Review: Left 4 Dead
June 1, 2009, Author: Trent Pyro
What’s happened to this place?
Left 4 Dead is blessed with the same strange, slightly cartoony graphics of Valve’s other games. This is partly due to the Source engine, but I like to think it’s the developer’s way of separating their games from the throng. While lush textures and massive draw distances have never been within the engine’s capabilities, Left 4 Dead makes up for it with atmospheric lighting and a strange, ominous fog. A cheap trick maybe, but where would the horror genre be without a bit of fog? The Source engine is definitely beginning to show its age, but by no means should Valve abandon the old workhorse yet.
Each scenario reeks of horror movie cliché in the best possible way. From the grimy, decaying hospital in No Mercy, to the dilapidated farmhouse at the end of Blood Harvest, the scenery fits the mood and feel of the scenario perfectly. The textures are just varied enough to avoid repetition, and the flashlight effects, while basic by modern standards, do more than enough to create a tense atmosphere. Left 4 Dead is a very dark game, with many sections almost impossible to navigate without your torch on. This works in a similar way to Silent Hill, in that it lets your imagination (aided by the awesome soundscaping, more on that later) decide what’s outside the small pool of torchlight.
The four characters are rendered with a nice degree of detail, and despite their near expressionless faces they manage to convey emotion well enough. The infected hordes are the real winners in the animation department thought. Pouring in from all directions, each one seemingly has its own unique set of actions and motion. After closer inspection, I discovered they all do pretty much the same thing, but the way their animated and their actions are staggered, it really gives the impression that they are individuals. The Special Infected look great, especially the Witch. In summary the graphics in L4D are nothing to write home about, but they do the job well enough.
Quiet! I can hear a Witch!
Ah, the sound. Ever tried watching a horror film on mute? I have, and it’s bloody boring. Without sound, the entire genre would be nothing, and Left 4 Dead is no exception. Every zombie screams with the bile and vigour of a Friday night drunk who’s just had his or her kebab stolen by some kids, the sound of a horde reminiscent of insane school children rioting because they stopped serving chips. The Special Infected have their own juicy noises, which aside from being simply brilliant, help you to figure out which one of the gang is just around the corner. Invaluable in pitch black areas, hearing a Witch is probably the first time a game has made me wet myself since I played Silent Hill about ten years ago. The guns sound great, rattling and booming away, the sounds ripped straight from a schlock-horror bloodbath movie. Fire crackles, glass smashes, stuff explodes. It’s all there, it’s crisp and it adds just that little bit more to the experience.
Unlike most horror movie characters (bar Ash in Evil Dead), Left 4 Dead’s motley crew are, at times, genuinely funny. Whether they’re supposed to be is anyone’s guess, but considering Valves history of having tongue lodged firmly in cheek, I doubt it’s by accident. Francis moans and quips about how good at killing zombies he is, Bill moans and goes on about Vietnam, Louis whimpers and whines about how he’s scared and Zoe… well Zoe just sort of says things relevant to the situation. I never said it was Shakespeare, but the characters’ little gripes and quips make them seem all the more human, and rightly so.
You’re supposed to save these hacks when they can’t handle themselves, so fleshing out their personalities was a no brainer for Valve, except they seem to have been out drinking when Francis’ lines were written, leaving the work experience kid to scribble something down. He is, by far, the biggest and most annoying cock I have ever had the displeasure of having to work with. Not only does he get in the way and take all the health, he bangs on about how great he is and then laughs at me when I’m bleeding to death. This is no bad thing really; I actually think he’s quite funny, especially when he takes the piss out of Louis for being so wimpy. It just means that no-one (and I do mean no-one) bothers to save Francis unless he’s inhabited by a human player… and then sometimes he still gets left to die alone.
The soundtrack in Left 4 Dead is worthy of special mention. The theme is a weird but effective mix of pounding techno and orchestral horror hits, serving as a nice analogy for the game itself; old style convention in a new, modern package. Each event has its own little theme tune. Some of them are straight up remixes of the main theme; others, like the Tank theme are different. All of them are great, and again, helpful to the player. The aforementioned Tank music starts to play a good five to ten seconds before he makes his entrance. A disturbing, brilliant choral piano break chimes in when the Witch is nearby, making encounters with the green devil that little bit scarier.
The main theme pounds in when a horde roll up for slaughter, albeit sounding like a coked-up party-goer has kicked the DJ off the decks and started mixing some drum ‘n’ bass in there. All of it is fantastic, and I can’t fault it. And one thing that made me smile inside; no cheesy song on the end credits. Too many times has a game I’ve loved playing through been ruined by some unknown Japanese band playing a soppy, badly-written ballad or a corny rock song over the obligatory scrolling words. I’ve always thought the game’s theme would do fine, and Valve read my mind. Complete a scenario and you’re treated to the theme song in full as you watch your statistics move up the screen like the credits of a movie. Pure genius.
Multiplayer is frequently handled one of two ways. A cheap, tacked on piece-of-shit construct serving only to prolong the games probably meager lifespan and hopefully spawn a cult following, or a lovingly created companion to the main campaign, with rich character evolution and team mechanics. Left 4 Dead surpasses the latter of these, and pretty much does away with the single player altogether. There is the option to play the game offline, on your own but it’s glaringly obvious after about twenty minutes of play that it’s a crowd pleasing add-on.
The real game is online. Never before has an Xbox 360 game taken multiplayer this seriously. If you don’t have Xbox LIVE Gold, there is almost no point in buying this game. You’ll complete the scenarios on your own with three AI controlled loons tailing you, and then you’ll want to take it back to the shop. What makes Left 4 Dead so great is traversing the campaign with a bunch of friends, or even some random Americans. Without that, it’s just a well made zombie shooting gallery. With nice music. Multiplayer is the blood which pumps through L4D’s veins, the juice it needs to stay alive.
Phew. There’s two ways to play; campaign and versus. Campaign allows you to play through all 4 scenarios with 3 other human players over Xbox LIVE. Joining a game is so easy a small rodent could pull it off, with all the options clearly labeled and some of the best matchmaking I’ve ever seen. The game secretly tracks your every move, giving you points for playing well. It uses this secret score to match you with players of a similar level, and for once it actually works. I’ve never once been connected with players who are loads better than me or not even worthy to be in the same room as me. This makes for an enjoyable game EVERY TIME, something which has become increasingly hard to find recently.
Versus mode flips the equation on its head somewhat. Two teams of four battle it out through a scenario; one team of survivors, one team of Special Infected. Getting to play as the Specials is a dream, with each one having its own tricks and techniques. The aim is for the survivor team to reach the end of the scenario, and for the infected team to try and stop them. This simple aim is genius. The infected team plot and scheme and set traps for the survivors, cackling down their headsets like mad scientists when the opposing team fall into them. The survivors’ nerves lay shredded on the roadside as they battle fiercely to stay alive. With humans controlling the Special Infected, attacks come a lot more frequently and are usually executed with a higher degree of skill than the AI can pull off. After the first time you’re puked on by 2 Boomers, grabbed by a Smoker and then pounced on by a Hunter as soon as you’re freed, you’re constantly on edge. You get the distinct feeling it’s all changed, and I remember hearing a little voice in my head after my first crushing versus defeat; “You aint in the campaign no more, sonny!”
I’m not a big Half-Life fan, and I’m about the only person I know who doesn’t like Team Fortress 2, so I’ve never been too enamored with Valve until now. Left 4 Dead is a triumph of gaming pleasure, a pure labour of love. It’s refreshing to see a renowned (and probably very rich) developer go out on a limb in this age of deadlines, revenue and profit margin. Left 4 Dead brings together everything I love about horror movies; the gore, the suspense, the monsters; and leaves behind everything I hate about them; the soppy character relationships, the cheap scares and the bad scripting. Never before has a game managed to grasp the concept of the zombie apocalypse so well, and until it’s hotly anticipated sequel enters the bloodstream of the UK in late November, I don’t think any game ever will. Buy this now, and play it until you’re good at it. From what I’ve seen and heard about the new infection, you’re gonna need to learn all you can from this one to survive!