E3 08 Preview: Left 4 Dead
The last time I saw Left 4 Dead from Valve Software and Turtle Rock Studios, I came away impressed but still a little concerned that the game resembled a mod more than a fully-realized new experience. Sure, its brand of first person shooting and horror action was fun as hell, but it still seemed to have just that slight amateurish element to it that would make it fun for those who got deep into it but not quite enough to bring the game into the limelight. And after seeing the game at E3 this year, I now know why they delayed it for the full year that they have: to do it some justice.
Left 4 Dead pits four players against a massive horde of zombies that are climbing over each other to take out these unlikely heroes. These four are alone, seemingly stuck in a city full of the undead with little help and only their guns and wits helping them to stay alive. They'll need to work together and help, heal, and revive each other when they go down, and of course shoot a hell of a lot of zombies to clear a path on their way out of the city.
Last year at QuakeCon, Left 4 Dead was a slower experience. The zombies were a little sluggish, the pace of the action was toned down, and the surprise floods of the undead just weren't that surprising. But now, all that has changed. You'll often be funneled into areas where zombies are waiting to come in on all sides, forcing you and your buddies to create firing solutions that cover all angles yet don't cause you to shoot each other. The zombies will pour in at high speed, forcing you to push them away and keep shooting (and you'll have a solid amount of ammo to do this with, too) until they're cleared out.
The mission I got to play was one I had done before, and while last year it ended with me having my face eaten in a near-win in the final seconds of the level (don't most of the playtesting sessions for Left 4 Dead end up this way?), I still had a blast. This year, I came in about halfway through the hospital level, where we're fighting our way to the roof of a hospital that was undergoing expansive construction when the zombocalypse hit. The players must move down creepy hallways full of the walking dead, plowing huge groups of them, even when they bust right through the sheetrock to attack. Eventually the survivors get into the construction areas and the attacks pick up, with fat zombies possibly exploding right on top of the humans, zombie vomit flying around, and tough Hunter variants zipping around on walls and knocking people down with nearly instant attacks.
The fight on the rooftop is excellent, though. Last year we tried to prepare with gas canisters and didn't spend much time with the mounted machine gun, but this time I figured I had it covered. I loaded up the machine gun and mowed down dozens of zombies coming around corners as we made our stand, waiting for a helicopter to pick us up. Unfortunately, my teammates didn't do much to cover my backside where an occasional zombie would sneak up on me, and the damn gun only had about a 135 degree turning arc, so I eventually was overrun when several of them came at once and a huge group came dashing at me from the front. I felt alone, fighting against them all, eventually dropping down off the topmost section of the roof to try and catch my breath when a Hunter landed right in front of me and finished me off. None of my other three buddies came, and instead were all on their own fighting things off without working together.
It was disappointing to wind up doing worse this time than we did together in the game last year, but one thing that I have come away with is the impression that Left 4 Dead is an excellent multiplayer experience with great motivators for teamwork and some really fun gunplay. The big 'if' to me is whether playing as the zombies - specifically, the nastier ones - is just as much fun or not. I do appreciate that developers are working on making teamplay games that have long, lasting goals and do a good job of keeping everyone in play most of the time, even if they aren't so great at the game. That's an issue that the Counter-Strike developers never did seem to want to bother to solve.
While the year-long delay of Left 4 Dead has caused doubts in some gamers' minds, the graphic and gameplay overhaul that it's gotten in that time will almost surely pay off once it's released. And this time around Valve seems sure, as there's now a specific release date of November 4th, 2008. So far we've only seen the PC version in action, but the 360 port is hitting stores on the same date, and of course the PC version will be both in stores and on Valve Software's Steam gaming service. Zombie game fans should be in for a real treat.