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Review: Left 4 Dead - PC, Xbox 360 - 9.7

18 listopada, 2008

Horrifically gripping and satisfying...

Valve seems to be all over the place these days: they have their legendary Half-life series as the frontrunners of their legacy, as well as many other IPs such as the cartoonish Team Fortress and sterile but brain-challenging Portal. The bewildering thing is how good each of these franchises has become, despite their embracement of radically different ideas. Valve simply makes something for everyone, whether you be a lover of drama and new gameplay ideas, multiplayer fragging, or puzzle-solving. Consequently, it wasn\'t surprising to see the overly positive reaction to the announcement of Left 4 Dead (aka L4D), Valve\'s first entry into the crowded co-op genre. Does Left 4 Dead live up the hype? Oh, hell yes.

L4D takes Valve into realms that they\'ve previously dabbled with but haven\'t really committed to: zombies and horror. Although Half-life\'s headcrabs/headcrab zombies are universally accepted as some of the most startling enemies to ever grace an FPS, they have never been a real focus of any of Valve\'s games. L4D plunges the player into a world of devastation and despair, with the character playing as one of a gang of four cut off from the rest of civilization, fighting to survive a zombie apocalypse. In a surprise move by Valve, plot isn\'t a main focus here. You\'re basically thrust into 4 "campaigns" or movies, that deal with the group\'s escape at each location. The environments are quite varied, ranging from cities to forests to graveyards to farmlands.

While there isn\'t much character development, Valve does manage to inject personality into its characters using a similar method to the one they used in TF2. In specific situations, different survivors will say different things, gradually revealing their personality and standing in the group. For example, Francis, the stereotypical white motorist, reveals his caring side when he heals someone, saying things along the lines of, "Ah, come here, I\'ll heal ya." Bill, the war vet, shows his leadership and experience through his general command of the group, offering compliments to those with good ideas and calmly pushing the group on. Although there isn\'t much story and character development, Valve creates enough of a backdrop and sufficient character relationships to satisfy most players. There is a sense of desperation and confusion, as you aren\'t told exactly who you are, what started this outbreak, or what\'s happening out there in the world: in essence, It\'s a fight for short-term survival.

L4D\'s gameplay boils down to this: each chapter is essentially a linear path which you must take to get to the next chapter and eventually finish a campaign. Along the way, you will encounter and fight a multitude of zombies. What prevents this from becoming a repetitive, one-off affair is the inclusion of technology known as the AI Director. This is your "real" enemy in the game: the Director monitors the performance and skill of each player and the group, and spawns enemies accordingly. It also attempts to mix up the pacing of each round, making each turn and open door a mystery, even after having played through a chapter dozens of times. Zombies never come from the same place every time, therefore exponentially increasing the replayability of the game.

Speaking of zombies, there are several interesting types that you end up fighting. The grunts of L4D are weak, 28 Days Later-type monstrosities. If you are able to coordinate and concentrate fire on them, your team will find themselves wiping out wave upon wave with little difficulty. The other types are what mix it up and ratchet up the difficulty. First up, you have the Hunter, which jumps from wall to wall and eventually onto you or one of your teammates. In doing so, he keeps you pinned, requiring your team to shoot him off before advancing. The Smoker has a long, sticky tounge that he uses to grab onto players, reel them in, and eventually incapacitate them. The Boomer is large and weak, but can retch bile on you that will attract a Horde of regular zombies, often creating some frantic and desperate firefights. Last but not least, we have the Witch, the most nefarious of them all. Once in a while, you\'ll find yourself hearing the crying of a woman. DON\'T approach, otherwise, you\'ll most likely find yourself dead. The Witch is spawned randomly at different parts of different levels, requiring you to pass her withoutdisturbing her. This leads to some interesting situations, where you\'ll encounter a hallway full of zombies but be unable to shoot through them because of a Witch crying of to the side. She is beatable, but she can take down the Survivors in nearly no time at all. All of these boss zombies are also controlled by the AI director, meaning that they\'ll often end up ambushing you from the least likely points.

Campaign/co-op is the star of the show here, but isn\'t the sole mode. There is also a versus variant that pits 4 Survivors against 4 player-controlled zombies. The Survivors will have pretty much the same objective as they do in the co-op, with the player-controlled Zombies attempting to stop them. For the most part, the mode is intriguing and solid, but has some flaws. First of all, not all of the maps from the campaign are supported in this mode, meaning there\'s inherently less replayability. Secondly, the Survivors definitely have an overwhelming advantage 1v1 against a player Infected. They have more health and the ability to shoot a gun. As an Infected, you\'ll find yourself dying a lot. To offset this, you spawn pretty quickly and are placed in the most opportune place by the AI Director. Just be prepared to die... a lot. Otherwise, playing as an Infected is interesting, allowing you to combine powers and abilities to chip away at the Survivors\' cohesion and strength. A Boomer might wait for the survivors to pass a doorway, retching on them and unleashing the horde, creating a distraction for the Hunter to jump down and take out a Survivor. There\'s a bunch of neat little scenarios that play out here, and its definitely a strong and fun mode.

Valve is known for presentation and Left 4 Dead doesn\'t disappoint. Using a further-enhanced version of the Source Engine, L4D presents a variety of environments in each of the campaigns it contains. They\'re not of super-high-quality, but this means that both the 360 and a wide range of PCs will be able to play the game well. Music is appropriate and guns feel powerful.

Speaking of the PC and Xbox 360, it should be obvious which version is superior due to Valve and Source\'s roots. On a mid-range PC with a dual-core and a 8800GT, we were able to comfortably play this game at 60 FPS in pretty much all levels of the game. Remember, this is with the extraordinary amounts of Infected that Valve throws at you! On the 360, the game runs at a less-impressive clip of 30 FPS, suffering from some lower-quality textures and character models. In addition, the pace of the game, especially at higher difficulty levels, lends itself well to mouse and keyboard, allowing you to take down waves of Infected with well-aimed shots. The game is simply more difficult on the 360, with us having to struggle through Advanced on the first few playthroughs, a difficulty level that we passed with relative ease on the PC. Regardless, even with these flaws, Left 4 Dead is surprisingly fun game on the 360, its just better on the PC.

Valve is part of an exclusive group of developers that is able to roll out crticial and commercial hits almost without interruption. Left 4 Dead continues that legacy, offering one of the best cooperative experiences of this generation and laying the groundwork for what could be a VERY profitable franchise.

Score Breakdown:

Gameplay: 9.5 – Surprisingly frantic survival gameplay. You\'ll have to work as a team to get through each level, the AI Director is an omnipresent menace that ensures you\'ll never get tired of playing on the same maps over and over again. Versus mode is strong, exhibiting only a few flaws that make it harder to play as the Infected.

Presentation: 10 – Spectacular visual variety and use of environments. The game really exudes a sense of desperation and need to survive.

Graphics: 9.5 – Not technically mind-blowing, but artistically strong and well-optimized, as we\'ve come to expect from Valve!

Sound: 9.5 – Awesome weapons sounds, great character sayings, great use of music.

Value: 10 – We might be playing in the same environments over and over, but we haven\'t realized it yet...

Final Score: 9.7 – A fine example of Survivor-horror and co-operative gameplay. Pick this up if you\'re a fan of shooters, zombies... or, games in general!

Marcin Skok
"The Gaming Corner