Left 4 Dead Review
To those who say PC gaming is dead, let Left 4 Dead stand as solid evidence that PC game developers can still get just about everything right and stuff it into a nice, tight package. Right now we're seeing a major resurgence of PC gaming, with some fine ports of excellent console titles as well as plenty of cross-platform and original games as well. One of those cross-platform games is Valve Software's Left 4 Dead, a cooperative horror-based shooter that pits four players against the undead hordes of the zombie apocalypse, but this game is clearly more at home on the PC than it is on the Xbox 360. With development by Turtle Rock Studios and plenty of help from Valve's own team, the mouse controls and shooting mechanics are as smooth as Counter-Strike's but with a new environment and different focus, and Valve's combination of playing on dedicated servers, make lobbies, invite friends, and quickly jump into their games bring together the absolute best of online gaming on PCs and consoles.
In fact, no other game has done such an excellent job of integrating dedicated servers with the ease of jumping into games like Valve has with Left 4 Dead. If you don't want to, you'll never see a massive server list, or have to look at pings, or care about how unbalanced the teams are. With the smaller four-player cooperative focus, you'll care a lot more about the in-game performance of your friends than your frame rate or the server you're on. With low system requirements (but solid visuals) and great network code, Valve has made sure your focus is on your group's tactics than your group's ping, or whether bunny hopping works quite like it did in v1.3a or something. It perfectly brings together the "I want fun right now" factor of console gaming and the twitchy, "I need to tweak this one variable by 0.05 in the console" factor of PC game perfectionism in about the best way I've seen yet.
But let's talk about the game. Francis, Louis, Bill and Zoey make up a group of the few survivors left after the zombocalypse hit. They're trying to get to safety, but they've got mass amounts of the Infected in their way, from regular old zombies to the jumping and pouncing Hunters, the sneaky Smokers who pull people away from the group with a long tongue, the bloated Boomers who vomit on the humans, screwing up their vision and luring all the nearby regular zombies to hit them, and the Tanks, massive zombies who can throw rocks and cars and take a ton of bullets to go down. There are also Witches who are often best left alone but in reality usually wind up getting triggered, and huge hordes of regular zombies that will pour out of every doorway here and there in mass numbers. All of these can come in randomized ways throughout the game's diverse set of maps, and many of these environments will do just enough to confuse you and keep you guessing - even if you've run through the level a few times. Sometimes multiple paths will allow for better routes depending on the zombie layout that round, and sometimes turning off that flashlight to avoid the Witch could mean fumbling in the pitch black while other zombies dine on your flesh.
It's this random element that really makes the game interesting, but it's also the AI that helps keep things running smoothly. Hunters and Smokers are very sneaky, even under the control of the server, and you're going to need all four humans working together at just about all times in order to win. That's why the game takes over with AI support for a player who drops out of the game, and honestly, they're really pretty damn good for an AI teammate. Sometimes it was a relief having one bad player quit the game, because having the server take over to play that character meant for a smoother and more fun experience. It's still not quite what I'd call top-notch, and a team of four players working together and communicating with voice chat is still going to be far superior, but Left 4 Dead is actually quite a fun experience even played solo.
There's another way to play too, though: versus mode. In this mode, up to four players take control of the boss zombies and will try to eliminate the player team in a four-on-four game. They get to respawn repeatedly as these zombies and get to keep retrying the tough goal of taking down a solid team of armed-to-the-teeth survivors. A lot of crazy stuff can happen here as four zombie players team up together to all hit the survivors at once, as it's not that often that the game will do this to the player with the same kind of coordination. Some of the game's best moments happen here, although you also have to deal with the attitudes of some players: for some reason, they're fine with dying when it's the game that kills them, but some people lose their temper way too quickly when it's another player that does it. This isn't a surprise, as anyone who's been playing online shooters for a while can attest to this, but for a game that's so focused on having fun without all that crap you usually have to deal with, well, this is one thing that Valve, despite their valiant efforts, can't change: even good and well-behaved players can still get pretty immature when they get beaten by someone else.
That being said, the behavior of your buddies, good or bad, is never a deal-breaker for the entire game - you're far more likely to find decent players who want to work together than antisocial, malcontent loners. And part of that is how the game promotes teamwork with smart tooltips that get everyone on the same page - it's one of the bigger reasons why Left 4 Dead is such a blast to play. The survivors' arsenal is pretty simplistic compared to many games nowadays: single or double pistols, pump or semi-auto shotgun, submachine gun, assault rifle, bolt-action hunting rifle, pipebombs, molotovs, and the all-important ability to shove groups of zombies away from you in a frontal arc. All of the weapons have great uses here, and what we don't get in weapon complexity (no grenade launchers, unlocked guns, or RPG-style stats here) is made up for with the opportunity to participate in some real teamwork. When someone goes down, someone else needs to get them back up. When someone is hurt, either they use their own first aid kit or someone else heals them (or tosses them some painkillers for a temporary health boost). When one player is tackled by a Hunter or grabbed by a Smoker, it's up to the rest to get it off of them quickly. It's a different experience than a score-based, teamplay online game, as it's four people trying to survive and make it to the end in one piece, and Valve has captured this feel very well.
The game is spread out across four campaigns with five levels each. Playing alone and dashing through it may seem like a disappointment by the end, since the AI is not nearly as prone to mistakes (often ones that wind up really fun) that other players are, and in terms of hours, one play-through isn't much. But going through this game multiple times with your friends is where the replay value really comes out, and Valve is committed to adding content to their games for free - just as they have with most of their past games - so it's pretty likely that there are more levels to come.
Left 4 Dead is a fantastic PC game from a technical standpoint. The art direction and survivor designs are great and while the graphics won't quite rival Crysis Wars, it also runs two to three times as fast, allowing for great frame rates on quite a wide range of new to old PCs. The network code is about as good as it gets, there are a ton of solidly-running dedicated servers already, and the lobby and friends system help get you into games very quickly with little hassle. It's just a great experience overall, one where you spend a lot more time in game than you do staring at a menu. If you found Team Fortress 2 on the PC to be a great game, you'll find Left 4 Dead to be just as impressive for many of the same reasons: solid team-based action, a smooth and capable game engine, near-flawless online play, and a focus on fun that is unrivalled right now in PC gaming. And while I still find Steam to be a little too buggy and sluggish to be comfortable just letting it run in my Windows system tray 24/7, I have to admit that its ability to bring together gamers with achievements, cross-communication, and in-game messaging and invites to other games is wonderful.
Left 4 Dead is built for setting up great moments, each of which is unique to those who were there playing at the time. There are daring escapes, brutal one-man last stands as the hordes come from all sides, zombies surprising people by bashing through walls (and hearing them yelp on the mic), and just solid shooter action as four people put their backs to each other and take down dozens of the undead in a symphony of bullets only interrupted by the four survivors' "Reloading!" announcements. If you're looking for the cooperative PC experience of 2008 and you're more interested in guns and zombies than in orcs and swords, then Left 4 Dead is very much a must-have game.