eating a doughnut without licking your lips. You honestly won't know the true meaning of friendship until one of your mates has blasted a Hunter off your stomach and patched you up with their own health pack. It almost makes you wish for your very own Infected zombie apocalypse. For a lack of better words, it's groovy.
You've got to raise at least one eyebrow when Valve's buddies at Turtle Rock Studios claim that with Left 4 Dead, they're out to beat Counter-Strike - but that's exactly what they're planning on doing. They're adamant that with their four-way zombie co-op survival horror extravaganza they can supersede the most widely played online shooter on the planet, and having flown to Valve, taken part in the undead slaughter and relished the sort of interdependent gameplay so rarely seen in PC games, I can say that Turtle Rock Studios have a good chance of doing just that.
With one foot on the back of Valve's tried-and-tested Source engine, and another on the head of Mike Booth, master bot Al designer who earned his stripes developing Counter-Strike's dead-eyed CPU foes, Turtle Rock are peeking over the wall of potential, and into the garden of wondrous, original co-op fun. Left 4 Dead is what they see.
I take my place in front of the playtesting PC with Valve writer (and Old Man Murray alumnus) Chet Faliszek by my side, as one of Left 4 Dead's four campaigns is loaded and players from throughout Valve's Bellevue offices begin to fill the server. I am one of the four human survivors, a John Everyman business type who's found himself in the middle of a zombie virus outbreak without even a suit for comfort. To my left and right, stocking up on guns and ammo from a handy weapons cache on the rooftop we've started on, are the other survivors. There's a big biker-looking chap, a war veteran probably secretly loving the opportunity to shoot things, and a 'pick me to make people want to give you their med-packs' pretty rich girl who, at odds with her appearance, knows how to blast holes in zombie torsos. In practice, of course, they're all just different player models and voicesamples. The only real choice is in what you grab from the table of weapons.
To make a total player count of eight, four other players have spawned as four special zombies who live happily among the ravenous hordes. The Boomer, a fat flesh-balloon filled with explosive gases and zombie-attracting vomit. The Hunter, a quick and agile zombie who jumps out of dark corners. The Smoker, with his 50-foot prehensile tongue. And the Hulk, who is not unlike his greener namesake. As the survivors make their way through the level, it's these infected players who must stop them with their particular zombie powers. Helpfully, they've got infinite lives, so they won't be worried about being a tad gung-ho.
All Outta Gum
The weapons on offer aren't terribly interesting. I grab a pistol and a shotgun, rationalising that shotguns are always the best choice where zombies are concerned. A grenade slips into my inventory, and I forego the submachine gun and the molotovs. You could describe the available weapons as either mundane or classic, depending on your outlook, but they won't be the reason people play Left 4 Dead. The game is about co-operative teamplay -and not the sort of teamplay you find in Battlefield where it'd barely be noticed if you logged off to eat some bourbon biscuits, but the kind of teamplay in which everything yon do directly affects your three compadres. It's precisely because the team is so small that this dependency on teamwork exists, and on every level of gameplay you're encouraged to help each other out.
Generously, my team-mates allow me to take the lead, as we make our way down through the apartment building. It's not long before I have my first encounter with the infected. The Al-controlled undead on show here are staggeringly well animated. They spill out of doorways in their droves, at times at least 20 of them on screen at once. They sprint down streets towards you at high speed, climbing over burntout cars, leaning into corners as they run - there's something terrifyingly purposeful about how they come at you.
When shot, they stumble to the ground mid-sprint, their faltering a mix of animation and physics, Faliszek informs me. Oh yes, these are good zombies, these are running zombies from 28 Days Later (count how many times this game will get associated with that movie), and they feel great to kill.
A few dozen undead corpses in and we come across the first of the four player-controlled infected. In Left 4 Dead, the four humans appear through walls as yellow silhouettes when not directly visible, meaning team-mates can always tell where the rest of their team is, even from rooms away. It also means the infected players can ambush the humans simply by waiting around corners.
In this situation, the Smoker has been waiting for us, perched at the edge of a hole in the floor above, looking down into the room we're about to enter. The first clue that there's a Smoker nearby is, well, the smoke. It fills rooms and makes it difficult to notice a long black tongue snake downwards and wrap around your team-mate's neck before lifting him 4ft off the floor. Once he's trapped in the fleshy noose, he'll uselessly dangle there like a frequently parodied ex-dictator, with only a few precious seconds of life left. It takes the quick-thinking trigger finger of another team-mate to persuade the Smoker to let go. Score one point for the survivors.
These are the times when the game comes into its own. Whether they're trapped under a Hunter, lying wounded on the floor or just perilously clinging to a ledge after being punched out of a window by a Hulk, saving a team-mate is a brilliant feeling, and it creates countless unscripted moments of fear (and subsequent relief). Small touches like the ability to lock doors as well as shoot holes in them add some spice to the proceedings, while the so-called Al Director works silently in the background to orchestrate the flow of zombie hordes.
What this means is that sometimes you'll be tentatively making your way down a deserted alleyway, while other times you'll be overrun by enemies. Play through the same section a second time and the locations and strengths of each wave of brain-hungry foes will be different. It keeps you on edge, and when playing as one of the infected four you'll be waiting for the humans to be defending themselves from the Al before you attack.
Actually taking control of the infected turns Left 4 Dead into a means of seemingly trying to ruin somebody else's fun. What we played was still a little rough, but the basics are sound. As a Boomer you hide around corners before leaping into the middle of the survivors and belching your juices on them. As a Hunter you wait until you hear somebody reporting the fact that they're reloading before pouncing on them and eating their head. As a Smoker yon lock on to humans before launching your tongue at them, and as the Hulk you chuck cars and debris about like lego. It's simple, brutal, and in essence quite easy.
Our campaign had us heading for a rooftop helipad across the city, from which we were to radio for a helicopter. Left 4 Dead will ship with four campaigns (with extra campaigns planned for release at a later stage), some of which will take place in rural areas as well as the typical urban settings. Broken into five separate maps, the campaign I was playing took about 40 minutes to beat. Could that be too much of a time commitment for random online co-op?
It remains to be seen how the ducks will take to this particular water, and whether this will be played more by groups of friends than random strangers, but Left 4 Dead has enough to keep most players captivated for a full campaign. In between maps you're presented with a scoreboard listing your achievements in that round, as well as your failures. Handing over a health pack to a needier player earns an achievement, as do things like rescuing a team-mate and exploding a Boomer at a time when it didn't harm anybody. Meanwhile, deliberate pot-shots at friends and selfish use of resources puts a big embarrassing mark next to your name. Serves you right too.
So while this isn't immediately similar to any iteration of Counter-Strike, it's apparent that inside its decaying veins flows the same congealing blood. The sort of blood that contains a careful measure of teamplay and fun. Yes, Counter-Strike and Left 4 Dead might be distant cousins - and the latter might also be the kick in the arse Counter-Strike players need to stop playing the increasingly stale but defiantly popular shooter, and start playing something infinitely more interesting.
Don't colour us convinced just yet however, as Left 4 Dead's proof will be found nowhere else but in the online pudding. Minimally multiplayer online gaming might just be the way forward.
Now Usually When you chuck a Molotov cocktail in a game it results in a couple of your foes wandering around while on fire. Not so in Left 4 Dead. Valve's latest has petrol bombs that act like the real thing -covering an entire room's worth of floorspace with scorching, visibilitystealing flames. This is how your correspondent accidentally ignited three of his friends and about 20 screaming, galloping zombies at the exactly the same time in a previously deserted boiler room. Team-mates were angered, representatives from Valve held their heads in their hands, everybody died. Sorry guys.
The disaster happened inside something that's new to L4D: stand-off areas in which hordes of zombie-kind are summoned through the press of a button. Turning on a window cleaner's lift, for example, that takes an age to descend to your level and has squeaky gears that prove an inexplicable zombie attractant In recent months, an added awareness of the ryhthm of zombie movies has infiltrated the game. Intricate pacing has always been a Valve byword, but now the balance is finer. The safety of the reloading and equipment areas is just as important in the process of keeping your adrenaline pumping as the vast areas where you're at the mercy of the zombies' Al director. Tooling up and moving out is just as important as running away and screaming.
It's pretty much impossible to play L4D without whooping and swearing -it's unending in its non-scripted surprises. Whether it's seeing a friend charge round a corner straight into the blubbery explosion of a boomer and then drip with its gore as zombies pile around a corner to eviscerate her, or simply closing a door and watch the slavering braindead punch holes in it - levels are an unceasing and outright delight Importantly, friendly fire is never turned off - bullets will strike your team-mates. In fact, this was aptly demonstrated when I'd been pinned down by an angry businessman with half a face, and was desperately firing off pistol shots while flat on my back. The lovely Zoe got the full force of my ineptitude - straight in the gullet.
No shadow of a lie, Left 4 Dead is as good as you want it to be. It's becoming increasingly apparent that any shit game can be rendered half-decent by the addition of co-operative play, but no FPS has ever had it balanced or paced this well. Or has ever been built entirely around the concept, come to that. Later this year the dead shall rise, and together we will rejoice.
Self-shadowed normal Mapping. That got you sitting up in your seats didn't it? Forget zombie hordes for a second, put the intricate and sophisticated animation system to one side, and focus on what's going to make Left 4 Dead special: selfshadowed normal mapping. What's self-shadowed normal mapping? We had no idea, so we picked up the phone and asked Valve.
"The flashlights are really tied into the gameplay," begins Valve's technical superbrain Jason Mitchell, paving the way for the incoming jargon. "In our past games they were attached to the player, but in Left 4 Dear/they're attached to the weapons. When you reload or use a shove attack, your flashlight tracks that weapon as it moves and points off towards the ceiling or somewhere. So you can't see for a certain amount of time because your light's not pointing straight ahead." This is an effect greatly enhanced by the darkness of L4Cfs urban levels, where a group's ability to cast light into menacing corners could make the difference between life and being strangled by a prehensile tongue.
"Shadows are an important visual cue too," continues Mitchell. "They help you tell where things are in 3D space. So as you're strafing around you're seeing those shadows move and change in a natural and believable way - you're able to quickly perceive that space."
On paper, and even in screenshots, it'll seem like nothing more than a visually pleasing effect - and one, we hasten to add, that's been seen in other PC titles. In motion though, when surrounded by 30 infected maniacs, the shadows give a staggering degree of unconscious feedback, and spatial awareness. Now here conies the science.
"In self-shadowed normal mapping,'' begins Mitchell, having taken a deep breath, "instead of doing all your light calculations on strictly flat polygons, you have a texture map that contains normal information mapped to those polygons, and locally, you're changing the lighting."
Well cut to the final product of this tech-wizardry, which is a subtle but striking lighting effect that goes way beyond your average bump mapping. If you've ever placed a torch along a brick wall and seen how the light picks out and exaggerates every detail of the surface, that's what's happening in L4D. Combined with the other visual effects Valve are bolting on to the Source engine it makes a serious difference. A number of per frame post-processing effects are being employed to ensure L4D will be nothing less than a feat of visual engineering (see Horrifying box).
Talk In Colour
"The filmic post-processing is, from a stylistic standpoint, useful for evoking the style of a classic horror movie,'' explains Mitchell. "We also view postprocessing as another communication cliannel with our players. There are subtle ways of interacting with the player, think of the soundtrack to a feature film for instance.
"We'll use music in that way, but we'll also use the post-processing to communicate game state, for example. So when the player is injured we'll change our colour correction operation to desaturate the environment."
"The stuff they did in Grindhouse was similar," smiles Mitchell, talking about the double-feature version seen in the US, "they did colour grading as well, though they were trying more for the 70s look. They were also going for a damaged film look, so they'd have scratches and areas of overexposure - we're not going for that exact look, but we're certainly in the same vein."
Just as Steam Community came into existence a month or two before Team Fortress 2 arrived, LAD will have its arrival preceded by Steam Cloud, a service which will store your save games and configurations online. This means your campaigns can be saved and resumed from anywhere at any time, even if the friends you were playing with have gone on a holiday.
Outside of all this, I suppose it's worth reminding ourselves that L4D itself remains an energetic and often terrifying co-op shooter - a tense and bloody adventure through four varied campaigns in which you play the role of either a human survivor or one of five uniquely talented infected antagonists. Swarms of Al infectees time their scares expertly, running and clambering across the level with bowel-loosening urgency, and campaigns peak with thrilling stand-offs worthy of Romero, Peckinpah or Leone. Now we can be certain it'll look the part too.
I've Played As Bill in 27% of campaigns. Do you know which one Bill is? I don't, which is why I find Valve's decision to make it known which of Left 4 Deacfs four non-dimensional characters (Bill, The Biker, Black Man, The Girl) you prefer, a bit weird. I'm not saying it isn't interesting; I never choose a specific character, instead allowing the game to randomly pick one for me. This suggests that for Bill to come out higher I've either not played enough games to sandpaper that stat down to the expected 25%, or that other players are actively not choosing him. Perhaps because he's old and therefore hugely unappealing.
Valve's most recent Left 4 Dead update explodes your Steam stats page, peppering you with deadly info-shrapnel such as the above character stat, your favourite weapons, the number of infected killed and people vomited on. It's a self-indulgent sort of statistical onanism, as you'll spend far more time preening through your own precious stats than looking at anybody else's. Of course, you'll fall limp in disinterest the moment somebody starts harping on about how many rocks they've thrown, while you'll all too readily strike up dinner conversation about the number of times you've shat on somebody's face as a Hunter. But because every one of us loves seeing the numbers go up, we love it. It's an age-old incentive that, once it hooks you, keeps you coming back. Why more games aren't supporting stats is a mystery, when even Plants vs Zombies has taken achievements on board.
Other than your PC now ejecting a steady of stream information at your face, Valve's main addition since the game's launch is the Survival mode - the punishing zombie face-off which pits four human players against an unending mass of infected, occasionally throwing in special infected until the point where those occasions occur extremely frequently, with survivors often having to contend with multiple Smokers, and even multiple Tanks. Neat chunks of levels are lifted from campaigns to act as siege arenas, and knowing where to make your stand is half the challenge.
Compared to the Campaign and Versus modes, Survival's a throwaway affair. Typically, until you've learned where to stand and how to use your weapons effectively (pro-tip: use dual pistols against normal zombies and save the shotgun ammo for the tank), you won't last more than five minutes. And as someone who's become frustrated with Versus mode, in which a team with any degree of orchestration will outperform one without, and reluctant to devote 45 minutes to a campaign, the quick-fire nature of the mode is terrifyingly appealing. In fact it's single-handedly brought me back into the game after a month-long absence.
Bronze, silver and gold achievements are dished out depending on how long you can stave off the invasion, and the addon also unlocks Dead Air and Death Toll in Versus mode, meaning you can smash people in the face in an airport and a church, as well as a hospital and a barn.
Valve's philosophy of nurturing their titles long after they're released is well established, and their refusal to fall into the all-too-tempting trap of releasing paid-for DLC is laudable. State of Play's got nothing but love for the tweaking developer (and that's the good sort of tweaking, not the terrible drug rehab sort of tweaking - though the flurried activity of Valve could be indicative of some sort of caffeine-based reward system at the Seattle-based developer).
Just recently, the Left 4 Dead SDK has finally been unleashed, so we can expect the first wave of shopping centre and haunted house maps and "tributes" to George A. Romero's films very shortly. I'd argue that we should hold off on unofficial add-ons (which inevitably bring custom-map running servers with quirky sound files and unsolicited BSP downloads) as long as Valve are actively delivering their pitch-perfect official content - but that's mostly because I'm of the opinion that 9-5% of player-created mods and maps are utter bums. And I say that having edited the Freeplay section of this magazine for one and a half bitter and soul-destroying years.
Chet Faliszek First boarded the Valve mothership when his prodigious writing talents, alongside those of his mate Erik Wolpaw, were spotted at famed gaming website Old Man Murray (oldmanmurray.com). Since then he's worked on the Half-Life 2 Episodes and Team Fortress 2, working with new techniques of contextual dialogue and background storytelling.
Recently Chet's been the face of Left 4 Dead, the non-rotting one at least Will Porter chased the developer through Valve's Bellevue mansions in search of answers.
Onset Of Infection
"Turtle Rock studios were the ones who started it. We'd been working with them on Counter-Strike for a while and every so often they'd come up and show us something new, and see if we wanted to work with them on it The minute they showed us Left 4 Dead my reaction was the same as everyone's the first time the zombies rush: you put your head back a bit, you open your mouth a little - it just hit us.
"They already had the idea for co-op, Michael Booth was the guy who had done the Al for Counter-Strike bots so he really wanted to have Al at the forefront of the game. So, even when our companies were separate, we started working with them on the game. Gabe Newell was sitting with me and Erik Wolpaw at lunch and we were just babbling about the game to him. An hour later, he sent out an email that said, 'Hi Michael. Chet and Eric are going to help you with Counter-Strike'. \Ne asked how much we could do, and he just said to work as much as we liked on it.
"Last winter Valve became one with Turtle Rock, and that opened up extra possibilities. That's where you saw the new art pass happen, the new character models... but that original seed was Michael Booth wanting to do this Al thing. Zombies are great for that."
Fast Or Slow?
"There wasn't a debate. We had fast zombies in Half-Life 2, and I think the dynamic that they bring you, compared to that of slow zombies, is a lot more pulse-pounding. If you think of the first time you see a zombie horde in Left 4 Dead, then think about them if they were moving slow. You'd just think that you could take them down easily, when you should be thinking 'Oh shit They're going to overwhelm me!'"
"The first thing we had to do was make sure that no-one put a heavy story in L4D and ruin it. Erik and I didn't want to dumb it up. A lot of zombie games have a big evil corporation, but we just didn't want that. We wanted people to passively enjoy the story. So some of the story is told through the graffiti, some of the story is told through the characters... we're going to keep having the story leak out.
"Me and Erik know how everything happened. Moving forward, some of the campaigns that'll be released on Steam may not take place after you get to Camp Echo. Some of it will be before, some of it may be even before No Mercy - the first chronological campaign. We can play with time and show you these different vignettes of what happened to these people during their journey."
Zombie Nods And Undead Winks
"Everyone on the staff are fans of horror or zombie movies. For example, for a while we were trying to work in an Evil Dead2 reference - if you remember they filmed a scene by putting the camera on a 2x4in piece of wood and running through the forest. The intro to Death Toll is a tribute to that. Also, as you've spotted, there's a reference to Braindead in Blood Harvest. The guy who does the destruction animation is from New Zealand, and he wanted the lawnmower and the pool of blood in there as a reference to Peter Jackson.
"There's non-movie references too - like the subway advert for the 'Erik's Autumn Flannel' event If you see Erik Wolpaw today, he'll be wearing a plaid shirt. He's a big fan of plaid."
"The specialised zombies came out of us thinking we needed to do certain things to the team. For example, if the team is super-tight together and really hard to get at, the Smoker can pull one of them out and you've got this panicky event of 'We were all together, and crap - now we're not!'. A Boomer attack means that some of your guys are blind, everything's coming at them and so you've got to cover them. The Hunter, well if someone goes off on their own then he's going to own them. Then obviously with the Tank, everyone has to shoot him together as if you go one-on-one with him, you're going to die.
"All these things were built because co-op wasn't just tacked on - they're examples of us thinking of ways to reinforce it. We want you to have to help each other, we want to stop you from running off on your own. And, even if you are working together, we still want you to be fearful and have these moments when the chaos breaks everything apart".
Josh And Banter
"We ended up recording 8,500 lines of dialogue, compared to Half-Life 2: Episode Two that had around 2,500. The released version of L4D has about 6,200 lines - some stuff didn't work out and some stuff we're holding back. A lot of it you won't hear unless you play a lot There are a few references here too, for example in Evil Dead2 there's a pretty famous reference to shotguns, and if you play L4D enough you'll hear an exchange about that. Zoey and Louis both know those movies, this isn't a game where the rest of the world doesn't exist. Louis even talks about Counter-Strike at one point Francis and Bill don't watch zombie movies."
The Zombie Left Behind
"One Infected that was closest to getting in, blit then got incorporated into another one, was the Screamer. The idea of the Screamer was that if you saw him you had to kill him, because he would be about to holler, and have all the zombies start rushing you. Really, he got incorporated into the Boomer, since when he vomits on you it does something similar. Also, originally the Smoker just smoked - he was simply about obscuring your vision and making you move slowly. The minute we gave him the tongue we thought 'OK, we've always had a problem with people bunching up and now we can break that...'"
Only The Beginning Of The End-Times
"There's a bunch of zombie types we've been thinking about, and ones that we've shot around that we may resurrect too. But really, the biggest thing about downloadable stuff would be new maps, new scenarios, new places. A big part of L4D is the initial exploration and we want to keep that going. Hopefully there'll also be a lot of user-made maps, and we're purposefully doing a lot of work to help people make them. In a way, I think it's a call back to the old Doom days, where everyone made their office, their home, and their school in the game. We want people to do the same thing, put their life in the zombie apocalypse."
Don't Think About it too hard, but a few years ago a couple of friends of mine used to enjoy donning Halloween masks and contacting random webcam owners on some instant messaging program. People would scream or laugh at them, or both - it was weird, harmless internet fun. One day they came across a fat, topless man sitting in a bedroom. Before they could disconnect, a baby elephant walked across the screen. Then it came back, and just stood there. A baby elephant, flapping its ears in a topless man's house.
Until I played Left 4 Dead, I thought that was the most amazing thing that's ever happened online. Valve's zombie shooter is astoundingly addictive and riddled with moments of glee and elation not found in other online shooters. With either the grinding progression when playing as the survivors, or the giddy persistence when playing as the infected, L4D is incredible visceral fun. As long as you're not playing with morons.
Here's a game that couldn't work without Steam and its integrated friends list. Playing with a bunch of randoms always guarantees you'll come up against a dolt who runs between your assault rifle and the milling zombie crowds, or drops his Molotov cocktail on your face while a Hunter tucks into your torso. The campaigns, lengthy though they may be, wear thin too. While the underlying gameplay carries the game, we'll be clamouring for content in a month's time.
That said, the recent demo is missing a great chunk of L4D's charm - those epic campaign finales. I was lucky enough to be playing with three other survivors who were charging through Dead Air for the first time. I can only assume their mouths were as agape as mine during the closing scenes. Even if you hate online shooters, you can play Left 4 Dead as a singleplayer game with a beginning and an end and still expect over four hours of content.
Just stop jumping in front of my bullets please.
Getting to talk about the original Left 4 Dead is always something I appreciate. Made by the folks at Valve this game was nothing short of mind blowing when it was first released back in 2008. In a just and right world, we would be on Left 4 Dead 5 by now!
The premise of Left 4 Dead is that the country has been overrun by zombies and you are one of four different survivors that need to do all they can to survive. There is not exactly what you would call a story mode, but there is a story running through the game and there is chatter between the characters that helps flesh them out.
The Fab Four
Left 4 Dead has four different playable characters for you. Bill who is a Vietnam vet, Zoey who is a university student, Francis who is a biker and Louis an average joe who works as an accountant. It is a very diverse and strange cast of characters that are thrust together and have to work together in order to survive. There is not any actual difference between the characters, but you get to hear your character talk as you play and this helps with the story.
Hey It’s the Movies
The way that Left 4 Dead handles its maps is really cool. There are a total of 20 maps that are spread across four different stories. No Mercy is set in the town of Fairfield and they must navigate the streets and a hospital amongst other things. Death Toll will see you on the highway, a church, and a riverboat. Dead Air, from a greenhouse to an airport this movie is nuts! Blood Harvest is set in a forest and is my favorite of the four movies that the game has you playing through. Each movie has its own sections and Valve did release some more as DLC
How To Survive
You have to work as a team in Left 4 Dead. The game features some very dynamic AI known as the Direction. This will change things up on the fly and tailor the game to your skill level. It really is quite clever and it also ensures that you never know what the game is going to throw at you. You cannot just run off on your own, this is a disaster as you will be overrun by the dead. You need to work together and try to come up with a plan. Now, most of the time that plan will go to hell and you will all make a break for it in a desperate attempt for survival. The undead in Left 4 Dead are awesome. There are hordes and hordes of zombies for you to kill. But there are also much more stronger ones. These are The Boomer, The Hunter, The Smoker, The Tank, and The Witch. These have their own special abilities and are much, much harder to kill. For me, The Witch is the best. She is creepy and she puts up one hell of a fight.
Fight Your Friends
There is a player vs player multiplayer aspect to Left 4 Dead as well. In this mode, you can play as the zombies and that is pretty cool. the other players need to try and survive and you need to try and hunt them down! This is a fun addition, but it is not as good as playing through the regular game.
Left 4 Dead may have been surpassed by its sequel, but this is still a very fun game. You can actually get this first Left 4 Dead for dirt cheap and I do think it is worth a play through. If you are new to the series I would certainly recommend you play this one before the second and if you have played the second already…. Well, there is still a lot of fun to be had here.
- The characters are really interesting
- The zombie boss characters are awesome
- Director AI is very cool
- Encourages teamwork
- Each level is like a movie
- It is surpassed by its sequel
- Can sometimes feel unfairly hard