Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Left 4 Dead review

Here it is, as promised (Although slightly later than expected): The first full-fledged video game review since September. Also, for any who may be wondering, the PC and Xbox 360 versions of the game are nearly identical, so you'll get the same experience either way.

Platforms: PC, Xbox 360
Developers: Valve (PC), Certain Affinity (360)
Publisher: Valve
Release Date: November 18th, 2008
ESRB Rating: M for Mature
ESRB Notes: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language

Ever since the first zombie film was unleashed upon the world back in 1932 (Yes, it's been that long), the living dead have infected every form of media imaginable, from books, comics and TV shows, and all the way up the technological ladder to video games. With most zombie games, there's one player, on their own, against hundreds of thousands of generic zombies. Leave it to Valve to shake it all up and drop Left 4 Dead in our laps.

In Left 4 Dead, it's still you against the horde of the undead, but this time you're not alone. After the mass-infection that lead to the zombie onslaught, four average folks grouped together and began to fight their way out. The four survivors are Zoey, an angsty teenager; Louis, a store manager; Francis, a biker; and Bill, a Vietnam veteran. All equal in capabilities, nothing sets these four apart in terms of gameplay. It's more a matter of choosing the one that suits you best. Personally, I usually go with Francis or Louis; for the former, it's the pessimistic comments; for the latter, it's the extreme air of nerdiness.

Zoey, Louis, Francis and Bill in the "poster" for the game's third campaign

The zombies have been changed up a bit, too. First off, as I suggested above with the word "infection", these aren't technically zombies. These are humans afflicted with a terrible new virus strain (This game's release timing is either great or awful, I can't tell). Instead of rising from the dead to eat flesh and brains for no apparent reason, these humans are suffering from Rabies-like symptoms, basically leading them to go absolutely freaking mad and undergo a few physical changes (Claws, pale skin and glowing eyes are the major changes). Based on the fact that the "zombies" never seem to attack each other, one could assume that the virus targets the healthy in order to propagate its species. I'm probably looking a little too far into it at this point, but hey, speculation is fun.

Aside from your generic, Land of the Dead-like infected (The commonly accepted name for the "zombies" in Left 4 Dead), there's five "special" infected, another welcome change to the generic hordes of days gone by. Oh, Valve and their class-based multiplayer games... The "special" infected are as follows:

Boomer: Bloated and swollen to the point where it no longer resembles the human it once was, the Boomer is chock full of a disgusting concoction known simply as "bile". This is no ordinary vomit, though. Get this stuff on you, and not only will you be temporarily blinded, but dozens of infected will basically spring out of thin air and go for you. Boomers can "spread the love" either by projectile vomiting (And when I say projectile, I mean it) or via the gigantic explosion that always accompanies their deaths. Contents under pressure? An understatement.

Hunter: Next up in this horrific menagerie, and sporting a fashionable grey hoodie, is the Hunter. Leaping into the fray (Sometimes seemingly from outer space), the Hunter has the ability to pin a survivor and savagely tear away at it with his claws. Accompanied by low growling and piercing shrieks, the Hunter's often-sudden appearances are definitely one of the scariest parts of the game. As a threat, though, I don't personally consider him too notable. On the mid to lower difficulty levels, a few short bursts from an automatic weapons is enough to at least knock him off, if not kill him. Can be devastating on a survivor that's strayed from the pack, though, emphasizing the team-based play of the game.

Smoker: Identified by his coughs, swollen face and incredibly long tongue, the Smoker is the third stop on this infected bus ride of a lineup. Limping about and coughing up a lung, the Smoker doesn't sound like much of a threat, mainly because, up close, he isn't. Once he puts a bit of distance between him and his target, though, things get dangerous. That long tongue isn't just for looks; The Smoker can fire it at long distances, chameleon-style, to grab a hold of its prey. Once captured, he reels in his tongue and tears away at it with his claws. At this point, the survivor can do nothing to escape, and must be saved by an ally, once again highlighting how important teamwork is to survival.

Tank: Behold the Tank, who makes the Boomer look downright normally-proportioned by comparison. Absolutely bursting with muscles (Almost literally, in fact) and devoid of even a shred of clothing (Save the mercifully-intact jeans), the Tank is by far the strongest and hardest to defeat of all infected. It's going to take everything the survivors have to tear down this brick wall. Unlike normal brick walls, though, the Tank has fists and can move. Even brick walls tremble in fear of the Tank. Strong enough to bat around cars like toys, rip up and throw huge chunks of concrete and send survivors on unexpected long-haul flights, the Tank is the one true "boss" infected.

Those are the four infected that pop up most often, but there is a fifth one. Elusive, deadly, and entirely immobile until you piss it off. As if Paris Hilton didn't give us enough to fear about rail-thin blondes, Left 4 Dead brings us...

...the Witch. She's not magical, nor does she ride anything even remotely resembling a broom, but Witch is still definitely the best possible name for her. She sits perfectly still, weeping, and will do nothing to hurt anyone... So long as you don't set her off. One stray bullet, one wayward step, one errant twitch, and kablooie! Startle this witch, and she'll cast one heck of a painful spell on you with her insanely-huge claws. One hit is generally enough to knock a person down to the ground, and a few more can easily finish someone off. If she does manage to kill someone, though, she'll just run off and not be a problem anymore. Every cloud has its silver lining! She has twice as much health as either a Smoker or a Hunter (Even more in harder difficulty settings), making her the second most difficult to kill of the infected (Second only to the Tank, of course). Usually, when a Witch is spotted, it's best to just keep walking and leave it alone. An enemy you're encouraged not to attack... I never thought such a thing would work, but here it is.

The objective of any level is to either get to the next safe house to continue the campaign, or, in the last level of the campaign, be rescued. Many obstacles are thrown at the survivors through the course of each level, each of which must be overcome to reach the ultimate goal of safety. Almost every level has some sort of button-triggered event that will clear the path, but not without alarming every infected in the country to your location. The infected are attracted to loud noises, two words that basically define every single obstacle in the game. From lowering a forklift's arm to bring down a makeshift walkway to using a runaway train to take out a bridge, the survivor's trip through the land of the infected isn't exactly a quiet one. Triggering car alarms also causes the game to hurl the infected at you, as does walking through an airport metal detector (Hint: Guns aren't made of wood). Thankfully, the infected can't set off either on their own, lightly throwing a bone to the survivors.

The final level of a campaign is referred to as a finale, and rightly so. Like the quickened pace of the flying fireworks at the end of a 4th of July celebration, infected pour in from every direction to make your life a living Hell. So considerate, those infected. It's not just the generic horde that will be bombarding you, though. Rest assured that plenty of Tanks, Boomers, Hunters and Smokers will be dropping by to say hello as well. Huddling together in a nice little safe haven is nice, but it's not going to do you any good once rescue arrives. Once they show up, it's a mad dash through walls of infected to your once chance at salvation. Of course, after surviving the long wait for rescue to arrive, the game's not about to let you just waltz up to freedom. Infected of all kinds pour in from all directions in absurd numbers, because your day just isn't complete without seeing another thousand zombie chunks flying around. Manage to make it out, though, and that's the end of it all... Until you decide to start up the next, alternate-timeline campaign that sees the survivors right back where they started.

In most games, after a few playthroughs, you begin to remember where all the weapons are and where the bosses lie. However, this isn't "most games". Left 4 Dead contains what Valve likes to call the "AI Director", a system that distributes weapons and the infected differently each time according to the condition of the survivors. While significant obstacles will always be in the same place, no round of Left 4 Dead is every truly the same. Tanks may appear in different places, or not appear at all. Instead of one Witch to deal with, two might appear right next to each other. The AI Director makes sure that players never know just what to expect, keeping even the most seasoned of veterans on their toes.

Of course, while the AI director makes each run different, eventually the same old levels do become stale. Thankfully, Valve seems to be keeping up the same stream of free additional content for Left 4 Dead they've been providing for Team Fortress 2, adding the Survival mode detailed below just last month. While little has been announced so far, rest assured that more will be on the way, perhaps even going so far as to add entire new campaigns to the mix. It just wouldn't be a Valve game without this sort of support.

To fight their way out of this Hell on Earth, the survivors have more than their fair share of weaponry. At the beginning of any campaign, each survivor is outfitted with one pistol (Unlimited ammo), and can pick up their choice of a submachine gun (Uzi) or a pump-action shotgun. Later on in a campaign (Sometimes hidden in a side room or some other place where it may be easily missed), improved weaponry can be found in the form of assault rifles, automatic shotguns, a second pistol (For dual-wielding) and a scoped hunting rifle. Again emphasizing the teamwork aspect of the game, teams generally benefit from a variety of weaponry among the group. Nobody's going to be getting very far with everyone toting a hunting rifle.

Two types of health items are also available to the player: Health kits and pain pills. Health kits, of which there's always four available at the beginning of a campaign, restore a major chunk of a survivor's health when used. The major downside, though, is finding a good place to use it. It takes about five seconds to heal with a heath kit, during which you're completely vulnerable to attacking infected (And friendly fire. Francis, check your fire!). If interrupted in the middle of healing, one must start all over again. No healing halfway, running, and finishing up. It's all at once or not at all. It should go without saying that, if you're about to patch yourself up, you're going to need to rely on your allies for cover. Survivors can also use health kits at each other, but this is even more risky than using their own; Both are rooted in place until the healing is complete. On the bright side, the one being healed can provide covering fire during the process, meaning one isn't completely helpless during an attack. They sure do make great Boomer targets, though...

Pain pills can also restore a fair-sized chunk of a player's health, but it's a temporary effect. The health it restores constantly depletes until the recovered stamina is completely gone, leaving players right back where they started. This descent is sped up when receiving damage. Also, pain pills are never found in the beginning of a level, and must be picked up throughout the trek to the next safe house. Pain pills do have their benefits over health kits, though. Popping some pills is practically instant, leaving you prone for a far smaller amount of time than patching yourself up. Also, unlike health kits, pain pills can be handed over to allies, giving them the ability to heal up whenever they want.

Both pills and health kits are available only in incredibly limited supply, so they must be used wisely. Quite often, the health kits available at the beginning of the levels are the only ones in the whole map (The AI director likes shuffling things around, you see).

Guns and health items aren't all the survivor's have at their disposal. Also available are pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails, although in a far more limited supply. Pipe bombs, as illustrated in the game's opening cinematic, will attract all common infected in the area up to the moment it explodes, turning them all into a glorious red mist*. Molotov cocktails don't explode, but they do cover the ground in flames over a fairly generous area. A great defense considering how vulnerable the infected are to fire. In addition, scattered about the levels are propane tanks, jerrycans and oxygen tanks. Propane and oxygen tanks explode much like the pipe bomb, and jerrycans spread a field of fire similar to that of the Molotov cocktail. All items can be carried around and thrown or dropped when wanted for strategic placement.

A final environmental weapon available to players is a mounted minigun, of which there are only a handful. Firing out 40 incredibly-powerful rounds a second with a limitless supply of ammunition, the minigun is definitely a good weapon to have access to. Holding it back is an incredibly limited radius in which it can turn, and the cloud of smoke that pops up after a few seconds of firing sure doesn't help, either. These facts aside, the minigun is still a magnificent asset for holding off the infected for a short while... As long as they stay in view.

Something that must be monitored closely when in the field is ammunition stock. Each player can only hold so much, and once it's gone, you're not going to be finding much more of it until you reach the next safe house (Why the game doesn't allow sharing ammo among survivors is a mystery to me). While the trusty pistol never runs out of ammo, it's not exactly a powerhouse of destruction. Rome wasn't built in a day, and that Tank wasn't felled by a piddly little pistol.

Of course, ammunition conservation means little to the game's AI. Whereas, ideally, a team should fire equal amounts to help prevent ammo from running out too quickly, the AI always relies on the player to take point. This can lead to some big problems, one of which is illustrated in the below screenshot. To scout ahead, I hopped up on an air vent and onto the top of the roof access room of this building, when a Hunter came out of nowhere (Like always) and pinned me. So did the AI jump up the air vent like I did and come to my rescue? Nope. They just milled about, mere meters away, jumping around like a bunch of morons, seemingly awaiting the sound of my death rattle. AI units are not credit to team.

"Oh, don't mind me. You guys enjoy your tea party while I have my throat ripped out, okay?"

The letdown of the sometimes moronic AI is taken care of by Left 4 Dead's greatest asset: Online multiplayer. Screwing around offline can be fun, sure, but the game doesn't really get going until you take the plunge into the game's online component. As of this writing, there are three different modes available to be played online: Campaign, Versus and Survival. Campaign is the same as offline play (With all four survivors being player-controlled), so that begs no explanation. Versus and Survival, though, are where things get interesting.

Versus, as the name suggests, can only be played online. As far as the survivors are concerned, Versus is exactly the same as Campaign; Run to the safe house, and ultimately to rescue. The twist, however, is that the infected are not AI-controlled. And thus is the main reason Versus is my favourite mode in the game: We can play as the special infected.

As most would hopefully assume, the infected play very little like the survivors. Last I checked, Bill couldn't projectile vomit on a target 20 feet away. You never know with those army vets, though... Anyways, taking advantage of all the abilities available to the infected is the highlight of the game for me. Binding together with three other survivors is great fun, too, but nothing compares to a coordinated attack with Boomers booming and Hunters hunting while I stand on top of a building and grab stragglers with the Smoker's tongue and pull them away from their allies.

One additional ability the infected have over the survivor's is the ability to climb up what some refer to as "zombie ladders". Marked by the image of hands climbing, zombie ladders are commonly placed on map features such as fences, rock walls and drain pipes. Allowing access to tactically superior angles, the zombie ladders help balance out the infecteds' greatest weakness: Their incredibly low health. Like I said way back near the beginning of the review, it takes only a few shotgun blasts to tear a Hunter away from its pray, with Smoker's having similar amounts of health. Boomers have even less health, with one blast usually being enough to set off the bloated time bomb (Making the Boomer an excellent suicide runner, but incredibly weak in any other situation). No amount of strategy at street level is going to keep any of the three infected alive and killing for long. Spawn high, and spawn sneakily!

Left 4 Dead multiplayer: Turkey nipple frequency may vary

Helping to keep things fair, the special infected never outnumber the survivors, as it's never more than four on four; Four survivors Versus four special infected. If there's less than four players on the survivor's side, the remaining will be controlled by the computer. If the same thing happens with the infected side, AI won't take the helm, but respawn times will be greatly shortened. Yes, unlike the survivors, the special infected don't stay dead when killed, and just respawn about 20 seconds later. When you die as a survivor, though (An incredibly ironic sentence fragment, no?), you're dead, and you stay dead until the end of the round. Pretty good incentive not to die, huh? Generally the game's practically over once even a single survivor dies, putting teamwork on the front burner yet again. Even then, I've seen the remaining three survive despite my best efforts at tearing them to shreds. It's like the old saying goes: It ain't over until the Boomer projectile vomits. Or something like that.

After hearing this, you're probably pretty excited to play as the Tank and the Witch, huh? Well, I've got good news and bad news: The Tank only spawns in certain places (Like in Campaign mode), and the Witch can't be played at all (Quick refresher on the Witch: She's sliiiiiightly overpowered).

Playing as the Tank is a somewhat unique experience. In order to help with balance and keep the game from absolutely sucking if a player pointlessly abandons their computer mid-game (A phenomenon known as "AFK", or "Away From Keyboard". A phenomenon which I hate.), players will lose control of the Tank if they don't constantly attack and knock survivors around like deflated soccer balls. If this happens, control shifts to the next player on the team, letting them have a go at Left 4 Dead's take on extreme sports.

A round ends when one of two things happen: When all survivors (Minus any that may have died) make it into the safe house, or when all survivors fall to the infected. After a round ends, teams switch (Infected players become survivors, and vice versa), and the level is played again. After both teams have their go at the level as both sides, the next level in the campaign is selected, and it continues from there. Basically, Versus mode is Campaign mode, but both sides are player controlled, and it's even better.

The other mode, Survival, may seem a little redundant in name. After all, isn't the object of the entire game (Excluding half of Versus) to make it out alive? Actually, that's where Survival differs from the rest; the object isn't to make it out alive. In fact, nobody ever will make it out alive. The object is to just survive as long as you possibly can against unending hordes of the infected. Except for Witches, infected of all kinds are constantly bombarding the survivors, and all the quartet can do is delay their inevitable demise. Stages are pulled from various levels in Campaign mode, as well as one exclusive to Survival mode: The Last Stand (The level's "poster" can be found next to this paragraph). This campaign's tagline perfectly describes Survival mode as a whole: "It doesn't end well".

In Survival mode, players can only play as survivors (Which should go without saying, but I'm tossing it out there just in case). They have an infinite time to set up before hand, as a round doesn't start until the players trigger it. Once begun, though... It never ends until you do. Rounds commonly end in less than four minutes, with few players ever making it past ten (Even Valve employees often fail to reach this lofty goal). Survival is certainly the most brutal mode of all, and only the utmost of skill, planning and teamwork will see the players survive for any significant amount of time.

Something that always amazes me about Valve games is how they look. Whether taking a more unique art style like in Team Fortress 2 or going for the realistic look in the Half-Life series, they always manage to hit the nail of quality right on the head without pounding it too deep into the plank of high-end computing**. Left 4 Dead is no exception to this trend, with the game looking simply amazing without putting a major drain on my mid-range PC. Outdated graphics card, processor, CPU... You name it, I've got a primitive version of it in this computer. Grand Theft Auto 4 skips more than a CD after sliding across pavement, Fallout 3 looks like a nuke hit my monitor as well, and Mirror's Edge's sparkling in-game world sure looks a lot less "sparkling" than it should. With Left 4 Dead, though, I can crank all settings up to full, run it at my native 1024x768 resolution (My monitor's not too great, either) and experience a game that looks far better than the aforementioned trio of resource vampires, yet runs like a dream. I don't know how you do it, Valve, but keep it up!

The sparse and faint lighting in Left 4 Dead provides just enough to see where you need to go, without blinding you with its "next gen" bloom and crap. Cinematic filters dramatize shadows and fade colours to give a movie-like effect similar to what you'd see in a film like The Watchmen. On the left is a comparison of the game with (Above) and without (Below) cinematic effects. The difference is drastic, yet takes up far fewer computer resources than you'd expect. An additional graphical option is film grain, to add that one last final cinematic touch. Not quite my cup of tea (As you can tell by the two screenshots I posted above), but the option is great. It really goes to show how much Valve wanted to make a tribute to the realm of zombie cinema.

Of course, a bunch of fancy filters won't do crap for a game if it looks terrible without them. Thankfully, Left 4 Dead provides great material for the filter to improve upon, with excellent character models, environmental props and textures. Animations are also great, with injured players limping (And moving slightly slower), realistic flames stretching across the ground from a gas tank bursting, and incredibly expressive characters. There are a few rough spots texture-wise in the far-off places the special infected can go via zombie ladders, but besides that, Left 4 Dead is an all-round great-looking game.

Audio plays a major part in Left 4 Dead. Growling, screaming, gurgling, crying and more all faintly come into earshot when the infected approach; musical scores build up to a crescendo in tense situations and finales; and the back and forth commentary between the survivors is worthy of the cheesiest of zombie film scripts. Perhaps the most tense moments come when nothing can be heard. Dead silence, except for the whirring of machinery or whistling of the wind. Left 4 Dead expertly uses both presence and absence of sound to create a engrossing and sometimes scary experience.

Valve has very few franchises in their name. Team Fortress, Half-Life, Portal and Counter-Strike are the only four they can fully claim as theirs. I like to think they do so because they only take on projects that they truly feel can turn out great. If that's the case, their feelings were right on the money when they went forward with Left 4 Dead. A worthy addition to Valve's small but excellent portfolio, Left 4 Dead is a fantastic, zombie-filled adventure that manages to provide a satisfying gameplay experience without having to become overly complicated. Looking back at all the games I've played that were released in the last twelve months, Left 4 Dead is definitely within the top three. If you like hordes of zombies, strategic shooters and team-based gaming, you're going to love Left 4 Dead.

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*In fact, just about every game mechanic can be explained by watching that video, but I figured I'd write it all out and be, you know, a reviewer.

**Dang. I'm like a graphics poet or something.


NaomiKnight said...

Damn, an excellently-written review. I guess it's a 'Yay' rating?

Now I REALLY can't wait to get my new computer and give this game a whirl! My comp can't even handle Team Fortress 2 :(

Anonymous said...

One thing you forgot to include. Valve unjustly leans toward PC's over the Xbox 360. (Extremely evident when you take a look at how much extra content the PC has over it's Xbox counterparts)

Peter said...

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