I'd like to think that when the zombie apocalypse occurs, I'll be well prepared and ready to take down the horde of shuffling undead. Dead Rising and Dawn of the Dead have taught me how to survive in a shopping mall. 28 Days Later has taught me that sticking together and staying away from rage-infected monkeys are, both, good ideas. Resident Evil has taught me that walking properly, rather than like a tank, is crucial to staying alive. Shaun of the Dead taught me that killing zombies to Queen is awesome and a good old British pub is the safest place to go. Now with Left 4 Dead added to my collection of zombie apocalypse training guides, I'm pretty much sorted. Come the inevitable zombie uprising, I'll be there; cricket bat and shotgun in hand.
Left 4 Dead really is unlike any game you will play this year. Sure, co-op and multiplayer have been around for a long time, but never have they been moulded with such style, such finesse, such...fun. It's like a delicious gory cocktail. Take 4 parts co-op, 8 parts online, 2 parts gore and blood, 3 parts zombie apocalypse, 1 part tomato juice, 2 parts gin, add crushed ice and serve it all in a zombie skull.
The campaign mode places four survivors, either AI or human controlled, into a zombie infested world and forces them to fight through a number of campaigns, and a much higher number of zombies. There is no story as such, the only story is told through scribblings on the wall, as also seen in Portal, and we don't know much about each survivor's past. This is one of the major flaws in the game, but I honestly didn't care, especially when I was having so much fun reducing a zombie to a mere pile of limbs on the floor. The main aim of each campaign is to get from point A to point B alive. Simple and not too taxing right? Wrong.
A little thing called the Director AI steps in to make your journey a living hell. I honestly suspect that the Director is a troubled man somewhere in Valve HQ. Some say it's Gabe Newell himself, pulling the strings. Whatever the Director is, it's beautifully sadistic and makes Left 4 Dead one of the most replayable titles I have ever had the pleasure of holding in my hands. The Director basically mixes things up a bit each time you play. You will never play the same game again. EVER. Each time you play, something is different. Zombies may be placed in different parts of the level, items may be moved around and hordes may rush at you at different points during the game. Nothing is ever kept the same. Each play through is completely different, like playing a new game. It makes each play a lot more tense as you don't know what is going to happen, and when. It also adds an unbelievable amount of replayability.
This mixing up of the game makes Left 4 Dead one long adrenaline rush. You may start off fighting for your life the moment you leave the safe room, to then move into a quieter area. Even in these quieter areas it can still be tense. You have a few bullets left in your shotgun, no health packs or pills and then you accidentally knock into a car setting off it's alarm. In about three seconds, a horde of zombies will be coming your way to rip you limb from limb. You bunker down in a corner, all 4 of you, and try and pick off as many as you possibly can while trying to stay alive, until the onslaught is over. It finally ends and your heart is beating fast and your blood is pumping. By the end of the seemingly short 1 hour campaigns you will feel mentally and physically drained due to the rush after rush after rush of excitement. It's this that sucks you into Left 4 Dead.
Co-op is the only way to play Left 4 Dead though. Playing solo is fun, especially since the AI controlled survivors are pretty self reliant and will help you out when needed while covering your back, but playing with friends really adds to the experience. For the purpose of this review (*cough* yeah right) I decided to set up a late night co-op session with a bunch of fellow games writers. For the next 4 or so hours there was much shouting, swearing, bickering, laughing, screaming and sighing. And it was the best experience I have had on Xbox LIVE. Be it because of the failed plan to hold off a bunch of zombies in a derelict construction yard, or an attempt to hold ground until the army come and pick us up from an old farmhouse, or the screaming of my team mates as I accidentally went through a metal detector, alerting the horde, every second was amazing. The communication element really shakes up how you play the game. Me and my team were planning strategies, most of which failed because we didn't think them through properly, and screaming swear words as a Hunter leaps at us and rips us apart. It makes you feel as if you are actually fighting through a zombie wasteland, instead of sitting on your couch. We played until the early hours of the morning only stopping because: A) I hadn't slept in so long and B) I had to be up in about 4 hours. Left 4 Dead had suck it's infected teeth into our necks and was not letting go. We had become it's bitch.
For those who get bored of co-op, which is highly unlikely, there is Versus to makes things a bit more interesting. This pits two teams of four against each other through two of the campaigns. First off, it is disappointing that only two of the campaigns are playable as I would have loved to have played as the Infected in Dead Air. Anyway, one team play as the Survivors and the other as the Infected. The Survivors have to get to the safe room with as little damage taken as possible and in the quickest time possible. This then earns them points. The Infected's job is to stop the Survivors from getting to the safe room, by any means possible. However, playing as the Survivors just seems...well...boring. The tension of the campaign has gone because the Infected players respawn after 30 seconds, leaving you no time to recover from a previous onslaught of Infected. The thing that made the campaign so much fun were the quiet sections where everything seemed just that little bit too quiet. Now, you're just getting continually attacked by the Infected players every few seconds and it just, honestly, becomes monotonous.
Playing as the Infected, however, is so much fun it's ridiculous. You get to play as the little buggers who caused you so much hardship in the campaign: the Hunter, the Smoker, the Boomer, the Tank, whilst the Director takes control of the ordinary Infected. The Infected force you to play in a completely different way. Instead of running out and killing all the survivors, you need to think methodically. You need to stalk the rooftops, strategise your attacks to coincide with your team mates to really catch them off guard and pick each survivor off. Just the fact you get to play as the Infected is fun enough, but the whole aspect of having to play differently really adds to the fun.
As well as playing brilliantly, the game looks and sounds fantastic too. The derelict houses, the ruined airports and dark woods all the add to the atmosphere of a post-apocalyptic, zombie ruled world. The detail on the zombie faces, as well as the detail on the Survivor's faces really make it seem as if this could actually happen and these are real people. Some of the set pieces, such as the exploding aeroplane, are just spectacular to just pause and watch. The music adds to the tension and atmosphere. It always seems to chime in at just the right moments. It can chime in to alert you of a Witch in the vicinity or to add tension to an oncoming wave of zombies. The shouts of "Grabbin' pills" and the cries of "Molotovs here" make it seem as if the Survivors could be a rag-tag bunch of people who are left to fend for themselves by helping each other out, and the contextual dialogue really adds to this.
Left 4 Dead is a fantastic game. Not exactly flawless, but tremendous fun. And by tremendous fun, I mean the equivalent of riding the best roller-coaster in the world, whilst eating the best piece of cake in the world, whilst the most beautiful woman in the world does unspeakable things to you. In essence, an orgasmic thrill ride....with cake.
Oh, and I've got dibs on Louis!