Zombie apocalypses seem to be pretty popular these days. Most of these movies involve a band of survivors working their way to a safer area while battling out with brain eating creatures. This sounds like it would make a great game doesn’t it? In comes Valve Software and they’ve put their talented team at trying to recreate the suspense, action, and gore of zombie movies in Left 4 Dead. After spending time with the demo and the full game, I have to hand it to the folks at Valve. They’ve churned out another high quality release and one that’s sure to get plenty of play now and in the foreseeable future.
Left 4 Dead, at the core, lets you play as one of four survivors who are immune to being infected. There’s the grizzly war veteran, the hard-nosed biker, the officer worker, and the co-ed. Nothing special in terms of gameplay separate the four but they each have their own little personality and unique commentary as you progress through the game. The basic premise of the game is you’re working your way through five different areas infested with zombies to a landing pad where a helicopter can whisk you away to “temporary” safety. It’s not much in terms of plot but then again, what zombie movie is?
In your way are six different types of zombies. The horde are your normal looking infected humans that lumber towards you or run really fast. You’ll see both scenarios as some will charge you quickly once they take notice of you. These guys are pretty mindless but they can create a good amount of damage in packs. The smoker has a long tongue that can latch on to survivors and drag them towards it. They are named smokers because once you kill them they blow up in a choking induced cloud of smoke. Boomers look like fat, bloated fiends with boils in various places. If you get vomited on by one, expect a large group of the horde to come charging towards you. It’s like being IT in Gauntlet II; they all come running to the one covered in puke. The bile also has a nasty side effect of making your screen horribly slimed and impossible to see until it wears off. A nice surprise when killing one of these guys is that they will explode and anyone in close proximity will be covered in horde catnip. Hunters are quick pouncing zombies that are akin to those found in the movie I Am Legend. They’ll pounce on you and keep you grounded until one of your friends can push it off. The tank is just a zombie of brute force that takes a good deal of punishment to bring down and can also dish out a good amount as well. Finally, the witch just wants to be left alone so avoid her at all costs because she’ll claw you to death pretty quickly. When walking by one it’s best to stay away and to turn off your flashlight so you don’t bother her. While there aren’t that many variety of zombies, there are enough here and of good variation to provide some fun and exciting enemies to deal with.
Looking at the models, the Source engine does a great job in rendering horrific looking zombies. While the variety of models aren’t that numerous, what you do see are high quality specimens that would do any George Romero movie proud. The witch’s lanky appearance and the tank’s Hulk-like physique really exhibit the look and feel of what you would think these monstrosities would be like.
The animations are top notch for the game and the zombies move so fluidly from strolling around to climbing up on top of ledges to get to you. Valve has done an incredible job in recreating how zombies moved to a T. The movement and animation quality really sets this game apart and helps create an incredible atmosphere when you see a horde of zombies come charging towards you ready to eat you alive.
Four different campaigns are available for you guys to battle through with various types of environments to experience. All the levels are nicely modeled with great detail. There are furniture and random items that litter the rooms to make it seem more realistic. The attention to detail is pretty nice and for those that were fans of the graffiti in Portal, they make their appearance in several areas as well in Left 4 Dead. What’s great about each level is there are multiple areas in most places where zombies can come charging in. It’s because of this you’ll always be on guard and trying to keep an eye out on as many areas as possible. It adds a lot to the suspense because you just don’t know where they’ll be coming.
Something that’s prominent in a lot of zombie movies is their ability to break doors in pieces to try to get to you. The Source engine, as you may know, is a capable of this and the developers put it to good use. There were a few times I shut the door to try to slow down the zombies or get a breather only to see parts of the door start flying off and zombies trying to reach through the holes. It’s an effective feature that really brings forth the spirit of zombie movies.
To heighten the feeling of dread and horror, many areas are low on light with only your flashlight giving you a clear but limited field of vision. Since the lights are attached to the weapons, it creates an interesting strobe like effect on the zombie faces when you are in the middle of a reload as well as when the weapon kicks up when being fired. It’s pretty cool to see glimpse of rotting faces as you run around and fire your weapons. Seeing those quick flashes of angry zombie facial expressions will have you feeling like you’re right in the middle of a movie.
Your weapons of choice include two types of shotguns, an assault rifle, dual pistols, a sniper rifle, and an Uzi. The shotguns have a nice throwback effect on incoming zombies sending their bodies flying backwards. The Uzi and assault rifle are great for mowing down a group from a distance. As always, aim for the head for the best results. Besides the basic firearms, you’ll also have the ability to hold some Molotov cocktails or pipe bombs.
Ammo is sparse so you’ll get into spots where you’ll have to rely on your pistols, which have unlimited ammo, heightening the feeling of suspense. You won’t be entirely vulnerable having just your pistols out but it’ll be a lot tougher this way. You can also use some items laying around to take down the infected. Throw and shoot at a gas can to ignite the area and toast the rotting flesh off of the undead. Some areas will also house a minigun that heats up red when unloading the ammo on the charging horde. If you are getting surrounded by zombies, you can always use your melee attack to push them off or bash them with the gun. I would’ve liked to have seen some bladed weapons but alas the few weapons that are available will have to do.
So the campaigns can pretty short on normal and easy and you’ll probably finish it in less than half an hour. Bumping the difficulty up a notch or two will make the games last longer. While the game can be quick to play, the level of replayability is increased by a few factors. First of all, there’s an AI director that will add or remove zombies from areas depending on how you are doing. If you’re not such a good player, expect less zombies. Those that are experts in FPS games can see more groups and more specialized zombies. Zombies can also appear from different places as dictated by the Director so playing through it multiple times can turn into different experiences.
Single player is OK but where the game really shines is having three other friends join you for the ride. When hopping into various multiplayer campaigns, each time it was completely different because of the different placement of the zombies and the different way people play. Some stick together better than others, some coordinate better. Playing with a wide variety of people is half the fun in trying to survive a zombie apocalypse.
Versus mode is an interesting feature but only available on two campaigns. Up to two groups of four can play each side: survivor and zombie. Those that play as survivors will not find anything too different. As the zombies, you’ll have the ability to spawn as a random specialized undead with the exception of the witch. You’ll be able to see your teammates as well before they spawn so you guys can plan out how and where you want to attack the survivors. Once spawn, you’ll most likely die quickly unless you are really good at ambushing the other team but you’ll get around 25 seconds or so to plan your next attack when you respawn. Once the survivors reach their goal, the roles are reversed and you’ll get to see the scores at the end of each round to see how each team does. Having humans as zombie enemies really adds to the variety of the game because it’s always harder to go up against “non-cheating” enemies and it’s just more fun. I’m hoping the other two campaigns are added in later on down the road for Versus mode as I’d love to play more of this game type.
I’ve been really into the PC version of the game when the 360 version dropped at my door step. Going from the PC to the 360 is a little bit of a change since I’m very comfortable with a keyboard and mouse setup. In any case, Left 4 Dead on the 360 amounts to the same fun as the PC version with a different control scheme and longer load times.
Yes, the game does take longer to load in between levels but that’s just the nature of the beast. I don’t have enough room on my hard drive to see if installing the game onto the hard drive will speed up load times. Overall though, I say the load times aren’t that bad compared to the PC versions when it goes between levels.
Playing with friends can be accomplished a few ways. The game supports two player splitscreen so you can bust zombies with another person in the same room. If you got more Xbox 360s lying around, system link will let you hook up to eight of them together. Finally, online play is there of course and it’s what makes this game so much fun. The matchmaking service in Left 4 Dead makes it easy to jump into a certain type of game or join up with your buddies or strangers. It’s the same as the PC where you can quickly jump into any game whether it’s starting or started or create a lobby with friends and strangers.
Control wise, the two triggers are the attack buttons which is pretty natural. For crouching, the left bumper initiates this action and the right bumper does a quick 180 degree spin. Yes, to help compensate for the lack of quick turning on a 360 controller, there’s a dedicated turn button which I did use a few times to quickly take out a zombie attacking me from behind. The left analog stick moves you around and you can click down to activate voice chatting. The right stick lets you aim and pushing down will let you peer into the scope of the sniper rifle. One thing that is quicker on the 360 than on the PC is switching through your inventory. Each direction of the D-pad besides up corresponds to an item so you can quickly go to the med kit, pain pill, or grenade in a pinch. Pressing up on the D-Pad turns the flashlight on or off.
Playing with the controller the rumble effect comes in when you fire guns giving you a nice little feedback on what’s happening. Unfortunately, the controller remained still when manning the turrets. I was used to games like Halo or Gears of War where the controller would vibrate constantly when firing these heavy weapons. In Left 4 Dead, you won’t get that so it’s a mild disappointment in that aspect.
The HUD for the 360 version is pretty much the same as the PC with the exception of the D-Pad display. Here, you’ll quickly see which direction does what action since 360 gamers don’t have a mouse wheel to deal with.
Graphics wise, the game looks great but of course doesn’t look as sharp as the PC version. I didn’t notice any bad graphical glitches or texture pop-ins of the sort. There is the occasional clipping problem but that’s also in the PC version as well. I was afraid that the 360 would start bogging down when a large group of zombies come attacking but it held up really well with an occasional slowdown. It was rare but it happened and it didn’t affect the game too much. Overall, the experience was good and the frame rate held up even when the horde of zombies come running at you.
The one thing I like about the 360 version over the PC version is the nice way voice is integrated into the setup. I wish the PC version would figure out a way to funnel the voice through the ear piece rather than through the speakers and I was more easily able to hear my teammates voices using the 360 mic setup. Communication is the key in both campaign and versus mode so being able to hear and talk to your teammates is essential and the 360 version accomplishes this better than the PC version. There doesn’t seem to be a way to type to other teammates for those with the chat pad and it’s something I would’ve liked to have seen. I know most people communicate with the headset anyways on the 360 so it’s not much of an omission in this regard.
Updates though have been coming in every few weeks it seems for the PC version but I’ve yet to see an update for the 360 version. That’s one thing that’s nice about the PC version in that you’ll get fixes quicker if something’s not right about the game. I’m assuming with the tighter control on the online portion for the console makes putting out a patch a little longer process but I’m hoping that the 360 version gets any fixes or play balances in the near future.
While my preference is still with the PC version, the 360 version of Left 4 Dead is still a ton of fun. If this is the only way you can play the game, you should definitely pick it up. Whether you play in a campaign with three others or join the zombie apocalypse as part of the infected, Left 4 Dead will give you many, many hours of intense cooperative and competitive game play to last you a long time or until the inevitable sequel comes out. And like any horror movie, you know they’re already thinking up of a sequel to this game.